One of the things I got to do while touring Walt Disney’s Los Feliz house was interview the very awesome Don Hahn. He is the Executive Producer of Maleficent. He also has a huge impressive list of other movies to his credit. I took this bio from his website so you can see a few of the great movies he has assisted with.
The first thing I want to say about Don Hahn is that he believes in women. He immediately struck me as a forward thinker but it became apparent when he talked about how movies need strong females. We don’t need movies where women wait around to be saved, we need movies where the woman saves herself. He knew what he wanted out of this movie and a great character like Angelina Jolie was one of them.
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’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 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.”
It- it was like so gettable. Uh, 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. I mean we first, she was on before the director. She was the first director we had for a short time was Tim Burton and she was on even then.
And he went on to tell us about how they decided that they needed to make a movie where true love’s kiss may not be what you think because there are bigger forces out there.
Don Hahn – The amazing Linda Woolverton who wrote our screenplay, I had worked with on Beauty and the Beast ages ago. And Linda is 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, 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 like 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 know 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? And 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: What was the most challenging thing about producing Maleficent?
Don Hahn – It’s 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. 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 the Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. So he’s an amazing world builder.
But it was that was incredibly difficult. Because we only had three months with Angelina and, and it was a very tight fit in that three month time. So that was part of it, getting it together. And then also just the script because it’s always [an] iterative process where you’re re-inventing the story and going back and revisiting it again? And 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 was the build up to shooting is always the hardest part.
I asked him about using Angelina Jolie’s own child in the movie. He said it was a necessity. I bet it was great that Angelina got to have her child on set. I know it must be tough on her when she is filming and having to be away from the kids. At the same time though, I took my kids to work with me once and it was terrible. I couldn’t get anything done.
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” and you know and, like I have a little girl and you just know what that feels like. So there’s a real genuine moment in that scene.
And, and when you see the costumes, they’re upstairs here. (I have a picture of me with the costumes on this post about the Maleficent bonus content) When you go up there and see them, it’s formidable. You know she’s a big lady to begin with, plus the horns and all that stuff. So that was the real reason is to get a scene that played more as reality. We had to use Vivienne.
He also told us about how it is to try to create a expanded persona for a villain. I think the villains are the best characters but it is true that you do not get much back story on them. I mean, why is Ursula banished? Why did she do? Why do any of the villains do what they do? I want to know. That is the reason I went to see Maleficent. She was my favorite villain for the longest time and I wanted to see why she cursed Aurora.
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, they’re incredibly wooden.
But 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? You couldn’t, you know like before the movie came out 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.
So it took a long time. 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 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 far more complex, evil person than we’ve ever dealt with, at least in a Disney movie.
I think that’s what is interesting about making this movie is, it wasn’t just a bad guy. You know whether it’s 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. So that was part and parcel of telling that story.
Q: It broke my heart when she woke up and her wings are gone. And you see that cry.
Don Hahn – Yeah. In the script, it was heartbreaking. When those scenes came in the dailies. It was devastating. I mean because of that cry, and because of what she did. Cause in the script you go, “Oh, they clipped her wings.” You know it’s like Icarus, she lost her wings. She can’t fly anymore. And you go, “Oh, that’s too bad.” When she performs it, it becomes this very deeply felt, very deeply felt thing even for me and like my wife said for her it was almost like she couldn’t watch, it was really devastating. But that’s again a great actress doing what she does. You just feel the depth of that loss you know.
Q: I thought it was fitting that Aurora saves Maleficent’s wings, thus saving her.
Don Hahn – Yeah. Yeah. Aurora was a tough character because her mother’s gone and when she gets back to the castle, there’s no maternal character for her. And we killed off mom for a very specific reason, so that her relationship had to be with Maleficent. And Dad’s a cold fish. You know he doesn’t even hug her when she comes to the castle. So now the only family she has is Maleficent. And so the icing on the cake then is for her to free the wings, which is kind of a symbol for her saying, uh, “You have your freedom back. You can fly again because of your love,” you know.
And that’s, um, that kind of symbolism in story telling is really powerful. And it’s fun to do and if it works. It’s deeply felt. Which makes it fun to do.
I left feeling like maybe there is hope for movies if guys like Don Hahn are at the helm. He knew what he was looking for. He made a perfect movie with some great stars and the amazing Linda Woolverton that will live on as the retelling of Sleeping Beauty but also as the coming of age of an old classic. Villains can have a heart and true love may not come from a prince.
You can buy Maleficent on Blu-ray or DVD now.