Don Hahn interview: Maleficent, Disney, animation and more

Producer Don Hahn on Maleficent, Disney animation, Frankenweenie and the late Bob Hoskins...

One of our favourite ever interviewees is producer Don Hahn. We’ve spoken to him twice before, here and here, about films such as Beauty And The Beast, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Frankenweenie and Waking Sleeping Beauty.

And we got the chance to talk to him about about his latest project. He’s one of the producers of the incoming Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie. So we talked about that, about the animation industry, what he’s up to, and Bob Hoskins…

Can we start with the whys? Why did Maleficent happen? Why is it live action? What did you inherit from Brad Bird? And when did you come on board?

[Laughs] It’s a long answer to that question! But I think we were always intrigued by this idea, and going back maybe six or seven years in animation we were talking about Maleficent as an interesting character.

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We tried to develop it in animation, but it was too difficult I think. That’s when it turned into more of a live action approach. So we had the idea for a live action movie, but then a lot of elements had to come together. We knew we had a great character, and in the original animation she was not fleshed out that much. It was a character that was melodramatic and black and white, and we didn’t really know a lot about it.

So we thought what if we did a treatment of Wicked, or Dark Knight, where you do a little bit of an origins story? And I pitched it not to Brad, but to Tim Burton and [writer] Linda Woolverton at the same time. They were just finishing up on Alice In Wonderland.

Linda wrote an amazing script, which is pretty much the movie we have to day. And that’s the short version of how we got to where we are!

There’s something quite old fashioned here about having a big family movie headlined by a movie star. You’ve spoken in the past about how people such as Howard Ashman, Elton John and Alan Menken have helped cement the heart of your films. So would you say that it’s Angelina Jolie and Linda Woolverton here?

Well, yes, along with others certainly. Certainly those two have a sense of great storytelling, and how to translate material that could be difficult in lesser hands. And most importantly, to be able to tell a story with a strong female protagonist. Linda has done that repeatedly, on Alice In Wonderland and Beauty And The Beast.

And then Angelina is arguably one of the most gifted actresses of our time. That coupling of people was really crucial to this movie I think, and what got it off the ground. They gave it a strong story to begin with. We knew we had to have fire breathing dragons and all the spectacle of Sleeping Beauty. But if the relationship didn’t work at the core, then we were in trouble.

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The danger of course of putting a villain as such in the protagonist role in a story is it does have the habit of dissipating their menace. I think the Hannibal Lecter films are the best example of this. The more time you spend with a villain, the more you run certain risks. Was the tightness of the line you had to talk here one of the toughest things about making Maleficent?

Yeah. You’re exactly right. The audience could be angry at us if we said ‘she’s really not all that bad’! She so needs to have mystery and something explained about her to be an interesting character. And that is partly down to the writing, and partly the tremendous restraint on the part of Angelina to give us as an audience information in a very deliberate way. The role could have been broad, operatic and over the top. She does the opposite. She holds back, and shows you a tiny bit of information, then a little bit more. And very slowly doles out information about who she is and why she is.

The mystery of her character stays alive all the way through to the climax of the movie, and then she can let loose. There’s a great deal of restraint in her performance, in a positive way.

You’ve worked with first time directors several times, and you do again on Maleficent. You’ve spoken in the past about your role as a producer being allowing the director to tell the story. Is there, though, a certain appeal to first time directors to you? That there’s an element of fearlessness to them?

Yeah, I suppose so. There is a fearlessness in terms of trying things, because there is a hunger to make a mark. Although in this case, Robert Stromberg didn’t really have to make a mark, because he’s an Oscar-winning production designer!

As a director, you want to build this amazing world and then take an audience there. And he really did. I think that hunger to show that he could do that is really what’s interesting to me. I’ve worked with so many terrific directors, right back to Bob Zemeckis, people who are incredibly experienced. But there’s always something about someone getting an opportunity for the first time. You don’t know if you’re going to succeed or fail. I love working with people like that.

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I think when people hear that someone is moving from visual effects to directing, there’s a snobbishness that used to be reserved for one-time commercials directors. But Robert Stromberg’s background is extraordinary, not least his experience in matte painting. But does all this tie back to Roger Rabbit for you? Is the balance between live action and animation – and animation is surely what visual effects have become – any easier to manage?

Well, the most important part of the movie, and the heart of the movie is not the effects or the spectacle. It’s keeping the movie simple and small. In other words the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora had to work on every level, and then we knew the audience would enjoy it.

We knew by casting Angelina and the amazing Elle Fanning – who is extraordinary – that the two of them together have a chemistry on and off the screen that really helped us. And keeping it focused on those character was the simple task at hand. We knew we could write a cheque and get a spectacular dragon, or a castle, or a million fighting soldiers, all of which we wanted, we love and wanted the audience to love.

But at the heart of it all, the audience goes to the movie to be invested in the lives of characters. And that’s what the important thing about this movie was: getting under the skin of these characters, and appreciate life through their eyes.

