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An Interview with Don Hahn, Director of Waking Sleeping Beauty

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There is nothing I have found quite as fascinating as some of the stories behind the Disney classics. I have to admit whenever a new Blu-ray is released I am almost more excited about sifting through the plethora of bonus material, as I am about the actual film itself at times. Recently, Disney themselves have begun to take note of this interest of animation fans and are capitalizing on it with the release of 3 documentaries about various time periods of the studio.

I recently got the chance to speak with the director of one of those documentaries Waking Sleeping Beauty, Don Hahn. Don Hahn is no stranger to any fan of Disney animation; he started his career as the assistant director on The Fox and the Hound and has worked on such films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. It was great chatting with him about what was like to cull together a documentary on one the greatest periods of Disney.

You’ve worked on both animated films and documentaries for Disney, which do you prefer and why?

Wow, they are so different. I don’t know if I have a preference. I think they are both interesting. I think documentaries are challenging because you can’t direct the outcome, whether it’s a nature documentary or a documentary like Waking Sleeping Beauty.  You’re dealing with facts and you have to go where the river takes you, where the facts take you, and in animation of course you are able to manipulate the facts and tell the story any way you want to. So they both have different challenges, neither is easy.

Documentaries are liberating because they only take a year or two to make where it takes five years for an animated film.  So I think that’s a plus, but animation when it works, there is nothing like it.

How did Waking Sleeping Beauty originate? And was there any resistance to telling the story like you do, because you really tell it like it is in this documentary.

Well it’s a really interesting story, because we took it to Dick Cook who was the head of the studio at the time, and we said we think there is a story here. We being Peter Schneider and I thought there was a special time here, Peter in particular really felt like a movie could be made. I actually wasn’t so sure at the time.

But he felt like what a unique time in film history and certainly Disney history; can’t we tell this story before we all forget it. Its 20 years later and we are all willing to talk about it now and before we get much older and start forgetting so why don’t we make a movie. So Dick was very open to that, I think he greenlit three documentaries in the same year, one was a Sherman Brothers’ Movie, One was Walt & El Grupo and Waking Sleeping Beauty.

They all tell a different part of the Walt Disney Studio story and one of the things we told Dick at the time was we wanted to tell the story warts and all, we don’t want to do a DVD bonus piece that is wonderful, complementary and says how great we were. There is really no need for that, what we really want to do is show real artists had real passion and drive to create, and sometimes that was a bumpy road and to the studios credit they were very open to that.

Speaking of the truthfulness of the documentary, sometimes I found it hard to believe that Disney would allow the story to be told as truthful as it was in Waking Sleeping Beauty.

Yeah, well I think because it is a 20 year old story, I am not sure you would see the same thing if we made something today about today’s studio. The story really needs that arm’s length to truly reflect on it. But everyone felt the movies of that period were unique and special, and were very happy to talk about it.

You know it’s like looking at a winning sports team, like the Chicago Bulls from the 80s, there are conflicts, there are personnel conflicts and whatever; but since it was such a winning season the story had a happy ending and what makes the story interesting is watching the conflicts and the drama that goes into that happy ending.

How did you find a lot of the footage you used for the Waking Sleeping Beauty? It seemed like an amazing mix of formats.

It was, I think we had somewhere around 16 different formats and almost everything you could think of actually. Part of the reason that the style of the movie is such a scrapbook grab bag kind of style, is that I wanted to tell the story with all archival footage. That meant essentially using anything we could find and that was the hardest part of the film.

I knew some of the core material like the Randy Cartwright tour of the studio, you know where he takes us inside and we see Tim Burton and John Lasseter and so fourth; I knew that existed. I also put the word out to friends and people in the industry that I was making the movie and they would call up and say, “I had this videotape in my closet for the last 20 years do you want it?”

I would look at everything, I just put the word out that I would look at anything you have and that is where I found things like the Apocalypse Now re-enactment and little gems like that. So it was a real treasure hunt.

It was great seeing John Lasseter and Tim Burton at Disney at the beginning of their careers in the documentary after what they have achieved and who they are today, some might not know that Disney animation is where they got their start.

Yeah, they got their start there and it was a difficult time for them, they were not successful at the time. Tim did a couple of great movies there like Frankenweenie and Vincent but he was frustrated as were John Lasseter and Brad Bird. So many people evaporated after a while and now ironically and happily they are all back working at Disney again in these very senior leadership positions and they are all very brilliant guys.

So was there any stories you wanted to tell but couldn’t due to either lack of footage or simply not enough time?

Well my first cut of the movie was four hours long. So there were a lot of stories I think I certainly could have devoted more time to like the pre-Eisner era, Don Bluth and that whole era in general. There was a lot there and I just scratched the surface, but that was appropriate for this movie. I think a lot more about Aladdin and Lion King as well, but by the time we got to that part of the story, the story shifted over to the executives and tensions between them.

I think there is a lot of story to tell about Aladdin and Lion King in how those projects came to be. The reason I didn’t put them in the movie is there are so many similarities between earlier projects. Songs were cut out, directors were fired they tend to repeat, so that is why I switched the plot of the movie to focus on the executives and elements of that story with fracture and fray of those relationships.

Will we be seeing more documentaries like Waking Sleeping Beauty in the future?

There is none in the planning right now, but I wouldn’t rule it out. What is brilliant about these three documentaries is they are three different eras and I am as fascinated with the Walt & El Grupo story as I am with the Sherman Brothers’ as with Waking Sleeping Beauty. So I would like to see that happen.

As years go by I think there are going to be more components of the Disney story that the audience will want to see. I think part of it too is to see how these movies do when they go out on DVD. I appreciated you talking about them and spreading the word because they are unique projects and now we have to get out there and make sure they are commercial projects as well.

Check out the trailer below for Waking Sleeping Beauty: