In the upcoming animated comedy adventure Gnomeo & Juliet, Shakespeare’s revered tale gets a comical, off-the-wall makeover. Directed by Kelly Asbury and showcasing both classic and original songs by Elton John, the film features the voices of James McAvoy and Emily Blunt as Gnomeo and Juliet, who have as many obstacles to overcome as their quasi namesakes when they are caught up in a feud between neighbors. But with plastic pink flamingos and thrilling lawnmower races in the mix, can this young couple find lasting happiness?
MoviesOnline sat down with Elton John, James McAvoy and Emily Blunt to talk about their new movie. Elton told us about his role as executive producer and how he enjoyed revisiting classics and creating new songs for the film including an exciting duet with Lady Gaga. James and Emily described their collaborative process and why making a film about garden gnomes is part of the joy of being a creative person. Elton also shared with us why his musical taste is so eclectic and how he loves to listen to everything. Here’s what they had to say:
Q: Elton, can you talk about revisiting some of your classic songs and what it was like to go back? How did you decide what to use?
Elton: Well originally it wasn’t going to be all my music but when Dick Cook at Disney Studios really got 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 would be a good idea. I’d never done that before. I enlisted the help of James Newton Howard who’s the arranger and a very famous arranger in this town who 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 someone else’s, maybe Kelly’s idea. From that point on, I really just handed it over to James and the rest of the team to put it in. I didn’t really take an active part in saying this should go there. I mean, for example, I didn’t choose Bennie and the Jets to go in the scene when Benny’s on the computer ordering the Terrafirminator but obviously it worked. You didn’t have to be a magician to think that might work there. But, on the whole, it was nice to see the music. I think James has done such a great job because even though it’s all our back catalog and a couple new songs, it’s doesn’t feel as if it’s overbearing or an Elton John movie. It feels like Gnomeo & Juliet with some good music in it. I’m glad it’s turned out like that because I didn’t want it to be bang, bang, bang old catalog stuff. So, that’s the way it happened really.
Q: Emily and James, I wondered if you had any childhood memories at all of garden gnomes? Did you see them?
Emily: Yeah, I saw them. I was always scared or skeeved out by anything that resembled people when I was a kid – like puppets and things like that. ?? dolls were the depths of hell to me. I was a rather anxious child apparently. I remember my friend had garden gnomes and I remember being intimidated and a bit scare 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. That could be fun.
James: I had a frog much like the one that (Ashley) Jensen plays in this film, brilliantly I have to say, and I had two garden gnomes in my grandparents’ garden. One of them was bearing its backside and the other one was looking kind of like la da. I think it was apparent. But they were really grimy and covered in moss so I almost thought they looked a bit seedy and unlike the child friendly ones in this film.
Q: Do any of you garden? Do you have gardens, and if you do, what do you grow in them?
Emily: I’ve never gardened before. It’s been something I think that would be nice to do. I know that my parents loved doing it. It’s a relaxing pastime for them. I’ve never shoveled mud before but I should.
Elton: I grew up at my grandmother’s house and it 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 loathed it and I loathed gardening, but I love gardens and I have two beautiful gardens but I cannot bear gardening. But I love gardens.
James: I’m kind of with the guys really. I don’t do much of a garden but I do have a very nice herb bed that I’m very proud of if you’re looking for rosemary and there’s some nice lavender.
Q: Elton, you’ve done many duets in your career. How different is this one both personally and professionally?
Elton: The Lady Gaga duet came about really by me tying her down and hitting her over the head and saying “Will you do this song with me?” No. She came to the house last year. We do a ball at our house every year to raise money for AIDS and she was the entertainment and she stayed at the house for two days. We just mentioned the film and the song and she said I’d love to do it. And because she has an incredibly hectic schedule, she did it, I think, between dates somewhere either in Scandinavia and then a little bit in New York. And we did it completely separately, but she added so much of her own magic to the song and she gave it a new life. Obviously it was 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. So that was a real plus for us having her do it and it worked out brilliantly.
Q: Is there a little bit of subtext in the film about the red and the blue and what goes on in America? Was it written with that in mind?