To be fair, I was sold on this one as soon as Imelda Staunton was cast. It should be a policy in Britain that as soon as she’s cast in anything, the population is mandated to go and watch it.

[Laughs] I think so!

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You’ve got Sharlto Copley in there too. The support cast is really impressively fleshed out here, even below the top billed names.

It is. Again, it was a story that offered so many opportunities. Even something as simple as the raven that accompanies Maleficent. It was just a sidekick in the original Sleeping Beauty animated film. But to get Sam Riley to do a shape shifting character alongside her, it was a huge opportunity for drama, and a relationship, and comedy. Something as simple as that gave us a whole new window into the story.

In the opening chapter of your book Brain Storm, you talk about how you as a five year old fell in love with movies for first time.

It strikes me you came to prominence in the film business as a point where it felt a little less corporate than it does now. How do you continue to harness that five year old in you, at the point where the business around you isn’t just obsessed with a three day opening, but the weeks of prediction as to what that three day opening will be?

Boy, what a great question.

I honestly don’t know the answer. It’s distracting sometimes, and it’s part of the movie business. We have a studio in Walt Disney Studios that is incredible in terms of how they’ve supported this movie. The publicity, the marketing they’ve put behind it is award-winning in my opinion. It’s spectacular. That’s the good side of it, you know?

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The side that you have to be careful of? As you say, keeping the innocence, and keeping the simplicity of these stories. When The Sound Of Music came out, nobody knew what the box office was. It ran for a year, and it was an event that just ran forever, like Mary Poppins. But the times are different, the audiences are more sophisticated. People tend to want to know the box office.

I guess the real answer is that I try to forget about all of that. I can’t control it. What I can control is putting together a great group of people, and keeping out of their way so they can do what they do best. If I can do that, then I have a chance of getting something really special.

So is that harder than it was, easier, or just different?

On this movie, like every movie, it’s really hard to make a movie. It’s really challenging. But from a studio side, they really wanted to make this movie. It’s a Disney character, a Disney fairytale, and I’ve never had anything other than complete support in terms of saying this is the kind of movie we should be making at the studio. It’s the heart and soul of what we are. So that for me as a producer, and Joe Roth, and all of us on the team, it made that part a lot easier.

Another thing you wrote in Brain Storm was that “we get so concerned about the public perception of us and our art that we throw our hands up and say why make art at all if I have to hide my feelings … or reveal my innermost private feelings”.

But does the blame for that now lie on this side of this fence? That the way the media reports – and the movie media reports – on films has changed now, and become more personal. I wonder too if that’s why we have fewer genuine movie stars – because, finances aside, who’d want to be one?

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Despite what we may what you to think, we’re actually human beings! And in the end we make ourselves vulnerable to tell these stories. By vulnerable, nobody’s going to get hurt. We have the best jobs.

But to be Angelina, or Elle, and stand in front of a camera and try to portray that role, that’s a big definition of vulnerability. And that’s the job. That’s the chosen job that she has – much more than I did, and I have a bit of it – to be vulnerable and to try and come up with something interesting and fresh.

But that’s okay. I’d rather fail doing something boldly, than trying to do something that I think the audience might like. Because who knows? I don’t know! I know what I like, I know what my friends and family like. We all, as a team of filmmakers, tried to make something in Maleficent that gives a fresh voice to a classic fairytale, and make it relevant to audiences. That’s all you can hope for as a filmmaker, and then pray that the audience feels the same way.

The people I admire most in life at the moment are those who learn and appreciate the lesson early that it’s okay to fail. The people who get to that point in their 20s even. That’s the thrust for me that comes through your book Brain Storm – to get to these lessons as early as humanly possible?

Yes, I feel so. Because whether in the movie business or just in life, you want to be able to get to a point where you can learn from your lessons and learn from your failures. It’s not that any of us set out to make a movie that’s a failure – and I’ve worked on a lot of them! – but nobody set out to make anything less than a great movie. But sometimes they don’t connect. Sometimes the chemistry you think you have disappears through your hand. So that’s why when a movie like this comes together, and the elements come together, it’s a fresh and fragile thing. To make it to the screen with this story and cast is a little bit of a modern miracle.

Well, if we’re talking modern miracles, we should talk about Frankenweenie. To have a film of that ilk that talks to such a young audience about themes such as death and loss in an approachable way I found extraordinary.

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But it struck me that it needed lots of things just to get it made. It needed people willing to go against the system in the first place, and being unwilling to take no for an answer. It needed presumably the likes of a John Lasseter high up the chain to protect it.

But it’s also – and I don’t think this is as common as it should be in modern animation – a case of the medium perfectly fitting the story. Someone had the courage to back it in that form. Is that getting harder, or is that based of on the proverbial individual willing to push the rock up the hill?

There’s no easy answer, but almost all of the credit on that movie should go to Tim Burton. We made the movie because it was initially beneficially to the company, and to Tim, and to all of us. We knew it was a great story.

