Producer and Disney animation wars veteran Don Hahn

Producer and Disney animation wars veteran Don Hahn

Actors get most of the attention in Hollywood, but behind-the-scenes people like Don Hahn have the best stories. A longtime producer at Walt Disney, Hahn worked on films from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to The Lion King to the upcoming Oceans, earning Oscar nominations along the way for producing Beauty And The Beast and the 2006 short “The Little Matchgirl.” Recently, he decided to turn his experience with Walt Disney Animation Studios into a documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty, which covers the colorful, volatile era from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s. During this period, the studio’s reputation and finances suffered hugely in the wake of internal political struggles and the critical and commercial flop The Black Cauldron. A reorganization brought back Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney, brought in Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and took the studio into an unprecedented boom era, as The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King were made. Then another series of highly publicized personal battles between Eisner and Katzenberg shook the company again. Hahn documents all this in the words of the participants themselves, in a frank, lively, intimate film full of behind-the-scenes revelations and characters more colorful than the cartoons they put up on the screen. Recently, Hahn sat down with The A.V. Club in Chicago to talk about getting access to Katzenberg and Eisner, Lion King’s time as an unloved stepchild of a film, working on the upcoming feature Frankenweenie with Tim Burton, and why Waking Sleeping Beauty is like a sports movie.

The A.V. Club: You introduce and show yourself at the beginning of Waking Sleeping Beauty, but from that point on, you drop out of the story. Why did you decide to approach it that way?

Don Hahn: I don’t know if it was a conscious decision or just an intuitive decision. Maybe it’s representative of the journey we all go on. You start out as an individual when you come to Disney, and slowly you become part of a greater community of artists. So I felt as the movie went on, it felt very odd every time I tried to say, “Oh, here I am again. Now I’ve been promoted. Now I have my first daughter.” Anything like that started to pull me out of the movie as a viewer, so I thought “What I want to do is establish trust in this character,” meaning me, the character who was there and an eyewitness to this time, “and then slowly pull back and let that character pull you through the story.” So it became less a personal story about Don Hahn’s journey at Disney, and more of our story. I guess that’s my personal belief more than anything. I can’t look at animation as anything other than a team sport, and it’s really being a ball-hog to put myself in the center and say “It was really all me.” I didn’t want to do that. 

AVC: Instead of being a first-person story, it comes together in an organic way through a collection of interviews. Is it true you didn’t conduct those yourself?

DH: We worked with a collaborator named Patrick Pacheco, a really terrific journalist from New York, because I didn’t feel like I had objectivity. I knew the story like the back of my hand—I lived it—but I felt strongly that we needed a third person to come say “Well, you may think this is the story, but this is how I see it, and this is what I think is important.” And I still work at Disney, so I would have regulators, a sense of appropriateness, while Pacheco didn’t have anything to lose. To him, it’s like, “No, you’re skirting the issue. The real issue here is X, Y, or Z.” So that became a really important outside voice to me and to [Waking Sleeping Beauty producer] Peter [Schneider], just to push us to deal with some real issues: Issues of how difficult it was to work in that time, how joyous it was, how the executives were interacting. When it came to conducting the onscreen interviews, I conducted all of those. So Patrick did background interviews with about a hundred people, mainly to give me the questions, mainly to sit down and say, “What are the issues at play here?” That allowed me to go sit down with someone like Roy or Jeffrey, whom I’ve known for 20 years, and say, “Patrick asked you this question, and you responded this way. Is that how you would characterize it?” It would give me a wedge in the door to ask some things that maybe would be otherwise pretty tough for me to ask as a personal friend of some of them. So that way of working was really useful.

AVC: What kind of guidelines did you give Pacheco going in? Did you tell him the story of those years at Disney from your perspective?

DH: No. We purposefully didn’t tell him the story. He came back with the same story we had, so plot-wise, there wasn’t a big difference. But I think there was a lot of nuance. I think some things surprised me, like how much Frank Wells’ role was crucial to that era in terms of him being a peacekeeper and holding things together. Stanley Gold told us that it wasn’t just a byproduct of his job. Frank wasn’t just a money and corporate guy who happened to play peacemaker on the side; the essence of his job was to play peacemaker. So those kinds of quotes came out of that process and were really useful when we put the movie together.

AVC: Were there any big surprises when you examined Pacheco’s version of the story? Anything you had no clue about previously? 

