From The Lion King to Gnomeo & Juliet, Sir Elton John talks about exec producing his first animated feature.
For Elton John, it's always been about building bridges. That's one of the reasons he was attracted to Gnomeo & Juliet, the animated riff on Shakespeare, forbidden love between garden gnomes and teaching feuding neighbors to live together in peace and harmony. It took 11 years to get Gnomeo & Juliet made, the first animated feature from John's Rocket Pictures, which Touchstone Pictures opens on Feb. 11. John wrote two new songs with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin: "Hello, Hello," a duet with Lady Gaga, and "Love Builds a Garden," his favorite, about love renewed. At a recent press conference, the legendary Captain Fantastic, proud new father, discussed the confluence of music and animation in his life.
AWN: 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 as a result of Gnomeo & Juliet?
Elton John: Well, with The Lion King I learned -- it came my way in 1993 thanks to Tim Rice, and 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. I've always had a songwriting partner, as I said, and I think what you learn most of all is leave your ego at the door.
We left three songs which were really great songs out of Billy Elliot, but it would have made the show four hours and two minutes long. 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. There's been so many times where we've convened during these 11 years, and the film has taken a different course or whatever. You really have to, as an important member, be there for everybody else on the team.
I've always liked that during my career. I've always had the good fortune to have a longstanding songwriting partner, who I've been with for 44 years. So it's just another way of sharing a joyful experience of creating something. But 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 things, how they 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: How did you decide what to use and what not to use?
EJ: Well, originally, it wasn't going to be all my music. 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.
There was one obvious song that would fit in the movie, which was "Saturday Night's Alright Right for Fighting" for the lawn mower race. That wasn't my idea; that was already someone -- I think maybe [director Kelly Asbury'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 saying, "This should go there." I didn't, for example, choose "Bennie and the Jets" to go in the scene when Benny is on the computer ordering the Terriferminator. But obviously it worked, so you didn't have to be a magician to think that might work there.
But on the whole -- it's nice to see the music -- I think James has done such a great job because even though it's all out of back-catalogue and a couple of new songs, it doesn't feel as if it's overbearing and it's an Elton John movie. It feels like Gnomeo & 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 catalog stuff. So that's the way it happened, really.
Q: What is your favorite part of the movie?
EJ: 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 Stephen Merchant plays the character of the weedy gnome, then suddenly there I am: glam gnome, the gnomeosexual in the film.
Q: What's it like being an executive producer?
EJ: Oh, you do nothing. Absolutely nothing. You just get this title called executive producer, and I go away on tour and I just say, "Get on with it." 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.
Q: Is there anything left you'd like to conquer?
EJ: Well, there's always things you want to do. I mean, obviously ballet is not an option. Not really. 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 it's got-- my life has been kind of crazy, and I think it's important to do a kind of surrealistic look or 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 career has not been planned -- oh, in three years we're going to do this. It just happens by accident. That's the way I look at it.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.