Disney Producer Don Hahn On Frankenweenie, The Studio’s Evolution, Roger Rabbit Rumours And More

frankenweenie 3dLast week, I stood in a doorway in London’s Chinatown speaking to Don Hahn on my mobile phone’s speaker phone mode, recording everything he said in reply with my iPad.

Not ideal circumstances, so I’m sorry, but I still got completely enveloped in our conversation and I’m certainly glad that I was able to have it and now bring it to you.

So here’s some of what Hahn told me. I had started by asking if a widely-seen, broad release feature film version of Frankenweenie, which adapts a little-seen short film that Disney just didn’t know how to handle back in the 80s, indicates a change in the organisation.

Yes, a little bit, but it’s also more a change in Tim Burton and who he is as a filmmaker. When he made the original Frankenweenie, he was just out of school. He got an opportunity to make something but the studio didn’t want to give him lots of money so they gave him enough to get it done. When it was done, they didn’t know how to release it or what to do at all. So, yes, times have changed. I think Disney has probably expanded its view of filmmaking but the single most important thing is Tim. He’s gone from being this young animator at Disney to this world class artist and filmmaker. I think to trust him with a movie like Frankenweenie now is a no-brainer.

I brought the idea of making the feature to Tim. I’ve known him for thirty years and we’re friends and I was looking through a Disney catalogue saw Frankenweenie and thought “This has got to be a great story for expansion.” Because it’s the Frankenstein story, there’s more there.

I took it to Tim when he was working on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in London and pitched it to him. He immediately said that he thought there was more there. It didn’t take much of anything for him to jump onto it so we got to work pulling together the team. If anything, I just held up a mirror and said “Look Tim, you have this great story.”

The decisions to shoot in black and white and use stop motion came from Tim later. At first, we were open to anything. We were open to doing a CG movie, we were open to doing a hand drawn movie, because it’s really up to the director to figure out which style fits. Tim has always been a fan of stop motion and felt that it’s an important art form to keep alive so it wasn’t surprising he came up with that. The challenge was black and white but the studio, to its credit, asked a lot of questions but got behind it. They ultimately decided that if we’re going to do this homage to old monster movies of course it should be in black and white.

We think about the film playing to kids. We all have kids, Tim has a couple who came and visited the set. I think it’s a personal decision on the part of parents and it’s totally legitimate for parents to say “My kid’s too young for this.” There’s a level of intensity, a line we won’t cross. We weren’t afraid of making the audience jump a couple of times, though – it’s a monster movie. You’ve got to balance the thrills.

The film was responsibly budgeted just because that was part of getting it green lit and made. It’s the case with any movie these days. The industry and the economy are so tight you’ve really go to perform financially, based on what the movie’s budget is. This wasn’t a movie that would have Robert Downey Jr. in the title role, it was a very intimate story about a boy and his dog so we planned and budgeted accordingly. It was very economical and in the end profitable for the studio because we’re able to do it not for hundreds of millions but for tens of millions. Disney is an aggressive studio when it comes to financial management. That’s the cost of doing business with Disney, but the return is that they go out and market these movies and do a great job with them.

And it’s the same in animation as with any film – there are time pressures. We had a very tight schedule and we actually had trouble finding animators at first because Aardman were making their pirate movie at the same time. So we had to find animators and train them and this really put a lot of pressure on the crew.

My resume is varied because I get bored easily. I like the variety and that’s why Frankenweenie was a good fit for me, a stop motion movie, which is something I hadn’t done before. Now I’m working on Maleficent right now, the Angelina Jolie movie. I think variety is interesting but it’s also a chance for me to grow, to work with different collaborators and have different experiences as an artist. I don’t need to do the same movie over and over again.

I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this before, but I actually pitched Maleficent to Tim on the same day I pitched Frankenweenie. He really warmed to both projects but a scheduling conflict meant he couldn’t do Maleficent, but Robert Stromberg did the production design on Tim’s Alice in Wonderland, is a brilliant designer, and Tim was a real fan. Tim felt like if anybody deserved the break it would be Robert, for his design work, and his success on Avatar. Tim would have done a great job but I think Robert has delivered something unique.

I don’t know anything about what Gary K. Wolf has been saying about Roger Rabbit. I haven’t read any of the rumours recently. I obviously know Gary, though I probably haven’t seen him in 20 years. I honestly haven’t read anything, though, so it’s hard to comment.

At this point, I explained Wolf’s particular comments on a new Roger Rabbit and Mickey Mouse picture called The Stooge. Hahn then went on:

Oh… I don’t know anything about that at all. It’s the 25th anniversary of Roger which is incredible, so I just think there’s a lot of excitement and chatter bubbling up because of that. We’ve got a retrospective coming up in April at the Academy with Robert Zemeckis and the film is coming out on Blu-ray.

And indeed it is.

Thanks to Mr. Hahn for taking the time to talk to me. Frankenweenie is available now on DVD and Blu-ray, in the UK and the US. I loved it.

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