Bill Condon interview: Beauty And The Beast, Twilight, fandom

Beauty & The Beast director Bill Condon on the film, Twilight, fandom, F/X 2 and Die Hard...

Very mild spoilers for Beauty & The Beast. Big spoilers for Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1

Brave man, Bill Condon. The director who has given us films as diverse as Candyman: Farewell To The Flesh, Dreamgirls, Gods And Monsters, two Twilight movies and Kinsey has turned his attention to the live action take on Disney’s 1991 classic, Beauty And The Beast. During his stop off in London to promote the movie, he spared us some time for a chat. Here’s how it went…

I’m your toughest crowd, I suspect. I always wondered what it’d be like if someone ever remade my favourite film and I had to interview them.

What’s you’re favourite film?

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Er, the 1991 version of Beauty And The Beast.

Oooohhhhh. Well tell me the things you miss from the original film.

This is a press junket, Bill Condon! The law says we have to say we love everything doesn’t it?!

Oh, okay [looks disappointed].

No, I’m up for this. Let’s do it.

[Looks less disappointed] I’ll try not to be defensive!

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Well, you made a rod for your own back really. You said in an interview with us once upon a time that you think the original is a perfect film.

It is, yeah.

Then the balance for me this time around is very slightly different. The first film starts off as Belle’s story, and transforms to that of the Beast. Your film to me seems very slightly, very subtly balanced towards Belle. Just slightly.

Interesting. That’s interesting.

For the purposes of what you were doing, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. What’s the point of a straight retread after all? If you’re looking to evolve the story a little, that struck me as a solid choice. You also humanise the Beast a little bit more, which makes him a little less of an antagonist in the early stages. The lines of villainy throughout are slightly blurrier.

I guess, turning this around, my question to you is this, though. You came to a film that you yourself say is perfect. That had 70 years or so of people trying to crack it. That people had made it and unmade it, and honed it down to under 90 minutes. How did you go about putting your stamp on this, rather than just doing a live action photocopy? What made it a Bill Condon film?

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You know what it is. I could say some very general things, thematics.

Go nerdy!

For me it’s the stuff, your own sensibility, that you bring to it. The outsider nature of both characters being enhanced by a sense of damage and loss that they both share, more explicitly than they would in the animated film. But then it inevitably turns into the 100 decisions that you make every day. The way the movie’s going to look, the way the camera’s going to move, those things that, to me – and I hope this isn’t different from the animated film, because it springs from that – in a live action context, it needs to work as a movie that really is musical from first to last.

There was an overture at the start of the version I saw.

Yeah, yeah.

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Was that a statement of intent? Laying your musical cards out from the start?

Unfortunately it’s not going to be shown in that many theatres.

Is that right?

It’s just a special thing for premieres, the DVD, that sort of thing.

So the overture isn’t going into general release?

Probably not.

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That’s a real shame.

I know, I know. I love it, I really do.

It’s interesting when you say that thing about Belle and the Beast, though. I’ve learned, Gods And Monsters, Kinsey, and a weird way The Fifth Estate – say what you will! – that the extreme, the monster at the centre of it, the fascinating character that you want to go to. You need an everyman to take you to that character.

We have a little prologue with the Beast. It takes, to be precise, around 25 minutes for him to show up. In that time, Belle is the person who is more accessible. Just as with Kinsey, it’s Kinsey’s wife who’s more accessible. And Brendan Fraser is that character in Gods And Monsters, the accessible one driving up the hill.

An aside: could you please be the one who goes and finds Brendan Fraser some more great film roles please?

Oh, I know, I know. He needs to do much, much more.

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Let’s come at it a slightly different way. Are you a Die Hard man?

I really like the first one! Alan Rickman in the first movie!

There was a story that came by a year or so back that they’re thinking of doing Die Hard: Year One, a film that would tell the origin story of the John McClane character. But the trap there is how much do I really need to know about John McClane? Do I need to know how he became a cop? How he met Holly? The information is implied in the film, and that’s enough.

