The animated feature Gnomeo and Juliet features classic songs by music legend Elton John, along with new songs written with his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin and featuring special guest performances. His first project as executive producer, the film tells the familiar story of two teenagers in love, only this time they are ceramic gnomes (voiced by James McAvoy and Emily Blunt) who have many obstacles to overcome, as a result of being caught up in a feud between their rival families, each in charge of their own garden.
At the press day for the film, the singer/songwriter/musician/humanitarian talked about the 11-year process of making Gnomeo and Juliet, revisiting his old music, his process for writing the new songs, why he loves listening to music from new artists, and how he’d love to do a feature film of his life story. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: What was it like to revisit some of your classic songs for this? How did you decide what to use and what not to use?
ELTON JOHN: Well, originally, it wasn’t going to be all my music. But, when Dick Cook at Disney Studios really got ahold of this project and suggested we write new songs for it, and that it should be an all-Elton John/Bernie Taupin back catalog thing, I thought it was a good idea. I’d never done that before. I enlisted the help of James Newton Howard, who is a very famous arranger in this town, and who used to be in my band. I had a great relationship with him.
There was one obvious song that would fit in the movie, which was “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” for the lawn mower race. That wasn’t my idea. That was maybe (director) Kelly’s [Asbury] idea. From that point on, I just really handed it over to the rest of the team to put it in, and didn’t really take an active part in saying, “This should go there.” For example, I didn’t choose “Bennie and the Jets” to go on that scene where Benny is on the computer ordering the Terrafirmanator, but obviously it worked. You didn’t have to be a magician to see that that might work there.
But, on the whole, I think they did such a great job because, even though it’s all our back catalog and a couple of new songs, it doesn’t feel as if it’s overbearing, or an Elton John movie. It feels like Gnomeo and Juliet with some good music in it. I’m glad it’s turned out like that because I didn’t want it to be just all catalog stuff.
How did the duet with Lady Gaga come about?
JOHN: The Lady Gaga duet came about really by me tying her down and hitting her over the head and saying, “Will you do this song with me?” No. She came to the house last year. We do a ball every year at the house, to raise money for AIDS, and she was the entertainment and stayed at the house for two days. We just mentioned the film and the song and she said, “I’d love to do it!: And, because she has an incredibly hectic schedule, she did it between tour dates, somewhere in Scandinavia, and a little bit in New York. We did it completely separately, but she added so much of her own magic to the song and gave it a new life. Obviously, it was a duet and I was looking for someone to sing it with. 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. That was a real plus for us, and it worked out brilliantly.
Do you garden at all, yourself?
JOHN: I grew up at my grandmother’s house and she had a beautiful garden. I used to hate mowing the lawn and weeding, which is what you do when you’re a kid. I loathe gardening, but I love gardens, and I have two beautiful gardens. I can not bear gardening, but I love gardens.
It seems that there is a subtext, with the Reds and the Blues, in regard to what goes on in America. Was that intended?
JOHN: No. We started the film 11 years ago and, if we’d have had the foresight to do that, I would have said we’re fucking geniuses. But, it just happens to be that it’s coming out three weeks after the President made his speech in Tucson last week, which was a very poignant moment in American history, after this tragedy happened. I do feel that there is a message in the film, like we spend so much time hating each other because our parents tell us that’s what we have to do. I grew up conservative because my mum was a conservative, and when I finally realized what conservatives were, I changed my mind immediately. As children, we tend to copy our parents. I think this is a storyline saying that we should all get on, whether we’re Protestant or Catholic or Muslims or Jews, or if we’re Democrats or Republicans.
