Don Hahn discusses his documentary, HOWARD (PART ONE)
EDITOR'S NOTE: THANKS TO ALL WHO SENT IN QUESTIONS FOR HOWARD DIRECTOR, DON HAHN. WE'VE SPLIT HIS RESPONSES INTO THREE BLOG POSTS. PART TWO NEXT WEEK.
How involved was Disney in the production of your documentary, Howard?
The film would not have been possible without the cooperation of Disney from Bob Iger on down. Bob was one of the first people that I discussed the film with and he was incredibly responsive and thought that Howard Ashman’s story was long overdue.
So even though Disney was not involved in the making of the documentary, they have been generous and cooperative about lending us crucial clips and interviews from their archives. The only formal Disney interview with Howard is the sit-down interview he did with Alan Menken on The Little Mermaid. We use it heavily in the film because he is so articulate about his process and the interview contains one of my favorite quotes about his ambition of making a film that can sit on the shelf alongside Peter Pan and Cinderella. One of the other key clips from Disney is Howard’s lecture to the animation staff about musical theatre and its relationship to animation and storytelling. The lecture was filmed on a home video camera by the training department at Disney Animation and was meant to be used as in-house reference for the animators. It sat on a shelf for many years and I found it when I was making Waking Sleeping Beauty.
What is Stone Circle?
Stone Circle is my production company. I founded it about ten years ago when I did Waking Sleeping Beauty. Since then we’ve produced documentaries for PBS and for Walt Disney Studios under the Stone Circle banner.
How long did it take to make this film? What was your process like? How did you approach your research?
We took about two and a half years to make the film. It all started in November of 2015 when I had lunch with Howard’s sister, Sarah Gillespie and his friend and colleague, Nancy Parent. I told them I’d like to try to make a film about Howard. I knew that Jonathan Polenz had tried a few years before but that his attempt had hit a funding wall. Sarah was really nice about it all, but to be honest, we didn’t know each other well and I’m sure she wasn’t going to hold her breath waiting for me to make a film about her brother.
My producer, Lori Korngiebel and I began our research at the Library of Congress in Washington DC where Howard’s papers are stored. They were amazingly helpful in retrieving his working documents but also photographs and recordings from his many projects. Their audio tape library is astounding and that’s where we found an answering machine tape from Howard and Bill Lauch’s phone where Howard is talking to Aladdin directors Ron Clements and John Musker. We spent two full days there making copies and scans of documents to serve as a foundation.
Lori is a tireless researcher and not only found photos and ephemera for the film but also tracked down photographers who were there and photographed moments in Howard’s early career. Because of that we have never-before-seen shots of Howard working with actors on Little Shop, or of Howard talking to Kurt Vonnegut during the Rosewater rehearsals. One of Lori’s big finds was a videotaped interview with Howard that was conducted at Indiana University when Howard had visited there in the late 1980’s. Research finds like that are such a miracle and give the film an incredible authenticity.
Jonathan had also done a ton of research and had found a long audio interview with Howard that supplied one of the best autobiographical sources that we had. He also found a clip with Bill Boggs interviewing Howard during the run of Little Shop. In the Boggs interview, Howard and other theater luminaries sit at a dining table while Howard talks about his philosophy of storytelling in the theatre. In the same interview, he mentions his next project with Marvin Hamlisch, which of course was Smile.
What was it like working on both the live action as well as the animated Disney versions of Beauty and the Beast?
They were both great experiences but very different from each other. The animated Beauty was a process of discovery. We had the original court tales from 18th century France, and a host of movies and television shows based on the fairy tale. Walt Disney and his crew developed it for a short time after the war, but never made progress. We had a big false start on the film and storyboarded about 20 minutes of reasonably good work that we eventually came to feel wasn’t as fresh and entertaining as it could be. At the same time, The Little Mermaid premiered and the reaction was fantastic. We never dreamed that Howard and Alan would be available to work on Beauty and the Beast, but when Aladdin crashed with major story issues they were available and thankfully jumped on board the production as our songwriters.
Our directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise were fantastic in every way, but they didn’t have experience with musicals and they knew it. They deferred to Howard on placement of songs, the lyrics and the crucial lead into the songs. Howard worked closely with our story crew and our writer, Linda Woolverton, to flesh out the story. It’s hard when you are searching for new entertainment in an old story, but those early days with the team at Disney plus Howard and Alan led to ideas like Gaston, and the enchanted objects that made the film incredibly musical and entertaining without losing its dramatic core.
The live action film had the benefit of the original film which Bill Condon and his team loved and studied. But to their credit they were not afraid to expand on our original story. There were plenty areas of the plot where the live action team helped us understand the origin of Belle’s mother, and gave us more depth into just about every aspect of the story. The cast was world class and Emma Watson with Dan Stevens gave Belle and the Beast such great heart and empathy that we couldn’t help but fall in love with them. Much of Howard’s original songs remain, but Alan with the brilliant Tim Rice, filled out the song score to help expand the story for the live action telling. Finally, the sets and costumes were delicious beyond belief and contributed to the fairytale setting of the live film.
So, two very different experiences, one a film of exploring and discovering while learning from Howard, and the other, an exercise in beautiful adaptation by Bill and his crew.
What do you enjoy more, producing or directing?
I’m a maker. I love making things and sometimes, as with Beauty and the Beast, that means pulling a team of people together to create something, and other times, as a director, it means complete control over every aspect of the storytelling. Lately, I’ve enjoyed directing a great deal. The films I work on are generally non-fiction documentaries for PBS or Disney and I like the challenge of pulling together a story from real events. I’m a history junkie and have always loved reading biographies and history books so it’s no surprise that I like documentaries. My crew is small, and the amount of control that a director can exercise on a doc is fantastic. That can be a good or bad thing, of course. When the film isn’t working, there is no one to blame, but with the right team and some time to dig deep into the emotions of the story, it’s possible to make films that are every bit as engaging as fiction. We’re going through a golden age of documentary film making right now, and I’m excited to be part of that.