One of the most fascinating things I got to do in California on my Disney Press trip was to interview Maleficent, Executive Producer, Don Hahn. Do you recall my earlier post about the Walt Disney Hour Tour and the Maleficent costumes we got to see? Well on that very same night we got to sit down and chat with Don Hahn. I have to tell you he is the most charming of men and his rich history with Disney and Disney films just blows me away. He worked on “Beauty and the Beast”, “The Lion King”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “The Emperors New Groove” , and “Frankenweenie”. Hahn also launched the Disneynature label as the executive producer of the epic documentaries “Earth,” “Oceans,” “African Cats” and “Chimpanzee.” Seriously Don Hahn is AMAZING. I was so honored that he agreed to sit down and talk to me and everyone else about Maleficent.
Maleficent: Creating a Legacy with Executive Producer Don Hahn
Q : What was the most challenging thing about producing Maleficent?
Don Hahn : 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. A lot of the credit for that goes with our director Robert Stromberg who had production designed “Avatar” and “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. So he’s a amazing world builder. But it was- that was incredibly difficult. Because we only had three months with Angelina and it was a very tight fit in that three month time. So that was part of it, getting it together. Then also just the script because you’re- it’s always a iterative process where you’re re-inventing the story and going back and revisiting it again. It’s a little bit of an insecure feeling. It’s like you’re driving in a car while you’re building it, kind of feeling. So that build up to shooting is always the hardest part.
Q : So the whole movie only took three months basically?
Don Hahn : We had three months of her (Angelina Jolie). We shot for eighty-five days. So a slight bit longer cause when she left we 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.
Q : Did you have an actress in mind from the very beginning?
Don Hahn : It was always, it was always her. It was always Angelina. I don’t- I’m not sure that we would have gotten made without her? Um, 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 was like so gettable 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. She was on before the director. The first director we had for a short time was Tim Burton and she was on even then. And then, the amazing Linda Woolverton who wrote our screenplay, I had worked with on Beauty and the Beast ages ago. She’s really extraordinary when it comes to writing these stories and creating these strong, particularly female characters 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, you know two women, two men, or a godmother character and a childlike character, like Aurora and Maleficent. And she fearlessly attacked all those things and I think did a great job with it.
Q : Was it always the plan to use Angelina’s daughter as the baby for Aurora?
Don Hahn : No, that was out of necessity because when we brought in little girls and dressed them up like little Aurora 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”. Like I have a little girl and you just know what that feels like. So there’s a real genuine moment in that scene. That was the real reason, to get a scene that played 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. Did you have that same thing when trying to transform Angelina for the part?
Don Hahn : Yeah the problem is with most fairy tales, the villains are very black and white. They’re often the most interesting characters in movies because they have a lot of complexity to them. The original Sleeping Beauty that, you know the most boring characters are the princes and they’re incredibly wooden.
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 comes out 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 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 that she has some benevolence and some love inside.
So it took a long time. And I have to say, 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, 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.
Q : You said you were a music person. Do you play a part in the musical aspect of the making of the movies?
Don Hahn : Yeah, I do mainly cause I love it. We had James Newton Howard on this movie who’s brilliant. I can sit in the orchestra sessions at Abbey Road in London and just marvel at it all. I have an interest in it so I’ve probably made more musicals than most producers just because I love that and I love telling stories with music. 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 in the score that we have from him.
Q : Four of your films have turned into Broadway musicals. Can you see Maleficent being a musical?
DH : Yeah. I mean yes. The reason I say yes is I thought not in a million years could you turn Lion King into a musical. And we used to joke when we were making it, we thought, “Oh, this will be great like, like Lion King on ice.” It was just a gag. And then Julie Taymor comes along and re-imagines it as this amazing kind of Shakespearean puppet show and it still plays every night in eight cities around the world and has made over a billion dollars for the company. So could Maleficent be a stage show? Yeah, absolutely. You know Hunchback of Notre Dame’s coming back to the La Jolla Playhouse on stage. And it’s amazing. So yeah, never say never. It’s possible.
Q : Something I live by is that everything happens for a reason. I thought Maleficent played into that, especially with her wings being stolen and how that affects her relationship with Aurora.
Don Hahn : Yeah. Well we were thinking that everybody, all of us at this table, we’ve all been dealt bad hands in our life and a lot of times we’re judged or grow up by how we deal with that. And, and there’s every reason for her to be angry and bitter by what’s happened to her. Um, but over the course of the story she’s able to leave that behind and realize that it’s the love she has for Aurora that kind of triumphs over all the nasty things that have happened to her.
And that’s life. I, I made a documentary a couple years ago about veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq and, and they are kind of the same thing. They’re wounded. They’re missing limbs. They’re missing their heart. They’re missing whatever. And, uh, they live or die depending on how they deal with that. And in a way that was what Maleficent was.
As you can see so much went into creating Maleficent. The genuine love of the character and telling her story is evident when you watch the movie. It truly is one of my all time favorite movies. If you haven’t seen it yet I highly recommend you get the Maleficent Blu-Ray/DVD Combo. This combo contains some amazing bonus features.