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Don Hahn, director, “Waking Sleeping Beauty”

by on November 24, 2010
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A veteran of more than 30 years of Disney animation, Don Hahn has been a part of Disney animation since 1977’s “Pete’s Dragon.” He watching the animation department’s decline in the 1980s with the disappointments of films like “The Black Cauldron” and “The Great Mouse Detective,” then helped oversee its resurgence in the latter part of the decade, producing “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.”

Now, 20 years after Disney’s animation studios, for years the backbone of the company, almost became an afterthought, Hahn has made the documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” about the department’s re-ascenrton, even as a power struggle is going on between its leaders.  

Hahn discusses the struggles between then-Disney execs Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberger, why he chose to make this film now, and the role of Disney employees as caretakers of Walt Disney’s legacy.

 The first thing that pops in my mind off the bat is, why make this film now, years after it happened?

Well, I think the timing was right. If we had done it earlier it was too early, but 20 years later I think it’s a cathartic story to tell for many people. And we needed that. We needed full participation from all the artists and all the executives to tell the story. I felt like it was a unique time in film history, and I felt like we should tell this story before we forget it.

I noticed your involvement in the film is, not left out, but you’re in the background. Why did you leave so much of yourself out?

I did it deliberately. I just didn’t want to make a puff piece about Don Hahn. I don’t think the world needs that. And while I thought I was uniquely qualified to tell this story, so it evolved. At times we thought about using a narrator, but it just evolved that I was a logical person to tell the story.  As I was telling it I just kind of dropped myself out of it. It was less important to tell what was happening to Don, and more important to tell what was going on with this group of artists, and that’s really what the film was about. I could go back and do the “Don Hahn Story,” but I promise you it would not be as interesting [laughs]

In regards to the power struggle between Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who do you think came out better between them?

I don’t know if I’m the right person to comment on that. I think you would have all the accesss to the stories and the aftermath of this era. During this era, and Michael and Jeffrey both would tell you, they had a great relationship and agreed 90% of the time, and worked well together. I think most of the issues between them happened after the era of this film. I wanted to portray them as honestly as I could, and even Roy [Disney] I didn’t want to demonize them or make them into heroes, but creating them as the real characters I thought they were.

Leading into where the film starts, what do you think were the biggest couple of factors that led to the struggles Disney’s animation department had?

Well, probably two things: when we lost Don Bluth in the 1970s, there was such a fracture in the animation department. Don was and still is an amazing animator and director, but he was a polarizing figure, and some people got behind him and others didn’t, and I think that was one reason. The other element is that the older guys were retiring and the newer guys were coming in, and there was a generation gap, and we just couldn’t get our act together enough to tell the stories effectively. “The Black Cauldron” is kind of emblematic of that era.

I read an interview where someone asked you about Howard Ashman’s death and how it changed the way Disney did music. Can you talk a bit about how it changed after he passed? [Note: Ashman was one half of a songwriting team that wrote songs for “Beauty and the Beast,” who died of AIDS before “Beast” was finished]

We certainly made musicals after this, everything from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to “Pocahontas” to “Lilo and Stitch” to “Tarzan,” and they were all pretty interesting musicals. What I think Howard gave us was that first love of Broadway musicals. Before that time we were doing movies with music in them, but they weren’t musicals. We would get six songwriters and each would write a song. The thing about Howard is he knew how to tell stories and unify the songs so they were glued together in a strong musical way. That’s something that was really new, and he was able to bring the Broadway structure into animation in a way that no one else could. So after he was gone we still went on making great musicals, but it was and still is difficult to sustain it. The audience’s action changes, things go in and out of style. Will they come back some day? Yeah, I hope so, but the audience goes in cycles, and part of it was Howard and part of it was the action of the day.

It struck me that going through the “Pixar” era Disney got away from that, but now with “Princess and the Frog,” and “Tangled,” do you think they’re coming back?

Well…I don’t know. [laughs] I honestly don’t know. I think it has to be movie by movie and director by director. If there’s a movie where it works very well, yeah it’ll happen again. There aren’t a lot of musicals on the burner right now, so I think a lot of it is just trying to find the right story.

Can you tell me briefly about the responsibilities you feel working for Disney, being the caretaker for that canon of films?

That’s a great question. You know, not just me but all of us who work there respect what the name Disney means out there in the world. It’s a really respected name, and it stands for different things to different people, but for me it means setting the bar as high as you possibly can for storytelling, and giving the audience something they can’t get with anybody else, and takes you to places you can’t get with anyone else, so it keeps you on your best game. You wake up in the morning and go into work knowing that you have to deliver something special that they can’t get from anybody else. That’s what I tried to portray in “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” that’s what the movie targets is that what Disney was 20 years ago isn’t what Disney is today, which isn’t what Disney will be 20 years from now, and I think that’s a good thing. If there’s anything that is a tradition from Walt Disney himself, it’s innovation, and that’s what we come to work with every day.