Don Hahn Discusses His Documentary, HOWARD (PART THREE)


Doodle from Howard Ashman's  Little Shop of Horrors  Director's Notebook (1981)

Doodle from Howard Ashman's Little Shop of Horrors Director's Notebook (1981)


Is there anything left on the cutting room floor that you would have liked to keep if you’d been able?

There is probably an hour’s worth of content that would be interesting to fans of Howard.   I really wanted, however, to keep the film to 90 minutes and tell Howard’s story for a general audience.    I wasn’t making a film for Disney fans or theater fans, although I was always very aware and appreciative of their interest in the film.  I made the film because I feel Howard’s life is inspiring regardless of your interests.   His incredible persistence of vision when it came to his work is inspiring.  His tenacity to get what he wanted is inspiring.   His academic knowledge of musical theatre and the amount of homework he did before his career began is inspiring.  And of course, his persistence to create some of the most incredible work of his life while his health was failing him, was beyond inspiring.   It’s heroic.   So though there were plenty of stories to add to Howard’s narrative, to me the human story was the only one to tell here.    Now having said all that, there is one story about the night that Howard ran into Tennessee Williams outside a theater and went to drinks with him after the show.   Howard ended the evening by wishing Mr. Williams good luck on his play, and Williams turned around and said, “well good luck to you on your show, Mr. Ashman.”   I suspect that was one of the highlights of Howard’s life.

What is your interviewing technique?  Do you approach different people differently?  

I try to get as conversational as possible in my interviews.  All the interviews for Howard were audio only.   Once you introduce lights, a camera and hair and makeup, people get nervous and edit their thoughts, or worse:  they start to perform for the camera.   I want to have my subjects forget they are being recorded.  We sit in big easy chairs, we drink coffee, and we talk.   With some of the key players in Howard’s story, such as his sister Sarah or his partner Bill, we did multiple sessions.  The later sessions yielded some wonderful intimate lines that could only come once Sarah and Bill felt comfortable with what I was doing.   I sent sequences and rough cuts of the film to them throughout the process.    I genuinely wanted their thoughts so that the story would be accurate, but I also wanted them to see where I was going, and build confidence in telling Howard’s story in this odd way with only archival footage and stills.   I’m really lucky because they were very open and honest with me at every turn yet they never censored me or asked me to change something without reason.   

Some of the interviews in the film were Jonathan Polenz’s earlier work on a documentary.  He had done some incredible interviews early in the process, most notably with Howard’s mother, that gave us a strong foundation of material to build on.  Jonathan filmed his interviews, so we extracted the audio and used it in places to tell the story.   

With Jodi Benson, I did the interview via phone.   I sent a recordist to her house, and we just talked on the phone for an hour.   Jodi is a wonderfully open and honest person and a great actress and singer.  I could have done a complete documentary with just Jodi talking about her experiences with Howard.   The same was true with Alan Menken.  I’d worked with Alan on Beauty and again on Hunchback of Notre Dame and we know each other well enough to just sit and talk about anything.  His contribution was so important and deeply emotional.   He gave me the entire ending of the film when he told me about the dream he had on the morning of Howard’s death.  It was so personal and I had been looking for a way to finish Howard’s story without being overly maudlin or dark.   Alan’s story did that.

Finally, Nancy Parent was golden for me as a film maker.  She not only knew the story from Howard’s days in Indiana through his life at Disney, but was really the only person who knew his personal and professional life equally well.   And best of all, Nancy has a great voice and storytelling style so whenever I would get into trouble with the story, or need someone to be a narrative bridge between topics, I would call Nancy over to my studio and solicit some answers from her that always filled the gaps in the story.  

Aside from using only archival footage in the film, I also decided against the narrator.   In my mind, Howard was the narrator of his own story.   But if there was a person who often served as narrator, it was Nancy.    I loved her voice, she always surprised me with her answers and she was always able to deliver the humor and pathos of Howard’s story in a profound way.

What is your next project?

We’re working to adapt The Lion King into a live action film with Jon Favreau directing.   It’s been 25 years since Lion King came out, and like Beauty and the Beast, stories are meant to be told and retold.   Favreau is brilliant.  He is one of those directors who understand character and story, but is fearless when it comes to new technologies.  The Lion King will be out in 2019 and Jon’s stunning visuals, amazing voice cast and incredible music by Hans Zimmer should add up to something special.

What has been your biggest “what if Howard was here” moment creatively as a storyteller and filmmaker?

Right after Beauty and the Beast, I went onto The Lion King as producer.   It was a musical with Elton John and Tim Rice writing the songs.   Howard’s songs were specific and there was no ambiguity about how to get into the song, or where it went or who sings it.    Elton is a genius when it comes to melody and song writing, but we had to really work with Tim to get the songs adapted into the film.   Lucky for us, Tim is a master of musical storytelling, but the truth is Howard spoiled us.   All of us had to work harder after he was gone. 


Sarah GillespieComment