Want to know a great mind, then delve into the mind of Don Hahn. Don Hahn is the executive producer of Maleficent and that’s among a long long list of other accomplishments. He’s also working on a documentary of Walt Disney’s life and I can’t wait until that comes out on PBS. A month ago I had the opportunity to sit down and pick his brain at the House that Walt Disney built for a while. Then after our interview he spent quite a while talking to us even further and he’s just a really interesting guy full of Disney facts.
Here is the main interview with Don Hahn.
Q : What was the name of the first animated film that you did in high school?
DH : That I did in high school? Oh my god! I don’t know if it even had a name. In junior high, we did a stunt motion film where we’d each jump off the ground and take a frame when we were up in the air and then when you played it back, it looked like we were floating three feet off the ground, like down the hallways and things. That was the very first animated film I worked on.
But I was a music major actually. I was a music major and an art minor and, and, uh, went to Cal State Northridge and played in the band and got a summer job at Disney and never left. So someday I’ll probably get a call from Cal State Northridge to come back and finish, but that’s where I started out.
Q : What was the most challenging thing about producing Maleficent?
DH : It’s always trying to pull all the pieces together and, and a lot of it is just calendar work, as, as simple as that sounds. But once we had all the elements together in the script and, and wanted to make the project, we had four months to prepare. And that was four months to build a whole world. Um, a lot of the credit for that goes with our director Robert Stromberg who had production designed, um, Avatar and, uh, the Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. So he’s a amazing world builder.
That was incredibly difficult. Because we only had three months with Angelina and, and it was a very tight, uh, fit in that three month time. So that was part of it, getting it together. And then also just the script because you’re- it’s, it’s always a, uh, iterative process where you’re re-inventing the story and going back and revisiting it again? And it’s, uh, a little bit of an insecure feeling. It’s like you’re driving in a car while you’re building it, uh, kind of feeling. So the build up to shooting is always the hardest part.
Q : So the whole movie only took three months basically?
DH : We had, we had three months of her. We shot for eighty-five days. So a, a slight bit longer cause when she left we, um, still had Elle Fanning, we still had some other pick-up shots along the way. And then we had about a year and a half of special effects and putting it all together. Cause if you were to visit the set it was a, you know, there’d be a couple of trees and a river and a lot of green screen behind it. So it was a- the world almost entirely was created with back paintings and computer graphics.
Everything about- the only things we built were the, uh, the throne room. Where the dragon, uh, gets unleashed at the end was a complete set built all the way around. The exterior battle scenes were filmed right between Pine Wood and the M- M-4, M-5 freeway. So if you were to turn the camera while the battle scenes were happening? You’d see like a freeway going behind [LAUGHS] and, um, so, uh, yeah. But a lot of the, you know, castles and things were added in computer graphics later.
Q : Did you have an actress in mind from the very beginning?
DH : It was always, it was always her. It was always Angelina. I don’t- I’m not sure that we would have gotten it made without her? She loved the character. She grew up with it, loved the idea of the- of playing a Disney character for her and for her family. I’m sure there are other-, uh, other actress that could have done it? But she was so right for it. Because when you said, "We’re gonna do Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s point of view, kind of like Wicked with Angelina Jolie," people said, "Yep, let’s go."
It- it was like so gettable. Uh, and that’s a lot of the fight when you’re trying to get a movie off the ground. And she brought a lot to it, I have to say. I mean we first, she was on before the director. She was- the first director we had for a short time was Tim Burton and she was on even then. Um, and then, the amazing Linda Woolverton who wrote our screenplay, I had worked with on Beauty and the Beast ages ago. And Linda’s, um, she’s, she’s really extraordinary when it comes to writing these stories and creating these strong, particularly female characters, uh, that have these strong relationships. Cause we wanted to break some rules in this movie to say that love doesn’t always have to come from the guy in your life?
That love conquers all is a bigger phrase. That it can be love between, uh, you know two women, two men, uh, a, a godmother character and a- and a childlike character, like Aurora and Maleficent. And she fearlessly attacked all those things and I think did a great job with it.
There were some days when I thought like what are we doing? We’re messing with this Disney fairy tale. But you also knew we couldn’t tell the other story. We couldn’t say, you-, uh, you know you’re, you’re, you’re a young woman, you’re gonna be asleep until a man comes into your life and tells you it’s okay to wake up? And then you can start living your life. That’s an awful story to tell in 2014. So, um, it didn’t take too much smarts to abandon that and do something that’s more relevant.