In America, it’s gotten so far stretched now, and the rhetoric has gotten so dangerous. It puts things in people’s minds and it’s so unnecessary. If there is any message that can come out of this film, which is purely coincidental with the timing, then I’m all for it. As I grow older, it saddens me to see a country that I love so much having so much of a gulf between people. They don’t meet in the middle and talk and put their differences aside. I played a Proposition Eight concert the other night, and the two great lawyers who are fighting for this same-sex relationship recognition in California, one of them is a staunch Republican and one is a staunch Democrat, yet they both think this is the right thing to do. That is what life is all about. It’s not about hatred. This film sends out a positive message, but it truly is coincidental.
Was impending fatherhood part of the songwriting process for this at all?
JOHN: Not really, because we wrote the songs so long ago. I never thought about that. You have to write the songs quite a long time ahead because you are writing for the storyboards and you have certain placement. We actually wrote four songs for the movie and two of them got left out. One of them was a really great song that Lily Allen sang. But, the storyboards changed, the story evolved and things get left by the wayside. You have to accept that, when you write for a musical, or an animation movie that has music in it.
Were you bullied at school, as a child?
JOHN: I went to a mixed school and I can’t remember being bullied at school, ever. I was quite large, in those days. Usually, if you’re going to be a bully, you’ll pick on someone who is small. I didn’t bully anybody, and I don’t remember being bullied. I went to a mixed school, which I was very glad I went to. It was not just a boys’ school.
Now that you are a dad, will you do more work for kids?
JOHN: I do a lot of work for children with the AIDS foundation. I have a lot of godchildren. It’s not as if children aren’t in my life at all. They’ve been very prevalent in my life, over the last few years. David has lots of nieces and nephews. I’m a great lover of children. I never thought that one day I’d actually be a father, but I’m very pleased that I changed my mind. Children are extremely important. They are the future of the world. As long as David and I bring our son up to be a loving and compassionate boy, then I’ll be very happy. I love kids.
How were you able to build on your experience with The Lion King by doing this, and what have you learned and now appreciate more about animation, as a result of Gnomeo and Juliet?
JOHN: The Lion King came my way in 1993, thanks to Tim Rice. 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, and I think what you learn most of all is to leave your ego at the door. With Billy Elliot, we left three songs, which were really great songs, out of it. It would have made the show four hours and two minutes long. 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 listen to the team, as a whole.
There have been so many times where we’ve convened, during these 11 years, and the film has taken a different course. You have to be a team player, and you have to hold hands when the things are going badly and when things are going well. You really have to 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 long-standing songwriting partner, which I’ve been with for 44 years. It’s just another way of sharing a joyful experience of creating something. But, you really do have to leave your ego at the door. I can’t say, “This song is going in, or I’m walking off the film.” There’s none of that shit. You just have to be patient and watch how things evolve, and you have to be there for the good of thing, as a whole, and not just for you, as a component of the piece.
Is this the first time you’ve executive produced a film?
JOHN: Yes, it is. I have a film company with David [Furnish], called Rocket Pictures. This is our third movie, but it is the first time I’ve been executive producer.
What’s it like to be an executive producer?
JOHN: Oh, you do absolutely nothing! I just got this executive producer title, and then I went away on tour and just said, “Get on with it!”
How does it feel to be on stage, at this point in your career?
JOHN: I think it’s so much more comfortable for me now. I’ve always enjoyed and loved playing live. I relish and cherish it more than anything else because you never know what the performance is going to be. If you go on stage some nights, and you do a performance and you’re feeling great, sometimes you’re not as great as you think. And, some nights, you’re feeling tired and you give a really great performance. It’s the unknown. Being a performer, you don’t know what kind of performance you’re going to give. You just know that you can give a certain quality of performance.
As I grow older, I’m much more content in my own skin because, when I come off stage now, I have a balance in my life. Until I found that in 1990, I didn’t. I came off stage and I didn’t know what to do with myself. Now, I fly home every night after a show and I get back in my own bed, and I have a wonderful partner and wonderful friends. I can remember things. I don’t take drugs anymore. It’s a whole new world out there. I can remember the words to the songs. It’s great! It’s just sensational, what’s happened to me in the last few years.
