Interview: Elton John Talks Gnomeo & Juliet (2011)

With film being very much a visual medium, the aural aspects can sometimes be overlooked. That will not be the case with Gnomeo & Juliet since its soundtrack is provided by Elton John and features some of his most popular work. With the film set to release this Friday, Working Author recently interviewed the leads James McAvoy and Emily Blunt. To conclude our three-part coverage, Elton John indulged us with a lengthy interview, covering his song selection, political messages and his experience as an executive producer.

On gardens, Elton John seems to be in the majority – he likes the finished product, but not the making of. “I grew up at my grandmother’s house, and it was a beautiful garden,” he says. “But I used to hate mowing the lawn and weeding, which is what you do when you’re a kid. I loathed them, and I loathe gardening, but I love gardens and I have two beautiful gardens. But I cannot bear gardening, but I love gardens.”

With the exception of a couple of songs, the entire soundtrack is composed of John’s hits. Considering the artist’s long career and extensive body of work, part of the challenge was choosing which songs to use. “Well, originally, it wasn’t going to be all my music,” John says. “But when Dick Cook at Disney Studios really got a hold of this project and suggested that we wrote new songs for it and it should be a whole Elton John…back-catalogue thing, I thought it was maybe a good idea. I’d never done that before. I enlisted the help of James Newton Howard, who is 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.”

For some songs John didn’t have any direct input in how they were used, yet he does feel strongly about a few of them. He cited the use of “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” during a lawnmower race. He also said, “I didn’t, for example, choose Benny and the Jets to go in the scene when Benny is on the computer ordering the Terrafirminator. But obviously it worked, so you didn’t have to be a magician to think that might work there.” While John’s music is definitely recognizable and will stand out for fans, it was important to him that the film not be an “Elton John film”. “It feels like Gnomeo and Juliet with some good music in it, and I’m glad it’s turned out like that because I didn’t want it to be just bang, bang, bang, old catalogue stuff. So that’s the way it happened, really.”

One of the original songs is titled “Hello Hello” and is a duet performed by Elton John and Lady Gaga. John jokes about having to tie Gaga down and hit her over the head to get her to do the song with him. “No, she came to the house last year,” John clarifies, “when we do a ball every year at our house to raise money for AIDS. 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.’ 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.” Nevertheless, John was very pleased with the final product. “…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, for having to do it, and it worked out brilliantly.”

Unfortunately, not all of the original work made the cut. “The thing with animation films – you have to write the songs quite a long time ahead because you’re writing the storyboards and you have placement things. We actually wrote four songs for the movie, new songs, and two of them got left out. One of them which was a really great song that Lily Allen sang, but we just – the storyboards change, the story evolves, and things just get left by the wayside. That’s the way you have to accept it when you write for a musical or you write for an animation movie which has music in it.”

In Gnomeo & Juliet two neighboring yards populated by gnomes are at constant war with each other. One side is colored blue while the other side is red. Considering the recent seemingly politically motivated violence recently in the United States where the two dominant political parties adhere to those same colors, it’s easy to read some kind of allegory into the film. John dismisses the idea out of hand, explaining that the idea for the film started 11 years ago. “If we’d have had the foresight to do that,” he explains, “I’d say we’re fucking geniuses…. 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 that’s what we have to do, and I grew up conservative because my mum was a conservative. When I finally realized what conservatives were, I changed my mind immediately.”

Life lessons aside, there’s a bit of fun to be found in Gnomeo & Juliet. In one scene, Elton John makes a quick surreal cameo. “Well, I think for me, one of the funniest scenes in the movie, and it’s very important, I think, if you’re British and take the piss out of yourself. You’re raised to do that in England, which is rather good. I think the same with “Your Song”, when Steven Merchant plays the character of the weedy gnome, then suddenly there I am: glam gnome. The gnome-osexual in the film.” John pauses for effect then says, “Thank you,” with perfect comic timing.

While Rocket Pictures has produced films prior to Gnomeo & Juliet, this film marks John’s first role as an executive producer. He discussed the trials and tribulations that come with the title. “Oh, you do nothing. Absolutely nothing,” he confesses, “You just get this title called executive producer, and I go away on tour and I just say, ‘Get on with it.’ That’s called an executive producer. That’s the truth.” After the laughs subside, he continues, “All jokes aside, there have been a couple of times when the movie has been kind of 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. Then here I am.”

Soon the world will be able to see the fruits of Elton John’s 11-year labor.

Gnomeo & Juliet opens in theaters on February 11.