Producer Don Hahn was a very special guest for The Walt Disney Family Museum’s Happily Ever After Hours virtual event on April 29th, answering questions from the hosts of the WDFM podcast and from viewers. Fans who couldn’t get into the sold out event will have the opportunity to stream it on Facebook for 48 hours starting April 30th at 10:00 am and it will be available exclusively to museum members after that. Past Happily Ever After Hours events will also be available for streaming for 72 hours starting May 1st at 10:00 am. Here are ten things we learned from Don Hahn’s Q&A.
1. He Was Planning On A Career in Music
Don Hahn grew up in Southern California and would go to Disneyland as often as his parents could afford it. Watch the Disney serial program on Sunday Nights was a memorable part of his childhood and he vividly remembers see The Jungle Book at the drive-in. “I was always kind of a Disney geek as a kid.” He had set his mind on a career in music and was studying percussion when he took what was meant to be a summer job at the Walt Disney Studios in the morgue, retrieving artwork for the Nine Old Men.
2. Disney Was His Film School
Dropping out of school, Don Hahn stayed at Disney and treated all of the animators as his teachers. “There was a generosity of spirit around the studio that you rarely see.” Working with Woolie Reighterman, who directed The Jungle Book, felt like a “Circle of Life” moment for Don. “It was really Woolie and a few others who gave me the idea of producing.” Don tried his hand at drawing as an assistant animator but found he preferred the more managerial aspects of production. He moved to production management on The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective, which led to a producing role on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. “It’s a job where everything on the movie has to be supported by you.” For Don Hahn, producing is all about hiring great people and doing what they tell you to do so they can do their jobs.
3. Ron Miller Was a Humble CEO
“He was a really humble guy,” recalled Don Hahn about the CEO of Disney when he started at the studio and the co-found of the Walt Disney Family Museum. “He had no reason to be necessarily, he could’ve been as out there as any executive.” Walt Disney’s son-in-law had to rise through the ranks of the company and wasn’t instantly a CEO after Walt’s passing like many people assume. “He would say out loud ‘I really don’t know anything about animation,’” Don Hahn recalled about Ron Miller’s ability to let the experts from Walt’s time continue to lead the studio. However, it was Ron Miller who advocated for a new generation of younger talent to be trained by the seasoned veterans. He also implemented changes including making the men-only rooftop club gender inclusive and adding more women to Disney animation. “Some of the best days of my career honestly were with Ron and Diane.”
4. Abandoning the First Version of Beauty and the Beast
The Best Picture nominee started life as a very different film directed by Richard Purdam, who was a protege of Richard Williams who directed the animation on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. They were working on a non-musical adaptation in London and Don Hahn even invited Glen Keane to London to help with the treatment. Things weren’t moving in a direction that Disney was happy with and then The Little Mermaid was released to great success. Bringing Alan Menken and Howard Ashman on board changed everything and before long, Richard Purdam was out and Don Hahn gave a break to two guys who had just completed a project for Epcot called Cranium Command, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Don Hahn really credits the success of the film to the team they had, which also included Roger Allers, Chris Sanders, Brenda Chapman, Kelly Asbury, and Bruce Woodside.
5. Howard is Coming to Disney+ This Summer
“I felt on some level I owed Howard [Ashman] pretty much everything in my life in terms of the success in animation,” Don Hahn shared. “I thought I knew Howard, I didn’t even know Howard at all.” The project has been in the works for the past five years in partnership with Howard’s sister. The two went to the Library of Congress and found hours of interviews with the late lyricist that could be used to narrate Howard’s own story in his own words with enough footage to support it. “He led a joyful life and left so much to all of us that I felt like let’s tell that story.”
6. Leaving Disney Animation
“I felt like I had a wonderful opportunity to work in Disney Animation for several decades and I felt like it was time to move on and start another chapter in my life,” Don Hahn explained about the decision to transition to live-action and documentaries. He wanted to tell stories for people who didn’t have a voice, which have included Animator Tyrus Wong and most recently Howard Ashman, both of whom had a big impact on Disney and American culture. “I make them with a very small group of people, there’s three or four at the most,” he shared about the close collaboration on a documentary compared to a big film. “I like telling stories where it’s dramatic from real life… I love the idea that you can put together a story. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the box.”
7. Working With Disneynature
“Making them is quite an experience,” the producer shared about continuing the tradition established with Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures series. “On a movie like Chimpanzee, we went out and built a camp in the Ivory Coast in the middle of snakes and spiders.” Similar to current events, the cinematographers had to wear surgical masks the entire time to prevent introducing new viruses to the population of chimpanzees they were documenting. In an effort to be as noninvasive as possible, the crew slowly introduced camera gear one piece at a time per day so the chimps would get acclimated to it. The teams typically have a goal in mind when they arrive, but nature ultimately tells the story with no human intervention. “My involvement is really about the story,” Don explained, clearing up any perception that he visits the location himself. “We don’t necessarily call them documentaries because they’re not scientific in a way, they’re more of a narrative.”
8. Adapting The Hunchback of Notre Dame for Live-Action
Don is currently producing a live-action version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame for Disney. He’s seen the stage version, which offers a very different experience from the animated film, and loves it. It’s important to Don Hahn that these stories get retold in ways that stay relevant for the current generation in the same way that Walt Disney took fairytales and updated them for his time. He doesn’t want to simply remake the film, but approach it from an angle that will resonate more with today’s audiences.
9. Angelina Jolie’s Impact on Maleficent
Don Hahn’s first thoughts about adapting Sleeping Beauty as a live-action film wasn’t about who would play the “Mistress of Evil,” but who would direct it. Hot off the success of Alice in Wonderland, Don Hahn thought of his old animation buddy Tim Burton. He brought an original Marc Davis drawing of the character to Burton’s office in London, who seriously considered taking the job for several months. The script was also being written by Linda Woolverton, who also wrote Alice in Wonderland. But ultimately, the film was most impacted by the casting of Angelina Jolie in the title role, who he credits with much of the character’s development and the film’s success. The original film was well over two hours and test audiences were anxious during lengthy backstory with young Maleficent. Over 30-minutes were cut and the narrative was changed to past-tense so it could open with a shot of Angelina Jolie flying, giving audiences what they came to see.
10. Diane Disney Miller Gave Him a Tour of the Walt Disney Family Museum Under Construction
Don Hahn serves on the Walt Disney Family Museum’s Advisory Board and his relationship with Ron Miller and Diane Disney Miller goes back to his earliest days at the studio. While the space in the Presidio was still under construction, Don Hahn visited and Diane offered him a tour of what was to come, going into detail about what each room would have and the storytelling angle for each one. “To hear that kind of narrative and enthusiasm was like a glimpse of what Walt must’ve been like,” he explained about the glimmer in Diane’s eye on that day. Don produced a film for the museum that screens annually called Christmas with Walt Disney and Diane wanted to hire Julie Andrews to narrate it. Don encouraged her to tell the story and borrowed space at the nearby Lucasfilm building to prove it to her. While looking through old home movies, Diane would reminisce about her memories and Don Hahn used that audio in the film. He also got Ron Miller to reluctantly join in for part of the special, which can only be seen during the holidays at the Walt Disney Family Museum.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.