Executive Producer Don Hahn Talks MALEFICENT, Only Considering Angelina Jolie for the Role, Revamping Fairy Tales, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, and More

     November 4, 2014


After being an international hit at the box office, the live-action/fantasy adventure Maleficent, also known as Disney’s most iconic villain, is now available on Blu-ray/DVD and on-demand platforms, with deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes featurettes that will give fans an even deeper glimpse into the magic.

While at the home Walt Disney built on Woking Way in Los Feliz, Calif. in 1932, for an event celebrating Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent, executive producer Don Hahn spoke to a small group of press, which included Collider, about the success of Maleficent and the road it took to the big screen.  He talked about how happily surprised he was by the audience reaction, that they never considered anyone other than Angelina Jolie for the role, deciding on the look for the famous villain, whether they ever considered doing this as an animated feature, and why so many people are revamping fairy tales now.  He also talked about his involvement with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, just how close they’ve gotten to making a sequel, and why it may just remain one stand-alone film.  Check out what he had to say after the jump.

maleficent-blu-ray-box-cover-artWhat do you think about the audience reaction to Maleficent?

DON HAHN:  To be really honest, I was surprised, in a happy way.  I was surprised that it connected with the audience as much as it did, and it connected on a seemingly really deep emotional level, especially with women.  It’s a woman’s story, and I think it’s incredibly resonant.  That’s not to say it doesn’t cross over to guys.  It’s a very emotional movie.  It’s a very vulnerable movie, in terms of the performances, and the connection between Angelina [Jolie] and Elle Fanning.  You can tell they have a good chemistry off screen that shines on the screen.  So, the reaction to it and how deeply felt it is for some people surprised me.

Was anyone other than Angelina Jolie ever considered to play Maleficent?

HAHN:  No.  It’s one of those rare movies where there wasn’t a list.  It was just about her, and she came on really early on.  The first person I pitched it to, as a director, was Tim Burton.  Even then, she was circling the project.  Tim had worked with Linda Woolverton, so we brought her in, as a writer.  Eventually, he had some scheduling problems and had to go off and do Sweeney Todd, but she was always circling it.  She loves this character, and this character has a lot of layers to it.  There’s a facade that this character puts up, that seems very in control, manipulative and able to deal with anything, but as you peel back the layers, you see that beneath that facade is a lot of hurt, anger and vulnerability.  The way she plays it, as an actress, is brilliant ‘cause she only shows you those cards when you need to see them.  You don’t see the vulnerability until deep into the movie.  When she sees the curse can’t be broken and realizes what a horrible mistake she’s made letting out her anger on the daughter of the guy that wronged her, and that the daughter is innocent, you start to see that pain come through in her.

Was Aurora more challenging to cast, or did Elle Fanning come to mind pretty quickly?

HAHN:  I think that was probably more of a broad look at who could do it.  We’re probably the luckiest people in the world that Elle wanted to do it.  This will sound odd, but we always knew that we were making an Angelina Jolie movie, and then we started seeing dailies and we went, “Wow, she’s amazing!”  I remember seeing her in Super 8 and going, “Who is that?”  Can you imagine being 14 and doing scenes with Angelina Jolie?  At 14, I was learning how to speak, and she was holding the screen with Angelina and being a powerhouse.  She was a huge boon for this movie.

How did you come to this look for Maleficent?

HAHN:  It’s unconventional, and that goes to Robert Stromberg and Angelina who said, “Let’s build a world that this character fits in.”  Stromberg is brilliant at that because of his background with Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, and Oz the Great and Powerful, but she fits in that world.  The choices they made, in terms of augmenting her cheekbones and things like that, is nutty.  You go, “You’re gonna do what?!  You’ve hired the most beautiful woman on the planet, and you’re gonna do what?!  Okay.”  But it works because it’s a caricature and the movie is caricatured and put into a make-believe land, so you can caricature a little bit.  It was a very brave choice, but to just put Angelina Jolie in some pretty make-up on screen would have diminished it, a little bit.  This made her bigger than life.  And then, the horns and everything else were just crazy.

don-hahn-2Was the Sleeping Beauty animated feature drawn from, at all?

