Rated G for all audiences, this version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet features a soundtrack loaded with tunes from Sir Elton John (who also produced the film and was one of the guiding forces behind making sure Gnomeo and Juliet made its way through production and into theaters). Together with voice cast members McAvoy and Blunt, his husband/producing partner David Furnish, and the film's director Kelly Asbury, John sat down with the media in LA to discuss this unusual love story featuring gnomes, bunnies, a lawn flamingo, and a deer voiced by Ozzy Osbourne.
Sir Elton John, James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Kelly Asbury and David Furnish Gnomeo and Juliet Press ConferenceHow was it revisiting your classic songs and how did you decide what to use and what not to use?
Elton John: "Originally it wasn’t going to be all my music. But when Dick Cook at Disney Studios really got a hold of this project and suggested that we write new songs for it and it should be a whole Elton John/Bernie Taupin back catalog thing, I thought maybe it was a good idea and I had never done that before. I enlisted the help of James Newton Howard who is the arranger, a very famous arranger in this town and he actually used to be in my band so I had a great relationship with him. There was one obvious song that would fit in the movie which was 'Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting' for the lawnmower race. That wasn’t my idea; that was already Kelly’s idea. And from that point on I really just handed it over to James and the rest of the team."
"I really didn’t take an active part saying, 'This should go there.' I didn’t choose, for example, choose 'Benny and the Jets' for the scene when Benny's on the computer ordering the Terraterminator, but obviously it worked. You didn't have to be a magician to see that might work there. On the whole, it’s nice to see it. I think James does a great job because even though it's all our back catalog and a couple of new songs, it doesn’t feel overbearing like an Elton John movie. It feels like Gnomeo and Juliet with some good music in it, and I’m glad it's turned out that way because I didn’t want it to be just 'bang, bang, bang' all cataloged stuff. So that’s the way it happened, really."
Emily and James, do you have any childhood memories at all of garden gnomes? Did you see them?
Emily Blunt: "Yes, I saw them."
Do you like gnomes?
Emily Blunt: "I was always scared or skeeved out by anything with little people, like puppets and ventriloquist dolls. I was rather an anxious child apparently. I remember my friend had garden gnomes and I remember being kind of scared of them when I was very young. I think I know someone who's got a garden gnome of themselves, which is quite strange. But I wouldn’t mind having one after this."
James, any experience with garden gnomes?
James McAvoy: "I had a frog, much like the one that Ashley Jensen plays in this film, and brilliantly I have to say. I had two garden gnomes in my grandparent’s garden. One of them was baring his backside and the other one was looking [completely shocked]. I think they came as a pair. But they were really grimy and covered in moss. I always thought they looked a big seedy, unlike the friendly ones in this film."
Emily, Elton and James, do any of you garden?
Emily Blunt: "I’ve never gardened before. It's something I think would be nice to do. I know my parents love doing it and it seems sort of relaxing past-time for them. But I’ve never shoveled dirt."
Elton John: "I grew up in my grandmother’s house and there was a beautiful garden, but I used to hate mowing the lawn and weeding which is what you do when you’re a kid. I loathe gardening but I love gardens and I have two beautiful gardens. I can’t bear gardening, but I love gardens."
James McAvoy: "I’m kind of with the guys, really. But I don’t do much of a garden. I do have a very nice herb bed that I’m very proud of."
You have a what?
Emily Blunt and James McAvoy: "Herb bed."
Elton John: "I know you don’t say Erb Alpert, do you? I don’t get it."
You’ve done many duets in your career. How was your duet with Lady Gaga?
Elton John: "The Lady Gaga duet came about really by me tying her down and hitting her over the head saying, 'Will you do this song with me?’ No, she came to the house last year - we do a ball every year at our house to raise money for AIDS and she was the entertainment. She stayed in the house for a few days and we just mentioned the film and the song and she said, ‘I’d love to do it.’ Because she has an incredibly hectic schedule, she did it in between dates somewhere either in Scandinavia and a little bit in New York. We did it completely separately. But she added so much of her own magic to the song and she gave it a new life. It was obviously a duet and I was looking for someone to sing it with, and because she’s one of my new best friends and I love her to death, it was nice that she was so excited to do it. That was a real plus for us, having her do it, and it worked out brilliantly."
The film has red and blue gnomes battling it out. Is there is a little bit of subtext about what goes on in America and was that written into it?
Elton John: "Not really. We started the film 11 years ago and if we had the foresight to do that I'd say we’re f--king geniuses! But it just happens to be at this time and it’s coming out three weeks after the President made his speech in Tucson last week, which was a very poignant moment in the history of America after this tragedy happened. I do feel as though there is a message in this film like we spend so much time hating each other because our parents tell us that’s what we have to do. I grew up conservative because my mom was a conservative and when I finally realized what conservatives were, I changed my mind immediately. We tend as children to ape our parents. I think this storyline is saying we should all get on, even if we don’t...if we’re Catholic and we're Protestant or we're Muslim and we're Jews, if we’re Democrats or Republications. You know, I think in America it's gone so far out stretched now where the rhetoric is so dangerous and it puts things in people's minds. It’s so unnecessary, and if there is any message that can come out of this film which is purely coincidental and the time is coincidental then I’m all for it."
