I had the chance to sit down with the executive producer of Maleficent as part of the Disney #Maleficent | #Sleeping Beauty | #DisneyInHomeEvent | #VeryBadDayEvent press trip. Travel, accommodations, and products for review were provided by Disney, but all opinions are my own. Photos are courtesy of Disney.
Don Hahn was an incredibly down-to-earth, easy-to-talk-to kind of guy. But looking through his credentials, it would be easy to get distracted by what he has accomplished and helped create. Don Hahn has produced some of the most successful animated films EVER, including The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast (which was the first animated film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture). He is Executive Producer of the Disneynature films (love those!) and, of course, most recently, the executive producer of Maleficent.
Don has been making films since junior high, when he and some friends made a stunt motion film “where we’d each jump off the ground and take a frame when we were up in the air and then when you played it back, it looked like we were floating three feet off the ground, like down the hallways and things.”
Interestingly, he was a music major and an art minor in college who happened to get a summer job with Disney and never looked back. Now, instead of tackling silly stunts in public school hallways, Don is making brilliantly creative movies – both live action and animated.
What was the most challenging thing about producing Maleficent?
Don Hahn: “It’s 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 to our director Robert Stromberg who had production designed Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. So he’s a amazing world- builder.
But it was incredibly difficult. Because we only had three months with Angelina and it was a very tight fit in that three month time. And then also just the script – it’s an 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. So the build up to shooting is always the hardest part.”
How long did it take to make Maleficent?
Don Hahn: “We had three months Angelina Jolie. We shot for eighty-five days. When she left we 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, 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 built were the throne room, where the dragon gets unleashed at the end was a complete set built all the way around. The exterior battle scenes were filmed right between Pine Wood and the M-4, M-5 freeway. So if you were to turn the camera while the battle scenes were happening? You’d see a freeway going behind. But a lot of the things, like the castle, were added in computer graphics later.”
Did you have an actress in mind from the very beginning?
Don Hahn: “It was always Angelina. I’m not sure that we 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. And she brought a lot to it, I have to say. She was on before the director. The first director we had for a short time was Tim Burton and she was on even then. And then, the amazing Linda Woolverton who wrote our screenplay, I had worked with on Beauty and the Beast ages ago. And Linda’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? 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.”
Why is Aurora not called Briar Rose in Maleficent?
Don Hahn: “I think for clarity, just for the audience. So that it’s clear that she’s always one character name. We wanted to simplify it and we wanted to get away from the idea that she was the, the sacrificial flower that someday would be opened up by a man. I mean those are all great if you’re in 1959, but it just didn’t seem appropriate for this movie.”
Was it always the plan to use Angelina’s daughter as the baby for Aurora?
Don Hahn: “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? And there’s so much genuine love and attachment in that scene where she just walks right up to her and goes, ‘Up.’ I have a little girl and, and you just know what that feels like. And so there’s a real genuine moment in that scene.
(Plus, Angelina’s costume…) 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.”
Creating a Maleficent that was both beautiful and powerful
One blogger asked, “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 challenge when trying to transform Angelina for the part?”
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? Because you couldn’t just go out to the press and say (before the movie came out), ‘You know this awful villain? She’s really nice.’ No, that 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 that she has some benevolence and some love inside.
It took a long time. And I have to say, Angelina gave us almost 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.
And I think that’s what was interesting about making this movie – 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. And 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.”
Were Maleficent’s wings real or special effects?
Don Hahn: “They’re all fake. Yeah they are. If you were to watch the dailies of her being filmed, she had a little green square on her back which held a battery. And two little antennae that came out with bright orange spots on the end. And that was enough for the visual effects guys to know the symmetry of her back. And that’s all. And so everything you see in terms of when she’s flying, most the time it’s a hundred percent animated.”
On the Maleficent bonus clips, you see a tiny set with a green screen. One blogger commented, “It looked like the actress couldn’t move a whole lot, which had to be difficult.”
Don continued: “I think it’s remarkable cause they had their costumes but you would argue that so much of a performance comes from feeling like you’re in the time period and in the zone with that space. And there’s nothing there. The sets were smaller than this backyard in many cases. So it’s really suspension of disbelief, not only to be an actress.
Can you imagine what Elle Fanning felt? She’s fourteen. She gets hired on a movie with Angelina Jolie and she has to show up on the set and play opposite her and remember her lines and there’s no set. With a green screen. And “Action.” So you just go, Wow, what a remarkable actress she is. Cause she really delivers a lot of warmth to this movie.”
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