DH: I think that the dynamic between Roy and Jeffrey and Michael in the third act of this film, a lot of the details of that were surprising, and something we didn’t really deal with that much when we were making Disney movies. We were so worried about making a good movie, something the audience would like; it really wasn’t crucial at the time to worry about those kinds of dynamics between the executives. Now, with 20 years’ distance, those stories start to come out and be shared by Jeffrey and by Roy, and those are some of the most interesting moments in the film. Certainly [Little Mermaid/Beauty And The Beast lyricist] Howard Ashman was a real centerpiece of the story, too, just his effect on us. When Roy compared him to Walt Disney that one day, it was a real surprise. I thought, “Well, he was good, but…” So for Roy Disney, who has every reason not to compare anyone to Walt Disney, to say he had that effect on us… Those were the kind of little nuances along the way that were surprising.

AVC: Your film portrays Howard as hugely talented, but pretty hard to work with. 

DH: Yes. [Laughs.]

AVC: There’s a sequence in the film where some people want to pull “Part Of Your World” out of The Little Mermaid for pacing purposes, and he completely blows up. Was that typical?

DH: Not to blow up, necessarily, but to completely go to bat for his creations? Yeah. Absolutely. He was really passionate about his work, and he had a strong point of view. You could talk him out of it if you had a better idea, but if you were just tinkering with it, he defended his work a lot. He could have been a good trial attorney. He really was incredibly articulate, being a lyricist, very verbally articulate, very persuasive, very passionate, very knowledgeable, and he in many ways taught all of us about musical theater, about using songs as storytelling devices. Not just a movie with songs in it, but a movie where the very essence of the story is contained in the body of songs. So the story plots and turns and twists happen inside of songs, and that was a real Howard thing that he taught us during this era. I think there’s no issue at all with portraying him as what he was; he was a warm, loving, great guy, probably one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life, and you can tell that by his lyrics. Did he blow up every once in a while? Absolutely. And who didn’t? When you’re working that hard on material, there’s bound to be disagreements. There’s bound to be people venting along the way. And you want that. Sometimes creativity is born out of that chaos, and that was certainly the case back then.

AVC: We’ve done a lot of interviews with Pixar people, and the company philosophy seems to be that each film has one director who makes all the decisions. Everybody contributes ideas, but at the end of the day, the director makes the call. How did decisions get made at Disney at that time, given that you were usually dealing with several directors and entire committees of screenwriters and producers?

DH: In one sense, it was very much like the Pixar model. There were a lot of people offering their opinions, a lot of interaction, a lot of points of view, but in the end, everybody would go away. Jeffrey would come by once a week. We’d get interactions from executives and whatever. In the end, everybody leaves, and you’re left alone and have to decide, “What notes are we taking? What notes are we not taking? How are we going to defend things we feel strongly about, and what do we let go of because it’s not important?” There was this constant pushback and dialogue happening. 

What was interesting is the process Peter and Jeffrey brought to that era. It was a process of dialogue, not monologue. It was not a director issuing statements of what the movie’s going to be, but you had to defend your ideas, and the best idea would win, no matter where it came from. So if you felt passionately about something, you couldn’t just say, “Well, I feel this way, so it’s in the movie.” You had to say why. You had to defend it. It created a dialogue and a sense of debate in the studio that ended up being really healthy. That debate didn’t take place before that era. Disney films were director-driven in the worst possible sense, where someone’s dictating what the movie should be.

I think what works about Disney and what works about Pixar is really the same thing. There’s a dynamic exchange of ideas, often really heated. If you didn’t know the people in the room, you would think you were coming into the biggest family fight you’ve ever seen in your life. People screaming. But they’re not screaming about each other. They’re screaming about the movie, the creative content. At the end, they all walk away, and the director has to decide, “What’s right for my movie? What am I going to defend? What am I going to let go of?” And that’s what makes the movie work.

AVC: Were there other significant changes coming out of that era, in terms of how films were made at Disney?

DH: Oh man. In amazing ways. When I first started there in the ’70s, it was still very much the way it was when Walt Disney was alive: pencil and paper and carbon paper and whiteout—just the most basic tools. It’s a very dynamic, changing art form. Look at Avatar, which is probably the most extreme example of an animated movie out in the marketplace right now, and compare that with something we were working on 30 years ago, and it’s profoundly different. So yes. The way of working, certainly the technique and the technology is different, but there tends to be, at the best studios, an openness to creative exchange that makes those studios work. Each studio has its own personality. Pixar is a unique thing, and their personality doesn’t necessarily work at other studios. DreamWorks, for a while, was very Jeffrey-centric, and now I think it is very director-driven. Jeffrey’s taken a little step back, from my point of view. Blue Sky, Sony, a lot of these other studios have their own point of view of how to tell a story and the way they go about it.

