Don Hahn interview: Beauty And The Beast, Howard Ashman, The Lion King, South Park and Frankenweenie

Interview Simon Brew 3 Nov 2010 - 05:09

Producer Don Hahn looks back at Beauty And The Beast, and chats to us about The Lion King, Tim Burton, the genius of Howard Ashman, and a whole lot more.

"We're going to need another three hours," joked producer Don Hahn as time was called on our chat in London earlier this year. He wasn't kidding. A fascinating, engaging and open man, who was at the heart of the Disney animation revival of the late 80s and 1990s (to the point where he's made a documentary about it, Waking Sleeping Beauty), Hahn was in town to talk about the new disc release of Beauty And The Beast. But heck, did we squeeze in a lot more chat...

The first thing that always struck me with Beauty And The Beast is just how much storytelling it contracts into the first ten minutes of the film. And it's not all light stuff, either. The song Belle, and the sequence, is extremely watertight. Was that as challenging a part of the film to put together as any other?

It took a lot of refining. The key was that we make a lot of mistakes and create a lot of garbage. We first storyboarded the opening sequence, which is now the song Belle, and around that time Howard Ashman and Alan Menken came in, and we took it to them.

Howard was struggling with AIDS at the time, so we went to his house in Upstate New York. Howard and Alan always tried to capture a style for a movie, so they used Caribbean for The Little Mermaid, or gospel music for Hercules. For this they almost wanted to use a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta style. And so, the prologue was the last thing we wrote.

Cut off the prologue, and we start with Belle. And one thing musicals can do, particularly if you're Howard Ashman, is introduce a ton of information in a very short time. And animation even makes that easier.

So, in the first four minutes of the movie, you meet Belle, you see her town, you meet her father, you meet the villain of the piece, and his sidekick, and you find out he's a jerk, and you see that she's book-ish, and all that in four minutes.

When that song first came in, I think we were all shocked. Howard and Alan were not sure we'd like it. They were very hesitant. In fact, they came out to Los Angeles to play it in person, "because we're sending them a four minute song that does all this? They're going to think we're nuts".

But we liked it a lot, and we didn't change a bit. It's one of the few songs in the movie that we didn't restructure, or change, or anything. It gave you all that depth in an encyclopaedic way, and made it entertaining. Otherwise, it's exposition and you'd be sitting there having characters talk and read, and it's dull. Now you have the same information, but it's entertainment. But that's the brilliance of Howard, and animation, and musical theatre, I think.

The last thing we added on was the prologue, and we decided to keep that on a low shelf over here. We kept saying later, later, later. That's because we wanted to tell the whole movie, and then understand the rules we needed to make the movie work. Fall in love before the last petal fell. That allows us to go back and write that prologue, and talk about what it meant to be the beast, who he was, and how the spell came about. That was one of the very last things we added to the movie.

Was there ever any talk of lifting the prologue out altogether, given how much work the song Belle gets through?

Yeah. I think that the prologue sets up more than Belle did. It sets up the character of the beast.

He was young, he was spoiled, he was cursed by a sorceress. You couldn't put that into the opening song, or at least we never anticipated it. But we did need to lay the ground rules, everything through to that his entire castle is cursed also. And that was what the prologue was all about.

So, really, in the opening prologue of two minutes and song of four minutes, it's about the most dense and packed six minutes. After that, we're ready.

Did you see the South Park movie?

Uh-huh.

How did you feel when you saw the opening to that, and it basically takes the idea of the opening of Beauty And The Beast?

I loved it. The Simpsons have done the same thing too. They ripped it off! I actually had dinner with Matt Groening and talked about it. It's high praise when people do that. You never think you're going to make an animated film that's successful, much less one that's parodied quite like that.

You talk in the book that you wrote, The Alchemy Of Animation, about the sinking feeling when you don't know what you're doing, weep openly, tear it apart, correct it, reboard it, rebuild it. Every animator I've ever talked to who's worked on a big movie tells of a dark period in the middle of the production. I would imagine on Beauty that you're in the midst of a dark period, when Disney itself - pre-the release of The Little Mermaid - was also in a darker place? How low does it get, and what were you fighting?

