Sometimes you get a once in a lifetime opportunity. This was one of those one in a lifetimes! I along with 24 bloggers was in LA for the #DisneyInHomeEvent for #Maleficent and #SleepingBeauty, we had the privilege the first night there to interview Don Hahn.
DON HAHN (Executive Producer) produced “Beauty and the Beast,” the first animated film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar® by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His next film, “The Lion King,” was an international box-office phenomenon and a Tony Award®–winning Broadway musical that still plays to packed houses around the world. Hahn was associate producer on the landmark motion picture “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” His other credits include the cult comedy “The Emperor’s New Groove,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and the Oscar-Nominated sensation, Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie.”
Hahn also launched the Disneynature label as the executive producer of the epic documentaries “Earth,” “Oceans,” “African Cats” and “Chimpanzee.”
Hahn serves on the Board of PBS SoCal and has just finished his new book “Before Ever After,” about Walt Disney’s impossible plan to build a world-class animation studio during the height of the depression.
Blogger : What was the name of the first animated film that you did in high school?
Don Hahn : That I did in high school? Oh my god! I don’t know if it even had a name. In junior high, we did a stunt motion film where we’d each jump off the ground and take a frame when we were up in the air and then when you played it back, it looked like we were floating three feet off the ground, like down the hallways and things. That was the very first animated film I worked on.
I was a music major actually. I was a music major and an art minor and, I went to Cal State Northridge and played in the band and got a summer job at Disney and never left. So someday I’ll probably get a call from Cal State Northridge to come back and finish, but that’s where I started out.
Blogger : What was the most challenging thing about producing Maleficent?
Don Hahn : It’s always trying to pull all the pieces together and a lot of it is just calendar work, as, as simple as that sounds. But once we had all the elements together in the script and, and wanted to make the project, we had four months to prepare. That was four months to build a whole world. A lot of the credit for that goes with our director Robert Stromberg who had production designed, Avatar and the Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. So he’s a amazing world builder.
But it was incredibly difficult. We only had three months with Angelina and it was a very tight fit in that three month time. So that was part of it, getting it together. Then also just the script because it’s always a iterative process where you’re re-inventing the story and going back and revisiting it again. It’s a little bit of an insecure feeling. It’s like you’re driving in a car while you’re building it, kind of feeling. So the build up to shooting is always the hardest part.
Blogger : So the whole movie only took three months basically?
Don Hahn : We had three months of her. We shot for eighty-five days. So a slight bit longer cause when she left we still had Elle Fanning, we still had some other pick-up shots along the way. Then we had about a year and a half of special effects and putting it all together. Cause if you were to visit the set there’d be a couple of trees and a river and a lot of green screen behind it. So the world almost entirely was created with back paintings and computer graphics.
The only things we built were the throne room, where the dragon gets unleashed at the end was a complete set built all the way around. The exterior battle scenes were filmed right between Pine Wood and the M- M-4, M-5 freeway. So if you were to turn the camera while the battle scenes were happening? You’d see like a freeway going behind [LAUGHS]. But a lot of the castles and things were added in computer graphics later.
Blogger : Did you have an actress in mind from the very beginning?
Don Hahn : It was always her. It was always Angelina. I’m not sure that we would have gotten made without her? She loved the character. She grew up with it, loved the idea of the- of playing a Disney character for her and for her family. I’m sure there are other actress that could have done it? But she was so right for it. Because when you said, “We’re gonna do Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s point of view, kind of like Wicked with Angelina Jolie,” people said, “Yep, let’s go.”
It was so gettable. That’s a lot of the fight when you’re trying to get a movie off the ground. She brought a lot to it, I have to say. She was on before the director. She was the first director we had for a short time, Tim Burton and she was on even then. Then, the amazing Linda Woolverton who wrote our screenplay. I had worked with her on Beauty and the Beast ages ago. Linda, she’s really extraordinary when it comes to writing these stories and creating these strong, particularly female characters. That have these strong relationships. We wanted to break some rules in this movie to say that love doesn’t always have to come from the guy in your life. That love conquers all is a bigger phrase. That it can be love between, you know two women, two men, , a godmother character and a childlike character, like Aurora and Maleficent. She fearlessly attacked all those things and I think did a great job with it.
