Don Hahn is a special man. His love and knowledge for all things Disney runs deep. To have an opportunity to talk to the Maleficent producer at the estate of the late Walt Disney is now one of the best moments I have had as a blogger. Below I have some of the interview of the time we spent together. What isn’t in this interview is the time he gave us after talking about his wife, kids, his upcoming projects, and well, his love for Disney.
Don Hahn Chats about Maleficent
What was the most challenging thing about producing Maleficent?
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 Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. So he’s a amazing world builder. But that was incredibly difficult. Because we only had three months with Angelina and it was a very tight, to 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.
So the whole movie only took three months basically?
We had three months of Angelina. We shot for eighty-five days. So a slight bit longer cause 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 it was a, you know, there’d be a couple of trees and a river and a lot of green screen behind it. So 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-5 freeway. So if you were to turn the camera while the battle scenes were happening? You’d see like a freeway going behind (laughing) and, so, yeah. But a lot of the, you know, castles and things were added in computer graphics later.
Did you have an actress in mind from the very beginning?
It was always, always her. 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 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 was like so gettable. 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, 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 then, the amazing Linda Woolverton who wrote our screenplay, I had worked with on Beauty and the Beast ages ago. And Linda’s, she’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, 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’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.
Is that why in Maleficent, Aurora is not called Briar Rose at all?
Yes. And I think also for clarity, just for the audience. So that it’s clear, you know that she’s always been a one character name. But yeah, we wanted to simplify it and we wanted to get away from the idea that she was 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?
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, and you just know what that feels like. And, uh, so there’s a real genuine moment in that scene.
And when you see the costumes, they’re upstairs here. 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.
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 thing when trying to transform Angelina for the part?
Uh, 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 and 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? And- cause 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. And 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. And I think that’s what was 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. 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.
On the bonus clips, you saw a tiny set with a green screen. It looked like the actress couldn’t move a whole lot, which had to be difficult.
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, you know, smaller than this backyard in many cases. Uh, so it’s really, suspension of disbelief, not only to be an actress. Can you imagine what Elle Fanning felt? Like she’s fourteen. She gets hired under 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.” You know and so you just go, wow, what a remarkable actress she is. Cause she really delivers a lot of warmth to this movie.
So four of your films have turned into Broadway musicals. Can you see Maleficent being a musical?
Yeah. I mean yes. The reason I say yes is I thought not in a million years could you turn Lion King into a musical. And we used to joke when we were making it, we thought, “Oh, this will be great like, like Lion King on ice.” We’ll be- like- and it was just a gag. And then Julie Taymor comes along and re-imagines it as this amazing kind of Shakespearean puppet show and it still plays every night in eight cities around the world and has made over a billion dollars for the company. So could Maleficent be a stage show? Yeah, absolutely. You know Hunchback of Notre Dame’s coming back to the La Jolla Playhouse on stage. And it’s amazing. So yeah, never say never. It’s possible.
I love this interview, for Don Hahn was just fantastic to talk with. Stay tuned for more to come as he has some projects in the works that I will be sure to share.
Maleficent is available on Blu-ray and DVD as of November 4th! Get your copy today!
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