Expect Surprises: Don Hahn on Frankenweenie and Maleficent

The producer describes Tim Burton's long, troubled history at Disney and compares the upcoming Sleepy Beauty remake to Rashomon.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


Talking to Don Hahn was like getting a glimpse of Disney’s creative history, Tim Burton’s role in that legacy and what it is to work in animation production all wrapped up in one. Speaking to Hahn is really like delving into the guts of the films that really made this the Mouse the “Mouse.” When I spoke to him, it was primarily to discuss Frankenweenie, the Tim Burton film that he had just finished executive producing. Released in theaters on October 5th, the film tells the story of a young boy, Victor Frankenstien, whose dog gets hit by a car and is brought back to life with somewhat unforeseen outcomes and corollary effects. The tale was originally a short created by Tim Burton in 1984 and has now been made into a feature film, by Disney both times. Some might say that Disney was seeking to play Frankenstien with this film, with Burton at the helm.

Hahn himself has been responsible for such pictures as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. His sensibility, however, was one of real honesty and joyful creativity. Some of the things we talked about (Fantasia, Walt Disney’s attraction to the darker things in the world) really gave me a sense that he thought about the things he did.  He didn’t seem like a guy who worked on stuff out of a sense of “brand loyalty, ” but out of the fact that he thought the project was really cool. It was refreshing.

CraveOnline: You have worked on a great deal of animation projects. What are the trials and tribulations or the joys and wonders of producing animation?

Don Hahn: Wow. I think my loves in life when I was a student and everything were art and music, I was a music major, and animation puts those two together in a big way, and music and art and animation is primary to why these movies work so I’ve always loved that and I’ve always admired that people could create a performance out of a blank piece of paper or a blank computer screen or a puppet that’s sitting there because if you try to move those puppets and make them even move it’s hard much less make them walk or act or perform so as long as I’ve been doing it it’s a little bit of a miracle and a magic trick every time I see it done well and I marvel at it and I did it for a while, I animated for a while and saw that I wasn’t going to be an amazing gifted animator so I immediately go into producing. So I’ve done the job, I just have an appreciation for it that doesn’t get old.  I still try to find stories or opportunities to do new things like Frankenweenie, but the magic of bringing a character to life is still fresh for me.

What have been some of your favorite projects to work on or be a part of?

They’re all different for different reasons. Like Beauty and the Beast was special because of bringing the Broadway back in to animation and Howard Ashman, and with Roger Rabbit the technique was fun on that. I feel lucky. I’ve worked with great directors. Bob Zemeckis and Spielberg, Richard Williams and so many great people. I think that’s my talent, if I have one, is being able to pull together amazing crews of people and then standing out of their way, creating a safe space for them. Like Martin Landau was talking at lunch about it: a good director is just creating a safe playground for their actors. Well, that’s my job. Well, I have to create a safe place and say, “Okay, here’s some money, here’s a place, come in and play with us,” and that’s what makes me most proud of these movies. I’m proud of this one for sure.

You seem to work quite well with animated adaptations. Roger Rabbit was from a book, Beauty and the Beast was obviously an adaptation, Frankenweenie is an adaptation of its own original short. As a producer, what draws you to these works and what makes you feel that they will have success?

Boy, it’s like reading tea leaves. I think a lot of it with me is intuitive.  Certainly if you have source material that helps because there is some recognition there because if you tell someone, “Hey, this is the Frankenstein myth told through the eyes of a boy and his dog,” they could at least recognize that; they may not like it but they could at least recognize it. Or say that I’m going to make Hunchback of Notre Dame or Lion King or something, that was kind of the Joseph story from the Bible. So it was something you could hang your hat on. It’s much more difficult to sell Lilo and Stitch, so that’s part of it. And it has to have some kind of iconic feeling to it, so I always feel like that’s important, it has to exist in our mental real estate, we all know what those monster movies are, so no matter where you live on the planet you know those monster movies and it has a recognition factor. And then it has the potential of becoming epic, meaning worthy of a movie as opposed to a television show and in this movie it’s not just the battles at the end that make it epic but also the love story between the boy and his dog that feels like a good old-fashioned movie, and so I look for those things, and sometimes I find them and sometimes I don’t. There’s no rules, you sort of stumble through the darkness like we all do, you go “Oh, this is interesting.” Doing Maleficent now, the Angelina Jolie movie and that’s the same thing, so guilty as charged I guess, but Linda Wolverton is writing the script on that, we’re 2 months into shooting, and that’s an adaptation but in a very different way.  So a lot of it’s about showing you a story that may seem familiar but showing it to you in a very different way, and that’s really what Frankenweenie is.