HAHN:  Robert went to the Animation Research Library and looked at all of the artwork because the classic movie is beautiful and the art direction is just amazing.  But then, we put that on a low shelf and said, “Okay, that’s inside of us.  Let’s go make a movie that’s relevant to a modern audience.”  Robert has a real romantic approach to art direction.  As a director, he was able to step back and say, “Let’s build a movie and some worlds that tell our story.”  The fairy world is all organic with round shapes, water, mist and fog, and the human world is all boxy, iron and stone with spears and spikes.  So visually, those worlds compete with each other, even without characters.  And then, you put the characters into those worlds and you see that the characters are feuding, but so are the designs, in a good way.  It’s really clever, that way.  In the way that the best films do, the art direction supports the story, and that’s some of Stromberg’s best work.

Were there any discussions, at any point along the way, of doing this as an animated feature, or was it always going to be live-action?

HAHN:  It did start out as an animated idea, briefly, when I was there in feature animation.  We love Maleficent.  She’s a favorite villain in the parks and the shows they do at Disneyland.  We thought, “Can we bring back that character and do an animated film?”  So, it was in serious consideration as an animated feature, but pretty quickly migrated over to live-action.  That was six or seven years ago.  And then, I worked with Sean Bailey, who’s the head of the studio, and that’s when Angelina came in and it started to be really clear that this could be something special, if she attached to the project, and it became clear that live-action would be much more interesting.  And then, you’re not competing with the original movie, either, ‘cause why do that?  The original movie is there.  You can pop it in and look at it, so why make another one?  This was a way to expand on that story.

How many times did you have to re-watch Sleeping Beauty?

HAHN:  Plenty.  It’s a weird movie, if I can say that.  They used Tchaikovsky’s score from his ballet.  Who does that?  Nobody does that anymore.  It’s in techno-rama.  The art director was crazy about Japanese block printing, so the look of the movie is very angular and very diminished.  It’s simple geometric shapes with texture on top, so it’s almost Asian.  It’s a very modernist approach to its design.  It’s a classic mid-century modern look, laid against this fairy tale.  But, it’s a great movie.  We didn’t think we could do better, but we thought we could make a movie that was, in its own way, better, being a live-action film.  So, you want to take all of that in and absorb it, but then you want to set it aside.

don-hahn-3If you go back to the original story, some of the versions of Sleeping Beauty are a little out there.  How much did you think about pulling from the darker versions of the story?

HAHN:  I don’t know if we consciously thought about darker.  We knew that the ‘50s version was very much a ‘50s version.  You have a protagonist in the movie that’s sleeping through most of the movie, and is only awakened when her man shows up.  So, the story is about, for a woman, life starts when your man shows up.  That’s fantastic for 1959, but a horrible message for now.  I have a daughter and I have friends, and that’s just inappropriate.  So, we knew we had to retell this in a way that’s appropriate.  And that’s what fairy tales are.

There’s no set version of Sleeping Beauty or Beauty and the Beast, or any of those.  They’re retellings of very, very old stories.  So, we felt some courage in going back to it and saying, “Let’s take the theme, which is love’s true kiss, and that can come from anywhere.  Even somebody who appears, on the outside, to be the most awful person in the world, can still have this kernel of gold inside, which allows her to love and allows her to break the curse.”  That’s the same theme as the original movie.  It comes from a different place in this movie, but that’s what Linda Woolverton based the whole story on.  And Angelina was all over this story, in a positive way, for those kinds of themes.  I think that’s why it connects so well with the audience.

