It makes sense that there's an announcement in my e-mail inbox about a new edition of "The Great Mouse Detective" on DVD, because I have a feeling anyone who sees "Waking Sleeping Beauty" is going to want to go back and take a look at that film, along with "The Black Cauldron," "The Rescuers Down Under," and all the megahits that Disney released in the wake of "The Little Mermaid." It's just a natural side-effect of watching this absorbing look at the way the company reinvented itself in the Michael Eisner/Jeffrey Katzenberg era.
I sat down with Don Hahn and Peter Schneider at the old Animation building on the Disney lot in Burbank, which seems like the perfect place to have a conversation about their film, the studio's history, and where animation is right now.
Drew McWeeny: So I moved out here in the summer of ’90 and was a theatre manager in Sherman Oaks.
Don Hahn: Oh, really?
Peter Schneider: Yes, you were.
DM: We hosted tons of test screenings. Every week, we had Michael [Eisner] and Jeffrey [Katzenberg] with whatever, either live-action or animation... everything. So it was interesting seeing it from this perspective and getting this perspective, because I think it’s one of the most honest behind-the-scenes films I’ve ever seen about anything.
DH: Oh, thank you. Yeah.
DM: Especially for something that was the ultimate high for the company and, I think, also the biggest clash of personalities to ever play out. When did you decide that this was something you wanted to do on film, and how did you even begin to track down all the footage and put everything together?
PS: There are two questions there.
DH: You take the first, I’ll take the second.
PS: Great. I left the company about 2001 and really felt there was a story here to be told. And I tried to get it done. I e-mailed various people. I tried to get them to agree to do it and could never get any traction. The wounds or the animosity between Michael and Jeffrey and Roy were fresh, and the company was going through a very difficult tumultuous time in terms of Roy and Michael not speaking to each other. Jeffrey was just... too much... and then about a year and a half ago, I went to Don and said "Don, it’s time to tell the story". And got together with Don and we went to Dick Cook and surprisingly it was really easy. Dick said yes immediately. He was the chairman of the studio at the time. And Michael, Jeffrey and Roy all said yes without any reluctance really. A little hesitation, but no reluctance. And that’s how it got done.
DH: It is. It is and…
PS: And then we actually interviewed directors and ultimately it was Don... it was Don’s idea, the format we used, and I said, "Oh, that’s a good idea. You should direct the movie."
DH: So I did.
PS: And the format was no talking heads.
DH: Right. Use all archival footage instead, and I guess we all knew that there was some archival footage out there, but the first thing we did is spend probably four, five, six months with some researchers, and we called everybody and we said "Send us your stills. Send us your charicatures. Send us your shoeboxes full of video tapes." And that became the movie. Certainly Randy Cartwright and his bootleg illegal videos shot in the hallways back in the 80’s were a core piece of it. But so many people had smuggled video cameras into the studio at different times and shot little pieces that we were able to use all that. For example, the "Apocalypse Now" scene, that came from Rick Farmiloe, who was one of the guys in that shot. And he just had that sitting in his closet for twenty years. He said, "Oh, I’ve got this great piece I have to show you," and I couldn’t believe it when I saw it because I knew what happened. I was there, but I didn’t know that anybody had a camera.
PS: And the whole thing with Joe Ranft and Vance Gerry was done because Penny, Jim Cox’s girlfriend/wife at the time, wasn’t allowed to come to the studio.
DH: So he brought a camera and shot some film to show to her. So you hear in the movie like…
PS: Oh, she was on location. She was on location with some big time movie.
DH: Right, right.
PS: And he was working at the studio.
DH: He was afraid she would never get to see it, so he walked around just to show his wife what the studio was like. And that’s... like the pictures of Peter playing basketball in the movie or, you know, a lot of that comes from that, so it’s really a treasure hunt, panning for gold, whatever you want to call it, to try and find all those pieces. Later, the times were more well documented. There was a lot more on television. There was a lot more formal EPK video footage shot, so we had better quality as the movie went on and you could see that. The first stuff's really sketchy. It’s shot on film on Super 8mm. Later you get a little more high-def, a little more nice-looking video as the movie goes on. But that grab bag-scrapbook kind of style was really what had to be done for this movie.
PS: I think Don’s idea was to transport you back into time. Not to be observatory. Because we did not observe it... we lived it, and I think that’s very different.
DM: There’s something really beautiful about the fact that... it’s mind blowing knowing where these people ended up and then seeing that early home video was shot by Joe Ranft and John Lasseter. There’s something unbelievable about that.
DH: Yeah, to walk in on Tim Burton or on Glen Keane and see these guys. They’re just blue collar guys showing off their work, and their work ethic and talent has now gone to extraordinary places.
DM: I think that was the biggest laugh at the screening the other night, when Tim showed up, because I think a lot of people don’t realize that Tim started in animation and with Disney.
