As a precursor to the tour, I had a chance to talk with Little Matchgirl producer Don Hahn about what the Oscar experience has been like thus far. He’s not an Oscar newbie by any stretch, having been nominated for producing Beauty and the Beast and the animated short Lorenzo. He was also behind mega-hits such as The Lion King and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I talked to him over the phone and his voice was genial and he seemed very humbled by the experience. I look forward to meeting him in person as we kick off the tour next week in San Fran. Well with no further ado, here’s what he had to say.
Rick: The first question is — how did you hear about your nomination? Did you wait up? Did someone call you?
Don: (laughing) No, I got up early and I actually went to the Internet at about 5 or 6 in the morning in my pajamas and saw it there. And I just couldn’t believe it. It was just great to have the work of these artists that made this movie getting acknowledged. You know it’s not always that way and there are so many great contenders for the short films this year, it’s really nice to hear the announcement that we were nominated.
Rick: That morning when you looked online and you saw that you were nominated, who was the first person that you called? What did you say? What did they say?
Don: I actually e-mailed Roger right away because I knew he wouldn’t be awake yet. And then once it got to be about 7 o’clock, I called him and he still wasn’t awake so I left a message on his machine and I said, “Roger, you’re an Oscar nominated director now.” So he called right back and we were both thrilled. We’ve been through a lot of movies together and I admire him as one of the best directors working in animation right now, so I’m as happy for him as anybody, because he’s a great, great director.
Rick: How was this experience any different or similar to your other nominations?
Don: They’re all great. It’s like winning the World Series, so there is no such thing as a bad one (laughs). They all have different personalities, just because of the year too. We had the nominee luncheon yesterday and got to meet some of the other animators that did some of the shorts and you meet different people with different sensibilities and the films this year are really special, all of them in the shorts category.
Rick: Since the nominations came out has anything exciting happened because of the nomination? Did you get to talk to someone that you really admire or that you’ve always wanted to talk to? You said that you got to meet the nominees at the luncheon.
Don: Well, it was great, because Martin Scorsese is nominated and he was there and Steven Spielberg was there and we got to talk to Helen Mirren — I’m just a huge fan of hers. And what I love about the Oscars though is that all the crafts are treated equal when it comes to the nominations. If you’re a writer, if you’re an animator or if you’re a producer or actor, I think the Academy realizes the importance of every branch. And that’s one of the miracles of the Animation and Shorts branch is that shorts are still made and recognized and I think that is to the credit of the Academy. So it’s really wonderful to sit at a table with Eddie Murphy and Helen Mirren and Leonardo DiCaprio and these great actors — Will Smith — and share a meal with them and feel that you’re welcomed at the table and they are as respectful of you as you are of them. That is a really special feeling.
Rick: What made the project special for you?
Don: Well, I guess one thing was how long it took to make it. You know, we started this back in 2001, 2002 as a project that might have been part of a Fantasia film that we were working on. It was kind of like a world music Fantasia. We wanted to do something that was kind of a traditional fairy tale. Little Matchgirl isn’t necessarily a fairy tale, but it’s a great, long-lasting Hans Christian Andersen story and I think the thing that appealed to me was that we could easily do it in pantomime. In fact the first piece of music that we set it to was not Alexander Borodin’s “String Quartet,” which it is set to right now and around that time [director] Roger Allers became available and we started talking about the project. We got the Emerson String Quartet about the same time and all these elements came together at the same time between Roger, the musicians, the piece of music, certainly some great pre-production design from Hans Bacher and Randy Haycock did some of the character design. And when all those elements come together, especially when you’re a producer, it’s the best part of your job. It’s almost better than getting an Academy Award nomination, because it’s when the alchemy of making these movies comes together it’s really great. So the feel of all those elements coming together, which was back in 2002, was fantastic. I went back to New York with Roy Disney and Roger and recorded the Emerson Quartet and that gave us this wonderful foundation of music to build on. We boarded it and slowly over the years animated it as people were available. It was kind of an under-the-radar project, because shorts weren’t being produced at the time. Now they’re very trendy and every studio is doing them, but at that time they weren’t, so we were doing it under the radar, behind-the-scenes with borrowed help whenever we could and that’s what made it doubly good to get an Oscar nomination, because it was — I won’t say covert — but it was a long processes. It took four years to do six minutes, which is ridiculous by anybody’s standards.
