Exclusive: Disney Producing Legend Don Hahn

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For Disney fans, Don Hahn’s name is instantly one of animation legend, responsible for the studio’s creative rebirth near the end of the 20th century. Hahn, who began working with Disney in 1976, quickly became one of animation’s foremost film producers, delivering classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

Hahn’s Disney contemporaries ranged from John Lasseter to Tim Burton and the era of creativity they brought forth is the subject of Waking Sleeping Beauty, a feature-length documentary directed by Hahn chronicling the studio story beginning in the mid-1980’s. Careful not to shy away from controversy, the film, for the first time, offers a frank, insider’s look, backed by vast amounts of behind-the-scenes material and newly-recorded interviews with the men and women who brought forth Disney’s animation renaissance.

Hitting DVD this Tuesday, Waking Sleeping Beauty arrives the same day as Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 (on Blu-ray for the first time). Hahn, who also produced and directed scenes in Fantasia 2000, spoke with ComingSoon.net about his lifelong career and where he sees himself and the studio heading in the future.

CS: We’ve got both “Fantasia” and “Waking Sleeping Video” hitting on the same day. Any specific thoughts on the feeling of seeing them come home?
Don Hahn:
Well, in the macro sense, it’s pretty terrific. Animation is weird because it has this timeless quality about it. You can watch these movies–and people do–for generations. I remember when “Beauty and the Beast” came out about a month ago and people would come up and say, “I saw this when I was a kid and I just showed it to my four year old for the first time.” Aside from making me feel really old, it’s actually very humbling and gratifying that these movies have such long legs that can cross generational lines. So when something like “Fantasia” comes out, it’s terrific.

CS: “Waking Sleeping Beauty” is a very open, honest look at a certain period in Disney’s history. That’s something that no company, really, ever tends to embrace so openly. What was it that made you and Disney decide to open up like that?
Hahn:
I think from the beginning of asking them to do the project, the caveat we had was that we needed to do it warts and all. We needed to tell the whole story. We were really aware that we didn’t want to make a puff piece. It had been done before and it’s not the purpose of the film. The purpose of the film is to humanize the people involved in that era and tell an incredible story. It really was incredible time when you mixed together these brilliant executives like [Michael] Eisner and [Jeffrey] Katzenberg and [Frank] Wells with, like, Howard Ashman and all the artistic talent. It was a gasoline fire and that’s what we wanted to put down. When you have that kind of energy dynamic, there’s bound to be sparks. There’s bound to be disagreements. Emotions run high. Pressure gets intense. It does the story a disservice not to include those things. And again, we did them to humanize. We didn’t want to demonize anybody. We didn’t want to draw black and white heroes and villains because it’s not that kind of story. It’s a story about shades of grey and human achievement. I have to say, it was probably a risk for the company to do it, but they, to their credit, really embraced it. Even to Bob Iger, they understood that it’s a story of a 20 year legacy that has relevance to our history and contains lessons for the future.

CS: You joined Disney in the late ’70s and there seems to be sort of cycle of inspiration. We’ve had a number of CGI releases and now they’re started to be blended with hand drawn animation again.
Hahn:
It’s really interesting. One of the best things that has happened to Disney Animation is John Lasseter. He’s very much featured in my film and very much a fan of storytelling and animation. I know that John doesn’t care if it’s hand drawn or computer drawn or with a puppet. He just appreciates good storytelling. And he doesn’t run for the Disney legacy. He leans into it. He knows what people love. He knows the audience is so loyal and generous with us that there’s every reason to celebrate that legacy. So I think that John has brought a sense of corporate culture and quality and, knock on wood, there’s a little renaissance happening certainly in the animation industry. I think people will see that with “Tangled,” which is coming up and “Winnie the Pooh.”. I think some of the projects coming up are just great and they’re coming from a new generation of people, which I love.

CS: “Tangled” sort of has a classic story with a new animation style. “Princess and the Frog” was sort of a shift in story with the classic animation. Do you think it’s important to keep a foot in tradition when going for something new?
Hahn:
Well, it’s a razor’s edge. I think that you can’t hold onto the past entirely because it becomes dusty and irrelevant. What “Tangled” does so effectively, I think, is to celebrate the past, but gives you a modern or contemporary relevant look at a story. And a lot of that, of course, comes from the directors who are funny and have a lot to stay. Their style and approach to it is really great.

CS: What made you decide to step in as director on the documentary?
Hahn:
It’s funny. We started and Peter Schneider and I talked about it. He said, “Let’s make this film,” and I was sure it was a great idea. We talked to Dick Cook who was the head of the studio at the time and it felt like it was an important story to tell. We looked for directors and interviewed directors for a couple of months and I finally said to Peter, “You know, I hate to say this, but I need to direct this film. Because I know the story. If we hire another director, I’m just going to hover over their shoulder for the next two years and it’s going to be miserable for both of us. I’m just going to do this myself.” So I became the self-appointed director and everyone was incredibly supportive of that. I think that when you make a movie or write a book or whatever, it’s all about writing what you know. I lived the story and knew enough to be able to talk to Ron Clements or John Musker, John Lasseter, Tim Burton – all those people who would be able to comment on the story I want to tell. Jeffery as well. He knew the story we wanted to tell and was incredibly generous.