There were some days when I thought like what are we doing? We’re messing with this Disney fairy tale. But you also knew we couldn’t tell the other story. We couldn’t say, you know you’re a young woman, you’re gonna be asleep until a man comes into your life and tells you it’s okay to wake up? Then you can start living your life. That’s an awful story to tell in 2014. So, it didn’t take too much smarts to abandon that and do something that’s more relevant.
Blogger : Is that why in Maleficent, Aurora is not called Briar Rose at all?
Don Hahn : Yes. I think also for clarity, just for the audience. So that it’s clear, you know that she’s always one character name. We wanted to simplify it and we wanted to get away from the idea that she was the, the sacrificial flower that someday would be opened up by a man. I mean those are all great if you’re in 1959, but it just didn’t seem appropriate for this movie.
Blogger: Was it always the plan to use Angelina’s daughter as the baby for Aurora?
Don Hahn : No, that was out of necessity because when we brought in little girls and dressed them up like little Aurora, they would come up to this amazing actress and scream and run away. Or get picked up by Angie and just you know not doing anything? There’s so much genuine love and attachment in that scene where she just walks right up to her and goes, “Up” and you know, I have a little girl, and you just know what that feels like. So there’s a real genuine moment in that scene.
When you see the costumes, they’re upstairs here. When you go up there and see them, it’s formidable. You know she’s a big lady to begin with, plus the horns and all that stuff. So, that was the real reason is to get a scene that played more as reality. We had to use Vivienne.
Blogger : I heard Walt Disney had a hard time trying to create Maleficent as being both beautiful and powerful at the same time.
Don Hahn : Yeah.
Blogger : Did you have that same thing when trying to transform Angelina for the part?
Don Hahn : Yeah the problem is with most fairy tales, the villains are very black and white. They’re often the most interesting characters in movies because they have a lot of complexity to them. The original Sleeping Beauty that you know the most boring characters are the princes, they’re incredibly wooden.
But a character like Maleficent was at least interesting in her beauty, and in her look, and the way she behaved. I think what our problem was is how do you then open that character up to show that there’s a heart inside? You couldn’t, you know like before the movie came out we thought we can’t just go out to the press and say, “You know this awful villain? She’s really nice.” It’s like, no, that like ruins it all. She’s still Maleficent. She still has a very complex view of life and she still has a lot of challenges, but there’s enough of a light inside that she can open up and show you to show that she has some benevolence and some love inside.
So it took a long time. I have to say, Angelina gave us most all of that, because she has a very restrained performance where she only shows you a little bit of that at a time. So she’s opening up to the baby Aurora or the little kid Aurora whatever, she shows that she has something inside, but not until she actually says, “I’m sorry I cursed the wrong person,” and kisses her on the forehead. You go, wow, this is a far more complex, evil person than we’ve ever dealt with, at least in a Disney movie.
I think that’s what is interesting about making this movie is, it wasn’t just a bad guy. You know whether it’s Ursula the sea witch or Scar or something like that? They’re just bad. They’re clever and they’re cunning, but they’re bad. Maleficent couldn’t just be bad. You had to show that there was some reason why she got wounded and her wings were clipped and what that meant to her and how horrific an experience that was. So that was part and parcel of telling that story.
Blogger : Were you fan of the Wicked story and the Broadway musical before you started working on Maleficent?
Don Hahn : I was. Yeah. I mean it was just- for me it was an easy way to explain to people what we were doing. Is to say, “We’re gonna flip the story and investigate this character instead of that character.” So instead of doing Sleeping Beauty again, let’s go investigate the life of Maleficent. People could understand that really quickly. It’s hard- there’s so much noise in Hollywood and when you’re trying to sell movies or just the idea of a movie? It was a quick way to communicate it more than anything.
