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Stephen Holt Interview: “Waking Sleeping Beauty”

“Sleeping Beauty Awakes!”
Peter Schneider & Don Hahn Interview
by Stephen Holt

“Waking Sleeping Beauty” is a terrific new documentary on the tumultuous, incredibly creative decade(1984-1994) at Disney, when animation changed forever. And Producer Peter Schneider and Director Don Hahn were two of the people who changed it, and who witnessed the transformation process first hand. It was the time when “Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” altered the landscape of the Magic Kingdom forever, making it relevant and winning Oscar nominations and Golden Globe Awards to boot.

“Waking Sleeping Beauty” is comprised totally of contemporary archival footage of the behind-the-scenes workings of Disney, a place that had here-to-fore been off-limits to scrutiny of any kind. It’s Hahn’s and Schneider’s triumph in that they got permission to depict this unseen, wholly corporate world, in a dark, scary and entertaining (the cartoon clips are divine) doc that is surely going to be remembered at Oscar time next year.

I spoke to them in the corporate board room of Disney NYC where the St. Patrick’s Day parade was occurring a few blocks away.

Stephen Holt: Ok! I’ve seen the movie twice! Huge Disney fan! I loved it! You’ve pitched this for ten years? I find that shocking.

Don Hahn: Yeah, Peter and I live in the same town now, actually.

Peter Schneider: We do. We do.

DH: And I hadn‚Äôt seen him ‚Äòtil after ‚ÄúSister Act‚Äù (the musical version, which Peter had directed in the West End in London.) and we reconnected, and he said, ‚ÄúLet‚Äôs go out for coffee.‚Äù He pitched me the idea of doing this movie, cuz I think it was in his head for a decade or so. And I thought it was reasonably insane, because it‚Äôs a really tough topic to get your arms around. And a really difficult, rich, textured era to try to portray on film. And the more we got into it, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought ‚ÄúThis is a really unique story and if we don‚Äôt tell it, who will?‚Äù And if anybody,we were in the same rooms. We saw it. We were eyewitnesses to something — and it would be wrong not to tell it. So, that‚Äôs how we got involved.

SH: So why did it take ten years to- ?

PS: Because no one wanted to do it. It‚Äôs about tough, interesting, complicated times. I‚Äôm just saying — with Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Roy Disney (nephew of Walt), they didn‚Äôt speak to each other–

SH: I know! How did you (get them to talk)?
Well, they were in separate rooms, I guess, when you interviewed them, and they all said such warm, nice, supportive things.

PS: Again, it was a moment in time, Stephen, that they didn’t want to talk about.

SH: Oh, I know! I know!

PS: And then, for some reason, we got everyone’s agreement.

DH: Twenty years had passed.

PS: Twenty years had passed. And they all go, “Well, why not?”

DH: Yeah.

SH: Thank god, you did it though! It’s cinema history!

DH: And they all wanted their stories out there.

SH: And now Roy’s gone now.(Roy Disney died in December 2009)

PS: And Roy’s gone now.

DH: I did the last interview with Roy (to Peter) I should send you the whole thing sometime, because it is extraordinary.

SH: Did he see it?

DH: He did. We sent him a DVD of it and he saw it four times before he passed.

SH: And he allowed himself to be portrayed as the “Idiot Nephew”? Did he object to that?

DH: Surprisingly, no.

PS: It was a commentРthat people used to talk about Roy as “The Idiot Nephew.” And that WAS his nick name.

DH: And he knew that.

PS: And he knew that. But what it was, was that, and I think the movie shows, that he was no idiot. Right? He was the victor in many, many –

DH: He said it once. He was “very misrepresented or under–appreciated, or” he said, “You just had to be careful around him.” Not in some sort of punitive way, but he was very, very smart and very articulate, particularly on paper. He wasn’t necessarily great in a room, or he wasn’t a big force in a room, but you’d get these notes the next day or these comments that were so well thought out and well written.

SH: How did you two meet? Do you remember the occasion?

PS: Donald was working at Disney, when I was hired. So he was there. He was the Production Manager.

DH: I was there about eight years before you showed up.

PS: That is correct. So the first day I was on the job, I went to this board room table, and Don was there, and there were twenty-five people there all going “WHY ARE YOU HERE?” and “What can you do for us?”

SH: This is the closest I have ever gotten to a boardroom, by the way. (Laughs) But it seems like every decision in the animation process is made by a group of people? No?

PS: I think it’s unfair to say that. I think it’s a collective process. It’s not a group process. It takes a tremendous amount of collective knowledge and collective discussion, but it’s not a group process.

DH: No, I mean, we have great directors that head up these movies, who are making the day-to-day choices, but we debate. It’s not a medium where you say “OK. You’re the director. You have the Final Cut of the movie. We’ll see you in three years.” It’s a medium very much like television where you’re collaborating around a table and you’re forced to do the best job you can and you’re tested constantly. So you have executives and other story people testing the ideas to make them great.

SH: And when Peter directed my play “Reety in Hell” at the WPA theatre in 197-

DH: You two have a history!

SH: Yes, we do. We do.

PS: We go waaaay back.

SH: Peter would question me about every single moment in my play. He had that kind of intense attention to minutiae, to detail, He was always a perfectionist.

DH: The same thing (is true) -not only Peter, but for Jeffrey (Katzenberg) for sure. I would say Michael (Eisner) was more of a – he was certainly more literate and studied, in terms of his background and thoughts, and his background he could draw from, and certainly more global in his notes.

SH: Did you change this from Toronto? When I first saw it in Toronto (at the Festival), I thought this was very dark and the second time I saw it just a couple of weeks ago, I thought, “Oh, this is fun!”

PS: No. We didn’t change it.

DH: That’s the reaction we were looking for.

SH: What was the most difficult thing do you think doing this? Was it the ten-year period of trying to get the backing for it?

PS: No. I think the most difficult thing was the coming up with away of doing it, and that was Don’s big idea, which was to do it with all archival footage.

SH: Yes! Yes! The archival footage!

PS: To me that was the big decision—

SH: Which was wonderful!

PS: Which ultimately was the key to the whole movie.

DH: Yeah, trying to stitch all that together and to make a story out of it.

SH: It made it very special, very special.

DH: Thank you. But when you made that decision we have then all of these diverse film clips and caricatures and that kind of thing and we had to lay them all out on a table and say how do we make a spine out of this? And then we‚Äôd record the new interviews and that helped us lace it all together into a movie. So that was the most difficult part of it, I think, is doing the right thing for the movie, is finding the right clips. And on days when we did find the right clips, like Jeffrey waving off the press at the ‚ÄúLion King‚Äù premiere, that was cause for celebration. It was the happiest days on the movie, when you found a smoking gun or when you –

SH: Or Jeffrey with the lions! (Laughs)

DH: Jeffrey with the lions! I mean, the whole thing I was trying to do with that and, we talked about this before, was to use the lion as a metaphor for ego, and the power of that ego, how it can take you out, I feel like that was the ultimate clip, was to just show him on the day he knew it was all over and getting taken out by a lion was a great find.

SH: What is coming up next for you guys?

PS: Don is doing a new movie with Tim Burton.

SH: Oh! “Frankenweenie”!

DH: Yes, it’s true.”Frankenweenie.”

SH: Instant hit!

DH: God, I hope so.

PS: Talk about it.

DH: We’re building puppets right now. It’s being shot in London over the next two years. And it’s an expansion on this short movie Tim did in 1982 called “Frankenweenie” when he was exploring his live action career, and it’s a half hour live-action short. And I pitched it to him about three-four years ago to make it an animated feature like “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” So that’s what we’re doing.

PS: But it wasn’t his usual technique, with the stop-motion, was it?

DH: No, it was a live action movie with Shelley Duvall. It was only a half hour though, but it was what got Tim his first job with “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” and “Batman.” And it really set Tim up in his career. It’s his story. He came up with it. It’s a retelling of the Frankenstein tale with a boy and his dog. And it’s pretty cool. It’s pretty thrilling to be working with him.

SH: And Peter, what are you doing next?

PS: I’m directing theatre. I’m having a great time.