Elton: Not really. We started the film 11 years ago and if we’d had the foresight to do that, I’d say we’re fucking geniuses. But it just happens to be at this time. It’s coming out 3 weeks after the President made the 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. 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 Mum was a Conservative. Then, when I finally realized what Conservatives were, I changed my mind immediately. So, we tend as children to ape our parents and I think this is a storyline saying listen, we should all get along even if we don’t. If we’re Catholic or Protestant or we’re Muslims or we’re Jews or if we’re Democrats or Republicans. I think in America it’s gotten so far outstretched now and where the rhetoric is so dangerous and it puts things in people’s minds and it’s so unnecessary. I think if there’s any message that can come out of this film, which is purely coincidental and the time is coincidental, then I’m all for it, because as I grow older it saddens me to see a country that I love so much having such a gulf between people sometimes that 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 and one is a staunch Democrat. And yet they met and they both think this is the right thing to do. That is what life is all about. It’s not about hatred. In the film, at the end of this, when they’ve destroyed both of the gardens, they actually say “Enough! This is ridiculous. Let’s just get on with our life. Let’s be friends.” I think that sends out a positive message but it truly is coincidental.
Q: Congratulations on becoming a parent. Was pending fatherhood part of the process while you were writing the original songs and did it influence your songwriting?
Elton: Not really because we wrote the songs so long ago. I never thought about that. The thing with animation films is you have to write the songs quite a long time ahead because you’re writing for storyboards and you have to place things in them. We actually wrote four new songs for the movie and two of them got left out. One of them was a really great song that Lily Allen sang. But the storyboards change and the story evolves and things just get left by the wayside and that’s the way [it is]. You have to accept that when you write for a musical or you write for an animation movie which has music in it.
Q: Elton, is there any truth to the rumor that you’re going to play at Kate and William’s wedding?
Elton: I don’t know Kate and William. I’d made a joke that I’d probably be basking outside but as far as I know I don’t think so. No, it’ll probably be someone like Barry Manilow — someone younger and more attractive.
Q: Have you and David had a chance to see the lovely cover shoot in Us Weekly?
Elton: Chance to see it? We’ve decorated our whole apartment in it. We break up and look at it. We’re very happy with the way it’s turned out. We raised a lot of money for our foundation with it and we all look pretty amazing in it, especially Zachary, and the interview was lovely. So we’re very happy. Thank you very much.
Q: Bullying is a hot topic right now. Were you ever bullied at school because of your differences when you were younger?
Elton: I went to a mixed school and I can’t remember ever being bullied at the school. I was quite large in those days and usually if you’re going to be bullied you’ve got to pick on somebody who’s small. So I don’t remember bullying anybody and I don’t remember being bullied. I went to a mixed school which I was very glad I went to and not just a boys’ school. So no, I can’t say I was ever bullied at school.
Q: How has the experience of being a new father been for you? And now that you’re a parent, do you have plans to do more charity work that benefits children?
Elton: I do quite a lot for 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’ve been very prevalent in my life over the last few years. David (Furnish) has lots of nieces and nephews. So I’m a great lover of children. I never thought one day that 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. 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. What can I say?
Q: For James and Emily, you both have experience playing Romeo and Juliet. Did the knowledge of Romeo and Juliet and being on stage playing those characters help you create these characters?
Emily: I actually found it very helpful. When I did Romeo & 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 I had had no experience acting Shakespeare, but I had a really wonderful director who encouraged a different view of Juliet that I had taken from the text, which is actually that she’s not a wilting, delicate flower, that she’s actually hot tempered just like her dad, and she’s decisive and rebellious and very much not the reactionary role. I felt that she actually drives a lot of the second act through her decisions, reckless as they are. So that was really interesting for me to have lived through that on stage and do it day in and day out. I loved it and I’ve never had a part like that and probably never will have once since then just because it was such an emotional roller coaster. It was crazy to go through that every night. When I met Kelly and all these guys, it was really great to hear that they wanted to have kind of 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 but I did find it helpful for sure.
James: I always see Romeo as being a bit of a pain in the backside and very in love with himself. He’s got a lot of time for himself and some time for the ladies as long as there’d be time for him, and then something massive happens to him. So that was important. It made him a little bit a cock ‘o the walk. But also, Gnomeo in this is a little bit of an amalgamation between Gnomeo and Mercutio. We’ve got Benvolio with Benny but we don’t have that Mercutio character. We don’t have that leader of the pack which Romeo isn’t but Gnomeo is a little bit. So it was handy to have an appreciation of who Mercutio was as well and that weight of expectation not only to conform to what your family wants but also just to show off for your blue pals. And then the other thing that was really handy at having an experience of it in theater was just the fact that I think with animated movies I get paid to hyperventilate and to lose my voice. I’m constantly just like going in and I’ll be thinking great, we’re going to do a scene and Kelly will go “We’re going to get a few more reactions” and I’m like “Oh no! Here we go.” And I spend four hours going [panting, grunting, groaning] and by the end of it I can hardly speak and I’m tripping. I’m having psychedelic experiences. So, being able to know how to do a proper vocal warm-up was quite handy.