CS: I would imagine that, knowing these guys, it usually made it much, much easier to talk to them. Did it ever make it harder?
Hahn:
It was hard with some people. It was hard with Roy Disney. I had to ask him pointed questions that were uncomfortable for him. Because he had been such a mentor to me in many ways. But we had a writer colleague that helped with some early groundbreaking interviews on the project, too and asked some of the tough questions. So when I went back to record them, so I could say, “Patrick Machecko, our writer, said that you recounted this story. So I used Patrick as a wedge in the door to open up some issues. Without a camera going first, it was much more open because I didn’t want them to edit themselves knowing it was there. I got incredibly candid comments from Michael and Jeffery and Roy. Those, in many ways, were the three dynamics behind this era. This style of working seemed to do the movie well.

CS: You’ve got some other documentaries in the works as well. Can you talk a little about those?
Hahn:
I do. I just finished one called “Handheld” about the Romanian orphanage crisis twenty years later. That’s one that’s finished and is starting to do festivals. Then I’ve also been really involved in the Disney Nature brand. I’ve really enjoyed that. Right now I’ve been working with Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, who worked on the “Planet Earth” series. I’m doing a film called “African Cats” that comes out next year. And that’s been terrific for a whole other reason. These are guys who go sit in the middle of the Savannah for two and half years hoping something happens. When it does, it’s breathtaking and being able to release that footage as movies is a great addendum onto my career. I love working with those guys.

CS: Is it a big change of pace for you going from a producer role to a director role?
Hahn:
Yeah, it is. If you were to describe what I do as a producer, it’s kind of team builder or a consensus builder. You’re helping everyone tell the story. You’re getting all those people in place and then staying out of their way so they can do their work. As a director, you’re there. You’re glued to the editor for six months or a year. It took us a couple of years to make “Waking Sleeping Beauty.” They loved that. They absolutely loved that. It’s very quiet. It’s very in the animation environment. You’re taking a meeting and as long as it takes, it’s still very chaotic. In the documentary environment, you rise and fall on your own choices. You rise and fall on the story and the footage you have. It’s an amazing kind of treasure hunt process. I really love it. I will always love animation, but I’m going to keep pushing in that direction and trying documentaries from time to time because I find them personally really challenging.

CS: Do you ever see yourself tackling a narrative film as a director?
Hahn:
Possibly. I mean, I’ve thought about it. There’s nothing in the works right now, but I think it might be really interesting in the future. But the thing is, I have animation in my blood, too. I’m actually working with Tim Burton right now on an animated film and I just love it. So I think that’s probably my calling and what I was meant to do on this Earth.

CS: This is “Frankenweenie”? That’s being done in stop-motion?
Hahn:
Yeah, it’s all stop-motion. Very much in the style of “Nightmare Before Christmas.”

CS: Do you have a preference for animation style? It seems impressive that Disney is able to simultaneously have stop-motion films, hand-drawn animation films and computer animation films.
Hahn:
That’s all John Lasseter. In the coming couple of years, you’ll see hand-drawn films and puppets and pixels and every kind of style. That’s because John loves storytelling and he’s not afraid of technique. He trusts directors to choose technique so when Tim or Henry Selick comes in with a project in stop motion, who cares? They’re great directors. He’s fearless of the technique and I think that’s admirable of him. I totally believe in that. It’s about the story and not the technique.

CS: Is there a nostalgic element involved in coming back around to “Frankenweenie,” given that it’s based on a short film from the days featured in “Waking Sleeping Beauty”?
Hahn:
It is, yeah. When I first met with Tim on it several years ago, I think that yeah, there is. It was one of the first films he made and I think it was a very easy fit to say we should expand it into a feature. That’s why “Waking Sleeping Beauty” could have easily become a five-hour miniseries. Because there’s so many things that happened in that ten year period. “Frankenweenie” was certainly one of them and the opportunities that Tim got that led to “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” and other films. The other things that happened in that period. John Lasseter getting kicked out of the studio. Brad Bird and all these people were there at the same time. That’s what made it such an amazing petri dish for the animation industry.

CS: So looking to the future, what else is on your plate for the long term?
Hahn:
“Frankenweenie” and “African Cats” is really enough to keep me busy. We’ve got some other animated and live-action films in development right now, but they’re all really too early to talk about. But it’s cool. It’s thrilling to be able to work with Tim again. It’s great to get “Waking Sleeping Beauty” out on DVD. It hopefully celebrates the artists and celebrates the people of that time. I’m really exciting about letting people be able to see it because we had a really great festival run and a great run in art houses. I think this is going to be where general audiences can see it and really get to appreciate the art form.

Waking Sleeping Beauty is available on DVD on Tuesday, November 30th. Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 are available the same day as a combo pack on both DVD and Blu-ray.