I was invited for an expenses paid trip to LA by Disney to cover the #VeryBadDayEvent and #DisneyInHomeEvent in exchange for my posts of the trip experiences. All opinions are my own.
When I was in LA at Walt Disney’s Home, I had the chance to sit down and talk with Don Hahn who is an executive producer for Maleficent. (If you missed my post about touring Walt Disney’s Los Feliz Estate be sure to check it out.)
Maleficent is one of my favorite movies so I was very excited to get to talk with Don and get some behind the scenes insight for Maleficent.
What was the most challenging thing about producing Maleficent?
Don: It’s always trying to pull all the pieces together and a lot of it is just calendar work, as simple as that sounds. But once we had all the elements together in the script and wanted to make the project, we had four months to prepare. And that was four months to build a whole world.
A lot of the credit for that goes with our director Robert Stromberg who had production designed Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.
But it was- that was incredibly difficult. Because we only had three months with Angelina and it was a very tight fit in that three month time. So that was part of getting it together. And then also just the script because it’s a iterative process where you’re re-inventing the story and going back and revisiting it again. And it’s a little bit of an insecure feeling. It’s like you’re driving in a car while you’re building it kind of feeling. So the build up to shooting is always the hardest part.
How long did it take to make Maleficent?
Don: We shot for eighty-five days. And then we had about a year and a half of special effects and putting it all together. Cause if you were to visit the set there’d be a couple of trees and a river and a lot of green screen behind it. So the world almost entirely was created with back paintings and computer graphics. The only things we built were the throne room where the dragon gets unleashed at the end, it was a complete set built all the way around. The exterior battle scenes were filmed right between Pine Wood and the M-4, M-5 freeway. So if you were to turn the camera while the battle scenes were happening? You’d see like a freeway going behind. But a lot of the castles and things were added in computer graphics later.
Did you have an actress in mind to play Maleficent from the very beginning?
Don: It was always her. It was always Angelina. I’m not sure that we would have gotten made without her? She loved the character. She grew up with it, loved the idea of playing a Disney character for her and for her family. But she was so right for it. Because when you said, "We’re gonna do Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s point of view, kind of like Wicked with Angelina Jolie," people said, "Yep, let’s go."
It was like so gettable and that’s a lot of the fight when you’re trying to get a movie off the ground. And she brought a lot to it, I have to say. I mean she was on before the director. The first director we had for a short time was Tim Burton and she was on even then. And then the amazing Linda Woolverton who wrote our screenplay, I had worked with on Beauty and the Beast ages ago. And she’s really extraordinary when it comes to writing these stories and creating these strong, particularly female characters that have these strong relationships. Cause we wanted to break some rules in this movie to say that love doesn’t always have to come from the guy in your life?
That love conquers all is a bigger phrase. That it can be love between two women, two men, a godmother character and a childlike character, like Aurora and Maleficent. And she fearlessly attacked all those things and I think did a great job with it.
There were some days when I thought like what are we doing? We’re messing with this Disney fairy tale. But you also knew we couldn’t tell the other story. We couldn’t say you’re a young woman, you’re gonna be asleep until a man comes into your life and tells you it’s okay to wake up? And then you can start living your life. That’s an awful story to tell in 2014. So it didn’t take too much smarts to abandon that and do something that’s more relevant.
Is that why in Maleficent, Aurora is not called Briar Rose at all?
Don: Um, yes. And I think also for clarity, just for the audience. So that it’s clear that she’s always one character name. But yeah, we wanted to simplify it and we wanted to get away from the idea that she was the sacrificial flower that someday would be opened up by a man. I mean those are all great if you’re in 1959, but it just didn’t seem appropriate for this movie.
Was it always the plan to use Angelina’s daughter as the baby for Aurora?
Don: No, that was out of necessity because when we brought in little girls and dressed them up like little Aurora they would come up to this amazing actress and scream and run away. Or get picked up by Angie and just you know not doing anything? And there’s so much genuine love and attachment in that scene where she just walks right up to her and goes, "Up". I have a little girl and, and you just know what that feels like. So there’s a real genuine moment in that. So that was the real reason is to get a scene that played more as reality. We had to use Vivienne.