AVC: Getting back to the Howard-blows-up scene in Waking Sleeping Beauty… as you’re telling that story in the film, you’re showing a series of caricatures of him burning off an animator’s head with the force of his fury. You use a lot of drawings like that throughout the film, some obviously from the era you’re covering. Were they all contemporaneous, or was anything created for the film?

DH: Nearly everything in the movie is from the day. It’s just part of the currency of being in an animation studio. People draw silly drawings. It’s kind of the way everybody blows off steam. In that instance where Howard’s incinerating Kirk Wise, I actually had Kirk draw that scene himself. I didn’t have footage for it; I didn’t have any stills or anything. I recorded Kirk for that scene, and it just made me laugh, the way he told it, how nobody came to his defense. I said, “Kirk, can you illustrate this for me?” I was just curious what he would come up with. When he showed me those drawings, I almost fell off my chair. I thought, “What a great way to illustrate this point in the movie, to actually show what it felt like to be on the receiving end of Howard.” Then, when we mixed it, we used the sound of the space shuttle launching when Howard blows these flames out of his mouth. So for that part of the movie, it was a great way to introduce some new drawings that kind of caricatured that moment for us.

AVC: The story the film is telling changes throughout the film. It starts out being about the animators, and it ends up being about the executives. Did you always start out with that arc? Did it change as you got access to some of these people?

DH: We had access from the beginning. Some of the earliest talks we did were with some of the executives. I think what we wanted to do though, was—I didn’t want to create class distinctions between executives and artists. I didn’t want to create a good-guy/bad-guy scenario from the very beginning. I think that’s a little simplistic. The truth is, without the executive boldness and the artistic achievement, it wouldn’t have happened. I don’t think we even use the word “executive” in the movie. We talk about these people. We talk about who they are and what they do, but it was important to show that everybody had a role at the table, and if you pulled one of those people out, the checks and balances would be thrown off a little bit.

So the arc of the story was somewhat determined by what literally happened. It was a group of lost boys, a group of people right out of school with big dreams that couldn’t be expressed yet. And then having Wells and Eisner and Katzenberg come into the studio—at the same time Howard Ashman comes in—and you have this tremendous renaissance, a change in the approach, outsiders coming in, Roger Rabbit happening, and this huge growth in the potential of animation that culminates in great financial success, that culminates in some egos getting in the way. Then Frank Wells’ death is the domino that pushes over and starts to unravel a lot of those situations, which culminates in the end of the movie. 

AVC: Was everyone you talked to equally forthcoming? It seems a little remarkable that you were able to get Eisner and Katzenberg to talk about it, let alone Roy Disney. 

DH: They really were. Roy was first in line. He was at the end of his life—he passed away in December 2009—and I think he really wanted to tell his perspective of what was going on. It surprised me how candid he was, how infuriated he was at certain things. And Jeffrey was very giving. We did three, four hours of interviews with Jeffrey, one-on-one in a room with a microphone. That’s the other reason why I didn’t want to do on-camera interviews, because it was, I think, disarming and much better to just do audio. People forgot the recorder was there, and they were just able to talk openly. Jeffrey was very honest about his feelings, and it was a very emotional time for him, Howard’s passing and some of the issues about how he exited the company. So surprisingly, people were willing to talk. I think it was a shared experience between anybody that was there. They knew we were making the movie. Maybe they were afraid not to be represented. [Laughs.] So everybody was willing to sit down with us in varying degrees and be able to tell their version of the story. That’s how I wanted to present it. It’s not one person’s story; it’s 10 blind men describe an elephant. If you look at it from all these angles and get this scrapbook mentality of what went on, let the audience come to conclusions about who the good and bad guys are, and make those distinctions instead of me.

AVC: You didn’t mention Michael Eisner. From other interviews, it sounds like he was the hardest one to get on board initially.

