Interview with ‘Gnomeo and Juliet’ Director Kelly Asbury

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Interview with 'Gnomeo and Juliet' Director Kelly Asbury

Sorcerer Radio’s (William “YetiChaser” Hershey) had chance to do an interview about the soon to be Gnomeo and Juliet Blu-ray release with director Kelly Asbury.  Set to release May 24, 2011. Here’s the report.

I was thrilled to have a chance to be able to interview Gnomeo and Juliet’s director Kelly Asbury on behalf of Chip and Company as well as Sorcerer Radio during one of his recent press conferences.  Here is a bit of what was discussed during this time.

Q: Would you consider yourself a red or a blue gnome or is there another type of secret society of colored gnomes we don’t know about, perhaps a color in the works for a sequel?
A: (Kelly Asbury): I’ll remain neutral and call myself a PURPLE GNOME.

Q: Kelly you’ve directed such great movies from “Spirit – Stallion of the Cimarron” and “Shrek 2” and also helped with creative capacities on some on other popular animated films including “Toy Story”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid”.. Which type of media do you feel, classical animation or 3D generated animation do you enjoy the most creating?
A: (Kelly Asbury): I love to tell stories and entertain people. I feel that’s my job. I’ve worked in all the various animation mediums and I must admit to enjoying them equally. If a story is good, that matters most to me.

Q: What as the best part about working on Gnomeo and Juliet?
A: (Kelly Asbury): It’s really rather difficult to isolate one favorite aspect about making GNOMEO AND JULIET. For me, directing animation is a series of short term goals that extend over a period of up to four years, so there are many milestones to hit, and each of those has its rewards. Still, I’d say that the real joy in making GNOMEO AND JULIET is the collaboration with so many vastly talented artists and technicians, each doing their part toward the common goal of making as entertaining a movie as possible. My job is never boring and no two days are alike. I basically get to make up stories and draw pictures for a living. What could be better than that?

Q: What are the challenges of adapting a classic story for a modern audience?
A: (Kelly Asbury): For me, the challenge with any movie – adaptation or otherwise – is to make it as entertaining as possible to as many people as possible.

Q: How long did it take to write the screenplay?
A: (Kelly Asbury): Animated features take up to 3 years to fine tune and discover all the various aspects of the story. The actual writing of that screenplay is an ongoing, ever changing process and involves more than the written word. It’s as much about the storyboards as it is the script. While a screenplay certainly is the starting point, the visual story reel – a temporary version of the movie told in real time using still drawings, temporary voices, sound and music – becomes the blueprint. That story reel is in a constant state of revision and is the tool used to test whether a movie is working. Basically, animated movies are fully planned and edited BEFORE the are actually put into production. In effect, we make the movie twice: Once as a story reel and once as the finished, animated, rendered movie.

Q: How much input did you have on what actors voiced which characters?
A: (Kelly Asbury): I was able to have complete input regarding the actors who were cast in the movie. The casting director, Gale Stevens, would send me several choices of voice samples for each character – and I would ask her not to tell me who the actor was. My producers and I would listen to these voices while looking at pictures of the given character and if the voice seemed to fit, we’d take it from there. It really was a process of elimination to arrive at a given casting choice. Fortunately, the studio agreed with all my ultimate choices and I got the cast I wanted.

Q: Regarding animation, there are many styles to choose from. Some more realistic, some with a cartoon style, stop-motion technique and also some using the classic hand drawn cartoons style. What made you go with this specific style of CG animation?
A: (Kelly Asbury): I wanted GNOMEO AND JULIET to look as “real” as possible and CG provided that best.

Q: In a nutshell, describe the different levels in the process of the animation?
A: (Kelly Asbury): In a nutshell, the making of an animated feature goes something like this: Idea + Script + Storyboards + Story Reel + Voice Recording + Design + Layout/Camera + Animation + Sound + Final Mix = Movie…and each of those parts have several steps of their own.

Q: Why do you think gnomes are so popular? People love them, hate them, tell jokes about them, and it seems everyone has something to say about them…
A: (Kelly Asbury): I think above all, Gnomes are funny.

Q: Have you come to embrace the garden gnome culture after this, and has there been any talk of a sequel so far?
A: (Kelly Asbury): I actually now have more garden gnomes than I ever thought possible. People give them to me as gifts! As far as a sequel to GNOMEO AND JULIET…I suppose anything is possible.

Q: Which voice actor surprised you the most?
A: (Kelly Asbury): Truly, every actor I ever work with is full of great surprises. In the case of GNOMEO AND JULIET, the entire cast gave me everything I wanted and more. It was a joy to record this movie and we did a lot of improvisation in every session. That really helped make for a very spontaneous feel to the voices in the movie.

Interview with 'Gnomeo and Juliet' Director Kelly Asbury

Q: How was the work with Elton John and Patrick Stewart?
A: (Kelly Asbury): Both Elton John and Patrick Stewart are 100% absolute joys to work with. They are collaborative, funny and very professional. It was my privilege to be part of anything they are involved with.

Q: How was the idea behind Gnomeo & Juliet born?
A: (Kelly Asbury): The movie was first pitched to Elton John’s London based ROCKET PICTURES, several years before I became involved, by writers Rob Sprackling and John Smith (Ironically, neither of whom I’ve actually ever met.).

Q: Ewan McGregor and Kate Winslet were reportedly cast as Gnomeo and Juliet. At what point did James McAvoy and Emily Blunt come on board?
A: (Kelly Asbury): When I was asked to be director on the film, it had already been developed in various scattered versions for several years. No final casting choices had yet been made. I wanted to start with a clean slate.

Q: Is the happy ending, different from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet ending, a way to preserve the possibility of a sequel ?
A: (Kelly Asbury): We wanted a happy ending, but the one we came up with was not in order to purposely engineer a possible sequel.

Q: Was it always going to be a mix of old tunes (along with a few new ones), or was there ever the chance of a whole new score, a la Lion King?
A: (Kelly Asbury): I wanted to use Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s classic songs – and a few new ones – in much the same way the music of Simon and Garfunkle was used in THE GRADUATE: To cue the audience into the emotion of a given scene. It took a lot of experimentation and evolution to arrive at the choices that were finally made.

Q: Nowadays every new animation-movie is in 3D. How does this influence your work?
A: (Kelly Asbury): If 3D is appropriate to a given story, I love it, but I don’t believe in doing a film in 3D just for the sake of 3D. GNOMEO AND JULIET took place at very low, steep angles and the scale of the gnomes world was enhanced by 3D, therefore I always felt it was a story that would be better told that way.

Q: How did you work with James Newton Howard on the score? How did you connect the songs and the score?
A: (Kelly Asbury): James Newton Howard and his associate Chris Bacon delivered exactly the type of inventive score I dreamt of for this movie, utilizing classic Elton John melodies, while also providing exciting, new, original music as well. I hope to work with either of them again and again. They could not have been more open, generous and collaborative.

Q: As director, how much input did you have in creating the looks of each of the characters?
A: (Kelly Asbury): One of the joys of my job is to be part of every creative decision on the movie. I worked very closely with character designer Gary Dunn, who did an amazing job of keeping our gnomes appealing – while still looking like gnomes…not always an easy task.

Q: Give us a basic rundown of your daily duties as director for Gnomeo & Juliet?
A: (Kelly Asbury): My day is never the same, but it starts early and sometimes ends late. It’s usually a combination of reading or writing script pages, recording an actor or two, viewing new animation or designs, discussing story issues, watching finished lit scenes…Oh, and I eat lunch somewhere in there.

Q: How did you get in touch with Sir Elton John and how did you convince him to participate to the movie?
A: (Kelly Asbury): Elton is the one who got in touch with me. His company Rocket Pictures teamed with Disney to make this film. I was invited to join the party! Lucky me!

Q: How do you think the Blu-ray and DVD enhance the experience for the audience?
A: (Kelly Asbury): Because CG animation looks FANTASTIC on Blu-ray and DVD. It may be the most true looking version of the movie one can view. After all, these CG movies are made on monitors, so they will look great on a good, high-definition TV screen.

Q: What can we expect from your next project? 2D or 3D animation?
A: (Kelly Asbury): My best answer to that is that you can expect my next project to be presented in the best, most appropriate form that its story calls for. It all depends on the subject matter…and I’m not certain what that will be just yet.

Q: What was the hardest sequence to work on in this film and why?
A: (Kelly Asbury): The most difficult sequence in GNOMEO AND JULIET was “Where to begin?” Opening any story is tricky, but this one really got down to the wire. There was a lot of back story that had to be established in as simple a way as possible and it took a lot of trial and error.

Q: Were there any abandoned concepts, characters or ideas for the film you were sad to see go?
A: (Kelly Asbury): There were several deleted sequences, some of which will be available to see as extras on the DVD. This is common and it’s one of the reasons the story reel is so important to pre-visualize ideas and see whether they work. This helps keep things within budget and on schedule. One doesn’t want to put a sequence through full production only to find out it doesn’t work in the fabric of the movie.

Q: What’s the sequence you’re most proud of in this film, and why?
A: (Kelly Asbury): I have to admit that I am partial to the sequence when our star-crossed gnomes, Gnomeo and Juliet, first meet on the roof of that old greenhouse. I love the song “Hello, Hello” and I love the general look and animation of that entire piece.

Q: Every new movie of you takes up 3-4 years of your life. This is quite a long time. How does it feel for you, if the people or critics don’t like your movie then? Or when they do like it?
A: (Kelly Asbury): I love animation and movies. That’s why I make them. Certainly I want as many people as possible to like the movies I work on, but I know that I’ll never please everyone. Different tastes are what makes the entertainment business so varied and fun…and what a dull world it would be otherwise.