Rick: What was the thing that brought you to the project? I know that you studied music, was that something that attracted you to the project?
Don: Yeah, very much. I’ve always loved Fantasia. I worked on Fantasia/2000. And literally on New Year’s Day of 2000, after the Rose Parade, Roy Disney and I talked and he said, “Maybe we should put together another Fantasia.” I love that stuff, because I was a musician in college. I was a music major and an art minor. I think animation particularly, and music blend together really, really well. So many animated movies have too much dialogue and talk too much and don’t rely on the simple emotion of animation and music. I think that’s where Matchgirl really appealed to me was it’s completely pantomime, there’s no spoken word. There’s nothing except the mastery of these animators that are able to create wonderful feelings of emotion and acting and performance just with a pencil and no dialogue at all. And so all those things really attracted me to the project. We found this great piece of Borodin music that I had known since Kismet, which was a Broadway musical and it was originally written by Borodin 100 years before as a string quartet. So when we discovered that and pulled that together that made it even more appealing to jump into this particular project. And then Roger brought such a great artistic sensibility, almost doing it in black & white and having a very watercolor, washy style. And not having a happy ending. We argued about that a lot with our colleagues at the studio. Roger was very confident about the material and stuck to his guns and really made a great film that is true to the original story and has tremendous emotional impact.
Rick: Was that a difficult fight to get the sadder ending? I know that other Hans Christian Andersen stories have had tragic endings and they have been changed.
Don: If you’re doing Little Mermaid, which is Hans Christian Andersen, it’s a feature, it’s made for a wide audience and of course you want a very happy, fulfilling ending. This was a short and it was something that we could take more risks on. So it was very heavily debated. But to the credit of everybody involved — I never mind heated debate as long as people are open — and everyone was open to talking about it. We animated the ending four different ways, in fact, with the little girl dying, with the little girl being lifted up and carried away and not dying and all these different variations. Again to Roger’s credit, he really had a very specific passion for it. He read the story to his daughter on his lap when she was a little girl and they would cry together about this story and he was very close to it. I was really lucky as a producer to have someone like that who was really clear about what the power of the story was.
Rick: How was the experience of getting nominated for Beauty and the Beast?
Don: That was like winning the Super Bowl. You know, you have to go back to 1991 and there was no category for Animated Features. Animation was certainly seen as a smaller industry; maybe just Disney films were being made every four years. So what Beauty represented was like validation — not just for that movie or Disney even — for the industry to say to animators that you guys are filmmakers and you guys can make movies and express yourself through animation just the way someone expresses themselves through live-action. So I think it was validation for the whole animation industry that the movie was nominated. And it is really a credit, not so much to myself, but to the team of people that made that movie, because animation is such a team sport. So to have everybody team up for that movie and have the Academy recognize it in an era when animated films [were not recognized] — we felt like the kids at the card table in the kitchen… and to be invited to the dining room table to sit side by side with filmmakers that we admired was a real treat.
Rick: In the next couple weeks there will be all kinds of big events going on, is there something that you are particularly looking forward to?
Don: Yeah, Ron Diamond is going to pull us together with the other filmmakers and tour around. I love that. I love talking to other colleagues in the animation business with different points of view. I love the thought that we can tour and show our films to Disney and Pixar and ILM and share lunch together and talk about our craft, because it’s less about who’s going to win and who got nominated, but it’s a great chance to meet face-to-face with other people in animation, because it’s a small industry and the real truth is we’re all rooting for each other out there. It’s really hard to make an animated film no matter what studio you are from. I already admire the films of these other guys and girls. And I feel just the chance to learn from them is going to be great. So that’s one thing I’m really looking forward to.