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You’ll hear all about Gnomeo & Juliet from me in tomorrow’s review, but I also had the opportunity to speak with the movie’s director, Kelly Asbury, whose work you may be familiar with from the DreamWorks pictures Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Shrek 2. For Gnomeo, Asbury took on the challenging task of adapting a William Shakespeare tale. Not just that (spoiler alert), but giving it a dramatically different ending than the one featured in the original work.
If spoilers are going to be a big deal, you should probably stop reading. Anyone who knows the full story of Romeo & Juliet need not be concerned.
Asbury said he felt justified in changing the ending — it’s a happy one for our star-crossed lovers — when he looked at the many other classic tales that have been altered over the years to suit different audiences, most particularly the Brothers Grimm stories. And Gnomeo does address the changed ending directly, in a number of humorous exchanges with an animated Shakespeare statue voiced by Patrick Stewart. He warns our young hero of his doomed hopes for love, an end which the movie’s climax very carefully sidesteps. “[Gnomeo and Juliet] changed the ending that’s sort of been prophesized for them,” Asbury explained. “That’s how I let the third act be driven.”
Personal experience is, in part, what inspired Asbury to pursue the playful adaptation, an opportunity to share with today’s children a learning experience similar to one he had in his youth. “When I was in about third grade, I remember a movie came out called West Side Story,” he said. “It was this musical about street gangs. And I remember it came on television for the first time in two parts, one night after the other back in the old days. And all the next day all the kids on the playground were playing West Side Story. We had all watched it and everyone was into it, they thought it was really cool.”
He continued, “Then years later when I’m in high school and I’m reading Romeo & Juliet this light bulb goes off. And I went, ‘Hey, wait a minute. That’s West Side Story.’ Then I realized that West Side Story was Romeo & Juliet. And I really would love that kids have that same experience watching this.”
The attentive viewer will also notice multiple reference to Shakespeare’s other works peppered throughout the film. This is of course intentional, and Asbury describes how coming up with what to include was a group effort during production. “We had a lot of people on the crew [sharing, and] ideas came from everywhere,” he revealed. “[For example, whenever] we needed a brand name for something, I would just say ‘Hey somebody, what’s a great name for a moving company?’ And I think one of our story artists, Scott Santoro, said ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Moving.’ Or we need a teapot company, and I think the same guy said, ‘How about Tempest Teapots.’ We need an idea for some glue. How about ‘Taming of the Glue?'”
“You just get silly with it. You put it in the movie, you pack it in there and hopefully people will watch it in freeze-frame someday and go, ‘Hey, I never saw that before!’ That’s really all just icing on the cake to me. The story is the cake. You have to get the story right and hopefully people engage with the characters. Really, the rest of it is just fun and I hope people have fun with it.
Elton John fans certainly will. The legendary performer and his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin were involved with Gnomeo years ago, long before Asbury got the gig. He explains that there had always been this intention to use the pop star’s music, but nobody could crack how to do it well. After he came in, Asbury stepped up and worked out a solution.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we start from scratch, just start all over, and use Elton John’s music with Bernie Taupin’s lyrics? The same way they did in The Graduate when they used Simon & Garfunkel’s music where it sort of was an emotional cue into the character’s emotional life at that moment on screen,'” Asbury explained. “That was really the kickoff point for me, The Graduate, as far as how to use the music.”
Gnomeo & Juliet opens Friday in 3D nationwide.