Blogger: You said you were a music person. Do you play a part in the musical aspect of the making of the movies?
Don Hahn : Yeah I do, mainly because I love it. I know you had James Newton Howard on this movie who’s brilliant. So by playing a part, you know I can sit in the orchestra sessions at Abbey Road in London and just marvel at it all. I have an interest in it so I, I’ve probably made more musicals than most producers just because I love that and I love telling stories with music. Even though this wasn’t a musical, James gave us so much of the emotion of the story just by virtue of what he wrote, in the score that we have from him.
Blogger : Did you make Maleficent’s wings or were they special effects?
Don Hahn : They’re all fake. [LAUGHS] Yeah they are. There’s nothing there that’s actual ,if you were to watch the dailies of her being filmed, she had a little, green square on her back which held a battery. Two little antennae that came out with bright orange spots on the end. That was enough for the visual effects guys to know the symmetry of her back. And that’s all. So everything you see in terms of her, when she’s flying, most the time it’s a hundred percent animated.
So you take a scan. You literally put her in a drum and do a drum scan of her and so you have that. Rick Baker did a face cast with plaster of her head? So we can get the horns, cause the horns had to feel like they grew out of her skull. They were magnetic so if she caught her head by accident on something, they would break off just for safety reasons. So it was a really unusual film in terms of preparing it because there was a lot of question marks. There’s so much of it is, is animated or fabricated. The wings are all animated.
Blogger : They did a great job.
Don Hahn : They did. Amazing.
Blogger : On the bonus clips, you saw a tiny set with a green screen. It looked like the actress couldn’t move a whole lot, which had to be difficult.
Don Hahn : I think it’s remarkable because they had their costumes but you would argue that so much of a performance comes from feeling like you’re in the time period and in the zone with that space. There’s nothing there. The sets were, you know, smaller than this backyard in many cases. So it’s really, suspension of disbelief, not only to be an actress.
Can you imagine what Elle Fanning felt? Like she’s fourteen. She gets hired under a movie with Angelina Jolie and she has to show up on the set and play opposite her and remember her lines and there’s no set. With a green screen. “Action.” So you just go, wow, what a remarkable actress she is. She really delivers a lot of warmth to this movie.
Blogger: I guess it’s very similar to the voice actors in an animated movie. Like Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite movies.
Don Hahn : Yea! Thank you. There’s a lot Beauty in this movie, not only Linda and I who worked on the original film, but just a lot of the thematics of it. We were big, you know even twenty years ago, fans of not wanting to make the princess just be a victim or somebody who was just along for the ride in the story? And someday when the guys work things out, I’ll have a happy life, you know. It’s like, no.
You know I have a little girl who was born the year Beauty and the Beast came out. I guess maybe I was over-aware of it. So did Linda. I mean we both- our girls are the same age. Now she’s twenty-two or twenty-three. But it’s still, it’s like no, let’s talk about like real life. What I was telling my daughter and what my wife was telling my daughter was you have to have your own identity. You have to be yourself. Yes, you’ll fall in love someday, but that doesn’t have to be now, it can be later. We wanted to give those attributes to our characters.
Blogger : Belle is my daughter’s favorite. Every time we go to Walt Disney world she dresses up like her.
Don Hahn : Aw, that’s sweet. In the original fairy tale, Belle was given away as a piece of property almost cause her father got trapped by the Beast and he said, “Well, you know I’m worthless to you. Take my daughter. I’ll send for her.” Then Belle shows up at the castle and says, “Okay, Belle, thanks. Bye. I’ll be back at the wharf.” She really is like a piece of meat that’s along for the ride. So I mean we can’t tell that story. It’s awful.
So that’s when Linda really said, “Let’s make her bookish. Let’s make her turn into-” and Howard Ashman as well, the songwriter, “Let’s make her want her adventure. Let’s make her like read books and her head’s in the sky and then she gets her adventure in a really unexpected way.” It’s not until the very last scene that she finally sees there might be more here than just a big hairy guy, so.