The 1991 Beauty And The Beast leaves threads, and gaps that could have been filled that weren’t. How do you choose which to follow up on for your film, and which to leave? Because you don’t explore them all?

Yeah. It’s good you mention that. I’m so tired of origin films. Like, how many Spider-Man origin films do we have already, and every one seems to be starting anew!

I thought the ones that work – without being too programmatic about it – were where it did feel as though it was in the service of one idea: that is what is it specifically about Belle and the Beast that make them perfectly matched? When she holds him in her arms and says ‘don’t ever leave me’, you really want to feel that she has opened up and connected to somebody that she’s never going to find a replacement for.

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That’s the power of a love story I think, right? Even if it’s a myth that’s hard to find in real life. To me then, you’re painting in broad strokes. It is still a fairy tale, and obviously it’s a Disney movie, so there has to be at least one dead mother, and why not two while you’re at it?! But it did feel like that. That they were both people who were wounded at a certain point in their lives. And people who haven’t quite dealt with it.

Which is a real shift for Belle. Belle in the story, and in the Cocteau movie, she’s also represented purity, hasn’t she? She’s a person without an evil thought in her head.

But also, she’s the outsider, Gaston is the one at the centre of society.

Right, right.

But this Belle, there’s nothing bad about her. But she doesn’t exist in this ethereal glow of goodness either. She has doubts. About herself. She’s slightly tortured by it.

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You’ve dialled back on the mental health accusations towards Belle’s father, Maurice. Lots of the old lines there are gone. One of the things about the 1991 film is that it’s one of the purest family film relationships of father and daughter that was around at the time. They’re equals. He’s not over bearing, she’s not the rebellious daughter. I find it hard enough to find father-son films of that era – if you remake Field Of Dreams I’ll have to hunt you down…

[Laughs] I won’t, I won’t!

…but that purity between Belle and Maurice. How close were you to such a microscopic detail there? Because it’s things like that in family movies that reach people, that mean something perhaps to, say, a 12 year old watching a movie like this?

That’s very true. I think, again, that’s the translation from animation to live action. Maurice has become an artist rather than an inventor, and “crazy old Maurice” is more like that wacky guy who makes music boxes. What’s the use of that, who needs them, you know?

There is a pure symbiotic relationship between the two, but let’s face it, the biggest different in the relationship in this movie is that he has chosen to keep secrets from her. He is hiding from the world. He was so shellshocked by his loss, he thinks that by taking her away from cities – [spoiler redacted] – there’s an unspoken tension between the two. She is both closely connected to him, but there’s a resentment that’s built up… not a resentment, a sense that understands a part of him is emotionally shut down.

You could say that that undermines the purity of the relationship, but to me, that just makes it real. That pure relationship is, as you say, hard to find in real life. I don’t think it undermines the love. I think it’s a nuance.

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As soon as the film headed in that direction, I feared I was going to get Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, and the whole let’s meet Willy Wonka’s dad. It jarred for me in that film, but it didn’t jar for me here. The significant addition here, though, that knocked me sideways was a bit right at the end [spoilers redacted]. There were things I was ready for, one or two things I wasn’t.

That was the scene I described when I first went in to talk to Disney about this. Because I think there’s a way where you can sometimes care more about a dog in a movie than you can a human.

I don’t know anybody who watched the animated Beauty And The Beast who ever wanted the beast to turn back into a human. That we’d taken him to our hearts in beast form, and then got this human we didn’t want at the end!

That’s right! It’s true! But I do think when you see those objects, to me, it’s such a powerful visual metaphor for death. It brings death back to life in a way. I’m really pleased with it. That decision, you start from there and that’s part of why there’s an Enchantress in this movie.

There’s your origin movie: Enchantress: Origins!

No, no, no, no! I’ll be reading the announcement about that with somebody else doing it!

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One of the things we try to do with our site is a column where we talk to people about mental health challenges, loneliness, problems that life throws up. I wrote a piece on female leading fan culture a few years ago, that was in part inspired by one of the premieres of Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, that you of course directed.