DH: He was. He was the most hesitant at first. Didn’t think we should be making the movie, and wasn’t sure he wanted to be involved. We showed it to him, and in typical Michael fashion, he had notes, and gave us what ended up being really good notes about the length of the movie and the story we were telling. We took his notes and modified some parts of the movie, not in terms of harsh content, but just the flow of it all, and then we came back to him and said, “Now will you sit down with us and tell us your story?” and he did. He was guarded in some aspects, and yet we sat down with him with a microphone, fully knowing he was contributing to this movie, and that’s the way we wanted it. We didn’t want to go behind people’s backs and do wiretaps, because it’s a cartoon business for God’s sake. Nobody’s dying. It’s not a criminal offense. He, of all people, should be very proud of this period. Michael was an incredibly successful executive during this period. The company value went up 20 percent a year, and the return for the shareholders was a 20 percent return on investment every year during this period. Sometimes we forget that with Michael’s exodus from the company many years later, but it was a real honeymoon period for Michael in particular, and I think in the end, that’s how we tried to portray him in the movie.

AVC: One point you make in the film is that Roy was the one who brought Michael and Jeffrey both in, and then their presence sparked a huge conflict. Did he ever express guilt or anger or frustration over having recruited them?

DH: No, because they really did fix things. They came in and created such a huge boom for the shareholders that there were no regrets about that at all. I think if there were, they happened after the years we’re telling about. Roy clearly thought Jeffrey was taking too much credit for the success of Disney Animation, and in later years, Michael and Roy had issues with each other. But I have never, in all of my conversations with him—and I’ve known him for many, many years—never heard him express regret about bringing those guys in. It was a team. He brought Michael and Frank in as a team, as his version of Walt and Roy Disney. He felt that team could really turn the company around, and they did, by every definition.

AVC: Often in the film, someone will say “Walt wouldn’t do it this way.” Or “Walt would want us to do it this way.” That seemed profoundly uncomfortable, like being in a religious movement after the leader’s death and listening to people argue over who best could interpret his intentions. Did people at Disney ever kick back against the “I know what Walt wants” mentality?

DH: Yeah, I think your characterization of it’s really true. As human beings, we want to go “Well, how can we carry on a legacy?” How can we take John F. Kennedy, who’s not with us anymore, and carry on his legacy? So you found people, certainly, who were and still are very respectful to Walt’s legacy, but what surprised me is that the very person who could have legitimately been respectful to Walt’s legacy, Roy Disney, was leading the charge, saying, “We can’t follow the edicts of some dead guy. You can’t run a business like that.” That line’s in the movie, and that blew me away when he said that, because he’s the one that should be saying, “We’ve got to do it exactly like my dad and Walt did.” He was the complete opposite. He said “We have to open our doors, we have to bring in Hollywood, we have to change this place and turn it around.” That was a big, unexpected twist, not only at the time, but in the making of this movie, that that would happen.

In the studio during the time, you’d find a spectrum of people. You’d find people who were extremely loyal to the visions of Walt Disney—and that generally was people who didn’t really know Walt Disney. I never met Walt Disney. I loved his movies growing up, but the ideal of Walt Disney and who he was are two different things. I can’t tell you who Walt Disney was. I can only tell you that in our era, Roy Disney said, “You know, you guys have to trust your gut. You have to make your movies. You can’t be looking over your shoulders all the time.” I think that was part of the permission we got to have this era. 

AVC: Disney’s always been very protective of its image. Did you have problems getting access for such a candid movie?

DH: No, we wanted to be candid. In the end, it’s a story about success, and yes, there’s struggle, and people get sick and die along the way, but the story’s about a chapter in a company’s life that ended up in a huge success, and it’s very important to memorialize that and to celebrate how difficult it is to manage and create a creative atmosphere. Whether you’re running an advertising agency or any kind of business, it’s the same issue. How do you create a creative, safe place for people to come and do their work? How you manage creativity and remain financially responsible? I think that’s why the story’s interesting, because it is, by nature, extremely chaotic. There’s a lot of warts. There’s a lot of bumps along the way. There’s egos. There’s passions. There’s huge successes and great disappointments. There’s physical strain on people. That’s all part of it.

It’s no different, to me, than telling an inspiring sports story of characters who go through injuries and dark nights of the soul and loss and victories to end up on that winning season. That’s a tale as old as time. That’s a very old, reaffirming human story. In some ways, maybe ironically, those kinds of stories make great animated films. That kind of parallels. We say in the movie that we’re making a movie about ourselves. It’s a story of growing up. It’s a coming-of-age story.

AVC: It’s a little surprising that you didn’t talk to Tim Burton for this movie. You show him very briefly in the film—he was an animator at Disney during part of this era—and you’re producing his film Frankenweenie, so presumably you have access to him. And he’s also been up-front about his time at Disney and not enjoying it. Why did you choose to not have him as part of it?