Q: What was the initial idea to use garden gnomes as part of the concept for a family movie?
James: It’s quite hard to do because the story of Romeo & Juliet has got a lot of nice morals. It’s got don’t pay attention to preconception and to prejudice and forgiveness is really important and all that really good stuff to tell kids. But you can’t tell them with Romeo & Juliet because everybody dies or commits suicide or takes drugs or kills someone or has sex with someone they shouldn’t be having sex with. And so, if you get gnomes, you can give them all those good morals and tidbits without the suicide, sex, death and drugs.
Q: Elton, how have you been able to build on The Lion King with this experience and what have you learned and now appreciate more about animation with Gnomeo & Juliet?
Elton: With The Lion King I learned – it came my way in 1993 thanks to Tim Rice – I’ve always collaborated in my career as a songwriter and I loved the idea and the journey of collaboration with everyone on The Lion King. I’m a team player really. That’s why I like doing the musicals and I’ve always had a songwriting partner as I’ve said. I think what you learn most of all is leave your ego at the door because no matter what you write if it’s not going to… For example, Billy Elliot, we left three songs which were really great songs out of Billy Elliot but it would have made the show 4 hours, 2 minutes long so it can’t happen. You have to be prepared to say okay, I’m going to fight for this song, but if you really want to get rid of it, then that’s fine. You’ve got to do that and you’ve got to listen to the team as a whole and there’s been so many times where we’ve convened during these 11 years and the film has taken a different course and you have to be a team player. You have to hold hands when things are going badly and hold hands when things are going well and you really have to, as an important member, have to be there for everybody else on the team and I’ve always liked that during my career. I’ve always had the good fortune to have a longstanding songwriting partner which I’ve been with for 44 years. So it’s just another way of sharing a joyful experience of creating something. But you really do have to leave your ego at the door, and if I was to say “Well this song’s going in or I’m walking off the film,” there’s none of that shit. You just have to be patient and you have to watch how things evolve and you have to be there for the good of the thing as a whole and not just for you as a component of the piece.
Q: Emily and James, you work by yourself and there’s nobody else in the room with you. Did the two of you meet before starting that? Did you rehearse together?
Emily: They tried to keep us apart.
James: She’s not very easy to work with unfortunately.
Emily: James is really temperamental so they didn’t want us in the same room.
James: But with that temperament comes genius, don’t forget.
Q: Had you met before working on this movie?
Emily: We’d met socially a couple of times. So we were kind of thinking when we both got on board for this “It’ll be great. We’ll be in the same room. We’ll rap and we’ll improv.” But we improv-ed separately of each other.
Q: Elton, is there one song that’s in the movie that you really liked that’s from years ago?
Elton: Well I think for me one of the funniest sequences in the movie, and it’s very important I think if you’re British and take the piss out of yourself, I think you’re raised to do that in England which is rather good. I think the scene with Your Song when Stephen Merchant plays the character, the Weedy Gnome, and then suddenly there I am, Glam Gnome, the Gnomosexual in the film. So I think probably that one when he sings is a little bit runny. I lost it when I saw that. That brings back very good memories of a song I’ve sung practically every time I’ve done a show since 1970. I would have to say that moment is quite funny. I loved that moment.
Q: You have achieved pretty much everything that an artist can achieve and ventured into many other artistic fields and been successful. Is there anything left for you to conquer?
Elton: There’s always things you want to do and obviously ballet is not an option. I’d just like to make a really great film about my life story, and we’re thinking about that. We have a great script already by Lee Hall who wrote Billy Elliot. Obviously it’s not going to be your normal run-of-the-mill film because my life has been kind of crazy, and I think it’s important to do a surrealistic take on my life. I’d love to do that. This business is so incredible. In 1993, I got a phone call from Tim Rice saying would I do The Lion King, when at that time all I was doing was making records, touring, and doing videos. It gave me the opportunity with that one phone call to suddenly write musicals for the stage, film scores, and it just opened the doors to so many things. I don’t know what’s around the corner, and that’s kind of the way I like it. You really can’t plan. My life or my career has not been planned like in three years we’re going to do this. It just happens by accident, and that’s why I think all three of us as creative people sitting up here, as performers, we like it because you never know what part you’re going to be offered. You never know what gig you’re going to be offered, and that one part and one show or one project can change your whole life. And that’s the way I look at it. So I don’t really have any more ambitions other than I just want to work and do excellent stuff and enjoy it. I’m enjoying everything in my life, but I think the element of surprise in this business is what makes us really love it, because one day you’re sitting by the phone waiting to do something or not doing anything, and the next day you’ve got the chance of a lifetime. Those little phone calls don’t come up so often, but when they come up, it’s fantastic. (to Emily) Would you agree with that?