But Tim had just made Alice In Wonderland, which was hugely successful at the box office. And I think that earned him the right to make this other little movie on the side. This low budget movie, set in black and white with puppets. And I’m so flattered that you liked it, because we loved it into existence. It’s not the kind of movie the studio would greenlight. Nobody there would say let’s make a movie about a kid whose dog dies at the end of the first act. But because of Tim’s charisma and passion for that project, I really believed in it so much. And he just willed it into existence.

So much credit should go to a passionate filmmaker who’s really good, and also really commercially successful, which earned him the right to do something fringe-y like that.

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We’ve talked before about your film, Waking Sleeping Beauty, about the resurrect of Disney animation in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Last time we spoke to you, you said that there was a great story to tell about what happened after that period, but it’s all still too painful. Now that things have improved so much for Disney animation, is there any sign of that pain going away, and are you looking to put that story together?

Well, yeah. There’s a really happy ending to that story, because Waking Sleeping Beauty deals with the era through the success of The Lion King. Then animation as an industry went through a drought. Certainly at Disney it went through a drought – there was competition from DreamWorks, Pixar. And Disney got stuck in old ways, old techniques and old thinking.

You can look back now and say that it was just a rebuilding time, because with Tangled, and Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen, there are amazing movies coming out of Disney now. So what a great, happy ending to an era of struggle.

Who knows why these things happen. Maybe like sports, you have teams who come together and the chemistry is right for a while, then that goes apart for whatever reason. The success of animation right now, and the industry as a whole, and very specifically at Disney, is leading the way.

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So is this a story you want to pick up yourself, in a film or maybe a book? Or would you hand that over to someone else now?

Oh, maybe someday. I think it’ll still take some time. But yeah, it’s a really interesting story. It’s not only about people in movies, but it’s about technology, about taking risks once again. With Maleficent, it’s the idea of putting diverse elements together and hoping that they work. That was very much a part of that era as it is.

Are there any other projects you’re actively pursuing yourself? Are you doing more work on nature films, for instance? Has anything captured your brain in the way that the story of Hand Held did? Are there thing you’re pursuing or do you wait until you react to something before you press ahead?

There are, and I do have to react with it on a personal level. It’s like falling in love with me, and I don’t want to spend a couple of years of my life on a project unless I really love it. That may sound corny, but it’s true with me.

With Maleficent, I could easily look at it and say oh man, what a fairytale, we can easily take this and at least try to do something special with it. And you’ll judge whether we were successful or not. But yeah, there are projects like that I’m toying with, but it’s a little too early to talk about. It’s a long process – you date, you speed date, read scripts, look at people, talk about ideas, and you fall in love!

Would you say, then, that you’re still that five year old who’s still entranced by the whole end product?

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Yes. I’m obese and losing hair, but I’m still that five year old. I think every filmmaker is. Tim Burton, John Lasseter, Angelina to a degree. She took to this character because she grew up with it, and she lived it. And so we all gravitate towards a film like this. The innocence of that part of life, the memory we had, and I think that’s what the challenge is. And it’s fun for the audience. Angie enjoyed this role, and we enjoy watching her.

I recently read the new biography of Jim Henson, and it talks in there about how Frank Oz wanted things perfect, and Jim Henson wanted things right. Where do you stand on that line? I remember you talked once, for instance, about bits of animation on Beauty And The Beast that you weren’t entirely happy with?

I think I’m definitely on the ‘right’ side! You need quality in these movies, and quality in the storytelling. You see it a tremendous amount in movies like Maleficent and Roger Rabbit and whatnot.

But perfect is an ideal, and getting it right is almost an intangible. It’s a feeling, a sense that the elements have come together in an alchemy that seems to work. That’s what always amazes me. You look at a movie like Dumbo, and it’s full of terrible inbetweens, and no one cares, because they got it right! I always feel that the characters, the emotion, the story… get that right and the audience will be accepting of flaws if they’re engaged with it all.

Finally, one of your first producing jobs was on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and of course we sadly lost Bob Hoskins recently. Do you have any special memories of working with him, especially given where you were in your career at that time?

Oh, I was a rank beginner! It was a hard role [for Hoskins] in itself. It was a very physical role, and a role that required so much imagination. He was acting opposite nobody. He had to imagine the characters into existence. To stop the gaze of his eyeballs in mid-air to create an imaginary rabbit that was later drawn in.

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I’m sure other actors could do it, but he was so workmanlike, and so professional, and so willing to trust [director] Bob Zemeckis. And then to act on top of it all. So he was able to perform as an actor on top of all the other stupid mechanical things we had him do. He was a miracle guy.

He’d come to the animation studio too. He lived in Islington at the time, and we were up in Camden Town, and he would come over just to see what we were doing. He was so excited about it. Suddenly, he would see the character he was playing opposite, the character he never knew was in the scene.

He was a great actor, and he was also a great guy.

Don Hahn, thank you very much.

Maleficent is in cinemas from May 30th.

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