It’s not, “You’ll live happily ever after, someday.”  Here’s a very powerful character in Maleficent, who has her wings cut off, which is a metaphor for losing her freedom.  She can’t fly anymore, so how strong of a metaphor is that.  But, it doesn’t kill her or stop her.  She still has to recover from that and have a life.  The magic in her comes from a different place now.  It doesn’t come from her wings or her sorcery.  It comes from her heart, slowly, and her relationship with Aurora.  So, that became the story, and that was a leap that we took, early on.  We just said, “Let’s all join hands and tell that story, the best we can.”  Luckily, the audience was okay with that.

Would you say that it’s a feminist movie?

HAHN:  I don’t know.  I’m proud of it, as I was with Beauty and the Beast, because it shows women in a more honest light.  I think a lot of early tellings of fairy tales, and a lot of movies in Hollywood, in general, either don’t have females in them, or when women are in the movie, they’re portrayed as people who are pretty weak and can’t solve their own problems.  That’s the wonderful and terrible thing about movies like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.  You can’t do anything until your man comes along, and then your life will start.  It will start with kids and laundry, but it will start.  You can decide whether it’s feminist or not, but I’m happy and very proud of the work that Linda and everyone did on it, to make it with two strong female characters at the head of it.  I think it’s wonderful.  I think it’s incredibly fresh and entertaining, in a funny way.  You think, “Why does it take this long to do a movie like this?”  It’s emotional and it’s powerful for everybody.

maleficent-angelina-jolie-2Was it a risk for Disney to change the story, in this way?

HAHN:  If it was a risk, nobody ever stopped us.  Nobody ever said, “You can’t do that.”  A lot of people asked me if the Disney fans would hate us for doing this.  The real legacy of Walt Disney is fearlessness.  If you look at his movies, he was fearless about the imagery he put on screen.  He made movies for the child in all of us.  He wasn’t afraid of dealing with death.  He wasn’t afraid of dealing with tough issues.  That legacy was the guiding light.  We wanted to be fearless about this.  We knew that we couldn’t do the, “Your life will start when your man shows up,” story.  We wanted to be brave about it, we wanted to be relevant, and we didn’t want to repeat that inappropriate message.  That was okay in the 1950s, but none of us believe that, anymore.

Why do you think so many people are revamping fairy tales now?

HAHN:  It really is a thing.  It’s almost what’s following up all of the Marvel comic genre things, which are still very much alive.  They’re age-old stories.  If you look at Beauty and the Beast, it’s Cyrano de Bergerac and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The King and I.  It’s been around a long time.  Sleeping Beauty is the same way.  They’re deep within us, and they have truths about what it’s like to be a human that we don’t completely understand, so we always like to go back to the well again and hear them.  And I think we like to hear them in different ways.  The way that we did Beauty and the Beast is very different than the way Cocteau did Beauty and the Beast, and thank god.  You can still go watch Cocteau, and it’s brilliant.  That’s our job as storytellers.  You go to the movies to be transported somewhere, and you go to the movies to be reminded of what it’s like to be human, and the trials of being a human being and how you can use that in your life.  That’s why these stories resonate, again and again.  You can always go back to them.  We’ll listen to them, forever.

Having been involved with Roger Rabbit, at any point along the way, did you want there to be a sequel, or are you happy that it’s a stand-alone film?

HAHN:  For years, we were sure there would be a sequel.  We made cartoons to keep the characters alive, and there’s Toon Town at Disneyland.  There were several scripts written.  At times, they seemed like they were ready to be greenlit.  We did a screening of the movie at The Academy last year, for the 25th anniversary, and Bob Zemeckis and the whole crew was there.  We thought, “Maybe this is just one of those movies that’s one of a kind and it’s never going to be sequelized.”  It was a perfect storm of people that came together.  It was a real analog movie.  We drew that thing with pencils.  So, it could be that it was just a one of a kind movie.  I don’t know.  I’m probably too close to it to know.  At times, I thought there were great ideas for it.  There were ideas popping around about origin stories of where Roger came from.  But in the end, it’s probably just going to be one movie.

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