A little adventure goes a lawn way
The greatest love story ever told, starring…garden gnomes?
In the animated comedy adventure “Gnomeo & Juliet,” Shakespeare’s revered tale gets a comical, off-the-wall makeover. Directed by Kelly Asbury (“Shrek 2”) 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?
“Gnomeo & Juliet” is produced by Baker Bloodworth, Steve Hamilton Shaw and David Furnish. The film is executive produced by Elton John, whose classic songs are featured in the film along with new songs written with his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin and featuring special guest performances.
The original “Romeo and Juliet” was penned by William Shakespeare in the late 1500s. The tragic tale of two teenage lovers endures today with countless interpretations—from Georg Benda’s operatic adaptation in the 1700s to the popular 1950s stage musical “West Side Story” to 1996’s MTV-inspired “Romeo + Juliet.” In 2010, Twitter premiered “Such Tweet Sorrow”—an improvised tweeted version of the play presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Mudlark Production Company.
And now we have garden gnomes.
The filmmakers were instantly drawn to the irony of the film’s premise. Says producer David Furnish, “The concept of the film gave us the opportunity to take a classically well-known story and turn it on its head—reinvent it for a modern audience in a very funny way. The sheer fact that we have the high art of Shakespeare, the most revered playwright of all time, and the kitschy garden gnome gives us so many fantastic opportunities for comedy.”
The challenge, says producer Steve Hamilton Shaw, was making the fun premise into an interesting big-screen movie. “It’s important that while this movie makes people laugh, it also presents a world the audience can believe in; they need to feel the characters’ emotions. We needed to give it the heart and soul that would allow people to emotionally engage with the movie, so that the comedy plays that much better.”
Enter Kelly Asbury, a director whose comedic experience and artistic roots made him a natural fit for the project. Asbury’s directorial credits include the Oscar-nominated “Shrek 2” (2004) and “Spirit—Stallion of the Cimarron” (2002). He also worked as an artist on such notable films as “Shrek” (2001), “Toy Story” (1995), Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) and “Beauty and the Beast.” The producers felt Asbury had a proven ability to showcase a comedic character’s emotional side.
Says Asbury, “If you’re going to make an animated feature for a big audience to enjoy, you have to have a little bit of laughter, you have to have a little bit of tears—but I think the main thing is sincerity.”
But is it safe to transform one of Shakespeare’s most beloved tragedies into an animated comedy suitable for the whole family? James McAvoy, who provides the voice of Gnomeo, considered the question. “It’s strange, isn’t it, because it probably shouldn’t work,” says McAvoy. “But you know what? In most Shakespeare plays these days, the director goes out on a limb to set it in some new environment. We’re probably not that far away from seeing a version in the West End or on Broadway where the actors are garden gnomes anyway. This is just getting there ahead of time. We’re trailblazers here.”
Aptly set in Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon, “Gnomeo & Juliet” highlights the heated rivalry between neighbors Mr. Capulet and Miss Montague, who’ve taken their zeal for gardening to a whole new level. Their gardens overflow with kitsch plaster garden gnomes who, when the humans are out of sight, have taken up their respective owner’s non-neighborly behavior. The feud has taken on an even more personal nature with the gnomes, where simply being a Red from the Red Garden or a Blue from the Blue Garden comes with a host of prejudices that most don’t understand, yet fail to question.
“Why gnomes?” asks producer Baker Bloodworth. “Why not gnomes? This story is worth telling; it’s relevant. I think the artwork is joyous and vibrant and colorful and it has Elton John tying it all together.”
Fortunately for the garden gnomes, this version offers an all-new third act— replacing Shakespeare’s tragic conclusion. “I think this is definitely the ending that people always wanted from Romeo and Juliet,” says Emily Blunt, who lends her voice to Juliet.
Toronto-Based Starz Animation Tackles Garden Gnomes
It’s not easy animating a gnome.
“I think one of the biggest technical challenges of our film was to deliver these characters in a manner that is honest and faithful to the materials from which they’re made,” says producer Baker Bloodworth. “Gnomeo and Juliet are painted plaster. Featherstone is hollow, pink plastic. We need to be true to the materials—concrete, ceramic, plastic, rubber, vinyl—but not restrict the characters’ movement. How big, how bold can we be and still protect the essence of the materials?”
As if that weren’t enough of a challenge, animators had to place these hard-to-maneuver gnomes amidst elaborate gardens. Says director Kelly Asbury, “This movie is seen from the perspective of the gnomes. It takes place in a world that offers so much visual stimulation—flowers, ornaments, colors. We had to find a way to focus the eye. We had to tell the audience where to look. And in that world, we had to tell the story in a simple way that wasn’t confusing or busy.”
To tackle these challenges, filmmakers called on Starz Animation, a Toronto-based company that provides world-class computer animation to a number of major studios. Says co-producer Igor Khait, “The filmmakers selected the facility for two simple reasons: the efficiency of their pipeline and the talent at the studio.”
Khait says that the team had to balance the fantasy elements with reality. “While animation can transport you to a universe of your own creation, we wanted to make sure that in the process, we stayed rooted in a recognizable, real world of English suburbia.”
That meant research: English gardens, garden ornaments, gnomes (of course) and plants. “We pored over tons of reference of the different kinds of vegetation that a suburban English garden might have.
We wanted to capture a high level of realism in the materials and textures in order to add believability to the fantasy aspect of all these inanimate objects coming to life,” says Khait.
Karen deJong, who served as production designer and art director for “Gnomeo & Juliet,” spent a lot of time on location studying the gardens that served as inspiration for the film. “It was important for us to create kitschy gardens that felt completely believable—environments where you could find garden gnomes,” says deJong. “Being based in London for our preproduction gave us the opportunity to go out location scouting in Stratford-Upon-Avon and around the U.K. We wanted to make sure that each garden and location had its own identity. For example, Miss Montague’s blue garden has curved flower beds and a wind theme with whirly gigs and windmills. Mr. Capulet’s red garden is water-themed and has heavier materials and straight lines.
“The sheer number and variety of plants and trees and the level of realism that we wanted was a huge undertaking,” deJong continues. “For me, one of the most exciting locations was the Overgrown Garden where Gnomeo and Juliet meet, fall in love and have their first argument. This is their Garden of Eden—wild, lush and full of potential.
You really get a sense of just how small they are when they’re exploring the Garden.”
Ultimately, it all came together, resulting in sequences that offered enough realism to properly communicate the sentiment. Says Khait, “To me, one of the most successful scenes is when Benny formulates his plan to avenge Gnomeo. There is something about the way the fine mist and the raindrops hit and roll off his face, highlighting the beautiful textures and subtle animation that ground the emotion of the ceramic character in a real environment. There is a maturity to the look and feel of that sequence.”
Bloodworth couldn’t be happier. “When we set out to make this film, we had high expectations for the quality of the visuals, the impact, the color, the lighting and the animation quality. And I have to say, the finished product far exceeds my wildest dreams. It is a testament to the incredible artistry that we assembled between England and Canada.”