Q : Is that why in Maleficent, Aurora is not called Briar Rose at all?
DH : Um, yes. And I think also for clarity, just for the audience. So that it’s clear, you know that she’s, always one character name. But yeah, we wanted to simplify it and we wanted to get away from the idea that she was the, the sacrificial flower that someday would be opened up by a man. I mean those are all great if you’re in 1959, um, but it just didn’t seem appropriate for this movie.
Q : Was it always the plan to use Angelina’s daughter as the baby for Aurora?
DH : No, that was out of necessity because when we brought in little girls and dressed them up like little Aurora, um, they would come up to this amazing actress and scream and run away. Or get picked up by Angie and just you know not doing anything? And there’s so much genuine love and attachment in that scene where she just walks right up to her and goes, "Up" and you know and, like I have a little girl and, and you just know what that feels like. And, uh, so there’s a real genuine moment in that scene.
And, and when you see the costumes, they’re upstairs here. When you go up there and see them, it’s f- it’s formidable. You know she’s a big lady to begin with, plus the horns and all that stuff. So, uh, that was the real reason is to get a scene that played, um, uh, more as reality. We had to use Vivienne.
Q : I heard Walt Disney had a hard time trying to create Maleficent as being both beautiful and powerful at the same time.
DH : Yeah.
Q : Did you have that same thing when trying to transform Angelina for the part?
DH : Uh, yeah the problem is with most fairy tales, the villains are very black and white. They’re, um, often the most interesting characters in movies because they have, uh, a lot of complexity to them. The original Sleeping Beauty that, you know the most boring characters are the princes and the- you know, they’re incredibly wooden.
But a character like Maleficent was at least interesting in her beauty, and in her look, and the way she behaved. I think what our problem was is how do you then open that character up to show that there’s a heart inside? And- cause you couldn’t, you know like before the movie came out we thought we can’t just go out to the press and say, "You know this awful villain? She’s really nice." It’s like, no, that like ruins it all. She’s still Maleficent. She still has a very, um, complex view of life and she still has a lot of challenges, but there’s enough of a light inside that she can open up and show you to show that she has some benevolence and some love inside.
So we had to- it took a long time. And I have to say, um, Angelina gave us most all of that, because she has a very restrained performance where she only shows you a little bit of that at a time. So she’s opening up to the baby Aurora or the little kid Aurora whatever, she shows that she has something inside, but not until she actually says, "I’m sorry I cursed the wrong person," and kisses her on the forehead. You go, wow, this is a, a far more complex, evil person than we’ve ever dealt with, at least in a Disney movie.
And I think that’s what’s, what was interesting about making this movie is it wasn’t just a bad guy. You know whether it’s, uh, Ursula the sea witch or Scar or something like that? They’re just bad. And, and they’re clever and they’re cunning, but they’re bad. Um, Maleficent couldn’t just be bad. You had to show that there was some reason why she got wounded and her wings were clipped and what that meant to her and how horrific an experience that was. And so that was part and parcel of telling that story.
Q : Were you fan of the Wicked story and the Broadway musical before you started working on Maleficent?
DH : I, I was. Yeah. I mean it- it was just- for me it was an easy way to explain to people what we were doing. Is to say, "We’re gonna, we’re gonna flip the story and investigate this character instead of that character." So instead of doing Sleeping Beauty again, let’s go investigate the life of Maleficent. And people could understand that really quickly. Um, it’s hard- there’s so much noise in Hollywood and when you’re trying to sell movies or just the idea of a movie? It was a quick way to communicate it more than anything.
Q : You said you were a music person. Do you play a part in the musical aspect of the making of the movies?
DH : Yeah, I do mainly cause I love it. I know you had James Newton Howard on this movie who’s brilliant. Um, so by play a part, I- you know I can sit in the orchestra sessions, uh, at Abbey Road in London and just marvel at it all. Um, but yeah, I, I just- I have an interest in it so I, I’ve probably made more musicals than most producers just because I love that and I love telling stories with music. Um, even though this wasn’t a musical, James gave us so much of the emotion of the story just by virtue of what he wrote, uh, in, in the score that we have from him.