Q: Did you travel outside of America to look at others countries garden’s gnomes? Germany is supposed to be the homeland of gnomes…
A: (Kelly Asbury): I certainly explored the whole world gnome culture, which does vary from country to country. Germany’s Black Forest seems to be where all the gnomes originally came from, at least the “Forest Gnome” variety, who supposedly live among us, but remain out of our sight. GNOMEO AND JULIET centers on the “Good Luck Garden Gnomes” who watch over our flowers and shrubs. While I didn’t travel to Germany for this information, I certainly studied it all…More so than I ever imagined I would.

Q: Gnomeo and Juliet was often accused of “being too referential for its own good.” How would you respond to that assessment?
A: (Kelly Asbury): It’s difficult to say. Many people have told me how much they love the referential humor. It really depends on one’s own sensibility I suppose. I, for one, am a huge Mel Brooks fan, and I love satirical movies like the Zucker Brothers’ AIRPLANE. I grew up reading MAD magazine…I guess all that rubbed off a little.

Q: What are the main differences for an animated movie director when compared to a conventional movie director?
A: (Kelly Asbury): Many of the creative and storytelling concerns are exactly the same. The biggest difference is that there is no actual set and the actors usually work alone, which requires a lot of imagination on everyone’s part. Still, animated films are films and the same concerns regarding communication and engaging an audience come into play.

Q: What did you feel were some of the pitfalls of redoing the often-adapted Romeo and Juliet with garden gnomes?
A: (Kelly Asbury): Taking on any classic is a precarious endeavor, but I tried to keep it lighthearted and clearly satirical. More than anything GNOMEO AND JULIET is meant to be fun, a romp.

Q: You have been in the business for quite a long time now and already worked on projects like “Shrek“, “Toy Story“, “Beauty and the Beast“ and “The Little Mermaid“. How has the industry changed over the past 20 years?
A: (Kelly Asbury): I began in the animation business in 1983 and have been able to be part of an unbelievably exciting – make that THRILLING – growth period that just keeps getting better.

Q: Which animated film made you think, “I want to make one of those one day?”
A: (Kelly Asbury): Around 1967, when I was 7 years old, I saw Disney’s SNOW WHITE and remember saying to my mom: “I have to learn how to make my drawings move like that!” From there, I was hooked.

Q: For Gnomeo & Juliet you moved for 1.5 years to London. What experiences did you have living abroad?
A: (Kelly Asbury): I think living in an exciting, “melting pot” city such as London has been one of the most – if not the most – enriching life experiences I could imagine. I truly believe I’m a better, more open, tolerant person for it. When it gets right down to it, people really are all the same.

Q: It seems like there is a lot more adult humor incorporated in animated films like Gnomeo & Juliet. When writing these types of jokes that are supposed to go over the heads of kids and be a nod and wink to their parents, how far is too far?
A: (Kelly Asbury): Those answers come as the story reel gets tested and revised. It becomes clear when a joke goes to far or simply doesn’t work like I’d hoped. The story reel is the best tool I have as a filmmaker. It contains all my answers. It’s my job to pay attention and learn from it.

Q: The movie has a lot of Elton John’s greatest songs. Why don’t the gnomes sing those songs?
A: (Kelly Asbury): Frankly, I just worried it would be kind of creepy for all these gnomes to be singing. For me, it came down to personal taste.

Q: I see you really like to get involved with the creation of your movies, for this movie Gnomeo and Juliet about how many different characters did you portray and did you have a favorite character that you portrayed?
A: (Kelly Asbury): In GNOMEO AND JULIET I played all seven of the little “Goon Gnomes” who follow Tybalt. They all have the same voice, so it was easy. I also played the opening narrator gnome…but he’s one of the Goons too, so he had the same voice. I love doing voices and hope to continue doing them, not only on my movies, but anyone who asks me. It’s very fun.

Q: Kelly, any final thoughts on Gnomeo & Juliet as we close today?
A: (Kelly Asbury): My colleagues and I wanted to make GNOMEO AND JULIET a fun, easy to watch, entertaining movie. “Fun” was the key word from day one. I hope we achieved that. I like to laugh and I love to hear other people laugh. I don’t think the world can have too much laughter and fun, in or out of a movie theater.

Walt Disney Studios announces the animated twist on William Shakespeare’s legendary tale Romeo &  Juliet, Gnomeo & Juliet for release as a 2-Disc Blu-ray Combo Pack and 3-Disc Blu-ray Combo Pack on May 24.

*Thanks to Kelly Asbury as well as Disney, Chip and Company and Sorcerer Radio for their part in making this interview possible. Image’s from Disney’s Gnomeo and Juliet.


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