DH: It’s true.
DM: And in that footage, he was already 100% Tim Burton. (laughs)
DH: Yes, he was. He was.
PS: Look at his exhibit in MOMA at the moment. Tim Burton’s been Tim Burton since he was four years old, right? That would be my question which is he hasn’t progressed per se artistically or style wise. He still draws the same weird fabulous…
DH: His insane influences.
DM: So in terms of how you broke down the… because it’s a huge story to tell, yet you do it in an hour and a half, and it really doesn’t feel as brisk as it is. I mean that in a good way. It feels like you go through the entire decade’s worth of development and production in depth. I love that you took the detour to Richard Williams and "Roger Rabbit," because I think in telling the Disney story, it’s important to remember like how crucial that that was in reasserting animation as a commercial force.
DH: Incredibly crucial and all those people, many of the best ones, migrated back to work on "The Little Mermaid" and the movies that would come after. So then you get James Baxter, who we hired out of art school in London, working on "Roger Rabbit," and in two to three years, he’s animating Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” as the lead animator. So you get these meteoric rises of people during that period, too.
DM: There was only one voice that I didn’t see much of in the film except in the closing credits... Eric Goldberg, who has always been such a big voice for the studio and the industry. And is that just a…
PS: That’s interesting because Eric didn’t come to the studio until "Aladdin."
DM: Right. But with "Aladdin"... because of the Genie he became very sort of tied to a character. And that was something that was... I always said if animated characters ever got nominated, because there was talk of course for Robin at that point about a nomination, I always felt like if there were nominations it would have to be for both Eric Goldberg and Robin Williams. That’s the only way it made sense.
PS: It’ll never happen but we always agree with that.
DH: We worked pretty hard on that section.
PS: Yeah, "Aladdin" is a tough one because ultimately it’s not germane to our storytelling.
PS: "Aladdin" is only significant, and I put “only” in quotes, to our story because it was very successful. It was the first one to gross $200 million. It was wildly successful. It put us on the map finally beyond "Beauty and the Beast" and the real climax came on "Lion King." So it was one of those movies that even Ron [Clements] and John [Musker] said to us, "You just brush over that movie."
DH: Guilty as charged. And there’s a lovely bonus feature going on the DVD that is the sequence that we cut and didn’t end up using in the movie that is virtually narrated by Eric Goldberg, and that’s all about how that movie came together and, yes, it had gear grinding and Black Fridays and so forth, but as Peter said, so did every movie.
DH: In our story... we’re telling the story about not the movies, it’s not a making of process film. It’s about the people. We had to gloss over that a little bit to get our story.
PS: Also the other person that’s not in the movie is Patrick Pacheco, who was our writer and interviewed these people, who really held us accountable for telling not a making of story but a human drama story. And every time Don strayed into too much "making of," which you get on the DVD’s, Patrick would go, "It’s a making of. Don't tell us about the process of how you make these movies. We don’t care. We don’t care how the movies were made." We do, of course. So we had to balance that.
DH: You can go find that somewhere else. If you can find it on a DVD bonus thing, it probably wasn’t right for our movie, so that was our guideline... that, and the idea of no talking heads. No old guys reminiscing was our other guideline.
DM: It’s fascinating now to look at the state of the animation industry, which I would argue has never been healthier, and has never been bigger...
DH: Me, too.
DM: So much of what is now standard practice in the business began in this period. And it begins, I think in your movie, with Jeffrey talking about editing an animated film in post and reshooting, and people saying that can’t be done. And now of course Pixar has notoriously scrapped whole chunks of movies or even whole movies because they don’t work. I know they just pulled the plug on "Newt" for one reason or another, and they had Brad come on for "Ratatouille" late in the game. It seems like that is now something that people are no longer afraid of and they understand that you have to be willing to do that to make the best possible movie.
DH: Yeah, and before that time it just wasn’t the case. I think that was the strength about bringing fresh faces into this studio, because great people were here and great times had been had here, but it needed a fresh influx of ideas. Jeffrey brought tremendous discipline and ideas to the table. Peter brought in not only a theatrical workshop mentality but also people from the theatre. Howard Ashman, Tom Shumacher, some of the management people. And that brought in a permissiveness to disagree, to argue, to debate. It brought in... I mean, the process of testing these movies. We tested "The Lion King" with an audience in your theater probably eleven times, and all over Southern California just getting feedback. But that polishing process was very new. We take it for granted now, but it really helped make the movies good. A lot of that came from that era.
PS: I remember being at these test screenings with Catherine Paura from NRG, and of course there were no norms. She’d come back and say, "Okay, we have no norms but this is what the numbers say." We developed the norms for the nation so that we became the NRG norms… right?
DH: That was funny. Yeah.
PS: In live-action, there’re all sorts of norms. A boy’s action picture does this and this person does this and that does this, but for animation there were no norms, so therefore we set the standards for the norms.
