Don Hahn has produced some of the most beloved Disney films of all time including The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. His work has brought joy and enchantment to thousands of people around the globe, including me. I can say in all honesty that having the privilege to meet and chat with him was a true honor and an experience that I will not soon forget. It was wonderful to discover that this Disney legend’s contribution to heartfelt family cinema is matched by his genuine character and friendly nature. His inspiring words and kindly face left me feeling as if I had just encountered the Dalai Lama. My Dalai Lama… …Enough gushing though! We’re here to talk about his latest project, Tim Burton‘s Frankenweenie, which is electric shocked to life on October 5th! Read on!
Screen Invasion: Tell me about Frankenweenie, how did you get involved?
Don Hahn: I’ve been knocking around Disney for 35 years, believe it or not, so I was around when Tim was there. I came in at the same time Tim [Burton], John Lasseter, Brad Bird, a lot of us came in at the same time, and Henry Selick, and the studio didn’t quite know what to do with Tim, obviously really talented. He was different from the rest of us, a visionary, even as a 20-year-old, and so they game him $20,000 and said, “Let’s see what you can do.” And he made a short. So jump ahead 20 years and I went over to his office when he was working on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and I said, “You know, Frankenweenie, there’s got to be more to it.” It’s a Frankenstein myth and it’s one of the richest pieces of literature that exists. He said, “Yeah there probably is. It was only a half hour short and I wanted to do more.” We got to talking about it and he said, “You know, maybe we could do it as a stop-motion movie.” We brought in John August, who’s a great screen writer, and expanded it out and fleshed it out a lot more to get that meat on the bones of what the original myth was and also make it an homage to the great monster movies of the 50’s. What’s funny is when we showed this at some test screenings the kids are loving it just on sort of an entertainment-laughing-having-a-good-time level and the adults are going, “Oh my god there’s the Wolfman, there’s the Mummy,” you know. So you get these silly homages to those great characters that we grew up with, at least when we were kids. So that’s where it came from, and that was 5 years ago probably-7 years ago- something like that, a long time ago. And we pulled in Allison Abbate, one of the great stop motion producers of all time really, and she was on board, also Rick Heinrichs, our production designer, and took off. Just took off.
SI: Is this your first stop-motion feature? How is it different from 2D or live action?
DH: It is. It’s an insane way to make a movie. I’ve made live action movies, I’ve made animation movies, principally 2D movies, and they have their same challenges, they are still story based so you are trying to get the story and characters to work, but great source material on this one though. The challenge of this though is the logistics of putting together a cast and crew that is a foot tall and a series of sets with 31 standing sets at one time. They’re all tabletop sets. That’s pretty insane! When you see them, they’re just highly detailed and everything has to be built whether it’s a suitcase or a textbook in a schoolroom, or whatever. The puppets have to be fully articulated so they deliver a performance and not just move, but they have to act. In many ways I think it’s the most complicated way of making an animated film. It’s also one of the most physically demanding because these guys and girls are in the sets reaching through trap doors, moving something, and then going down and closing the trap door, and running out and taking a frame, and it’s like doing Pilates all day long. It’s very physically demanding, but it’s old. You know, it’s as old as Ray Harryhausen doing King Kong or Jason and the Argonauts, you know, something like that. Because of that it has a wonderful sense of craftsmanship to it, a wonderful hand-done like an arts-and-crafts movement kind of thing. I think the audience loves that. As much as we love CGI movies, and I’m at the head of the list for that, but I also love the idea of doing something that’s very hand done.
SI: Tim Burton has a very definitive style. Is it easier to bring an auteur’s vision to life?
DH: Yeah. It is. Listen, I’ve worked with some amazing directors, to Roger Allers who did The Lion King and Robert Zemekis who did Roger Rabbit, they are all great in their own ways, but Tim is a real artist. He has chosen to express himself as a filmmaker. His art show just toured the world, you know, LACMA, Paris, and Toronto. So he’s an artist of our times. He’s a Picasso kind of guy and he has a strong vision of what he wants and it’s a strong handwriting. And he’s easy to work with; he’s a good communicator. He’s not a jerk, he’s a strong communicator, he’s a clear communicator, and because he is who he is, he is a magnet for talent. People want to work with him. People want to help him create his vision. So that is where the team comes from. People here were making a black-and-white 3D animated film that Tim’s directing. People show up for that.