Emily: Absolutely. I think that’s the joy in it. You shouldn’t strategize your career if you’re in a creative realm. You can’t either. I love the unknown. I love the element of surprise. I’ve always felt really inspired by it. I love the spontaneity of the job. I think you can’t really fight against it. You can’t strategize. You can’t take a job because you think it might lead here. You have no idea and it’s better just to do work that you’re really proud of and work that you enjoy because really all you have are the choices you make and that’s it and who knows after that. I think that’s what I love about it.
James: I agree with everything you said. Obviously I’d like to say that I’m available for awhile. I can play piano and if you’ve not found that person to play you at the age of 31, I’m right here.
Emily: (clapping) Done!
Elton: An example of that is, in 1990, if you’d have said that in 1993 I’d be writing a song about a fucking warthog, I’d have said you’re out of your mind. When Tim Rice gave me the lyrics and said, (sings) “When I was a young warthog…,” I actually thought I was losing my mind and look what happened. And if you’d have said in 1990 you’re going to make a film about garden gnomes, I’d have said you’re crazy. So this is the joyous thing about being a creative person. Things can come along that completely surprise you, that you normally would never have thought of doing.
James: Have you seen the film The Four Lions where the song is used as a fundamentalist terrorist parable? It’s really, really funny. (Laughs)
Q: Is this the first time you’ve executive produced a film?
Elton: Yes, it is the first time. I have a film company with David called Rocket Pictures and this is our third movie, but this is the first time I’ve exec’ed a film.
Q: What has it been like for you personally to executive produce this film? What does that role entail?
Elton: Oh, you do nothing! Absolutely nothing. (Laughs) You just get this title called Executive Producer, and I go away on tour and I just say, “Get on with it!” And that’s called an executive producer. And that’s the truth! All jokes aside, there have been a couple of times when the movie’s been in danger of being dropped by the studio of Walt Disney where I’ve had to make the phone call to the head of the studio and say, “Listen, it’s me, we have to have a meeting. We’ve come so far, we cannot lose the film now.” That’s my job as the executive producer is to try and rally the team when the team has no other means of communicating with the studio. And then, here I am. Wonder Poof!
Q: How is it being a father? What has that experience been like?
Elton: Oh, it’s fantastic. I love the smell of nappies, diapers. Obviously it’s been the most wonderful thing that probably has ever happened to me after meeting David. What’s been really the most surprising is it’s been very relaxing, because this little soul that you’re feeding and you’re changing and bathing and telling bedtime stories to is a blank palette, a blank canvas, and all it needs is love and nurturing, and it’s just the most wonderful feeling. When he gets to talking and running around I’ll probably feel a little different. James, how old is your little boy?
James: He’s just wee. He’s just tiny still but he’s getting there.
Elton: Is he running around?
James: No, no. Not yet.
Elton: Is he talking?
Elton: Alright. Well there you go! It’s a bit like us up here. What can I tell you? It’s wonderful. And I’m biased.
Q: You’re going on tour this year in Europe. How does it feel for you to be on stage at this point in your career as compared to 20, 30 years ago?
Elton: I think it’s so much more comfortable for me now. I mean I’ve always enjoyed and loved playing live. I relish and cherish it more than anything else because you never know what the performance is going to be. These guys will tell you that if you go onstage some nights and you do a performance and you’re feeling great, sometimes you’re not as great as you think you’re feeling. Some nights you’re feeling tired and you give a really great performance. It’s the unknown; again, as we were talking about earlier. You don’t know being a performer what kind of performance you’re going to give. You know you can give a certain quality of performance, but as I grow older I’m much more content in my own skin because when I come offstage now, I have a balance in my life. Until I found that in 1990, I didn’t. I came offstage and I didn’t know what to do with myself. Now I come home, I fly home every night after a show and I get back in my own bed. And I have a wonderful partner. I have wonderful friends. I can remember things. I don’t take drugs anymore. It’s a whole new world out there! I can remember the words to the songs, it’s great! It’s just sensational what’s happened to me in the last few years. Truly, the older I get, I think I’m singing better live. I enjoy it. I also had my eyes done about eight years ago. I had replacement lens surgery because I was so blind. I don’t really need to wear glasses, but I’m just being moody. But now that I have 20-20 vision, I can see all the signs that the fans have, all the album sleeves, and it makes a difference. I really appreciate my performing so much better now as I get older than I did. I don’t take it for granted anymore. I really relish it and love it. Thank you.