Can you share a little more about Maleficent? While it is an adaptation, it also kind seems like a flipping of tradition to “tell the story differently” as you were saying.

Well, it’s too early to talk about it detail, but basically it’s the same story. We wanted to do a Rashomon kind of thing, because every story, every story, has more than one point of view. So now we’re telling the story from Sparky and Victor’s point of view, now we’re telling the story from Aurora’s point of view, now we’re telling it from Maleficent’s point of view. So just like Wicked tells that story from the Witch’s point of view. And I think that’s what makes it interesting. Same story. Same beats, same outcome, but you can look at it and go “Really? That’s what happened? She did what? Why?” So you can follow all the beats, and I think that’s important, the audience expects that, but expect surprises along the way.

Frankenweenie is a project with a long and fairly troubled history with Disney. Can you speak on what it was to revive this?

Well, most of the people he had issues with were gone from the studio by the time I tried to revive it so…When he first did it, it was a really conservative place. It was a family-run business, and Walt’s son-in-law was still the CEO of the company, it was really not too long ago that Walt was still alive. So, Tim Burton, who I think is actually really a Disney guy, didn’t seem to fit in. So he did Vincent and he did this short [original Frankenweenie], and it wasn’t so much he was fired as much as saying, “I don’t really know what you’re gonna do here anymore.” He did great designs and really visionary work but no one wanted to use it. And so lucky for all of use he was fired and let go to go do Beetlejuice and Peewee’s Big Adventure and all these big movies now that we have in our archives so it worked out well. To go back to this, for me it seemed like “Okay, we own it because he developed it at Disney, he can’t do it without us.” It’s a 20-minute version of what is a very rich piece of literature that we can develop and Tim, I’m sure, has some way of developing it that he has thought about. So when I started talking to him about it he immediately said yes right away. So in our first meeting we talked about style, and he said it has to be stop-motion because that’s what the film is about, bringing an inanimate object back to life, it’s the Frankenstein story. So he grabbed on it right away, that was 2005, we’ve been through many management changes, Michael Eisner’s left, Ray Disney’s passed away, all these things have happened, people still come back and love the movie because of its simple heart and core. And what Tim’s really good at is taking those outcasts, those misshapen outcasts, whether they’re Edward Scissorhands or whoever, and making you fall in love with them, looking beyond their tattered exterior to their heart and then having that outcast saving the day, not in a heroic way necessarily, but saving the day in a way that no one else could, and that’s the Frankenweenie story. So if you think of a Disney story, it really is, just filtered through Tim’s brain and lucky us.

Interestingly enough, there seems to historically always have been a connection between Disney and the macabre and the horror genre. Could you speak to this?

Walt really [had one].  Disney culture is in many ways based upon mythology and fairytales and mythology and fairytales are full of the fight of light and darkness and good and evil and Walt Disney was all overthat stuff, just look at Night On Bald Mountain [Fantasia], look at the Haunted Mansion, Bambi, these are all things…not being afraid to bring up issues of life and death, or issues of what’s a demon doing on top of a bald mountain in the middle of the nighttime with all kinds of magical strange occultish things dancing in his hand. It’s that balance that really works. And what Disney, the man, was really good at giving you was a wonderful balance of light and darkness. And if he took you to a dark place, like Bambi’s mother being shot, it actually made the light places even lighter. Y’know, it’s like walking into a black room and turning on a flashlight, it seems so bright, if the room is already lit up and you turn on the flashlight… then it’s not that bright. So the contrast is what really makes it work, and Walt knew that and Tim of course knows that. That it’s okay to go to a place where a dog gets hit by a car; you’re going to bring him back to life, you’re going to have a happy ending. But because of that loss, the end of the story is that much brighter, and you have this much range to play with now you’re not just playing with this “happy” range. I think people misunderstand Disney a lot, and feel that it’s all happy and smiling and teacups. Yes, that’s true, but there really is that range, and it’s everywhere. It shows up in the Wicked Queen from Snow White, it shows up in Maleficent, it shows up in the Haunted Mansion, it shows up in Fantasia. That range is everywhere in Walt Disney’s movies and it certainly is in this movie.