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Immersed in Movies: Don Hahn Talks the Link Between ‘Maleficent’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’

Immersed in Movies: Don Hahn Talks the Link Between 'Maleficent' and 'Sleeping Beauty'

In honor of  the blockbuster Maleficent arriving on Blu-ray today, Disney recently hosted a first-time press visit to Walt Disney’s former Los Feliz residence, Working Way (now owned by director Timur Bekmambetov, who produced Shane Acker’s 9 and is reworking Ben-Hur). It was the perfect fairy tale-like setting to interview exec producer Don Hahn about both Maleficent and Sleeping Beauty (which was released as a Diamond Edition on Blu-ray last month). Hahn left Disney to help start-up Paramount Animation and is now enjoying a break between projects.

But first I got to explore the wondrous exterior and interior of Disney’s five-acre family home, combining elements of Mediterranean, Tudor, and French Normandy styles. You can tell how it served as the inspiration for Walt’s animated fairy tales. Walt designed the home near the Hyperion Studios while wife Lillian was pregnant with Diane in 1932. He collaborated with architect Frank Crowhurst, who had previously worked on a tower addition to the Hyperion Studio. Working Way was built in a quick two months in order to be ready in time for the baby’s arrival and was constructed by a crew largely composed of out-of-work, Depression-era workers. 

The home contains five bedrooms and five baths, and includes a circular rotunda with painted ceilings, a formal double-story living room with vaulted beamed ceilings, rod iron spandrels, original stained leaded glass and Juliet balcony, a dining room, a screening room, a gym room with sleeping porch, a badminton court, a pool, and pool house (overlooking an extraordinary view of downtown). Hahn and I chatted in a quiet corner outside.
Bill Desowitz: How did Maleficent come about?
Don Hahn: It goes back to when David Stainton was head of animation about seven or eight years ago, and it was pitched as an animation project. Not a Sleeping Beauty reboot as much as building on how Maleficent is one of the great Disney villains. It didn’t go too far. But we had an opportunity in 2005 when I met with Tim Burton in London to discuss Frankenweenie and I said I had something else to pitch. I sat with Tim and I had a Marc Davis drawing with me and I pitched “Tim Burton Presents Maleficent.” He said, “Give me that!” And he pulled it out and put it up on his wall. And he jumped in. He had just worked with Linda Woolverton on Alice in Wonderland, and, so for the first six months to a year, it was Linda, Tim, myself, and Richard Zanuck. But then Tim got sidetracked and we went on a director hunt and that’s how we ended up with Robert Stromberg. Angelina Jolie was always circling the project, even when it was with Tim.
BD: Was Angelina always the sole choice?
DH: She was. We never made a list of other choices because she seemed like she understood the flesh and blood of the character and could play the nuance. What she does in the movie is very restrained. She’s a woman who’s been dealt a very rough hand in life, so her performance is brilliant.
BD: Her arc from villain to ally is the humanizing hook.
DH: That was the riskiest part of the story that we wanted to tell. We knew pretty early on that we needed to update the politically incorrect story of a girl who falls asleep and can’t be awakened until her man comes and marries her. So thanks to Linda and Angie, too, saying let’s be brave about this, we made it relevant for our time. And to us that meant a character that was revealed in layers. You saw what looked like a one-note villain but by peeling back the layers you saw what had happened to her.
BD: It’s the rape of innocence and Maleficent gets to be become the maternal figure for this young girl.
DH: And generationally, she’s able to hand that down to Aurora. And there’s also a bigger world behind her because she represents the faerie world, which in this world is the organic, the natural, the mother earth of it all.
BD: Which gets corrupted.
DH: Exactly. And then Stefan represents iron and steel and stone that is actually poison to her. So by defeating him, she’s pushing back on humanity and winning one for magic and fantasy in the world. It’s a movie about not letting fantasy die, among other things.
BD: What do you think of the similar ending to Frozen with the female kiss? Was there an awareness of each other’s projects?
DH: Wow, I honestly think not. I never saw Frozen before it came out and we were busy in London and never had a chance to cross paths and I know it was the same with Frozen. They were under the eight ball and we protected our movie very closely. I think what happens, though, is you look to be relevant with a modern audience: you look towards sisters, you look towards a maternal gift to the next generation. I think that’s what happened: in the search for breaking the mold that women can be only validated by men, you turn to themes and issues that face women. They empower themselves.

BD: What was it like revisiting Sleeping Beauty as the framework for Maleficent?
DH: Frightening, daunting. It’s weird because I wanted to be true to an audience that loved Sleeping Beauty but I not pulling our punches in terms of making a movie that told a new story. So we spent time in the archives: We looked at Marc Davis, we looked at Eyvind Earle, we looked at all those guys. But that became background story, that became information. Fortunately, Robert Stromberg is one of the most gifted designers on the planet and as a director was able to create this whole new world that felt like a cousin to the Sleeping Beauty world. But it wasn’t the blocky, mid-century Eyvind Earle look at all. But he captured the medieval, jeweled tones and fantasy, and he captured the contrast. The most important thing in our movie is the contrast between the organic quality of the fairy world and the steel 
and stone of the castle. It was tough. We all loved Sleeping Beauty and we all watched it. But we had to slay that darling and make our own movie. There was a lot of smart thinking that went into the world building of it all. 
BD: Is there discussion about doing a sequel?
DH: It’s funny: I was thinking on the way over here that I need to call [Disney president] Sean Bailey and ask. It’s Hollywood. You know there has to be discussions, but I don’t know.
BD: Is there any idea that leaps out?
DH: No, I don’t know where you’d go. The backstory and mythology are very rich. I think you’d want to back to Linda and say dig deeper into this story. Why did it work with audiences, especially women, who saw this movie three, four, and five times? They were really moved by that relationship between Maleficent and Aurora in a way that I didn’t anticipate. It’s the story about the love between two women and how rare that is and how beautifully that was portrayed. And not unlike Frozen, it has the ultimate sacrifice. And showing why Maleficent was the way she was. So by showing this terrible act of cutting off her wings, symbolic to some of rape, to others of abuse, it showed her abandonment and lack of freedom. And entrapment caused by this terrible guy. And the fact that she avenged that and gave this freedom to that guy’s daughter is something that really resonated with people.

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