Don Hall interview: Big Hero 6, his most bizarre screening

The Big Hero 6 director talks T-shirts and unexpected audience laughter. Plus the last-minute post-credits sequence to the film.

It might have been an odd place to start, but our chat with Big Hero 6 co-director kicked off with T-shirts. Hall, on the promotional tour for the film, has been sporting a few impressive Big Hero 6 shirts that we’ve not seen before, and so we kicked off by asking him about them.

The T-shirts, then…

Sadly, it seems, we can’t get our hands on them…!

When a crew finishes on a film, they design and make their own T-Shirts. I remember that on the set of Titanic, the crew apparently had different T-shirts every week, depending on how things were going. That was during the massive overruns I think.

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I never heard that! Oh my god. So were the crew coming out with ASCII versions of ‘I survived a Don Hall film’ or something?

[Laughs] It’s not about that, more that they’re so proud of the movie, they all put their own stamp on it. Chris [Williams, co-director] have been wearing them whenever we do press or anything like that. So I’d been wearing the technical directors’ shirt. I wore one yesterday that was Baymax on a pose from Stairway To Heaven! And even the font is from the album. But the animation was beautiful too: it was a blue shirt, with a white Baymax, and just the negative space of Hiro in there. Disney wanted to make those shirts, but the animators said no. Only animators can wear them!

Can we talk about the post-credits sequence in Big Hero 6 too, then. Because as I understand it, it came very late in the day. You’d done one on your previous film, Winnie The Pooh

We did, yeah…

But you’ve said that doing a post-credits sequence on Big Hero 6 didn’t really occur to you until July…

Well, we had talked about it. And we got so busy finishing the film that it was way in the back of our heads. We just kind of forgot, actually. When we went to see Guardians Of The Galaxy, we got really scooped. It horrified us, that people were sat waiting for an end credits thing, because of the Marvel DNA. We didn’t want people to leave the movie disappointed. So we did a five minute brainstorm, and came up with the idea of [spoiler redacted], and then Chris wrote and storyboarded that scene.

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How long did that take then, start to finish? Because if you started that in July…

No, no, no! August!

August! So if you started it then, the film had to be locked by what, end of October?

Yeah. We pushed it so to the wire anyway. It had to be done by the wrap party, and that was October. We had to score it too, so October somewhere.

Can we talk about the tonal jump between Winnie The Pooh and Big Hero 6? Because whereas Winnie is a very slow, steadily told tale, Big Hero 6 – particularly in the first third – it’s perceived as a very fast film, but it’s not in the early stages. Yet you get through so much storytelling there. Can you talk about the tonal shift you’ve gone through in directing here?

With Winnie The Pooh, it felt that our mandate wasn’t to make any original thing. To me it was restoring a beautiful old Victorian home, or something like that. One that had been… had some poor, tasteless remodelling done! It felt like we had to take it back to Bear Wood and really let A A Milne’s original stories inform us. And they were very deliberately paced. And it was true to what they were. Those characters don’t have big problems. To them, they’re big. But, you know, on the outside looking in, they’re not. So to me it just fit what we were trying to do with Winnie The Pooh, which was return it to its roots.

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This one, on the other hand, I was concerned. I think Chris was too. That we were being a bit too slow at the beginning of the film, and it was a long way to get through all of that story that we needed to tell. That’s just part of being a director though. When we tested it, and watched it with audiences, it felt like people were in it. They were buying into the characters. So the fact that we were able to take that time and set everybody up… there’s a lot of things we had to set up in that story! It’s a huge list, and it was really hard to get it all condensed into that screen time. The bot fight right at the start kicks the movie off not with a huge action sequence or anything like that, but with a fun bit of business. Generally every screening I’ve been in with audiences, when megabot wins and he jumps back down and takes the Iron Man pose, people applaud! As a filmmaker it’s great to know people laugh at that.

It really was the Iron Man pose as well!

And they’re buying in. And we’ve hooked them, like you might with an action scene in a Bond film. It was really gratifying to think we’ve hooked them here, now we can slow down and tell some story. Because it’s a lot, and it’s our act one!

So do you get Robot Wars in America? I like to think that the BBC Two classic was an influence here!

Yeah, I think we got that a long time ago. But the bot fight was actually based on stuff I saw in Japan. They make these remote control robots, but on a smaller scale than what you’re talking about! I saw battles in Japan where people would build their own robots and battle them, so I based it on that.

When Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck talked to us after Frozen had been released, I talked to them about the strangest audience reaction they’d had to their film. And they described a moment where, at the point Prince Hans reveals himself, a man stood up and applauded loudly. So then: have you had a screening where the reaction has gone wildly against what you’d expect?

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Absolutely. I screened the movie at CalArts, my alma mater. There’s a scene at the beginning of the film where Hiro is talking to Tadashi. And Tadashi says ‘what will mom and dad say”, and Hiro points out that “they’re gone, they died when I was three, remember?”.

Laughter. Laughter in the audience.

And I was wondering what the hell was going on. I did a Q&A afterwards, and I meant to bring it up there, but I forgot. It was clear that they’ve loved the movie, but I only found out later why they were laughing. And it was because they had an animation teacher, and that was his scene that he brought up to show them. So it was actually a laughter of recognition. Oh, that’s the scene…

But for an hour and a half? I’m like dying! Why are they laughing? This is not funny!

Don Hall – whose favourite Jason Statham movie is Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels – thank you very much!

Big Hero 6 is released in the UK on January 30th.

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