WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY – An Interview with Director Don Hahn and Producer Peter Schneider

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY, now at San Francisco’s Embarcadero I, is no fairy tale. It is the true story of how the Disney Company – over the period of a decade – regained its magic with a staggering output of hits that included The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and more. The documentary draws upon an amazing collection of “home movies”, culled from studio vaults and closets, capturing that particular group of Disney artists, directors, producers and executives who produced what would become wildly popular Box Office hits. The impact these artistic and business collaborations have had upon the global culture is phenomenal. The immediate appeal and proven staying power of these particular films place them in the pantheon of Disney’s greatest classics. Sleeping Beauty was the last animated feature produced under the control and watchful eye of the man himself, Walt Disney. It marked the end of an era. A spell seemed to be cast upon the studio’s future in animated films. Waking Sleeping Beauty journeys through that misty period and reveals the magic that sparked the company’s return to animated features and the subsequent adventures and struggles that accompanied their colossal success.

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Peter Schneider, Roy Disney, and Jeffrey Katzenberg

By the mid-1980s, the fabled animation studios of Walt Disney had fallen on hard times. The artists were polarized between newcomers hungry to innovate and old timers not yet ready to relinquish control. The conditions produced a series of box office flops and pessimistic forecasts: maybe the best days of animation were over. Maybe the public didn’t care. What was needed was another magic wand to stir up a happy ending.

Director Don Hahn and producer Peter Schneider bring their insider knowledge to Waking Sleeping Beauty. Hahn was one of the Young Turks at Disney who produced some of its biggest sensations. Schneider led the animation group during this amazing renaissance and later became studio chairman. Their film offers a fascinating and candid perspective of what happened in the creative ranks set against the dynamic tensions among the top leadership, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy Disney (the nephew of Walt). 

Waking Sleeping Beauty will stir the heart of every fan of Disney’s animated films, no matter your personal favorite and no matter the era. Behind the finished products are the guts, wisdom, courage and tears of the company’s artists. The inside and sometimes edgy stories in this documentary are way-up close and personal.

In a meeting this week with the film’s director and producer, I confessed a life-long obsession with Disney’s 1958 Super Technirama 70 classic, Sleeping Beauty. It ran at one of San Francisco’s first-run theaters, the Coronet, now demolished. The film played across what was the most giant and curved screen ever. The 6-channel stereophonic sound was state-of-the-art dazzling. I was swept up into its mesmerizing glory as much as any kid would be now or at the premiere of Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, or the Lion King. I admitted to a modest collection of memorabilia, including the first issue of its soundtrack. The illustration on the front of the LP features a brushed portrait of an “Aurora” that seems exalted compared to her image in the film. But, even then, I judged the illustration as very appropriate cover art – because the film’s score is based on themes from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Considering its recent issue in Blu-Ray format, Sleeping Beauty is just as bothering and bewildering to me now as it was way-back-when. But it’s where my discerning relationship with the magic of Disney and the money of Disney begins.

Seán: How did this documentary happen, why did it happen, why do we need to explore the subject now?

Don: I think there was a window of time when enough time had passed for people to want to tell the story without it being a tabloid or an exposé. We were fortunate with Dick Cook – who had been at the studio for 35 years – felt like this was important. It’s an important part of our history to capture and to put down on paper.

Seán: How fortunate to have all this vintage footage available. Was it accumulated over the years with something like this documentary in mind?

Don: Certainly with no design.

Peter: We had a good conversation with Don who said, “Here’s a big idea. Let’s do it all with archival footage.” We went: “Great!” Then we went looking for it. That’s the treasure hunt Don and the editors went on. And finding the Howard Ashman footage with Jodi Benson – the “how to sing the Little Mermaid”. I don’t think any of it was planned. We didn’t know it was all there. That was the exciting part about it.

Don: The Randy Cartwright footage was there, we knew those ‘thank you’ videos I shot for Lion King were around. It just seemed more and more appropriate that we just have a grainy in-the-room voyeuristic re-telling of the story. As opposed to well-lit people with makeup talking and reminiscing.

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Seán: I watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame the other night. The first re-visit in a long time – but a film I reference all the time. I’m a vocal coach here in San Francisco. The song, “Out There”, Quasimodo’s song, is one I give to my young Broadway-type tenors.

Don: It’s the best.

Seán: Yes. “Out There” is a blend of that operetta style with just straight simple singing. But, if the tenor wants, he can tweak it over to a more pop variety and make it work. It’s great material. Whereas, with The Little Mermaid – it seems to go on and on. And there is a particular vocal quality in Jodi Benson that I find particularly irritating. [With that – Peter lets out a surprise laugh.]

Don: I like this interview.

Seán: OK, so here’s one of those challenging questions.

Peter: Go ahead.

Seán: What is your response to those who think the Disney corporation is the anti-christ? That it is the glorification of the almighty dollar? The reason I ask – in Waking Sleeping Beauty is that one statement which just went right through me. It’s about, “I’m not interested in the Academy Award. I’m interested in …

Don: “ … the BankAmerica Award.” Yes.

Peter: [to Don] Can I go first?

Don:: Please.

Peter: Don’s worked there for 35 years, I worked at the company for seventeen years, left in 2001. It was the happiest, most fulfilling times in my life. I grew up there. I was 35 when I got there, so it was the heart of my life. When you talk about the Disney Company, it’s with the idea that it’s this big monolith. For me, the Disney Company is a group of individuals: Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Disney, Frank Wells. Very smart, very clever men. And a lot of other great people. The artists. Great executives. Fundamentally, the Disney Company is a collection of individuals. It’s not a bulldozer. And the company is reflective of those individuals. It’s not this sort-of designed thing. If you don’t like a decision, I can tell you exactly who made it. Any decision. I can tell you exactly who made the decision on the color – which I don’t like – of the carpet at the Disneyland Hotels. Michael Eisner along with Bob Stern chose the carpet.

