The Popdose Interview: Don Hahn

Written by Books, Popdose Interviews

Unless you’re an animator or a hardcore animation fan, the name “Don Hahn” may not mean much to you — but chances are, he’s had something to do with some of your favorite films.

Hahn got his start as a member of the Disney animation team in the dark days of the studio’s pre-comeback ’80s, and by the end of the decade, he’d moved into production — just in time to help bring Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to the big screen, kicking off an impressive production run that included the ’90s Disney classics Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. These days, Hahn does a lot of work with the Disneynature imprint, but he’s also branched out into directing, and with the recent publication of Brain Storm: Unleashing Your Creative Self, he’s resumed his writing career.

With Brain Storm, Hahn offers his years in the Hollywood trenches as the backdrop for a series of motivational and instructional stories. If you think of yourself as an artist — or you’d like to think of yourself as one — there’s something in these pages for you. We took a few minutes to talk with Don about the book, his career, and what comes next.

I wanted to start off by talking about the approach you took to writing Brain Storm. Completely coincidentally, I received your email about the book just as I was finishing Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art for the first time…

Oh, that’s a great book.

It is, but where Pressfield takes a fairly mystical approach to creativity, you decided to break things down much more methodically.

Well, I guess it’s because I’ve made my living in a creative pastime, and worked with a lot of really interesting artists and musicians, so where I could, I tried to break things down into real-life examples of how people approached problems or failures in ways that wouldn’t be so hard to understand. I did try and de-mystify a lot of what we try and do as artists — and I also wanted to show as many examples as I could without making things too New Age or touchy-feely. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a spiritual component to life on the planet Earth, but I knew I didn’t have to write about it that way.

The one thing that I wanted to communicate — if there’s only a shred of information that people take away from the book — is that your life doesn’t need to be about just running around doing your job, or doing the laundry, or whatever it is that keeps you busy instead of fulfilled. There’s a bigger calling for all of us as part of the human project, for lack of a better term.

That does come across. Reading this right after The War of Art, I was a little frustrated at first, because I felt like it was drier than I wanted it to be — but I settled into the rhythm of the book pretty quickly, and was able to absorb the spirit of that beautiful exhortation. It’s really inspiring.

Thank you. I hope so. I wanted to make it fun to read — I didn’t want to make it a chore. I wanted it to be funny at times, and emotional at others. And, you know, I’m not writing high literature. [Laughs] This book is supposed to be a browser. I hope that comes across, and any time I hear that it does, I take it as high praise.

What is your personal approach to writing? Do you keep a regular daily schedule, or do you just wait for inspiration to strike?

I usually write late at night, which is the opposite of what most people — you know, you read Stephen King’s On Writing or something, and you see, “I write every morning from 8-12, whether I feel like it or not.” I tend to do that from 10 PM until 2 AM. That’s quality time — for me, anyway, because everyone goes to bed and the dogs are asleep. But there’s no rule to it. What works for me won’t necessarily work for anyone else. You just need to find time when you aren’t running around being distracted by anything.

One thing that really stood out to me in the book — and it’s something that I’ve found helps me in my writing — is the idea that you can strengthen your creative muscles by doing things that may not seem to have anything to do with what you’re trying to accomplish. It can be taking a class, or something as mundane as sweeping the floor — just an activity that resets those thought patterns.

Yeah, that’s really true. It’s funny how labor does that — sweeping, peeling potatoes, whatever. There’s something useful about checking out for that period of time and letting your mind wander. I think a lot of times, we believe that people who are writing songs, or who are brilliant chefs or the like, are just sitting and concentrating on their craft, and it isn’t necessarily like that. There are different axes that the brain works on, and I think it’s just as valid to sweep the floor as it is to attack your project head-on, because your brain is still trying to make those connections, no matter what you’re doing.

How long did it take you to write Brain Storm?

I worked on it for about two years. I suppose you could say it’s about 20 years in the making, because there are elements from another book I wrote on creativity a couple of decades ago, but I really tried to take my experiences of the last 20 or 30 years. Since I have a day job making movies, it took a couple of years to pull them all together.

Were there any specific experiences that called out to you and made you feel like it was time to revisit this subject?

Well, I’ll tell you the good and the bad. The good of it is that I felt like I was around a lot of really gifted people — artists and filmmakers and even executives who were innovative in how they approached their work. I felt like those were stories that shouldn’t go untold. The flip side of that is that I feel like it’s probably dangerously arrogant to to write a book about creativity, because it implies that you know the answer. So what I tried to do is not so much say “here’s a road map that you can follow,” but to provide examples of 20 people, and what they did, and some concepts that have worked for me in my own life.

So on the one hand, I was really terrified to write a book like this, because I didn’t want people’s immediate reaction to be, “Who the hell does that guy think he is?” But on the other hand, I’ve just worked with too many great people — from Beauty and the Beast all the way up to African Cats or Frankenweenie, which I’m working on now with Tim Burton — and I felt like those were examples of really interesting people and circumstances, and creative ideas, that came to life through hard work, persistence, and failure. Those are the stories I love to tell, and that was why it was worth it to write the book.

Let’s talk about your work as a film producer. For people who aren’t really hardcore film junkies, the producer’s role is pretty ill-defined, especially in the world of animation.

It really is. A lot of people think of the producer as the guy with a cigar in his mouth, yelling on the telephone, with gold chains and a really expensive car. And all of that is true. [Laughs] But the easiest way to explain it is that I’m really like a coach on a football team. I try and get the most talented people together to provide the best possible resources for the film. I’m a creative producer — I never went to business school a day in my life. I was a music major and an art minor. I was a drummer. I got into movies because I loved the creative aspects of filmmaking. I mean, it isn’t that I don’t have an appreciation for a budget, but that’s not why I show up to work every morning. I love telling stories and making interesting films. That’s something that isn’t unique to me — there are a lot of creative producers in Hollywood — but that’s the distinction.

It doesn’t seem like the kind of field you can get into on purpose.

I never thought I would. Honestly, until I was in my early 30s and I was working on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, I never thought of myself as a producer. I had animated for awhile, and drawn for awhile at Disney, played a lot of music — but what I found was that I enjoyed the collaboration, and I wasn’t that crazy about sitting at a drawing board for 60 hours a week. The idea of being able to get up out of my chair and talk to people, pull them together and help them make a movie, was a lot more exciting.

So you’re right — it wasn’t something I set out to do. I never went to film school or dreamed about being a producer. And, you know, part of all this is the era I came up in. I went to school in the ’70s, and there were maybe one or two film schools. Now there are hundreds, if not thousands, of schools and producer programs. There’s a lot more access now. The guys in my generation, I think, had to forge their own way to a greater extent.

What kind of impact has your production work had on your creativity, and your creative process?

I’m lucky. I get to learn from a lot of people. I have my own bag of tricks and set of instincts, but the more I do this, the more I know I don’t know anything, and I think I have an approach to storytelling structure, but then I run across someone with a completely different approach to it, and I end up learning something new. I always have a lot of different projects going at the same time, too, so this happens from several different directions. Right now, with Frankenweenie, we’re working in stop-motion animation, and I’m making a new movie with Disneynature, and I’m also working on a documentary about veterans returning home from the war in Iraq. A lot of different topics, tones and styles — and I love that. I get to bring my…whatever it is I am to each of those projects. I love being able to try on different suits and different styles.

I also want to talk about your work as a director. You seem to have a knack for finding yourself in the thick of really interesting, powerful stories — first with Waking Sleeping Beauty, and then with your movie Hand Held, which I would really love to see.

Thanks for saying that. Yeah, Hand Held is out on the festival circuit now, and it’ll be out on DVD soon. But probably about five years ago, I realized I could play out the rest of my career making animated films, or I could stretch my wings a little bit and go in new directions. Out of that came Waking Sleeping Beauty, which was a perfect transitional film, because it was technically a live-action movie, but it drew on my animation background. I loved that process. It was a great experience for me — telling a story that was almost Shakespearean in the way it played out, and also, a story that a lot of people didn’t know. I mean, everyone knows those movies — The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King — but few people knew what went on behind the scenes. Even some of the people who worked on them didn’t know.

And Hand Held is an extension of that journey. It’s about a difficult issue in terms of abandoned kids in Romania, and how an American photographer took them under his wing and took care of them. It’s a story of individual heroism, and an example of how one person can make a difference in society. I loved that — the chance to run around Romania with a camera and capture that story was a real growth experience for me.

