Beauty and the Beast arrives in theaters on March 17th, 2017. We had the opportunity to interview executive producer Don Hahn, who had a huge role in bringing the 1991 animated version to the big screen. It’s been a number of years since we’ve interviewed him, so it was nice to be able to catch up. At interview time, we had not yet seen the new film, but we will be next Tuesday and we will post about the press conference one of our reporters attended as well.
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MS: You are executive producer on the new Beauty and the Beast. What does that entail for you on a day-to-day basis?
DH: A lot of it is helping to put the project together and then getting out of the way. So, it’s an odd thing about producing. You have David Hoberman, who is a brilliant producer, who’s there every day kind of shepherding the project along. And on this film, I get to kind of assist in putting the movie together and the script and that kind of thing. You really want to turn it over to someone as capable as (director) Bill Condon, and say “Put this together, put the cast together”. And then I have the luxury of cheerleading and coming back at the end of the movie when it’s cut together, and looking at rough cuts and giving notes and commenting on it. So, as an executive producer you really have a little bit more of an overview of the whole project. And I think that’s right, because I had my chance to make the movie in a very detailed, granular way back in 1991 for 4 years of my life (laughing). So I can come back now and do it in a way where I can support and cheerlead and get behind someone as gifted as Bill Condon…it’s what my job is, and it’s a pleasure, believe me.
MS: For the original 1991 film, you did a research trip to the Loire Valley. How much of that research transfers over to the new film?
DH: It’s a lot. If you’ve been to the Loire (we did last fall), you know how beautiful it is when you go to Chambord and Chenonceau, and those old places. So even though in the film it’s a fairytale castle and it’s built by our amazing production designers, it still has echos of a French fairytale. It was a French fairytale, and so that is why we went to the Loire, and that is why the visual vernacular – the vocabulary of France and the vocabulary of architecture in the Loire Valley – makes it into the film, both outside and inside the beautiful interiors in this film are a real treat, it’s real eye candy for the audience.
MS: Where was Belle’s Village inspired by? I’ve read many different places, including the Alsace region of France.
DH: Oh, you know, it’s funny – it’s not any particular place. We stayed at several places in the Loire Valley, but there’s probably a little bit of English village in it too – the Cotswolds and those wonderful little…charming English villages. So you just get a chance to feel these little towns that raised wool, period towns from the 17th century. So it’s a fantasy town made up of our favorite bits of all these little villages. You want to come up with a place that the audience hasn’t been to before. It allows you to make this perfect, idyllic fantasy village for the characters to live in, and that’s the fun part.
MS: What challenges were there in the new film that weren’t there for the animated one?
DH: The challenge and the opportunity of the new film was to expand on some characters and expand on the story. And so that’s terrifying in one way because the original movie was so well received and it was so appreciated. You do want to retell it, you do want to re-imagine it, because it’s been 25 years. So you want to be able to say, how can we put more flesh on the bones of a character like Beast, or Belle…find out more about Belle – about her father, and maybe even her mother – where she came from. And find out about the Beast and his curse and his background. It’s a great opportunity to flesh out those characters and give the audience more of a depth of knowledge about those characters, which hopefully helps their depth of feeling about those characters and their (the characters) love for each other. So that’s a challenge. The other challenge is to even use modern technology to remake the story. So when you can redo the story with modern technology for the clock or the teapot or even the Beast character himself, which is a really sophisticated piece of technology, that’s a challenge. And the real challenge there is to make the audience forget that they are looking at technology. You want to go see this movie, and you don’t want to see pixels and code and all that stuff. You want to perfectly suspend disbelief and believe you are looking at this flesh and blood beast that you can fall in love with – and that’s a challenge.
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MS: How was it decided to make the live action film? And also, a movie like the newer Pete’s Dragon is a fully new film where Beauty and the Beast is more of a retelling along the lines of the animated movie. What made you decide to do it that way?
DH: I worked on the original Pete’s Dragon (laughing). (I didn’t know that). I was just a kid. Some movies want a retelling in a way that is radical. And I think that has to do with the original movie and it’s appropriateness for modern audiences. Does the modern audience want to see Passamaquoddy in Pete’s Dragon set back in the 19th century? Probably not. So I think the retelling was appropriate. With Beauty and the Beast, I think there was such affection for the original movie…we as filmmakers might have been crucified had we tried to mess with it too much (laughing). So you want to, on one hand, deliver something that is familiar to the audience. Most kids grew up with this film and know the songs word by word. My daughter did. And so, had we changed too much about it, it would have been a little shocking for the audience. But, on the flip side, you don’t want to just literally retell the film. So Alan Menken and Tim Rice wrote three new songs, and there’s all this chance for depth. There’s Emma Watson bringing her tremendous acting skills to the film and herself and her passion for this character to the film. And that all adds up to something that is a new experience. Even though it revisits a lot of the old scenes, it’s a fresh experience for the audience.
MS: And what was the casting process like? I will just ask for the two leads, Emma Watson (Belle) and Dan Stevens (Beast).
DH: I think for Emma it was a pretty short list. Many people wanted to do that role, but very few people we felt like could do that role. And (director) Bill Condon, with his amazing expertise at telling stories in music, was able to say…here’s an actress who is very respected at a very young age. Someone who, in her personal life, is active in women’s rights, for a character who is very active in women’s rights….a character who can sing, an actress who can sing. And so she was on a short list of one, I think, for that role – and wanted to do it, wanted to set aside a large chunk of her career, which you have to do for a film like this…to play this role, and we’re really grateful for that. And Dan Stevens, most of the Western world has grown up with a lot of Downton Abbey over the past few years. And he was such a beloved character on that show…and as an actor, came to Broadway, came into a lot of projects since then…and became kind of this perfect character – not too handsome and hunky and gratuitous, but the right amount of personality and affection and….kind of instinct to play that role. So I think the Beast was a little harder to cast. It was in this case, and Dan brings so much to it. It’s a difficult role, he’s covered in CGI makeup for the whole movie.
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MS: How hard was the motion capture for him?
DH: With motion capture, you’re basically performing as you would the role, but the special effects guys are taking this data from your face (laughing). You’re all wired up with dots all over your face, but you have to forget about that and just ignore the fact that I’m wearing a wetsuit and covered with dots. Just pretend that I’m a Beast approaching this character. It requires a tremendous suspension of disbelief, and tremendous commitment as an actor to be able to do that. And it’s a real tribute to him as an actor.
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MS: You were able to work with Alan Menken again, who collaborated with Howard Ashman on the original film. What was it like to work with him again for the movie?
DH: Well, it is a tremendous gift, that we all know because we all sing his songs every day. And his gift is just this wonderful, melodic…flow that he has, for lack of a better word. So why would you do another Beauty and the Beast without taking advange of that? He’s at the top of his game right now. Aladdin’s on Broadway, he’s writing new material all the time…so it’s wonderful. He is a good friend and we worked closely obviously on the original film. And Tim Rice is also a friend, we worked on The Lion King together. So to have Alan and Tim together, to bring these three new songs to the film was pretty amazing. But it bears repeating that so much of the original Beauty and the Beast and so much of this film is Howard Ashman. I could sit and talk for an hour about Howard and his gift for storytelling and putting plot into songs, and being able to dramatize things through music. He was a genius. He was really a genius and one of the most amazing people I’ve ever worked with. And I think he really lives on through this movie, which is something I’m really happy about.