It was a crossroads in many ways. The guys who worked with Walt Disney back in the 30s and 40s were retiring, and then on top of that you had a group of new kids coming in. You had people in their 60s and people in their 20s. You had people like John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Tim Burton, myself, all in their 20s and anxious to make movies. So, there was a divide in the studio.

And I think it just took us a while to get our footing and work out what the next steps were to create good work. We all wanted to. Some people left, some people were fired. Eventually, the sea change was that Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were coming into the company, and then Howard Ashman. And I can't tell you enough about Howard and his effect on us. And how that turned into a revolution.

Very much.

A revolution that would change animation, and still does to this day.

I don't think anyone has been able to match him since.

They haven't. I've just made a documentary about this period...

Waking Sleeping Beauty? I can't wait to see it.

I think you'll like it. In it, Roy Disney likens Howard Ashman to Walt Disney. And when he said that in his interview, I thought, "Did you say that?" And he said, "Yeah, I don't want to overstate it, but that's the kind of effect he had on us."

And I think if you look at Beauty And The Beast, it's no exaggeration to say that Howard really revolutionised what we were doing. And Little Mermaid, and the other films. Did we have great directors? Absolutely.

Did we have great art directors, and artists, and animators? Absolutely. But teaching us how to tell stories in music...

It's the Kill The Beast song that gets me. "We don't like what we don't understand, in fact it scares us"... Incredible. You got back to Little Mermaid as well, lovely turns of phrase such as "the hot crustacean band". Things that just shouldn't glue together.

I know. And Howard was struggling with AIDS at the same time. The Kill The Beast song was almost a metaphor for that. He was really dealing with a debilitating disease, in an era when it was stigmatised. And so, there were so many of those underpinnings to the movie that people may not have seen. And shouldn't have seen. It wasn't about the HIV epidemic at all. But if you study the man, and his struggles, and then look at his lyrics, you understand what he was going through.

And your film, Waking Sleeping Beauty, puts him across in a three dimensional light? It doesn't shy away from the fact that he was a difficult man to deal with at times?

Yeah. He was one of the funniest guys I've ever met. Obviously, incredibly smart. He could have been a trial attorney. But he had a temper, a passion that, if you didn't see eye to eye, you'd better have your case ready to defend yourself, because he just didn't suffer fools.

But the truth is, to a person, we loved him. He wasn't the kind of guy who was an idiot and a screamer. Not at all. We loved him, and he was charming. It's just he didn't suffer fools. He expected the best of us, as we did of him.

Do you think the loss of Howard Ashman changed the way animated films tackled songs? Because then there was the move, within Disney particularly, for the likes of Elton John and Phil Collins to be recruited. It was as if Disney was saying it wasn't going to do songs in quite the same way any more. Certainly not in such a theatrical way. Some films lose the music altogether.

Yeah. Pixar never picked up music. Although one of my favourite songs of all time is Jessie's Song in Toy Story 2, they never did musicals. And I don't think Howard's death stopped us from that, because I think Tim Rice was very much in that mould. Elton not so much, but Tim was. Phil Collins on Tarzan. Very different stylistically, though. Howard believed in putting plot in the songs. Let's not stop the movie and sing a song, let's put the movie in the song. There's a very fundamental difference there.

There are certainly plotted songs in The Lion King and Tarzan...

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, as well.

Hunchback's probably the closest, because Stephen Schwartz is a genius. I love Stephen. I think the Hunchback score is probably the most sophisticated that we've done. But there's only one first love. I think that's where Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast come from. It was a time of innocence, and discovery, and first love.

You mentioned the clash between the retiring old guard and the new people coming in. How did that play out when you got into the sweatbox [the room in Disney where projects were reviewed with the crew in one place]? Who was winning the fight?