DH: It became really difficult to single out any particular artist in the mix. If I started to talk to Tim, I felt like “Well, then I have to talk to John Lasseter. If I talk to John, I really need to stop and talk to other people along the way.” I tried to pick characters, from the artistic side, anyway, that had been there for maybe 20 or 30 years, and had spanned it all. Tim was there for a few years and then went away. I think it was enough to portray him as the artist at the table struggling to get his scene out on Fox And The Hound, and I really relied more on Glen Keane and people who had a broader look, because I wanted to create characters that could come back and comment on The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast and Lion King, so you’d have some character continuity throughout the whole piece. So there’s no big mysterious reason why I didn’t ask Tim to be a part of it. He’s seen the film, and he loves it, and I’m thankful for that. 

AVC: What can you say about Frankenweenie? Is your role there like essentially what you’re doing at Disney?

DH: Oh man. Different worlds. Puppet animators are… It’s such a physically demanding thing. When you turn a camera on to shoot a scene, you’re there for 18 hours with this puppet, moving it and shooting it and moving it and shooting it. It’s physically demanding. We’re going to shoot it in London. It’s inspired, of course, by Tim’s black-and-white live-action short that he made when he was at Disney. We’re ramping up right now. The puppets are built. We’re starting to build sets. My producing partner, Allison Abbate, is producing it with me in London, and she just got off of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and before that, she produced Corpse Bride. So she’s a great, great producer. I’m looking forward to it, because I just have never done that before.

AVC: From the people you’ve met, have you found that puppet animators have different personalities than 2-D animators?

DH: No. You get a bell curve of personalities. I guess overall you would say they tend to be a little more introverted. Intense. Just by the nature of the beast. But so passionate. You’re not going to be a millionaire working in puppet animation—or any animation, for that matter—but the ability to go in and be hands-on with a character and actually be able to manipulate and move it is really magical. To see that result so quickly on the screen is contagious. I think that’s why you find these really loyal people who want to do movies like Coraline or Frankenweenie. I think the audience enjoys that too, because you can see the fingerprints of the animators on the characters. When you see Wallace and Gromit in one of those great Nick Park movies, I love it, because it’s human. It’s like a hand-written letter. I think that’s what draws me to stop-motion.

AVC: You’ve worked with Tim Burton before, on Nightmare Before Christmas. He didn’t direct that, but he’s directing this one. Do you have a sense for how hands-on he is as a stop-motion director? 

DH: I can’t tell you yet, because I haven’t worked with him in this capacity yet, except I know he’s kind of born into it. He’s not doing it as a hobby or a sideline. He loves stop-motion animation, and kind of lives and breathes it. So he’ll be involved enough. The thing about Tim is that he’ll be involved just the right amount. [Laughs.] Will he be there every day moving puppets? Probably not. Should he be? No. Will he be involved where you need him with directing talents, setting the style of the movie, all that stuff? Yeah. That’s what’s thrilling. To see his style turn into this movie, I think, is going to be really fun for people.

AVC: There’s so much variation in what a producer does, from production to production and studio to studio. What was your involvement with The Lion King like? What was your experience?

DH: I think in essence, you’re kind of the coach, cheerleader, and psychotherapist of the process. You’re trying to put together a team of people to tell a story, and have a single vision, and make that story come to the screen, and then support it with resources. It’s everything from creating a safe haven for the movie to happen to pulling in event marketing and creating a sense that the movie’s going to be an event movie. It’s very much like being a coach on a football team. I’m not out there calling the plays or running the ball. The producer, in every way in animation, is really responsible for pulling the movie together and making it happen. Luckily, in animation, it doesn’t involve raising money. There was always a checkbook there. So it’s more of a creative-producer idea. I really enjoyed collaborating with the directors, who are the principal storytellers along the line, but I need to bring in directors and writers and musicians and collaborate with all of them. My background is art and music, so I tend to get more involved in musical issues than most producers, because I love that. That’s probably why I’ve produced more musicals than pretty much anybody else—because I really like it.

AVC: Was your role pretty much the same on Nightmare Before Christmas or Beauty And The Beast?

DH: Every movie has a lot of variety depending on the creative team. Every producer—I guess part of the definition of being a producer is, you have to bring your own personality to it. So the way I do it is not the way anybody else does it. And every movie has its different tone. My heroes growing up were Jim Henson and Walt Disney, and people who were creative producers of their products. I thought if I could be Jim Henson, if I could be that kind of person and bring that kind of creativity to wherever I ended up with, I would be really happy to live that life. So that’s kind of the style I adopted. 