Q: James, what attracted you to this project?
James: One of the things that attracted me was the fact that people are enthusiastic about film and live action but in this stuff, which you’ve been working on for 11 years, if you weren’t enthusiastic about it, you’d have fallen out with it by now or had a mental breakdown. When I met you guys, you were so incredibly enthusiastic. I found it so infectious that it made me want to be a part of it. I liked the script and was very excited about working with Elton John. However, it was that excitement and that enthusiasm as well which made me think this has got to be good.
Q: Elton, one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about your music over the years is the sheer variety of it. Not just from album to album, but from song to song. What accounts for your great eclecticism?
Elton: The fact that I think when I grew up as a kid, I grew up in a house that we listened to radio and bought records. My family always bought records, and I grew up in the early 50s, so it was either classical music or dance band music or great vocalists like Frank Sinatra. I got Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! for my birthday when I was about 8 years old, I think. I grew up in a house that loved music, and of course, when rock and roll came, I had all this knowledge of the great American singers and bandleaders and musicians and jazz players by the time I was 6 or 7. And then, rock and roll came in and changed my life and changed the whole music scene forever, and then I grew to love R&B and Motown and all black music, gospel music. I never dismiss any form of music. I listen to everything. I’m on the new Kanye West record, for example. It’s a genius record. I was on the Alice in Chains record, so you can’t really get [any more eclectic] – Alice in Chains, Kanye West, I love all different sorts of music. When you go, people who mock rap and say, “I don’t like it,” they should go and check out Kanye in the studio rapping, or Marshall, Eminem, when he’s in the studio. It’s a phenomenon. It’s kind of like modern jazz was when John Coltrane and all those people started. It’s a different thing. Don’t knock it until you’ve seen it. It may not be your cup of tea, but don’t ridicule it. I find that so many of my peers of my age don’t listen to anything new. I love the new. I love the energy of the new, the energy of the new act. There’s a record, I’m plugging it remorsely, called Plan B. It’s called The Defamation of Strickland Banks. It’s the number one record in England, it’s going to be released here in March, it’s by a young guy who was in Harry Brown, a film with Michael Caine, and he played the villain. He made a rap record before, and now he’s made this record where he sounds like Smokey Robinson and it’s phenomenal. I love hearing the new, the energy from the new. There’s a band called the Punch Brothers who are amazing. They’re like bluegrass meets Miles Davis. That’s what I’m interested in. I know all the old stuff, it’s in here. I just want to get the energy from the new, and the eclectic stuff is embracing the new, embracing bands like XX, embracing bands like that that come out of Britain, and Florence and the Machine, and all those people, because their energy is so infectious at our age. I had great energy between 23 and 28 where you’re working on adrenaline and it’s just driving you. That energy is just pure adrenaline. And then, after that, you lose it a little bit. You still have enthusiasm and energy, but it’s not the adrenaline that the young have, and I just think it’s so important to listen. Looking at the Golden Globes the other night, there were so many incredible young actors, or young actors like Mark Wahlberg or Matt Damon who I remember being young actors who have now emerged and have gone on to be fantastic older actors, and then you see Jesse Eisenberg and people like that who just have star quality written all over them. Like these guys here [referring to James and Emily]. The young are so important. The young give you the energy, and if you don’t notice the young, and you don’t take that, and you don’t give them credit and you don’t listen to all sorts of music, then you’re missing out on something.
Q: Who would you like to see play you in a movie?
Elton: Well James could do it and he’s already offered. (laughs)
Q: Do you have any advice for a young couple?
Elton: Communication. Talk to each other. Never go to bed when you’re angry with each other. Lady Antonia Frasier who was married to Harold Pinter said they never went to bed on an argument.
“Gnomeo & Juliet” opens in theaters on February 11th.