The real old guard was retiring, and there was another group of old guard who were not the first string, if that makes sense. They'd been sitting on the fence for many years, and now they were in charge. And they were wonderful gentlemen, but just not as brilliant as the first generation of Walt Disney's people. And they were in power when we made movies such as The Black Cauldron. They were very much in power, and they had a real sense of who they were when making the movies.

There was a lot of friction between the young guys and them. The young guys - and I include myself in that, too - wanted to do something special. We wanted to do it better than Walt Disney. Whether we did or not, only history will tell. But I suspect we didn't. I think Walt Disney was a one off.

But we wanted to try. And to that extent, it took us probably ten or 15 years before we really started trying. Because there was Black Cauldron, and then we had to work our way up through Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver And Company. It's like working your way towards the team. You recruit a bunch of players, then it takes two or three years to get to a winning season. Animation is sports.

You've said all along that it's teamwork, of course. In your book, for instance, you talk about the sweatbox being the ultimate peer review. You've talked there about the clash between two bunches of people, effectively, but where's the line there? Because surely one person's teamwork is another person's committee?

Great question. I think it's about the collective agreement that you're going to share your work and be brutal about it. Walt Disney did this great.

Oddly, the person who helped us most at Disney was Richard Williams, the animator in London here on Roger Rabbit. He insisted we ran dailies and looked at our work, which we never did in Disney. Pixar does the same.

And it's because, if you're an artist, a lot of the time you say, "Well, I'll wait until it's perfect." And it's never perfect. So why not go out there and show it, and together, we'll share our mistakes.

Together I'll see that your scene's not that good, that my scene's not that good, but we can comment, and we can see what you're doing and go, "That's interesting, I want to do that too." And we can have that growth together as a studio.

So, it's not committee as much as it is brutal family around the dinner table. And brutal is the word for it. You have to be able to speak the truth. And it's the secret of Pixar, and the secret of Disney. To be able to say, "That's not good enough."

Does that hold fast even in a post-Lion King era, when Disney as a company depends more and more for its money on animated films?

If I were really honest I would say that the challenge of any period is to be able to take risk. It's counter-intuitive to working for a large corporation. A large corporation you go, oh, you made Iron Man. Let's make another one. You made Toy Story or Shrek? Let's make more of them. So, you don't want to take risk, you want to repeat those successes.

But the very thing you want to do is take risk. I think that's where Disney succeeded, where Disney Animation has been struggling.

It's only with the likes of How To Train Your Dragon that DreamWorks has begun to really encompass that, I'd argue...

Yeah, very much. Look at a movie like Ratatouille. It's the worst idea for a movie ever. Rats in a kitchen.

And then phonetically explain the name on the poster...

Because you can't pronounce it! Terrible idea. one of my favourite movies. Up. Let's put an 80-year-old guy in house with a boy scout. Which is probably illegal! Send him up in a balloon. Terrible idea, one of my favourite movies of all time. So, that's risk taking.

In its day, Beauty And The Beast and Little Mermaid were risk-taking. Bringing a gay, Jewish, Broadway composer from New York into Disney studios to write songs for animation was a risk.

Did he have a beard at that point, too?

[Laughs] He did not. He did not! But it was a risk! He had had a flop on Broadway called Smile. Not only were you bringing in a guy from the outside, but he had a huge flop!

In the midst of making Beauty And The Beast, The Little Mermaid hit big. Suddenly there was this furore, that Disney was back in the eyes of the outside world, although I'm a great fan of The Great Mouse Detective, so I'd argue it started then. But for most, it was back, and it was what are they doing next. Did they change the pressure of the production for you?

I remember being scared! [laughs] I remember hoping we could live up to The Little Mermaid. I remember hoping that we wouldn't be compared to it adversely. I remember thinking, "Can we do this? I don't want to steal from The Little Mermaid. I want to make this our own."

We had great directors. Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. Love those guys and still do. Still working with Kirk. They were so great at being fresh and fearless. They were so young, they were able to cut through all of the fears and turn it into a fresh movie.