Q : Did you make Maleficent’s wings or were they special effects?
DH : They’re all fake. Uh, [LAUGHS] yeah they are. They are. There’s nothing there that’s, uh, actual- the- she- if you were to watch the dailies of her being filmed, uh, look, she had a little, uh, green square on her back which held a battery? And two little, uh, antennae that came out with bright orange spots on the end. And that was enough for the visual effects guys to know the symmetry of her back. And that’s all. And so everything you see in terms of her, when-when she’s flying, uh, most the time it’s a hundred percent animated.
Uh, so we- you take a scan. You literally put her in a, uh, drum and do a drum scan of her and so you have that. We did- Rick Baker did a face cast with plaster of her? Of her head? So we can get the horns, cause the horns had to feel like they grew out of her skull? Uh, they were magnetic so if she caught her head by accident on something, they would break off just for safety reasons. So it was a really unusual film in terms of preparing it because it- there was a lot of question marks. But yeah, there’s so much of it is, is animated or fabricated. And the wings are all animated.
Q : On the bonus clips, you saw a tiny set with a green screen. It looked like the actress couldn’t move a whole lot, which had to be difficult.
DH : I think it’s remarkable cause they had their costumes but their- you know you would, you would argue that so much of a performance comes from feeling like you’re in the time period and in the zone with that space. And there’s nothing there. The sets were, you know, smaller than this backyard in many cases. Uh, so it’s really, suspension of disbelief, not only to be an actress.
Can you imagine what Elle Fanning felt? Like she’s fourteen. She gets hired under a movie with Angelina Jolie and she has to show up on the set and play opposite her and remember her lines and there’s no set. With a green screen. And "Action." You know and so you just go, wow, what a remarkable actress she is. Cause she really delivers a lot of warmth to this movie.
Q : I guess it’s very similar to the voice actors in an animated movie. Like Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite movies.
DH : Yea! Thank you. Thanks. There’s a lot Beauty in this movie, not only Linda and I who worked on the original film, but just a lot of the thematics of it. And we were big, uh, you know even twenty years ago, fans of not wanting to make the, the, uh, princess just be a, a victim or a- somebody who was just along for the ride in the story? And someday when the guys work things out, I’ll have a happy life, you know. It’s like, no.
You know I have a little girl who was born the year, uh, Beauty and the Beast came out. And I guess maybe I was over-aware of it. And so did Linda. I mean we both- our girls are the same age. Uh, now she’s twenty-two or twenty-three. But it’s still, it’s, it’s like no, let’s talk about like real life. And what I was telling my daughter and what my wife was telling my daughter was you have to have your own identity. You have to be yourself. And yes, you’ll fall in love someday, but that doesn’t have to be now, it can be later. And we wanted to give those attributes to our characters.
Q : Bell is my daughter’s favorite. Every time we go to Walt Disney world she dresses up like her.
DH : Aw, that’s sweet. In the original fairy tale, Belle, Belle was given away as a piece of property almost cause her father got trapped by the Beast and he said, "Well I- you know I’m worthless to you. Take my daughter. I’ll send for her." And Belle shows up at the castle and says, "Okay, Belle, thanks. Bye. I’ll be back at the wharf." And, um, she really is like a, a piece of meat that’s along for the ride. And so I mean we can’t tell that story. It’s awful.
So that’s when we, uh, again Linda really said, "Let’s make her bookish. Let’s make her turn into-" and Howard Ashman as well, the songwriter, "Let’s make her want her adventure. Let’s make her like read books and her head’s in the sky and then she gets her adventure in a really unexpected way." And it’s not until the very last scene that she s- finally sees oh, there might be more here than just a big hairy guy, so.
Q : Are you a fan of the show Once Upon A Time?
DH : I’m not. It’s kind of a bustman’s holiday for me. You know I do enough fairy tales during my day job? I, I watch a lot of Dancing with the Stars. Does that matter? I watch trash TV and I watch the Bachelorette and Dancing with the Stars. So. Sad I know.
Q : I think Maleficent would be a great addition to the show.
DH : Yeah, well F- the Frozen characters are coming into that show too aren’t they? Yeah. Well Maleficent will show up won’t she? She will. It’s Disney for god sake. How can she not show up?