Linda Woolverton, the Disney screenwriter who reimagined Belle as a bookworm and crafted Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent into a fearsome antihero, has heard the “strong female character” trope since her earliest years at the studio, and she doesn’t have a lot of patience for it. “It’s just an easy term,” she said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “What does it mean?”
She answers her own question, with a take on what it could mean, or at least what it should mean. “It means somebody who is proactive in their world, who affects their world, isn’t a victim, even victimized by it — or if they are victimized by it, they take action to change that for themselves. They look at the world in interesting ways, maybe another way than the culture does. That makes a strong woman if she’s vocal about it, or even goes about trying to make change without being vocal about it. There are so many interesting ways to describe women besides just strong, even this pure difficult strength. It’s strong-willed.”
Woolverton’s first project for Disney was one that haunted the studio for decades: “Beauty and the Beast.” Walt Disney himself put it into development after the success of his studio’s first animated feature, the 1937 classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” but scores of writers failed to crack the tale of a beautiful young woman and the cursed beast she grows to love.
Some 40 years later, Disney hired children’s theater producer-turned-animated TV writer Linda Woolverton to script a new version of the story. And not only did the first-time screenwriter become the studio’s first woman to write an animated feature for the studio, her vision also propelled “Beauty and the Beast” to instant classic status and a worldwide gross of over $600 million adjusted. The 1991 film also became the first animated feature to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and began Woolverton’s long and illustrious career as one of Disney’s most bankable screenwriters.
If you grew up on modern Disney classics, chances are, Woolverton was part of their creation. She contributed early story ideas on both “Aladdin” and “Mulan,” co-wrote “The Lion King,” and helped kickstart the studio’s live-action craze with her original idea for a grown-up “Alice in Wonderland.”
Four years after the two success of what would become Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” Woolverton wrote another female-focused twist on an old fairy tale for the studio, retrofitting the classic “Sleeping Beauty” tale into “Maleficent.” Starring Angelina Jolie as the eponymous fairy who curses bouncing baby Princess Aurora by way of a nefarious spindle, Woolverton’s version is told from Maleficent’s perspective and offers a more complex examination of some long-standing archetypes. It made nearly $760M at the global box office.
“Now that we’ve made a lot of progress as women,” Woolverton said. “Now [that] we’ve gotten ourselves in a position of like, ‘Oh, we can actually do things now,’ let’s do it. Let’s just not repeat the past, or not just take out a male protagonist and plunk in a female protagonist and call it good. I think that the feeling now that ‘Wow, we can have women flying around, and shooting rays at things, and blowing buildings up, just like the men always did’ — that’s great, but I think it’ll get really boring really quick, unless we add something, really the truth about ourselves.”
This is a topic that really gets Woolverton going. She continued: “To me, it’s like, ‘You know what? We’ve broken the door down, good for us. We slammed the door down through a variety of reasons, and we had a lot of leaders who helped us, and a lot of movements that helped us, like the #MeToo movement and others. Now we’ve stormed the castle, and we slammed the doors, and now we’re standing on the door, kind of like huffing and puffing. Okay, now the question for me is, okay, now what are you going to do with it? What are you going to do with it?’ That’s what I want to see.”
Another thing Woolverton would love to see: She wants company at the top. With “Alice in Wonderland,” she became the sole female representative among billion-dollar films credited with only one screenwriter. It’s not a record she wants to hold alone anymore.
“Take it away! Take it away,” she said. “Hopefully, I just broke the door down and let the stream flood in. That just kind of happened. The biggest coup with ‘Alice’ was the fact that it proved a female protagonist can bring in box office, and that changed everything. That for me, more than the number — because I didn’t make $1 billion, that’s not in my bank account — but the fact that that did that, it changed everything for storytelling, because then studios were willing to put money behind female protagonists.”