"As I grow older, it saddens me to see a country that I love so much having such a gulf between people sometimes that they don’t meet in the middle and talk and put their differences aside. I played a Proposition 8 concert the other night and the two great lawyers who are fighting for this same-sex relationship recognition in California; one is a staunch Republican, one is a staunch Democrat. Yet they met and they both think this is the right thing to do. That’s what life is all about. It’s not about hatred. I think in the film, at the end of this, when they’ve destroyed both the gardens they actually say, 'Enough of this. This is ridiculous. Let's just get on with life and let's be friends.’ That sends out a positive message but it truly is coincidental."
How about the rumor that you're going to play at Kate and William's wedding?
Elton John: "I don’t know Kate and William. I made a joke that I'd probably be busking outside. I don't think so. No. It will probably by someone like Barry Manilow. Someone younger and more attractive."
Sir Elton, were you or your husband David bullied because of your differences when you were younger?
David Furnish: "I was bullied as a child. I used to get teased. Fortunately I had an older brother who was three years older and much stronger who went in and defended me."
Elton John: "I went to a mixed school and I can’t remember ever being bullied at school, ever. I was quite large in those days so usually if you're going to be bullied, you're going to pick on someone who's small. I don’t remember bullying anybody and I don’t remember being bullied. I went to a mix school, which I was very glad that I went to, not just a boys school. No, I can’t say I was bullied."
Now that you’re a new parent, do you have plans to work more with children? How’s your experience working with children?
Elton John: "I did quite a lot of work with children anyway with the AIDS foundation. I have a lot of godchildren. It's not as if children aren't in my life at all. They have been very prevalent in my life over the last few years. David has a lot of nieces and nephews. I’m a great lover of children. I never thought one day I’d actually be a father, but I’m very pleased I changed my mind. Children are extremely important. They are the future of the world and as long as David and I bring him up to be a loving and compassionate boy, then I’ll be very happy. I love kids."
Did the experience of playing in Romeo and Juliet on stage help you create these animated characters?
Emily Blunt: "I actually found it very helpful. When I did Romeo and Juliet I was about 19 and it was my third professional job. I was very intimidated by the thought of it because I hadn’t trained and had no experience actually acting in Shakespeare, but I had a really wonderful director who encouraged a different view of Juliet than I had taken from the text. He said she’s not a wilting, delicate flower; she’s actually hot-tempered just like her dad and she’s decisive, rebellious and very much not the reactionary role. I felt she actually drives a lot of the second act through her decisions, reckless as they are. That was really interesting for me to have lived through that on stage and do it day in and day out and I loved it. I’ve never had a part like that and probably never will have one since it, just because it was such an emotional roller coaster. It was just crazy to go through that every day. So when I met Kelly and these guys it was really great to hear that they wanted a tough little Juliet and one that I had done on stage. And so I was happy that we met in the middle in that way. I did find it helpful for sure."
James McAvoy: "I always see Romeo as being a bit of pain in the backside, very in love with himself, got a lot of time to himself and some time for the ladies as long as they have time for him, and then something massive happens to him. So that was important in making him a little bit of a cock of the walk, you know? Also, Gnomeo in this is a little bit of an amalgamation between Romeo and Mercutio. I've got Benvolio in Benny but you don’t have that Mercutio character. You don’t have that leader of the pack, which Romeo isn’t but Gnomeo is a little bit. It’s handy to have an appreciation of who Mercutio was as well. That weight of expectation not only to conform to what your family wants, but also just to show off for your blue pals."
"The other thing that was really handy and that I have an experience of it in the theatre was the fact that, I don’t know about you, but in animated movies I get paid to hyperventilate until I lose my voice. I’m constantly just like we’ll go in and I’ll be thinking, 'Great, we going to do a scene,’ and Kelly will go, 'Yeah, we're going to get a few more reactions.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh no - here we go!’ I spend four hours panting. By the end of it I can hardly speak. I’m tripping and I'm having psychedelic dreams. Being able to know how to do a proper vocal warm up was quite handy."
One of the themes is forbidden love or being in love with someone your parents don’t approve of. Any of you ever have that experience?
Kelly Ashbury: "I think that everyone I’ve was ever prone to be in love with my parents disapproved of. Yeah, I think everyone does once. I think that’s what’s universal about the story of Romeo and Juliet is everyone has grown up and done something that was rebellious against their parent's wishes, be it love or something else. We were all rebellious teenagers and sometimes we grow out of it and sometimes we don’t. I think that’s probably one of the underlying themes of the entire movie. Everyone can relate to this and it's true in many stories like Romeo and Juliet – like Twilight or something."
Gnomes have never really been hip or cool. Where did the idea come from to use garden gnomes in a Romeo and Juliet story?
David Furnish: "There was a famous press story in Britain where they were banned from the Chelsea Flower show. No one was allowed to have any garden gnomes, anyplace in the Chelsea Flower show. When the idea first came to us we loved the opportunity to take the high art of William Shakespeare and turn it on its head with the low art of the garden gnome. Most people think garden gnomes are tacky, ugly, not fashionable, and laughable. When you take those two elements together, you get a great bit of irony, which gives you a fantastic opportunity to spin Shakespeare on its head and get a lot of comedy. Hopefully, we’ve done that."
James McAvoy: "The story of Romeo and Juliet has a lot of nice morals, like don’t pay attention to people's perceptions and to prejudice, and forgiveness is really important. All that really good stuff to tell kids. You can’t tell them with Romeo and Juliet because everybody dies and commits suicide or kills someone, or has sex with someone they shouldn't be having sex with. So, sticking with garden gnomes you can give them all those good little morals tidbits without the suicides, sex, death, and drugs. That was in script originally [laughing]. It was very edgy, actually."