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AVC: Waking Sleeping Beauty mentions that when Lion King and Pocahontas were in production, everybody thought Pocahontas was going to be the big success, and they all wanted to go work on that and not on Lion King. Were you ever uncomfortable or unhappy with the fact that you were on the redheaded-stepchild film instead of project everyone wanted to work on?

DH: Yeah, maybe not unhappy, but certainly uncomfortable and worried. People were fleeing that project, Lion King, like it was the plague, I think because it was so different. It was all animals, the first all-animal movie we had done in a long, long time, so you had characters who didn’t even have an opposable thumb and couldn’t even pick up a cup. And there were no cups. There was no sign of humanity at all.

And then we were used to these huge hits from Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Now here’s Tim Rice and Elton John? Elton John? He’s never written music for animation before. And how do you tell this story, this coming-of-age hero’s journey story with these lions in Africa and make it entertaining, as opposed to a National Geographic special? Those were really, really worrying issues, but with every movie, there are breakthrough moments. I think when “Circle Of Life” got orchestrated by Hans Zimmer, you could listen to it and go “Oh, I get it. The music is going to be a huge component of this movie.” There’s this epic African style that Hans brought to the table that made it big. And the art direction and transporting the audience to Africa was another breakthrough moment. And casting. When you start to hear James Earl Jones or Nathan Lane or whatever, you get these little breakthroughs along the way, and those start giving you pieces of hope.

But it was depressing at times, because everybody’s running to the other movie. You’re going, “But wait! We have Elton John! And there’s a meerkat and a flatulent warthog!” People just ran. It was really frustrating for a while. What happened was, the people who stayed on the film were passionate about it, and it was their chance to shine. Maybe they were, in some cases, the B animators that couldn’t get a chance, and they got a chance on that movie, and they did great. People on that movie were hungry. That was what made it good.

AVC: Did Disney foster a sense of competition between teams? Were they actively encouraged to think “We’ve got to outdo the Pocahontas people”?

DH: Yeah. I don’t know “actively;” people wouldn’t necessarily bring it up in a meeting. But we ourselves were very competitive. I think that started out with Roger Rabbit, because here’s a Disney movie that’s being done in London with European animators. There’s none of us on it. And I was over there working with [animation director] Richard Williams. Now all of the sudden, there’s this threat that all these British animators are doing our movies. So that, I think, made the people on Little Mermaid step up a little bit. Then when Mermaid happened, we were working on Beauty And The Beast, and we thought, “God, that’s a huge hit. We’re going to just die.” So we had to step up. There was always this very positive but very real competition between units going back and forth to make each movie shine above the last, and that was a good thing. 

AVC: Did the feeling that Lion King wasn’t going to be nearly as big as Pocahontas last up until the point of release?

DH: I’d say it lasted up until about six months before release, because then you could start seeing it. Six months before release, we put out “Circle Of Life” as a trailer for the movie, and people said, “Wow! Is the whole movie like that?” It wasn’t at the time. The movie was a bit in shambles. But we would say, “Yes! It is!” Now there’s this other layer of pressure where people are going “Wow, if the whole movie’s like that, it must be great.” So we would go back and say, “Oh my God, we’re in deep shit, because the movie is great up until this point, and then it falls apart.” So we start getting out the orange cones and the police tape and the hammers, and trying to elevate the movie to live up to the expectation of that opening song. It created a huge expectation in the marketplace. I think that made us terrified. So we really pushed hard to elevate the rest of the movie to that level in a very short amount of time. I think we pushed it to the highest level we could get it to, anyway. It worked out okay. So toward the end, we figured out that maybe it would be okay.

AVC: There are visible scars in some of the early, troubled Disney productions—watching Black Cauldron or Fox And The Hound, you can see where animation was reused and corners were cut. Looking back at Lion King, do you see problems like that because you know where the weakest points were?

DH: Not so much on Lion King. I think on Beauty And The Beast, definitely. We had some very weak animation in places in Beauty And The Beast. The audience doesn’t care though, or know. There’s weak stuff, technically weak, in Dumbo and Snow White, but who cares? The story’s compelling. By The Lion King, we had enough success and enough financial wherewithal to make it as good as we could. So I think that’s a pretty sound movie all around.

AVC: When Lion King started breaking box-office records, were people in the studio still saying “Well, Pocahontas is going to make twice as much as this” or were expectations more realistic by that point?

