Don Hahn has been working with Disney since 1981, when he served as an assistant director on “The Fox and the Hound”. Since then, his producing career with the company has become the stuff of legend. He helped spearhead “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, and “The Lion King”. He directed the host segments in “Fantasia 2000”. And he was part of the team that brought the world the 1991 animated version of “Beauty and the Beast”— the first animated feature ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Now Hahn is back in the producer’s chair again for Disney’s new live-action reimagining of “Beauty and the Beast”, and he’s incredibly proud of the studio’s efforts in translating the classic tale into another form. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Hahn last week, and to find out why exactly this is the right time for another “Beauty and the Beast”.
ITM: How did this project come about? How does Disney decide which of their classic animated features they want to reimagine?
Don Hahn: We thought about doing a live-action movie going back ten [or] fifteen years, because “Beauty” had been a success as an animated film and then a big success on Broadway as well, so it was a chance to retell the story, and I think the only thing we were waiting for, maybe, is [for] the technology to catch up a little bit. Because we knew to tell the story with all these [living] objects, it had to be something that was spectacular to the audience, and a reason to redo it.
So, not only the technology, but just [because] a generation had passed, and the generation when we made “Beauty and the Beast” was pre-internet, pre-cell phone. And now we were able to take an audience that’s really sophisticated and take them on this ride again with this story. I think the audience itself hasn’t changed, they’re still after emotion, they’re still after human stories and life-affirming stories.
I think the studio, I can’t speak for them, but I think in general they’re taking these movies one at a time, and so much of it is finding interesting filmmakers to pair with them. When you can get Tim Burton to do “Dumbo” or Rob Marshall to do “Mary Poppins”, those are exciting filmmakers. Generations have passed since those films, and to be able to retell them with a new generation of filmmakers– like Bill Condon and “Beauty and the Beast”– becomes really exciting, I think.
ITM: Had live-action ever been a possibility while developing Disney’s 1991 original “Beauty and the Beast”, or was that always planned as an animated feature?
Hahn: It was always animated. We never thought about it. I started on it right after “Roger Rabbit”. I had produced the animation on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and we dove into [“Beauty and the Beast”] always as an animated film… but not always as a musical. It’s funny, the first version wasn’t a musical, and after about two or three months we abandoned it because “[The] Little Mermaid” was coming out and Howard Ashman was such a brilliant lyricist and songwriter. And so we retooled the movie and started to work with Howard and Alan [Menken]. I think that’s, in great part, part of the reason that the movie just took off then as the animated movie that it was.
ITM: What about director Bill Condon drew you to approach him for this project?
Hahn: He’s a brilliant director when it comes to musical theater, and understanding musical theater. If you look at his past movies, he has great sensitivity for telling stories with music. And that’s really all about “Beauty and the Beast”. When Howard and Alan wrote these songs, they put a great deal of the plot in the songs. [The characters] don’t just stop and sing, you actually learn [from what they’re singing]. In the opening four minutes, you meet not only Belle, but you meet the villain, and you meet the villain’s sidekick, you meet all the people in the town, you learn what’s wrong with her. They’re very sophisticated storytelling songs, and Bill’s really good at that.
And he’s also this visionary who people want to work with, so he’s able to bring in these amazing production designers, visual effects people and the cast, because there’s a confidence level that, ‘Here’s a guy who understands this medium as well as anybody.’ And I think that’s what made him one of a very short list of people who could have done this movie.
ITM: The movie is a pretty faithful adaptation of the original animated feature, but it’s a half an hour longer. How do you decide what gets added to the existing story, and why?
Hahn: Well, it’s a chance to take an 85-minute animated movie and dig deeper into the characters, and so the first thing is to look at the main characters, look at Belle and the Beast, and say “Is there anything we can add to those characters or develop?” And so, so much of the new material– all of it in fact– goes toward those two characters, so that you can, for example, dig deeper into her relationship with her father: Kevin Kline sings this beautiful song in the opening act of the movie.
You can dig deeper into Belle’s mother. You know, “What happened to Belle’s mother? Where is she? Who is she?” You can dig deeper into the Beast, and his backstory, and learn a tiny bit about why he was cursed. So it’s a chance to take things that we could never do in the animated movie, because animation’s a medium of painting in broad strokes. It’s very caricatured, and quite often you’re just saying things in a very broad manner.
Hahn (cont’d): In live action you can dig quite a bit deeper, and I really love some of the choices in the film to do exactly that– to say, “Let’s reveal to the audience some things that they may not have thought about.” And that’s why you want to go see a remake. It’s not just to see an exact replica of the original movie. You can always go see that. That’s always going to be there, but [you want] to be able to go and see what the filmmakers have brought to it in terms of expanding on that story. And that’s what people have done for thousands of years.
“Beauty and the Beast” is a very old story, and every time it’s been retold– hundreds of time, throughout the centuries– somebody brings something new to it. Somebody brings something that’s a different spin on it. “Tale as old as time” is the right [phrase] for that. It’s a way for storytellers to reinvent with every new generation.
ITM: Can you talk a little bit about the cast, and your thoughts on why these specific actors were brought in to fill these roles?
Hahn: The key cast members are Beauty and the Beast, obviously. Dan Stevens was an incredibly performer on “Downton Abbey” and other things, and it just became a great choice for what it a very difficult role, because he’s behind this buffalo makeup– [he’s] a CGI character the whole time. And he ended up delivering it beautifully.
And then of course the lynchpin to the whole movie was being able to get Emma Watson to play Belle. The fact that she really wanted to play that, and had grown up with the songs, how lucky are we to have an actress like that, that really wants to bring herself to the movie? And as an actress not just replicate the movie, but bring something of her own personality and her own skill-set to the movie, which she does.
Part of it is we’re fortunate that people have an affection towards the original movie and wanted to be part of this retelling. And then part of it is just a really smart director who’s able to look at the actors out there and place them in these roles, so that the ensemble of actors is giving the audience something really special.
ITM: Overall, what do you hope that Disney fans and audiences in general take away from this new version of “Beauty and the Beast”?
Hahn: In its simplest form, it’s a story about love. It’s a story about not judging a book by its cover, and it’s a story about looking inside– not just stopping at the outward appearance of the Beast, who’s ugly but has a heart of gold, or Gaston, who’s incredibly handsome but is kind of a pig inside.
It’s a story about looking inside of people, and I think that’s a really timely story, not just in ’91, but especially today, when we’re in a very complicated world, a world full of fears and apprehension. I think for the audience to go to the theater and see a movie that underlines the fact that there’s something really unique and beautiful inside of all of us, I think that’s a great theme and [that this is] a great time for this movie to come out.
Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” will be released into theaters nationwide this Friday, March 17th.
Images Copyright Disney.