I heard Walt Disney had a hard time trying to create Maleficent as being both beautiful and powerful at the same time. Did you have that same problem when trying to transform Angelina for the part?
Don: Yeah the problem is with most fairy tales, the villains are very black and white. They’re often the most interesting characters in movies because they have a lot of complexity to them. The most boring characters are the princes and you know, they’re incredibly wooden. But a character like Maleficent was at least interesting in her beauty, and in her look, and the way she behaved. I think what our problem was is how do you then open that character up to show that there’s a heart inside? Before the movie came out we thought we can’t just go out to the press and say, "You know this awful villain? She’s really nice." It’s like, no, that like ruins it all. She’s still Maleficent. She still has a very complex view of life and she still has a lot of challenges, but there’s enough of a light inside that she can open up to show that she has some benevolence and some love inside.
So it took a long time. And I have to say Angelina gave us most all of that, because she has a very restrained performance where she only shows you a little bit of that at a time. So she’s opening up to the baby Aurora or the little kid Aurora, she shows that she has something inside, but not until she actually says, "I’m sorry I cursed the wrong person," and kisses her on the forehead. You go, wow, this is a far more complex, evil person than we’ve ever dealt with, at least in a Disney movie.
And I think that’s what was interesting about making this movie is it wasn’t just a bad guy. You know whether it’s Ursula the sea witch or Scar or something like that? They’re just bad. And, and they’re clever and they’re cunning, but they’re bad. Maleficent couldn’t just be bad. You had to show that there was some reason why she got wounded and her wings were clipped and what that meant to her and how horrific an experience that was. And so that was part and parcel of telling that story.
Did you make Maleficent’s wings or were they special effects?
Don: They’re all fake. If you were to watch the dailies of her being filmed, she had a little green square on her back which held a battery and two little antennae that came out with bright orange spots on the end. And that was enough for the visual effects guys to know the symmetry of her back. And that’s all. And so everything you see in terms of her, when she’s flying most the time it’s a hundred percent animated.
So you take a scan. You literally put her in a drum and do a drum scan of her and so you have that. Rick Baker did a face cast with plaster of her, of her head.So we can get the horns, cause the horns had to feel like they grew out of her skull. They were magnetic so if she caught her head by accident on something, they would break off just for safety reasons. So it was a really unusual film in terms of preparing it because there was a lot of question marks. But yeah, there’s so much of it is animated or fabricated. And the wings are all animated.
They did a great job.
Don: They did. Amazing.
I can’t see Maleficent without Angelina Jolie.
Don: She’s remarkable too because she channels and studies great actresses of the past. So she’ll look at Barbara Stanwyck and she’ll look at Bette Davis and there’s moments when she’ll say a line and you just see that. So she has a classic quality to her and I think in lesser hands it could have been much broader and much more cartoony. And she just is so restrained and appropriate in how she plays that role. I can’t imagine how difficult that was.
She says so much without saying anything.
Don: She has very little dialogue for that character. And I remember when she was preparing, she said her acting teacher was having her reach into soil and feel it because she’s part of the fairy world and that’s where the fairies come from. And the sense of land and, and all that was very much a part of who she was. I thought, wow, you know the level of preparation. An amazing, amazing lady.
It broke my heart when she woke up and her wings are gone. And you see that cry.
Don: Yeah. In the script, it was heartbreaking. When those scenes came in the dailies? It was devastating.
It was a great time chatting with him, he is such a nice guy and has a brilliant mind for producing fantastic movies. I’m thrilled that Maleficent is now out on Blu-ray and I can watch it as much as I want (I’ve already seen it 3 times), like I said it is one of my favorite movies. If you haven’t seen it you have to. Even my husband enjoyed it and thought it was fantastic. It is in my opinion, a must have for your movie collection.
Maleficent is now available on Blu-ray and DVD!