Blogger : Are you a fan of the show Once Upon A Time?
Don Hahn : I’m not. It’s kind of a bustman’s holiday for me. You know I do enough fairy tales during my day job? I watch a lot of Dancing with the Stars. Does that matter? I watch trash TV and I watch the Bachelorette and Dancing with the Stars. So. Sad I know.
Blogger : I think Maleficent would be a great addition to the show.
Don Hahn : Yeah, well the Frozen characters are coming into that show too aren’t they? Yeah. Well Maleficent will show up won’t she? She will. It’s Disney for god sake. How can she not show up?
Blogger : I think it would be a great show if you had Alphabet and Maleficent together.
Don Hahn : I’ll make some phone calls.
Blogger : I feel like they have the same background and story.
Don Hahn : Yeah, although stuff like that creeps me out because the worlds are so different and I always, I remember being a kid and going to Universal City and seeing like Fred Flintstone with Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe together taking a picture or something like- eww, what does that mean? So it’s hard, I’ve had other people say that before and they were actually executives, who shall remain nameless, who wanted to do films like that where it was like a mash-up of all those characters together and Belle would leave the house and pass Cinderella’s house and I, I guess that could be done.
I guess that’s Into the Woods, I guess to an extent. I don’t know. I can’t do that. I have nothing against it, but I just can’t do it.
Blogger : What about Lion King versus Maleficent?
Don Hahn : Now that’s okay. No, I’m just kidding.
Blogger : When considering technological advances, which one would be easier or harder?
Don Hahn : You know it’s like if you were to do a new Lion King today? We’re doing a Jungle Book today. It’s, the tools are so advanced you can recreate these animals and make them incredibly plausible, and so, the tough thing about animals, they have no opposable thumbs. They have no costumes. But the upside of it is, there’s no sense of time. Lion King could have taken place yesterday or a hundred years from now or a hundred- thousand years ago and makes it kinda it this timeless Shakespearean thing.
With humans, we are unforgiving. If we see a computer generated human that doesn’t look quite right? We know humans really well and, and you guys have seen as many movies I have where you go, “That’s fake.” So a-arguably the Maleficent movies are a little bit harder just because we’re so unforgiving when it comes to looking at human animation. That’s why movies like Frozen or Tangled are such a modern marvel because those characters are, they’re a caricature but they’re beautifully animated. Those guys are amazing.
Blogger : Well four of your films have turned into Broadway musicals. Can you see Maleficent being a musical?
Don Hahn : Yes. The reason I say yes is I thought not in a million years could you turn Lion King into a musical. We used to joke when we were making it, we thought, “Oh, this will be great like, like Lion King on ice.” We’ll be- like- and it was just a gag. Then Julie Taymor comes along and re-imagines it as this amazing kind of Shakespearean puppet show and it still plays every night in eight cities around the world and has made over a billion dollars for the company.
So could Maleficent be a stage show? Yeah, absolutely. You know Hunchback of Notre Dame’s coming back to the La Jolla Playhouse on stage. It’s amazing. Never say never. It’s possible.
Blogger : I think it would be fabulous.
Don Hahn : Thanks! I’ll pass that along. It’s a really cool character. If you could find the right, actress, actresses to play those roles? It’s a really cool story.
Blogger : I can’t see Maleficent without Angelina Jolie.
Don Hahn : She’s remarkable too because she channels and studies, great actresses of the past. So she’ll look at Barbara Stanwyck and she’ll look at Bette Davis and there’s moments when she’ll say a line and you just see that. So she has a classic quality to her and I think in lesser hands it could have been much broader and much more cartoony? She just is so restrained and appropriate in how she plays that role. I just can’t imagine how difficult that was.
Blogger : She says so much without saying nothing.
Don Hahn : She has very little dialogue for that character. She has very little dialogue. And I remember when she was preparing, she said her acting teacher was having her reach into soil and, and feel it because she’s part of the fairy world and that’s where the fairies come from. The sense of land, and all that was very much a part of who she was. I thought, wow, you know the level of preparation. An amazing, amazing lady.
