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Kelly Asbury and his Extreme Makeover: Gnome Edition of "Gnomeo & Juliet"

Kelly Asbury and his Extreme Makeover: Gnome Edition of "Gnomeo & Juliet"

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You've heard about love at first sight, right? Well, how about love at first sound?

Well, that's what happened to Kelly Asbury. As a teenager in the 1970s, he was walking by his brother's room and heard this amazing music coming from the stereo. It was the Elton John song, "Levon," from his "Madman Across The Water" album.

Copyright Island Records, Inc. All rights reserved

"From that moment now, I was a huge Elton John fan. I listened to his music all the time," Asbury remembered. "When I ran for student council in Junior High, I even went with an Elton John-themed campaign. With all of the campaign posters that I drew looking just like his album covers."

Now jump ahead 30+ years. When Kelly - just as he was coming off co-directing "Shrek 2" - gets a call from his old pal Baker Bloodworth. Who was looking for Asbury's help on this animated feature that Bloodworth was producing.

"Baker told me that this film was supposed to be a comic retelling of the story of Romeo & Juliet. Only with garden gnomes in the starring roles. Which was kind of an intriguing idea. But as soon as Baker told me that Elton John would be doing the music for this movie, that was when I knew that I had to make 'Gnomeo,' " Kelly continued.

(L to R) Featherstone, Gnomeo & Juliet in a piece of concept art for "Gnomeo & Juliet."
Copyright Miramax Film NY, LLC. All rights reserved

Which isn't to say that "Gnomeo & Juliet" was a particularly easy film to make. For five years prior to Asbury coming on board this project, some of Walt Disney Animation Studios' brightest & the best had tried to figure out how to restage William Shakespeare's tragic romance in two genteel English backyard gardens. But they could never get a handle of the material. Get the mix of elements just right.

"I never got to see any of the stuff that Disney's artists & story people had been created for those earlier versions of 'Gnomeo.' And that was a deliberate choice on my part. I wanted to start fresh," Asbury said. "So we basically started from scratch. And then struggled for three years to find just the right balance between the high art of Shakespeare and the low art of garden gnomes."

Mind you, Kelly didn't do this Extreme Makeover: Gnome Edition all by himself. He assembled a like-minded group of writers, animators and directors - the "Friends of Gnomeo" - that Asbury would then run this film's story reels by. Get their comments on how the story was playing, whether "Gnomeo & Juliet" characters were relatable & sympathetic. And line by line, scene by scene, sequence by sequence, Kelly & his production team slowly built their movie.

Elton John performs at the world premiere of "Gnomeo & Juliet."
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Of course, what made "Gnomeo & Juliet" particularly thrilling for Asbury was the chance to interact with that "Madman (from) Across the Water," Elton John himself.

"I mean, how many people get a call in the middle of the night and it's Elton John at the other end of the line? And he wants to play the new song that he's just written and get your opinion," Kelly enthused. "Or better yet, have Bernie Tauplin fax you the lyrics for this brand-new Elton John song. And you're the first person on the planet who actually gets to read Bernie's lyrics."

But to his credit, Asbury never lost focus. Never let the fact that he was working with this world-famous pop star, this performer that Kelly had idolized since he was a teen, keep him from trying to make "Gnomeo & Juliet" as good as it could possibly be.

Copyright Miramax Film NY, LLC. All rights reserved

"As filmmakers, we have a responsibility to the audience to deliver a film that's as entertaining as it can possibly be. So you can never make the mistake of falling in love with your own ideas. You always have to ready to revise, to be open to new story ideas and concepts," Asbury explained.

And clearly Kelly's careful, methodical approach to putting together this animated feature ultimately paid off. Given that "Gnomeo and Juliet" made $25.4 million this past weekend. Which gave this Touchstone Pictures release the biggest animated opening ever for the month of February (and January).

Which will hopefully make Asbury happy. Given that - according to what he told me last week - this animation vet would love to make a sequel to "Gnomeo & Juliet."

Kelly Asbury on the blue & red carpet at the El Capitan
Theatre for last month's world premiere of "Gnomeo
& Juliet." Photo by Frederick M. Brown / Getty
Images North America

"We could use another one of Shakespeare's plays, even more of Elton John's songs," Kelly laughed. "How's this for a title? 'The Merry Gnomes of Windsor' ? "

Here's hoping that Kelly Asbury gets his wish. That the guy who storyboarded the "Be Our Guest" number in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" as well as directing "Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron" does actually get the chance to go back to those genteel English backyard gardens.

After all, there's no place like gnome.

Copyright Miramax Film NY, LLC. All rights reserved

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