Before the incredible tour of Walt Disney’s Estate in Los Feliz, I had the opportunity to speak with Don Hahn. You have probably never heard of him, but he was the producer of some of Disney’s most beloved films including The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Most recently he was executive producer of Maleficent and thus the reason for him speaking with us.
I could listen to him talk for hours. His passion for his work, the creative process and the legacy of Disney are evident. It was clear that Maleficent held a dear place in his heart and I’m excited to share this interview with you.
Q: What was the most challenging thing about producing Maleficent?
DH: The most challenging this is always trying to pull all the pieces together and a lot of it is just calendar work, as simple as that sounds. But once we had all the elements together in the script and wanted to make the project, we had four months to prepare. 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 an amazing world builder.
But it was still incredibly difficult. Because we only had three months with Angelina and it was a very tight fit. So that was part of it, getting it together. Also just the script. 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. That build up to shooting is always the hardest part.
Q : So the whole movie only took three months basically?
DH : We only had three months with her, Angelina. 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. The world almost entirely was created with back paintings and computer graphics.
The only things we physically built were the throne room, that was a complete set built all the way around. The exterior battle scenes were filmed right between Pine Wood and the 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. But a lot of the 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’m not sure that it would have gotten made without her. She loved the character. She grew up with it, loved the idea of playing a Disney character for her and for her family. I’m sure there are 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.” That’s a lot of the fight when you’re trying to get a movie off the ground. She brought a lot to it, I have to say.
There was also the amazing Linda Woolverton who wrote our screenplay, I had worked with on Beauty and the Beast ages ago. And Linda’s, 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 two women, two men, 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.
There were some days when I thought “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’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? Then you can start living your life. That’s an awful story to tell in 2014. So it didn’t take too much smarts to abandon that and do something that’s more relevant.
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, they would come up to this amazing actress and scream and run away. Or get picked up by Angie and just not doing anything. There’s so much genuine love and attachment in that scene where she just walks right up to her and goes, “Up” and I have a little girl and you just know what that feels like. There’s a real genuine moment in that scene.
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 problem when trying to transform Angelina for the part?
DH : The problem is with most fairy tales, the villains aren’t very black and white. They’re often the most interesting characters in movies because they have a lot of complexity to them. In the original Sleeping Beauty, the most boring characters are the princes, they’re incredibly wooden.
But a character like Maleficent was interesting in her beauty, 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? 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 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.
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 whatever, she shows that she has something inside. But it’s not until she actually says, “I’m sorry I cursed the wrong person,” and kisses her on the forehead that you you go, wow, this is a far more complex, evil person than we’ve ever dealt with, at least in a Disney movie.
And I think that’s what was interesting about making this movie – it wasn’t just a bad guy. You know Ursula the sea witch or Scar or something like that? They’re just bad. They’re clever and they’re cunning, but they’re bad. 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.
Disney’s Maleficent releases on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital Copy on November 4th.
Thank you Disney for providing travel expenses to cover this event. Photo credit: Disney. All opinions are my own.