Blogger: It broke my heart when she woke up and her wings are gone. And you hear that cry.
Don Hahn: Yeah. In the script, it was heartbreaking. It- when those scenes came in the dailies? It was devastating. I mean I- because of that cry, and because of what she did. Cause in the script you go, “Oh, they clipped her wings.” You know it’s like Icarus, she lost her wings. She can’t fly anymore. And you go, “Oh, that’s too bad.” When she performs it, it becomes this very deeply felt, very deeply felt thing even for me and I- and, and like my wife, uh, said for her it was almost like she couldn’t watch, it was really devastating. But that’s again a great actress doing what she does. You just feel the depth of that loss you know.
Blogger : I thought it was fitting that Aurora saves Maleficent’s wings, thus saving her.
Don Hahn : Yeah. Yeah. It was, uh, Aurora was a tough character because her mother’s gone and when she gets back to the castle, there’s no maternal character for her. And we killed off mom for a very specific reason, so that her relationship had to be with Maleficent. And Dad’s a cold fish. You know he doesn’t even hug her when she comes to the castle. So now the only family she has is Maleficent. So the icing on the cake then is for her to free the wings, which is kind of a symbol for her saying, “You have your freedom back. You can fly again because of your love,” you know. That kind of symbolism in story telling is really powerful. It’s fun to do and if it works? It’s deeply felt. Which makes it fun to do.
Blogger : Something I live by is that everything happens for a reason. I thought Maleficent played into that, especially with her wings being stolen and how that affects her relationship with Aurora.
Don Hahn: Yeah. Well we were thinking that everybody, all of us at this table, we’ve all been dealt bad hands in our life and a lot of times we’re judged or grow up by how we deal with that. There’s every reason for her to be angry and bitter by what’s happened to her. But over the course of the story she’s able to leave that behind and realize that it’s the love she has for Aurora that kind of triumphs over all the nasty things that have happened to her.
And that’s life. I made a documentary a couple years ago about veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq and, they are kind of the same thing. They’re wounded. They’re missing limbs. They’re missing their heart. They’re missing whatever. They live or die depending on how they deal with that. In a way that was what Maleficent was.
Blogger : All of the different things you’ve done from animating with voice actors and Maleficent with real actors. It’s quite incredible.
Don Hahn : Thank you. They’re all stories. My big heroes growing up were like Walt Disney and Jim Henson and those guys and , telling stories with animals is really fun. Because basically you go out and shoot the three hundred hours worth of stuff and just go, okay, what happened? Then you try to put it all together. But they’re still stories. And they’re allegories. They’re all human stories.
So most of those movies like Bears or Chimpanzee it’s a, you know it’s a mom who gets killed at nighttime and the kid’s left alone. I mean there’s a theme there. You’re telling stories about growing up and you’re telling stories about survival. So in the end, there’s still that, you know, human story even though it’s an animal.
Blogger : I cry at all of those. They grab at your heart.
Don Hahn : The toughest thing about the nature movies is you can’t intercede because let’s say a snake comes along and attacks a cub and the cub’s gonna die. Your instinct is to save that cub, but you really can’t because the snake has to eat too. If that cub lived the mom might not have enough milk for four cubs and you know it’s, you just don’t understand the wisdom of nature in doing that?
Blogger : Is that hard as a producer not to be able to step in?
Don Hahn : Yeah. I mean you just can’t. You look at people like Jane Goodall who’s dealt with that all her life and you just see the wisdom of nature in doing that. But it is heartbreaking. Cause in Chimpanzee the little chimp’s mom really did wander off one night. We didn’t kill her. She really didn’t come back. Normally the little chimps die then, but then the alpha male adopted it and it was a totally different story than we went out to film, but we had a story all of the sudden.
Blogger : Reminds me of Tarzan.
Don Hahn : Yeah. But you can’t intercede. You have to just watch it happen and point your camera at it and go, “Oh, holy… business.”
Maleficent was an amazing movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend it for the whole family!