Despite the outsized scale of Woolverton’s animal-centric spins on classic Shakespearean storylines and classic fairy tales, she said nothing works without humanity. “If you write from your truth, and if you can fit some of that in a big, gigantic blockbuster movie — well, you have to if you’re going to make it touch people,” she said. “You have to go down into your soul. That makes you vulnerable, and it’s always scary to put that out there in the world. All these movies are really scary for a writer. Your name’s up there.”
And while it isn’t always just Woolverton’s name up there — the animated “Lion King” has no less than 27 credited writers — she works alone. Her scripts might go through passes with other writers, often returning to her for a final polish, but she’s a one-woman band. Asked if she’d ever take on a writing partner, Woolverton said, “No, that’s not me. I think that’s for luckier people than me, because it’s really going to be a lot more fun than sitting by yourself. I just can’t do that.”
Writing a sequel, she said, presents a specific set of issues: No matter how well she did the job the first time, returning means having to go back and untangle the story knots that she might have unknowingly created.
“You go down a lot of wrong roads first,” she said. “[With “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”], the challenge was, okay, what is interesting? The first one, it ended. She flew away and the world was all put back together again. To me, the most compelling relationship in the first movie is her relationship with Aurora and how that healed her. What happens in a relationship between a mother and daughter when the daughter becomes independent and wants to make her own way in the world, wants to have her own opinions, wants to make her own choices?”
For this film, Woolverton added another of her trademark elements: an unexpected villain that can’t help but feel weirdly timely. Maleficent goes up against the war-mongering Queen Ingrith (played by Michelle Pfieffer), a nutty leader who is desperate to eradicate beings she sees as “different.” However, Woolverton said she doesn’t put a lot of energy into being contemporary.
“It takes a long time to make a movie, so unless it’s a movie about politics, you can’t be too timely,” she said. “I’m not talking about specifics of what’s going on right now, I’m talking about larger global themes. If it starts to smack of the particular current whatever’s going on, that’s not good. It won’t be a classic if you do that. You have to find that balance where it’s relevant to people and it’s significant, it means something. I always want to nudge the culture forward a little bit with these characters, but you can’t get really specific about it.”
Courtesy of Disney
Disney films aimed at a younger audience are inevitably packaged with lessons like the importance of family, the need to battle evil in all forms, the joy of accepting others (and yourself), and the happiness that comes with striving to build a better world. That’s an assignment Woolverton readily accepts. “I’m always looking at, ‘Okay, what are we saying here?’ I don’t even say the word ‘theme,'” she said. “I say, ‘Well, what are we saying with that?’ If it doesn’t feel right to me in terms of how it depicts women, or it doesn’t smack of the character, or what is it saying about young women today, my voice in the room is like, ‘We are impacting generations and culture around the world. What are we saying?’
She continued, “It’s a really important thing to question constantly and really check in with your higher self. What is it that you’re imparting with this, and is it worthy? Is it worthy of all this time, energy, effort, and money?”
While Woolverton has not worked on the recent and incredibly popular live-action versions of some of her animated hits, she’s not resistant to them. If anything, she sees the value in bringing her kind of magic to a new generation. “It’s interesting to the audience to see somebody they love, somebody like Emma Watson playing Belle. That’s cool, right?,” she said. “Let’s go see Emma Watson, or Beyonce playing Nala. It’s a sort of nostalgic thing, we’re going to get that feeling again, and we’re going to give it to our kids who didn’t get that original at the same time we got it, and we can share that. … I think that’s a really good reason to do it. It’s bringing it to life in a different way for a new generation.”
Still, she conceded, “Some are more successful than others.” Which might be why the woman who helped create “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” isn’t focused on more remakes and reimaginings, but is instead eager for something entirely new.
“We need originality,” Woolverton said. “We need new stories. We need stories from different ethnicities and different cultures, which animation’s doing really great at. We need to do that in live-action as well, I think. I’m talking about the world, not just necessarily Disney. I don’t think we need to be remaking anything else. Let’s create things. Creation, that’s what women are best at. We create, right? We bring life.”
“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is in theaters October 18.