Truly, the older I get, I think I’m singing better live. I enjoy it. I also had my eyes done, about eight years ago. I had replacement lens surgery because I was so blind. Now, I have 20/20 vision, and I can see all the signs and album sleeves that the fans have, and it makes a difference. I really appreciate my performing so much better now, as I get older. I don’t take it for granted anymore. I really relish it and love it.
One of the things that audiences have enjoyed about your music is the sheer variety of it, not just from album to album, but from song to song. What accounts for your great eclectic abilities?
JOHN: The fact that, when I grew up as a kid, I grew up in a house that listened to the radio and bought records. My family always bought records. I grew up in the early ‘50s, so it was either classical music, dance-band music or great vocalists, like Frank Sinatra. I got “Songs For Swinging Lovers” for my birthday, when I was about eight years old. Of course, when rock ‘n’ roll came in, I’d already had all this knowledge of great American singers, band-leaders, musicians and jazz players, by the time that I was six or seven, but rock changed my life and the whole music scene forever. Then, I grew to love R&B, Motown and gospel music. I never dismiss any form of music.
I listen to everything. I’m on the new Kanye West record, for example. It’s a genius record. I was on the Alice and Chains record. I love all different sorts of music. People who mock rap and say, “I don’t like it,” they should go check out Kanye in the studio, rapping, or Eminem. It’s a phenomena. It’s like like modern jazz was, when John Coltrane and all those people started. It’s a different thing. Don’t knock it until you’ve seen it. It may not be your cup of tea, but don’t ridicule it. I find that so many of my peers who are my age don’t listen to anything new. I love the new. I love the energy of the new. There’s a record that I’m plugging from Plan B, called “The Defamation of Strickland Banks.” It’s a #1 record in England, and it’s going to be released here in March. It’s by a guy who was in Harry Brown, the film with Michael Caine, and he played the villain. He’d made a rap record before, and now he’s made this record where he sounds like Smokey Robinson, and it’s phenomenal. There’s a band called The Punch Brothers, who are amazing. They’re blue grass meets Miles Davis.
That’s what I’m interested in. I know all the old stuff. I just want to get the energy from the new and the eclectic stuff. I embrace bands, like XX, that come out of Britain, and Florence + The Machine. I had great energy at 20, when I was working on adrenaline and it was driving me. Then, after that, you lose it a little. The young are so important. The young give you the energy. If you don’t notice the young, and you don’t give them credit, then you’re missing out on something.
You have done just about everything an artist can do. Is there anything left for you to achieve?
JOHN: Well, there are always things that you want to do. Obviously, ballet is not an option. 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 my life has been crazy, and I think it’s important to do a surrealistic take on my life. I would love to do that. This business is so incredible. In 1993, I got a phone call from Tim Rice saying, “Would you 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 stage and do film scores. It just opened the doors to so many things. I don’t know what’s around the corner, and that’s the way I like it.
You really can’t plan. My career has not been planned. It just happens by accident. One project can change your whole life. That’s the way I look at it. So, I don’t really have any more ambitions, other than I just want to work and do excellent stuff and enjoy it. I’m enjoying everything in my life. But, the element of surprise, in this business, is what makes us really love it. One day you’re sitting by the phone, waiting to do something, and the next day, you’ve got the chance of a lifetime. Those little phone calls don’t come up so often, but when they come up, it’s fantastic. In 1990, if you’d have said that, in 1993, I’d be writing a song about a warthog, I’d have said, “You’re out of your mind!” When Tim Rice gave me lyrics that said, “When I was a young warthog . . .,” I actually thought I was losing my mind, and look what happened. In 1990, if you’d said, “You’re going to make a film about garden gnomes,” I’d have said, “You’re crazy!” That is the joyous thing about being a creative person. Things can come along that can completely surprised you, that you normally would never have thought of doing.
Who would you like to see play you in the movie?
JOHN: Well, James [McAvoy] could do it. He’s already offered.