I think if you don't come to work with a little fear in your gut in the morning, then there's something wrong. And we came to work with fear, in a very positive sense!

Just touching on your work on The Lion King there for a minute, then. Was is anything as fearful as when the original Lion King trailer, with the first few minutes of the film, started playing in cinemas? And all of a sudden the expectation level exploded?

Yeah! I wish you could have seen the rest of that movie when the trailer was playing. The movie was a shambles. Absolutely a shambles. We were getting these songs in from Elton and Tim that were good, but they needed to be produced by Hans Zimmer, and we didn't really have a love story down. We had one good four minute chunk of movie, and that's what we sent out. As a marketing idea it was brilliant. It really got people excited.

But I distinctly remember going to this fundraising banquet for Roy Disney in Beverly Hills, and they showed that clip. And somebody came up to Roy and I, and said, "Is the rest of the movie that good?"

And we went "Yeah!" And he laughed, and we looked at each other and said, "Are we in deep shit or what?!" It was not. But again, that's like better step up. You can't have egg on your face.

That's where something like having two directors on a project kicks in, though? If one is beginning to lose confidence, it doesn't matter. You've not got a choice.

Yes. All of us together are better than any one of us. I think that idea of - it's not committee, it's not group speak - but the power of collaboration, it's hard for people to understand sometimes. But if you collaborate honestly and that's not capitulating... I think that committee is sitting around and capitulating. I don't really agree with it.

It's the collaboration, though, that makes the movie great.

Just going back to Beauty And The Beast, I'm keen to talk about Gaston as a villain. Again, he stands against the Disney villain book. When you meet Cruella de Vil for the first time, for instance, she's very obviously a villain. The same with most Disney films. But he's not. You said it yourself, he's a jerk. You know in your heart that he's going to turn into the villain, but they're at polar opposite positions at the start of the film, the beast and the villain. Gaston is comedic, if anything. The pitching, I thought was extraordinary. It must have been tempting, though, to play him nastier, earlier?

Yeah, but not as interesting. His character is inspired by one named Miles Gloriosus, from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. I love that movie and show, and Howard did too. We were looking for a character who was the opposite of the beast. The beast had a big heart, he was sincere, he'd made a mistake. Gaston was incredibly handsome, the Beast ugly...

... both covered in hair, though!

[Laughs] Yeah, both covered in hair! So, you have that contrast, and as the movie goes on, they change places. The Beast becomes more human, Gaston becomes more of an animal. And that's why that character is so effective.

If he had started out as a moustache-twirling villain, he would have been much less effective. He is disarming to the audience, funny to look at, and sings a comic song. And slowly, during the Kill The Beast song, you realise he's actually insane.

We're nearly running out of time, so I just want to ask about Frankenweenie, which you're pressing ahead with now. Where's that up to?

Well, we're starting to shoot. The sets are up, the puppets are built. It's interesting, because Tim's [Burton] directing it himself. He's so involved with it, because it was always his personal film, and when I pitched it to him, it must have been about three years ago, I said, "Why don't we do the long version of this? You must have more story to tell, it's based on the Frankenstein plot." So, we're set up, we're shooting, and I think it's going to be a real treat.

Will you keep the 80s feel to the film, with the toys and the posters?

I can't say, but you won't be disappointed! Let's just put it that way. [laughs]

Finally, were you involved in the talked-about revival of The Snow Queen?

You know, I was, but we're putting it on the shelf right now. Much like Beauty And The Beast was in development when Walt Disney was alive and he couldn't quite crack the story, we worked for a couple of years on The Snow Queen and couldn't quite crack what it was. So, right now it's on a low shelf, and we'll probably come back to it in a few years. But I was involved in it, yeah.

So, in terms of your own animation future, it's Frankenweenie at the moment?Yeah, that's it. But I'm dying to do another one after that!

Don Hahn, thank you very much!

Beauty And The Beast is out on Disney Diamond Edition Blu-ray right now.

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