Kelly Asbury, director of Shrek 2, Gnomeo and Juliet and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, now takes-on the beloved Smurfs with the new all-CGI animated film Smurfs: The Lost Village. I had a chance to ask Asbury about his hopes for – and the challenges of doing – a Smurfs re-boot.
Jackson Murphy: I got to see the movie with a bunch of kids, and it’s really a lot of fun, so congratulations.
Kelly Asbury: Thank you so much. You know, it’s a Smurf movie and it’s supposed to be fun and light-hearted and adventurous and that’s what we tried to do – to make something that’s as entertaining as those original Peyo comic books from way back.
JM: And it’s not only a re-vamp for those who have grown up and been with The Smurfs for most of their lives, but for some kids, it’s an introduction into the Smurfs World. Did you decide to start-out by going the “origin story” route because you had this new group of 4-8 year olds in mind?
KA: When the decision was made that this was going to be a reboot, I approached it as if, “OK – no one knows anything about the Smurfs.” At the same time, we didn’t want to get very pedantic and make the entire thing just a big lesson on what a Smurf is. But we did want to just usher people in and give them a little background – a little bit of an origin on a couple of things – and then let a story start. I handled it as if it was a brand new property. I thought that was the healthiest way to do it.
JM: And you’ve got a lot going on: the Smurfette origin story, Gargamel trying to capture the Smurfs, the Smurfs themselves and the new village that we explore. Was it a challenge for you to try to balance everything?
KA: Absolutely. The film went through a lot of development, and with the big regime change at Sony a couple of years back…we really sort of wiped the slate clean again and started over. And that ended-up being a very healthy exercise, but it did make everyone make decisions quickly – and we made the film at a pace that I’ve never quite worked before.
But I enjoyed it, and I think we ended-up with a film that came-in at the budget we wanted, and the team that put it together: the effects team and the animators, everyone involved in the lighting and the sound and the music – it really came together in a way that I’ve never seen anything quite so smooth. And I’m very proud of the product.
JM: And was it in those past two years that you did the new, CG character design looks for The Smurfs?
KA: That was in the early development stage. That was a decision that I wanted – I wanted that from the very beginning. I wanted to take the Smurfs and really go back to the look of the Peyo – to really dimensionalize Peyo’s world and give it a level of dimension similar to the old View Masters, where they had the three-dimensional dioramas that you’d go into these cartoons, like “The Flintstones”. I really always wished I could climb into one of those View Master scenes, and I wanted the movie to reflect that sort of miniature world that still has a sense of reality about it.
JM: And one of my favorite visual elements is the river that flows in mid-air. I’m sure that was not easy to bring to life.
KA: No, not at all. It was not easy to describe. That was the idea, originally, of our writer, Pamela Ribon. And we really struggled with “OK – how are we going to depict this?” And our storyboard artist extraordinaire, Bryan Andrews, had a lot to do with the storyboarding of that sequence. He’s got a big background in action scenes for live-action and animation. And he started visualizing it in a way that we started getting a hint of what we could do with it.
And then, of course, our visual effects supervisor Mike Ford and his team of lighters and technicians are the ones who came up with the actual look of it. And was a long time coming, and it took a long time to realize that sequence and see what it was actually going to be, so we…kind of held our breath, hoping that it was going to work, and it ended-up being spectacular. And I thank the effects team for that.
JM: So, Kelly, two words: Julia. Roberts.
KA: Oh yeah!
JM: How did you get her to be in the movie and voice Smurf Willow?
KA: We were looking for the perfect Smurf Willow. And Julia’s manager called our Casting Director and said, “Julia is really interested in doing some animation work.” And we said, “Hey – we got a part for her.”
KA: It really happened like that, and she was lovely to work with. She came-in for two different recording sessions, and both times…she really brought dimension to that character in a way that I think you can’t really predict until you get the right performer. And she certainly was. It’s a standout voice in the movie.
JM: That’s amazing that it happened like that.
KA: I know. It’s fantastic. It’s a great story. She was so lovely. I loved her before she walked in the room and I’m in love with her now.
JM: And you actually do the voice of Nosey Smurf.
KA: (in Nosey Smurf voice) Yes I do!
JM: And he’s at the center of one of the great running jokes of the movie. So, you’re directing yourself. How does that work?
KA: Well, we do what’s called scratch dialogue, where we use temporary voices. We call it “local talent” – anyone that’s on the crew that can come-in. And sometimes those voices can stick. And when I did Nosey, we used it – we just sort of tried it – and people laughed – and we thought, everyone said, “Look, we gotta keep it that way. You won’t find anybody to do it better.” So I got the part.
JM: And I have to complement you on the film’s climax. Obviously won’t give anything away, but it’s one of the most dramatic and effective things Sony Animation has ever done. And you kind of went down a similar path with the final act of “Gnomeo and Juliet”.
KA: Well, you know, there are classic things that you do, and we tried to put a little different spin on this particular ending. It just seemed appropriate. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I appreciate you saying that. It does strike an emotional chord that I think surprises people because, I think, a lot of people, as with “Gnomeo and Juliet” – a lot of people don’t expect to go to a Smurf film or a movie about gnomes and feel any particular emotion. And I hope that worked, because that’s part of the beauty of good stories is having different levels of emotion – both happy and sometimes a little poignant.
JM: I want to finish this interview the way you finish the movie, which dedicate the film to the wife of Peyo, Nine Culliford, who passed away last year. SHE actually chose the blue color of the Smurfs, which is amazing.
KA: Yeah. The story behind that, from what I know, is: Peyo originally was trying to come-up with the proper color for them. He was trying different things like green. And she said, “No – do this color blue, because they need to stand-out, and there’s nothing in nature that’s that blue. So she chose this specific color, and he liked it, and The Smurfs from that point forward were that very specific blue.
Smurfs: The Lost Village opens everywhere on April 7th.
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