So that’s where I am in my career. Being able to make movies like that is as important to me as it is to be able to do some of the larger features I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with.

The Hand Held story is really powerful, and I think a lot of people would benefit from being able to see it, but you’re still looking for distribution. That’s disheartening, considering how long you’ve been in the business, and all the successes you’ve had.

Yeah, it is, and yet it’s really common. Documentaries aren’t traditionally very lucrative — even ones that are well-publicized and earn Oscar nominations. Hand Held is a worthy story, and it will have its day in TV land. Right now, we’re using it to try and raise awareness of some of the issues facing abandoned children around the world, and we’re shopping it around. That’s always, always difficult in the documentary trade. But it’ll happen. It always does.

Do you feel like there’s a lesson here for young filmmakers? An example of the way the tension between art and commerce affects everyone in the business?

Yeah, definitely. I’ve been lucky to spend most of my career with a studio that finances all the movies I work on — so you have to work within a budget, but you aren’t dealing with having to sell it or market it. When you make your own films…I think there’s a great advantage to being alive in this age, because you can make and distribute your films for very little money, and still have people see them. It doesn’t mean you’re going to make a lot of money at the box office, but at least you can have your work be seen and accessible to people.

The challenge — not just to people like me, but to the studios, many of whom have folded up their independent imprints — is that the smaller, niche-ier films are harder to sell. They have to be sold to a very small market, and you have to be very clever about how you market them. It isn’t impossible, but more and more, filmmakers have to be business people too. You have to go out and tell a good story, but then there’s this other hat you wear. The producer’s hat. That involves a little ego, too — and that isn’t a bad thing. I write about it in the book — that if you believe in your idea, you should believe in it enough to put it forward and have it sold. And I think that’s a lesson I’m learning, certainly in these last few movies, that you really have to stand behind your idea and not just assume someone else is going to sell it for you. That’s a big leap of faith.

I want to close this out by talking about Frankenweenie. I know a lot of people are really excited to see it.

Oh, man. We’re heavy in the middle of it. I’ve been in London for a month, working with the team — and they’re amazing. It’s the most difficult kind of movie to make, because it’s stop-motion — you’re taking it one frame at a time, much the same as Coraline or something like that. I have to say, the guys and girls working on the movie are extraordinary. Watching that craftsmanship is like visiting Santa’s Workshop, and the story is just great. Very emotional and funny.

So I’m guardedly optimistic. It’s tedious work — we have animators sitting there for 12 hours a day, trying to get a performance out of a puppet; try and do that at home — and we have a long way to go, but we have one of the best directors in the world in Tim Burton, and Allison Abate producing it over there, and Danny Elfman working on the music, and John August wrote the screenplay. So the team is the best that could have been assembled for the project, and the style is pretty awesome. Rick Heinrichs is the art director, and I think the look and feel of the movie are going to surprise a lot of people.

Given the talent assembled, is your role here more custodial, or are you doing a lot of heavy lifting?

I don’t think I’m doing any heavy lifting on this one. [Laughs] I brought the movie to Tim about five years ago — I’ve known him for 25 years, probably, and he was at Disney early in my career. I pointed to the original Frankenweenie, which is a short film that Tim made in 1984, and I said, “Here’s a movie that’s a 30-minute telling of a larger story. The Frankenstein story is much broader, and I think there’s more here that you want to tell.” He agreed, and I suggested turning it into a stop-motion feature, and eventually the studio embraced it as well. If anything, my role was to bring it to life, to use a Frankenstein term — and to bring in the most talented people I could find and then let them run with it. That’s what a good producer does — you hire the best people you can, and then do exactly what they tell you to do.

As you’re no doubt aware, there are a number of Frankenstein projects in development — at least three I can think of. This seems to be a recurring theme in Hollywood, of filmmakers converging on a property at the same time, either by design or by accident — so when you’re working on something like Frankenweenie and you hear about these other movies, do you think, “Ah, goddammit”…

No. I say bring it on, and good luck to them. Good luck. [Laughs] I’m totally confident in what we’re doing, and it’s the movie business, you know? If people want to do that, it’s cool with me.

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