DM: Well, it seems like because it has become standard throughout the industry, the significance of this film is larger than just the story you’re telling about Jeffrey and Michael and Roy, which is a compelling human story. I’ve always found Jeffrey to be one of the most fascinating public executives.
DH: Yeah, yeah.
DM: But it’s also the larger story of how animation grew up in some sense. Do you feel like you see these returns in the rest of the industry? Do you see how it’s created this ripple effect?
DH: Yeah, absolutely.
PS: Oh yeah, I think we talked about it. I mean, Don talked about it very eloquently.
DH: Absolutely. I mean, we were with Charles Sullivan at lunch today and he said something that I think is so true. We were looking at the films of Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg saying, "Why can’t we do that in animation?" In the '70’s, we were doing that, and now you look at the industry, which I agree with you is really healthy, and you look at the leadership of the industry and who’s directing and it’s the people that were in the rooms on these movies. Chris Sanders…
PS: Brenda Chapman.
DH: Brenda Chapman. Rob Minkoff certainly has gone out there and done "Stuart Little" and all those films. This became the industry and I think even more importantly the process and the culture of the industry comes from this time. And of course, looking back, we stand on the shoulders of Walt Disney. His world blew apart with WWII and the strike and that kind of thing, but he really laid a lot of this groundwork for iterations, for testing, for technological innovations. The trouble is that stopped. It died with "The Black Cauldron," probably. And what’s interesting to me about this era is it was given a huge kick in the butt with the Phoenix that grew out of the ashes by all these different influences that came in. And really we call it the perfect storm and it was in every way. Add the VCR, add the audience being ready, the little mini baby boom that was happening at the time and Michael coming in and Peter coming in and Howard Ashman and Alan Menken coming in and it’s just this amazing confluence of people that made it special.
DM: The Howard Ashman material in the film is beautifully handled.
DH: Thank you.
DM: Was Howard... it seemed to me that as much as he was a musical influence on the film, there’s also an influence in terms of process itself. The fact that he was so driven to perfect what he would do and it’s so intricate... how much of that bled into the work that the animators, the directors, and the writers did as well?
DH: For my perspective, it was one and the same. I think it’s wrong to think of Howard as the song writer separate from everybody else. Howard was an executive producer on "Beauty" and on "Little Mermaid" and he brought…
PS: He was a storyteller. He was a storyteller. He wrote the damn movie.
DH: He wrote so much of "Beauty and the Beast," with respect to Linda Woolverton and our story guys... so much of that dialogue was his. And I can’t say he made our jobs easy, but on "Beauty and the Beast," we had these huge tent poles. In a funny way, our job was to get from "Belle" to "Be Our Guest" to...
PS: "Save the Beast."
DH: ... and if we could just glide between those tent poles, we knew we had a movie. I don’t want to over simplify it but that’s kind of what we did.
DM: I think that I would love to see somebody try to tell the same story about Don Bluth. Because as successful as you guys were, at the beginning of the film you have the brief mention of Bluth when he took his animation team and left Disney. And knowing various animators that have worked at the Ireland studios or the Arizona studios, it seemed like the exact opposite version of this, where because you guys embrace the process so much and the collaboration so much, you guys succeeded where Don just kept crashing and burning.
PS: Yeah, I would say Don’s more dictatorial.
DH: But he’s from Walt Disney. And I think he patterned his career on Walt... and sometimes with great success, like on "An American Tail," but he had Steven on that film, and Steven forced him to collaborate and forced his movies to be better. Don’s a brilliant artist. It’s just he had a different ethic about how to operate an animation studio.
DM: Collaboration is so key. It really is.
DH: It’s everything.
DM: Well, thank you gentlemen. Seriously, I was talking to some guys after the screening the other night who were not in L.A. at the time, and I was trying to explain to them what it was like opening weekend for "Beauty and the Beast" at the El Capitan, and if you weren’t there, you really will never understand what that room was like.
DH: Like a party, yeah.
DM: It was unbelievable. It was better than live theatre. Like people went berserk after every number and…
PS: It was pretty amazing.
DH: To hear applause in a movie theater several times in one film...
PS: Goddamn it. Those were the days. What happened?
"Waking Sleeping Beauty" opens this weekend in limited release, and I think this interview pretty much sums up my thoughts on the film, to the point where a review would almost feel redundant. It's a smart, detailed look at the way the studio reinvented itself over a ten year period of time, and the way personal egos played out behind-the-scenes and eventually brought that amazing creative run to an end. Don Hahn was there, producing films like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "The Lion King," and Peter Schneider was running the studio under Katzenberg and Eisner, and for them to tell the story with the clear-eyed honesty exhibited by this film is remarkable.
If you're a Disney fan, an animation fan, or if you're interested in the way Hollywood really works, you owe it to yourself to seek the film out at your earliest convenience.
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