DH: I think expectations were a little more realistic. I think everybody knew Lion King was a once-in-a-lifetime movie, with that kind of financial and critical success in the marketplace. Disney’s movies were still quite successful, Pocahontas and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and the things that followed, but we knew it would be pretty rare for it to live up to a $750 million worldwide box office. That really didn’t happen until Finding Nemo came along.

AVC: Waking Sleeping Beauty covers so much ground—so many areas and eras and people. Do you foresee a DVD coming out with 200 hours of additional footage? 

DH: I wish. Certainly we’re going to put on as much bonus material as we can. There were huge events we left out of the movie. During the climax of the movie, the Northridge earthquake took place, and the studio shut down. People were making Lion King in their garages. So there were elements that were not crucial to the telling of this story that I think would be really interesting to make available on the DVD of this film. And I think even more caricatures, more artwork, more photographs of what was going on in the studio, just lends to the experience of the movie.

AVC: Speaking of what was going on in the studio, early on, you have a sequence where the animators are running around acting out Apocalypse Now. Was that typical of the studio environment?

DH: That’s very much what it was. That’s part of why I wanted to put that in, and the mariachi band, and all that stuff. It’s life in a cartoon studio. Nobody dies… pretty much. It’s not like working in an insurance actuary firm. It is a pretty joyful process in the end, and I really want to get that across in the film. It was struggling, it was chaos, it was difficult at times, but it was also incredible when you made creative breakthroughs. When you heard “Circle Of Life” for the first time. Those were the best times on the films. You really did become family with these people. You spent the larger part of your life with them. Life in a cartoon studio is a wonderful place.

AVC: Are there other moments that particularly stand out for you that aren’t in the film?

DH: Certainly. We brought in a really cool three-man slingshot one day and tried to see how far we could launch maple bars across the parking lot. Somebody brought a paintball gun into work one day and experimented with how far you could shoot paintballs across the studio. There was always somebody singing opera in the corner. People brought their dogs in, so if you went in to get a scene or say hello to someone, you might get worked over by a poodle. [Laughs.] It was a very kinetic environment. Kind of everything you might hope for in an animation studio.

AVC: Does that environment persist? Has there been an effort to make Disney a fun or open place to work?

DH: I think the minute you say, “Let’s have fun, everybody!” it kills it. I think it has to grow, grassroots up. Pixar’s been great at allowing that to happen in a very successful environment. Their animation space is really inventive and fun and chaotic and non-corporate. I think it’s really valuable to a creative environment to allow that kind of expression, but you can’t mandate it. You can’t say “Okay, everybody, we’re going to be creative today, and let’s really have fun.” That’s been tried, believe me. More important is to be permissive and let the culture be what it wants to be and seek its own water level. And studios go through chapters. The original Warner Bros. Studio, Termite Terrace and Chuck Jones, the people there were all in their 20s, insane party-time. Disney was a little bit like that, too, and so was the early Disney back in the Hyperion days. Then people grow up, and they get married, and they have kids, and their priorities change a little bit, and the studio mellows a little bit. Then a new bunch of kids come in. So it’s very much this corporate life that turns over, and the style of the studio changes during that time. 

AVC: With the technology changing constantly, do those older, more settled animators keep up with the times?

DH: They do. In the ’80s, when this film takes place, there was kind of a missing generation. There were the guys who grew up with Walt Disney who were in their 60s. There should have been a generation of people in their 40s, and there wasn’t. And then all these kids in their 20s coming up. I suppose that like in any business, you have to stay on top of your game, not only in terms of draftsmanship and artistic ability, but now, technical ability. It used to be enough to be able to draw really well. It’s not anymore. You have to draw really well, and you have to know the technology, because if you don’t, there’s a couple hundred kids coming out of art school every day that do. It makes for great movies. We’re the beneficiary of a little golden era of animation right now, with Up and Avatar and Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. So many great movies coming out that are fun, entertaining, and that’s because there’s a lot of great people in the industry right now.

AVC: At the same time, there was that hiccup in 2004 where Disney Studios disbanded the 2-D section and said “People only want to see CGI movies.”

DH: Yeah, the thought—whether it’s right or not, I’ll let you decide—was that it was out of fashion. That people really didn’t want to see hand-drawn films anymore. I think with some time, the conventional wisdom has changed, in that it wasn’t so much the technique as it was the kinds of stories being told. It didn’t matter if it was drawn by hand or by a computer, it was really the stories that made the difference. So I think you’ll see… I’m working on a puppet-animated movie right now. You’ll see that. You’ll see stop-motion. You’ll see hand-drawn. You’ll see all kinds of styles happening, and I think that’s great. You’ll see stop-motion, you’ll see motion capture, performance capture. Animation’s a really dynamic place right now.