Don: I think that’s what is interesting about Disney. You can actually point to people throughout the history of Disney. You can point to Fess Parker who just passed away. He was bigger than Elvis for a while.

Seán: I had two coonskin caps.

Peter: I did, too!

Don: Arlene Ludwig’s dad, Irving Ludwig, marketed the coonskin caps. Sold it at Disneyland, sold it everywhere. So, you can actually point to that guy and say …

Peter: “Irving Ludwig made that hat.”

Don: Thankfully, it’s called Show Business and that’s what Walt was good at. You wouldn’t get the Art without the Business side of it. And he went bankrupt several times. Had he not come up with Peter Pan, Alice In Wonderland, and Cinderella he would have gone out of business. So, it’s always these cusps and balances between business and art. Like Peter, I look at it as individuals you can literally point to and say, ‘yes, they’re under this moniker of Disney’ – but, they are people doing their art.

Peter: And with Jeffrey’s comment, “I’m not interested in the Academy Award. I’m interested in the BankAmerica Award” – you’ve got to look at what was happening. Back then – and it was reflective about the entire company – when they took it over, nothing good was happening. It was making no money and not making good art. Along comes Jeffrey Katzenberg. He makes Ruthless People (1986), Down and Out in Beverly Hills, The Color of Money. All of these are low-budget comedies.

Don: Good Morning, Viet Nam (1987).

Peter: And as he used to say, “With stars in the Betty Ford Clinic. Just go stand back in the back of the Betty Ford Clinic and …”

Don: “ … recruit.”

Peter: And recruit! Right? That was the actual talk back then. That was the joke. So, people were sort-of dissing the company and this approach. And we said, ‘Fine. They may not be huge important movies, but look at the money I’m making.’ “I’m not into the Academy Award“ – because he wasn’t making Academy Award movies, because it’s very expensive and they lose money. ‘I’m interested in making money’ – I have shareholders.

Don: It’s a publicly held company.

Peter: Again, when you look at it, it’s all about nuance. It’s very easy in our world to make things black and white. Black and white is much more fun. You can rally your troops much easier than being gray about everything. Our job as filmmakers was to try to give you a sense of black and white – of personality, of who they were, and then make a little bit gray. Because in our movie we don’t have winners or losers, there’s no monolith. It’s the individuals. And that’s who ran the company. For good or bad – I’m not defending them. Your opinion about Howard and the singing is a very astute point. I’m just saying, we did our best.

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Don: Alan Menken wrote “Out There” with Stephen Schwartz, writing with much more of an operatic / Latin Mass kind of approach to it all. And yet, like you say, it can tilt towards popular music as well.

Peter: I think it’s Alan Menken’s most complicated, best score, not simple – and, with Stephen Schwartz’s help, did this thing. The movie? Well, we can argue about that till the cows come home. And Don produced it!

Don: It is the most sophisticated one we did and it really was Alan’s coming-of-age. It’s interesting because there is a generation of kids that come up to us who say, “I grew up with Little Mermaid, I grew up with Beauty and the Beast.” And I think to myself, ‘Yes, there is a very distinct vocal style, a very distinct approach from the ‘80s or ‘90s.’ There’s a whole generation growing up that has an appreciation of what musical theatre can do.

Peter: Having lived these movies and talked to so many kids in so many countries – they’re not identifying with the red hair and the white skin. They’re identifying with the fact that there are possibilities in life. Mulan is about being the warrior. It’s about You can be something.

Don: Your aspirations.

Peter: These movies empowered a whole generation to say, “I can be something more than I was before.”

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Prince Phillip battles Maleficent. Sleeping Beauty, 1958

Don: Just like the M.G.M. musicals and dramas did of that era. They are aspirational and they are fantasies. And that’s what Hollywood does.

Peter: And we say – you can go out there. You can be different. It’s OK to be different. Look at Aladdin. It’s about a boy who is not capable. The movie is about this aspirational idea, which is: You can do something you didn’t think you could do. “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” – Belle. In Lion King – “You must take your place” someplace. You have a responsibility to your community. At some point, in your personal life, you have to be responsible. Lion King is one of the most powerful movies made about – You can’t be a deadbeat. Waking Sleeping Beauty is about a period of time, with a series of movies that changed people’s lives. The Broadway show of Lion King was, at the time, one of the most revolutionary shows. You went, “OH MY GOD!!” In every company, there’s going to be things we all don’t like. In this company, there are so many things that are so good.

Seán: The thing I appreciated most about your documentary was seeing the faces of artists whose work I know – the artists who made or were exposed to the same things that I was. So, tell me about the title, “Waking Sleeping Beauty”.

Don: When Jeffrey first comes in the company with Michael, in an animation meeting one day, he says, “You know, we’ve got to wake up Sleeping Beauty and that’s why we’re here.” And Joe Hale, the producer of Black Cauldron, said, “This is ridiculous. Sleeping Beauty’s awake. There’s no issue here.” That became the first domino that knocked over the first contention between the artists and Jeffrey. But that was a common phrase during the time. It was used in magazines, it was used internally. It’s the whole idea of taking this culturally rich company and converting the equity that was sitting there into money for shareholders that was re-invested. Part of the money – even from raising parking fees at Disneyland – got reinvested into movies and creative content that drove the company, for decades really.

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Visit Seán on YouTube:
”As Time Goes By” – aboard Cunard’s Queen Victoria
Lorena Feijóo – A Look at “Giselle” with Seán Martinfield
“Embraceable You” – On The Organ – At the Legion of Honor
Samson vs. Dalilah at AT&T Ballpark
DALILAH – In residence at San Francisco’s de Young Museum

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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