It was the story of people camped out to see the film in Los Angeles, really enthused. And they were jeered by people as they went past. Jeered, for waiting to see a premiere.

I didn’t know that. Really?

Sadly so. This weekend, a friend of mine wants to go and see Beauty And The Beast, because her son won’t go. And her son won’t go because of the perception that Beauty And The Beast is a girls’ film, and boys don’t go to see it, presumably for fear of ridicule.

I hate that, I really do.

What is your view, then, on the darker edges of fandom? It’s easy to say it’s not fans, and it’s not fandom. But there does seem to be a social stigma for loving certain things. And your Beauty And The Beast deals with these topics.

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I would say, and maybe it’s just because I’ve had this narrow experience of it, that it’s women being made fun of. I think that’s the crucial element.

What I’ll never forget is the response to Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1.

In Breaking Dawn Part 1, Bella Swan gets married, she loses her virginity, she has sex, she gets pregnant, she gives birth to a baby, she dies, and she becomes a vampire. I cannot tell you how many men said to me, and wrote, that nothing happens in this movie! Because these are all rites of passage for women. They are all huge, but there was only one little action sequence in that movie, and therefore nothing happened.

The difference in perception between specifically young men and young women is so vast. I do feel that the way that there is a cultural dismissal of movies that deal with female concerns is not only there, but people aren’t embarrassed about it. How many movies have we seen that make fun of Twilight, and people who like Twilight? But the fact is that there are tens of millions of people, and many of them are women.

I can’t lie to you and say that Twilight means something to me…

I get it, I get it.

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But I do wonder how you make your film choices. There doesn’t seem to be much fear there?

I will say one thing. You watch very serious political movies, and people say that the director is very courageous to take that on. I actually think that the only courageous film I’ve ever taken on is Twilight. Because you’re stepping into something that’s so devalued, culturally. It didn’t feel that to me, and I didn’t mind that. But that’s where a lot of people get confused. They say they thought I was a serious director! And to this day, endless things, oh my god, they’re giving Beauty And The Beast to the Twilight director!

I disagree with you I think on courage. I don’t think it’s just what you choose. It’s how much of your soul you put into it, and how much on the line you’re willing to go. We get writers on our site, and we try and say that if you can’t put your soul into a piece of writing, then what are you bringing to it? Be it 300 words on not liking something, or making a hugely expensive Disney movie.

I couldn’t agree with that more.

I didn’t realise, incidentally, that you wrote F/X 2! That was my entry-level Dennehy!

Really? [Laughs] You saw that first?

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I have Bluey the Clown in my basement!

Is this where you give me the exclusive about F/X 3?

[Laughs] No! They never did that. They were going to do it on TV!

Yikes, I’m at final question. Apart from my personal request for you to make a buddy cop movie with Angela Lansbury and Emma Thompson…

I’d love that, I’d love that! You know that Emma Thompson showed up to record Beauty And The Beast the day after she closed in Sweeney Todd? And her joke was, I only do Angela Lansbury parts! It’d be great to get them together!

I heard someone make this point, so can’t take the credit for it. But it seems pertinent. And it’s how has the younger audience changed in the 26 years between Beauty And The Beast films. Because the assumption is that attention spans have got shorter, yet your movie is some 30-35 minutes longer? What’s your thought on the changing audience? You have faith in your audience, it seems.

Well, yeah. It had to be tested, it had to be proven, by showing it to a young audience and watching it with them. Seeing that nobody got up, nobody fidgets. It’s not only just the length of the film, though. There’s a theory that the logic of videogames took over for a certain generation. That instead of being a three act structure, they wanted ‘I want to choose to go that way’. We’ll never resolve that, but you understand the tangents that turn into sequences.

Videogames are often 30 hour stories too.

Exactly, right. They like that kind of storytelling, that’s visceral, and in an interesting way. Right now, it feels like the younger generation is back to wanting a three act, more traditional structure. We’ll see!

We will indeed! Bill Condon, thank you very much.

Beauty And The Beast is in UK cinemas from March 17th.