AVC: In letting everybody go from the 2-D department and then restarting it years later, did you lose a lot of valuable people you couldn’t replace? Did you bring the same people back in? Did you start from scratch?

DH: A little bit of all of the above. A lot of the same people were still around and came back into the industry again. Luckily—you can tell from the quality of the animation in The Princess And The Frog—the heavy-hitters from that era came back and wanted to work on it, because they sensed that “How many more times in our lifetime are we going to get to do this?” I didn’t work on it, but I’m certainly a cheerleader and loved that project. And yet there’s a whole new group of animators that came up on that movie, that are starting to learn the craft and are interested in hand-drawn animation again. 

AVC: Where are you with Disney Animation these days? It seems that, apart from Frankenweenie, you’re mostly doing live-action and working with Disney Nature on Earth and Oceans.

DH: Yeah. I’m definitely there. I am still under contract with Disney and loving it. I have some live-action films in development. I’ve picked up these nature films, which have been more of a passion project for me. We’re just finishing Oceans right now—that comes out on Earth Day. I love the ability to use cinema to portray the issues that are facing us, and yet I still can’t get out of animation, so that’s where Frankenweenie comes from. So I guess I’ve become impatient and like to have my hand in a little bit of everything. I see the lines blurring between all these techniques. It used to be “A flying elephant? Well, that’s a story for animation.” That doesn’t exist anymore. Any movie, live-action or animated, can do anything. So all these lines that were very definitive 30 years ago are now all blurred. Whether you’re a “live-action producer” or “animation producer” I think is moot now, because you’re seeing the technique being used by anybody. That’s where I am.

AVC: What kind of freedom do you have to pick your projects within your Disney contract?

DH: I still need financing for my projects, so I have great freedom to pick them. I still have to bring the studio projects that are marketable and that they want to sell and be involved with. That’s always been the case, to try to find things that the audience wants to see and is going to be engaged by. And that’s what I want to do. So I have great freedom within those parameters. [Laughs.] To go in and say, “Here’s three ideas that I love, three ideas that I think are commercially successful, but I also think they’re fresh and interesting.”

AVC: What can you say about Hand Held, your second documentary? Is that going to come out this year as well?

DH: It is. Talk about a passion project. Here’s a movie that will probably never be a commercial hit, but I was so moved by the story of this Boston Globe photographer who was the first guy to wander into the pediatric AIDS crisis in Romania 20 years ago that I ended up going to Romania and taking a year off my Disney job and following him around, following the 20-years-later story of this huge crisis. It would be like going to Darfur 20 years from now. This was a world-changing fall of communism, Ceauşescu was deposed, and all these kids with pediatric AIDS were released into orphanages, and now what’s happening 20 years later?

So I follow one photographer’s life through that period of time. We’re doing a preview screening in Boston in February, and then it’ll come out later this year. So that’s been a great project, because there’s not going to be stuffed animals. Waking Sleeping Beauty, made me hungry to do documentaries, but to work on issues that I thought were really important. Hand Held is about social activism, because I saw this guy who looks and talks like me, and he doesn’t speak Romanian, and yet he did this huge thing to help people in this place far away. I thought “I would never do that, so I have to find out why you are and why I’m not. Why aren’t we each doing that? Why aren’t we each socially active in our own way, in our own community? Why is this guy so special?” That’s why I made the movie, because I thought “I have to find out, why him?” It turns out, in the course of the movie, that he was a real disciple of Bobby Kennedy, and the Kennedy philosophy of “you have to give back from birth, you owe something to your community,” that’s what pressed him into doing all this stuff. So that’s been a really good project for my soul, in terms of making a movie that I’ve learned a lot from. We’ve been slogging through Transylvania, filming in some really unfortunate places, but I feel blessed by that movie in many, many ways. So thank you for asking about it.

AVC: Are you considering further documentary projects? Do you think you’re going to stay in documentary as far as directing?

DH: I love it. I have to be really honest, I really love the idea of non-fiction. So yeah, I think I probably will. I’ll always have 10 things going at the same time, though. I love doing Frankenweenie. I love working with Tim Burton. I’d like to do another animated feature at some point. But I don’t know. I’ve had a really great, blessed career along the way, and I feel like now, the chance to make films like Waking Sleeping Beauty or Hand Held and give back a little bit to the industry and tell our stories as cautionary tales is a great place for me to be right now.