Usually when Disney produces a documentary about itself, it's a squeaky-clean job, meant to reiterate how hunky dory everything is; this includes such recent efforts as Walt and El Grupo and Morning Light. But the new Waking Sleeping Beauty is different. It's meant to discuss a "winning season" at the Disney studio, during which The Little Mermaid and other hits prevented the animation department from withering up and dying. But the film is far from self-congratulatory. Rather, it uses a wealth of archival footage to demonstrate the complex combination of talent and ego that went into this renaissance period; each player comes across as a fallible, three-dimensional human rather than just a character in a movie.
Part of the success of this film goes to director Don Hahn, a longtime Disney man who, among many other credits, received an Oscar nomination for producing Beauty and the Beast (1991). And part of the success goes to the former head of feature animation Peter Schneider, who produced the documentary (but no longer works at Disney). And, as Hahn says, there are about 2000 other people who deserve credit too. Hahn and Schneider recently sat down with Cinematical to discuss their new movie, which opens Friday.
Cinematical: How did you get away with this warts-and-all portrait?
Don Hahn: I don't think it was that scandalous, really. We are human beings, and it's not easy making these movies, and I think that was the story that everybody wanted to tell. Everyone was generous with their comments. Some people might have been cautious about certain topics, or asked if it was OK to talk about certain topics, but the philosophy we had was "talk about everything." We'll screen some things that maybe inappropriate for small children, but we're going to put it in because it humanizes the story.
Peter Schneider: We got no push-back. We went to the chairman of the studio at the time, Dick Cook, who had been there for 35 years. We sat down with Dick in our local coffee shop, because we all lived -- oddly enough -- in the same area. And he said, 'yes.' And we said, 'don't say yes too quickly.' We're going to talk about not only the joy and the passion, but we're going to talk about the dysfunctionality, and actually demonstrate the dysfunction. Are you sure you're OK with that? And he said, 'yes.'
DH: We didn't want to do a puff piece. We didn't need a self-promotional piece that says how great we were. I think the much more interesting story is how this perfect storm of people came together. And why that happens. Because I'm not sure I know myself. Why does a sports team win? What makes that? What's the level of dedication and sacrifice that goes into a winning season of any sort in any business? I've always been fascinated by those stories.
PS: The three point baskets all went in.
DH: It's true that we're like a basketball team. There are five on the floor, thirteen in all, and behind those thirteen are trainers and doctors and masseuses and parents and fans and the band, and that was the same with us. There were 2000 people who made this movie.
Cinematical: I'm sure that people like Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had to sign off on this, didn't they?
DH: We wanted them to, and we wanted to do it in front of them. And I think that was the right choice. If there's a problem, or something we've misrepresented, tell us about it! Ron (Clements) and John (Musker) said, "gee... you didn't put a lot of Aladdin in." One of the executives would say, "you made the other guys look good, but I don't look so good." And then the other guys would say the same thing. So we knew we had some sort of balance.
PS: The other key is that we were using all archival footage. Therefore, if people were reluctant, we still had their public record. They couldn't not be part of the movie. They couldn't say, "I'm not doing it." We could say, "fine." We had so much footage. They were going to be part of it in some bizarre way.
DH: It was a very well documented period, and if we didn't have it in our shoe boxes in our garages, we had it on CBS, we had it on NBC, we had them speaking at Radio City Music Hall, and it was all public record.
PS: Jeffrey (Katzenberg) being mauled by the lion: Jeffrey wouldn't give us that footage, per se, but it's already out there. It was an interesting process, because we could put this together independent of people embracing us. It turned out they embraced us.
DH: We weren't going to slam anybody.
PS: We weren't going to make a "good guys versus bad guys" movie.
Cinematical: Everybody comes across as human in this movie. As fallible as Katzenberg may be, he comes across as a guy you understand. And that goes for everybody in this movie. They're all three-dimensional. If only I could have seen more of COO Frank Wells.
PS: It's interesting. Everybody has, "can I see more of this, can I see more of that?" And that was our biggest challenge was to find a balance. Tell the story in 85 minutes, which is the animation story length, oddly enough. Any longer than that, you get bored.
DH: I wish we had more candid Frank stuff, but it simply doesn't exist. He was the face of Disney. I have an hour of Frank opening buildings and handing charity checks to people. I have him meeting presidents. I have him cutting 40 ribbons. That's what he did.
Cinematical: Where did all this footage come from, by the way? Who shot it? Did you shoot it?
PS: Did you shoot any of the footage in this movie? I'm talking about the archival stuff.
DH: I never held a camera and shot any of it. I was in the room for all the "thank yous" on The Lion King, because we didn't want to do "thank yous" on stage. We were afraid it would go on too long and there would be some tensions, because there were. So I took a cameraman and walked around and sat there and said, "Jeffrey, we're doing this for the wrap party." So I was in the room, but I never shot that stuff.