SI: If Frankenweenie were to be a Disney attraction, what kind of attraction would you like to see it become?
DH: Well, how cool would it be to ride through New Holland, which Tim always does well, in this story too, it’s this kind of bland, boring, suburban neighborhood where something extraordinary happens. And that’s what New Holland is in this movie. So the idea of going through just your neighborhood, your street, and your bland kind of everyday existence and see these extraordinary monsters come to life would be really great. It would have to be in black-and-white. You would have to go in and see yourself turn black-and-white with sodium lights or something like that and be able to ride through it and experience this as if you were in a monster movie.
SI: I know we have a Beauty and the Beast attraction coming up, and Little Mermaid opened a while ago, can you talk about what it is like to see your work come to life in a Disney park?
DH: Well, it’s ridiculous. I mean, who would ever dream, when I was at CSUN, or you know, anywhere, that you would get a job at Disney, much less getting to work on movies like this. And they are real team efforts. They are incredible team efforts. All of us feel the same way. I guess “humble” is the right word for it. We grew up riding the Peter Pan ride, you know riding the Snow White ride at Disneyland, and feeling like we were humbled to ride through those attractions. I think the amazing thing about this is we see these movies come to life, we see The Lion King on stage, you get this feeling of, “Oh my god!” It’s not yours anymore, you’ve kind of given it up to the audience and it becomes theirs, which is a great feeling.
SI: Do you have any advice for upcoming producers or artists who would be interested in working at Disney?
DH: Well yeah. I’m not even sure I would say to set your sights on Disney necessarily, although it’s a great company to work for, and it remains that way. With people like John Lasseter around it’s a dynamic company to work for right now. You know, if I was starting out I would start out at smaller commercial houses. There’s a lot of work being done in gaming. It’s just a very dynamic industry right now, and visual effects. So Disney is a great company and you can certainly get there, but there’s so much variety out there right now. The other thing too is that the tools are available. When I was at CSUN many years ago, to write music for a film you needed a viola, you need film, or to make a stop-motion movie you need a Mitchell camera and you needed all this equipment. I could take you down to the Apple store this afternoon and we could buy everything you need to make a movie and score it and finish it by tomorrow. That’s an extraordinary thing for somebody coming up. So the biggest thing I would say is declare yourself being in the film business, don’t wait for somebody to give you that permission. Just say, “I’m in the film business.” Declare that and start making movies. And those don’t have to be features. Just make a one-minute movie, make a stop-motion movie, take your friends and make a 10-minute short. You have a distribution network. You can post it on Vimeo, post it out there in the world and distribute your movies now, and don’t wait. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission. Don’t wait for someone to give you a job. That will come. You have to just declare it today and say, “You know what, as of 10:30 today, I am in the movie business. Let’s go.” I think that amount of commitment and energy is what gets people going.
SI: Obviously technology has advanced a lot. How has technology changed the way you do your job on that professional level compared to the Roger Rabbit days?
DH: We didn’t have any computers on Roger Rabbit, at all. It was all done the old fashion way with optical printers and lining up pieces of film and animating by hand. Shooting we had videotape, which is weird saying, so now if you were doing a film like that it would be shot on digital cameras, very state-of-the-art. The funny thing though is that it is always a people business. So for me personally, as a producer, yes you want and you buy the state-of-the-art of what the equipment is now, I stay up to 2 in the morning every night reading about what the next thing is, I’m constantly reading because everyday something changes in distribution or in the way we finish movies or in the way somebody scores a movie. So I spend a lot of time doing that, but it’s really a people job. So the job for me and making these movies is finding the right people and walking around a lot making sure they’re happy, making sure they have the tools they need, making sure they are excited about the project they are working on, they have the information and the motivation and the director. No matter how many fancy bells and whistles we have it’s still a people-person business. And that’s what I like to do.
SI: What is your next project? Can you say any words about that?
DH: I’m executive producing a movie called Maleficent, which is kind of the prequel story to Sleeping Beauty. It stars Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning, and we’re shooting it right now in London. She’s great. So yeah, it’s really good.
Stay tuned for our interview with Frankenweenie’s Allison Abbate, “one of the great stop-motion producers of all time!” Check out our other interviews from Comic Con, peep our Comic Con photo galleries, and for the latest news and reviews follow @RealBrianRudlof and @ScreenInvasion on Twitter.