PS: Randy Cartwright, who performs the center of the act one pieces. Every three or four years, Randy would shoot the studio in the same shirt, and you could cut from one to the other and you never knew it was being done in different time periods.
DH: He was graphically like an animated character. He never changed costumes. Fortunately he wore pants.
Cinematical: I grew up at the wrong age for Disney movies, because I had The Fox and the Hound, and the good stuff didn't come out until I was in college. But I went anyway.
DH: People went anyway. That's what was kind of magical about that time. They were date movies.
PS: The Lion King was one of the biggest date movies of all time.
Cinematical: The other great thing about this movie was the caricatures, the drawings. That's not even something that you'd imagine that a Disney animator would do!
DH: They're so common to us, and they were everywhere. They were on everyone's walls. They were common currency. So much so that I don't even think we thought about it. It was Patrick (Pacheco), our colleague who helped us write some of the material. He said, "You've got to put in some of this ephemera." And people adore it. It's an animator's way of fighting back. You don't necessarily run into the boss's office, you can fire off a pretty nasty caricature, and it's funny.
Cinematical: I wanted to ask you both about your personal history in animation. According to my records, Don, you were an assistant on Pete's Dragon (1977)?
DH: I was. I was an assistant to Don Bluth on Pete's Dragon. My first job was working in the morgue where they stored the old animation. I would deliver coffee and old animation and took it up to Frank (Thomas) and Ollie (Johnston), or whoever wanted to see it. It was great. Working for Don Bluth, he was like the hero. He was the animation director on Pete's Dragon, and his office was the hub. I was in his office 24/7 on that movie. I worked really long hours. I would do anything. I would do drawings. I would do in-betweens. I would balance his checkbook. I would do whatever it took. It was access to everything. I was just a kid, pretty much. It was my college.
PS: I came in in 1985. I had no background whatsoever, and I was put in charge. What a bunch of idiots!
DH: It worked out OK.
PS: It worked out OK, but I think there was some feeling at the time, of people going "why the hell did he get the job?" It was a rocky period, a lovely period. I had such a great time. I love the people so much. My facebook is mostly animation people.
Cinematical: As an animation producer, you don't do hands-on drawing anymore...
DH: I don't. I did really early on movies like The Small One and Mickey's Christmas Carol and The Fox and the Hound, and I saw pretty early that I was going to be bad at it, or mediocre at best. I really enjoy getting around with the clipboard and talking to people and herding cats and being diplomatic. So it was a better place for me.
Cinematical: Tim Burton had the same experience on The Fox and the Hound. He also discovered that it wasn't for him.
DH: It's funny because it is a dream job. And all of us wanted desperately to be there. But you find out real fast if it's right for you or not.
PS: It's such a slow-moving business. It's intense, exacting and really slow. And even the great people did maybe 10 or 11 minutes of the movie.
DH: If you were really hauling and really at the top of the heap, you might do ten minutes.
Cinematical: Did you guys have a favorite Disney moment as a kid, like an epiphany?
DH: I did not. I remember seeing 101 Dalmatians at the drive-in, but it was no more an epiphany any more than seeing Camelot at the Cinerama Dome.
PS: I had an epiphany with a movie, which was Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap. But I don't think I ever put it together with Disney. I mean, Andreas Deja, who is one of the great animators of the world. He's from Germany. He knew at the age of four that he was going to work at the Walt Disney studios.
DH: He's a master at it. He's a historian. He's really a Tiger Woods character, where he just knew it.
PS: Most people had that kind of passion. In this period of time, from about 1975 to 1994, you couldn't do animation unless you did it at Disney.
Cinematical: I'm such a huge fan of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I was a complete nut. What was your job on that movie?
DH: I was the associate producer on the movie, and I produced all the animation on the movie in London, with Richard Williams, who is an amazing genius of a guy when it comes to animation. Peter put me in that position and it was the first movie that Peter walked into on maybe his first or second day at the studio.
PS: I had to meet with Steven Spielberg and Kathy (Kathleen) Kennedy and Frank Marshall as the "animation expert." I was pretty good!
DH: It really is one of a kind. It's a touchstone movie. Could you make that movie today with all that drinking and Jessica...?
PS: No! You couldn't even do it back then! That's what's so extraordinary. It was one of those push-the-boundaries things, and no one cared.
DH: No one cared. We had this big finale with all these characters. I could call up Warner Bros. and say, "we need ten more characters. What do you got?" And they would say, "Whatever you want. Foghorn Leghorn? Take him." They were dead characters.
Cinematical: But do you think it got people interested in animation again?
DH: I do. But it wasn't just Disney. It was everything. You had Tex Avery in there, and Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones, and Koko the Clown. Brought it all back.
[Waking Sleeping Beauty, which played just last week at the SXSW Film Festival (with Mr. Hahn in attendance), opens today in limited release. Our own Christopher Campbell pretty much loved it (review here), as did most of the Cinematical staff who saw it at the aforementioned film festival.]