Director Don Hahn

You may not know Don Hahn’s name, but you know his work.

Hahn played a pivotal role in animation history, working as a producer for Disney during the company Renaissance of the 1980s and 90s. While with the company, he produced classic films including Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and The Emperor’s New Groove, among many others. Recent years have seen Hahn leave animation to pursue a career in live-action directing, having helmed the film Waking Sleeping Beauty,  a documentary on the Disney Renaissance, in 2011.

Now Hahn points his lens at another Disney story, albeit a much more personal one. His new documentary Howard, which premieres August 7 on Disney+, recounts the life of writer/lyricist Howard Ashman, whose works include Little Shop of HorrorsThe Little Mermaid and Aladdin, among others. As a personal friend and colleague, Hahn witnessed Ashman at his zenith and mourned the loss of the writer in 1991 at age 40. Howard reconstructs the life of the gay artist, featuring interviews with lifelong friends, family, his longtime collaborator Howard Ashman, his Disney cohorts and his partner, Bill Lauch. It’s a beautiful celebration of a queer talent, and a moving eulogy for a fallen friend.

We caught up with Hahn just ahead of the film’s wide release. Howard lands on Disney+ August 7.

Obviously you knew and worked with Howard Ashman. You were around when he passed. But given all the crazy talented people that surrounded him, at what point did you decide you were the one that needed to make this film?

Well that was probably a 30-year experience. When you know somebody, it doesn’t mean you’re going to jump in and make a biography of that person. I knew Howard well, but you never really know people that well that you work with. You know them somewhat. About 10 years ago I made my feature Waking Sleeping Beauty which featured Howard, but that was a small look at him. That film was more about the palace intrigue of Disney.

Howard Ashman with Paige O’Hara (the voice of Belle)

It’s another terrific film.

So I felt like I had the contacts, the connections, the knowledge of where the media was. And I thought—and this is really arrogant—I thought that if I didn’t do it, it would get lost. I didn’t know of anybody else who would sign up for this story. I knew Bill, Howard’s partner. I knew the voices—the actresses he worked with. I knew Sarah, his sister. I thought I have all these pieces. Why am I not doing something with them?

Sure.

So I asked Sarah to lunch one day. Almost as an impulse, I said “I think I’m going to make a documentary about Howard.” That was about seven years ago. But I felt the impulse to do it because I knew how to do it. I knew how to pull all the pieces together. And if I didn’t, I knew people who could help do it. So that’s how it started.

Were his family or Bill, his longtime partner, reluctant to talk?

I think everyone was pleasant but suspicious. His sister later said, “You were kind to say it, but I never thought you would actually do it.” And I know other people had approached her about writing biographies or stage plays or biopics or whatever, but things didn’t materialize. I really was afraid it would get lost. We’re not particularly young anymore, but we still have our facilities. It’s nice to talk about it. So I would say there was yeah, sure Don.

So how did you proceed?

I think it started to become more real when I started to sit down and talk to people. I decided not to bring in cameras and hair and make-up and all that; I just used audio. People forget they’re being recorded and open up a lot more.

Of course.

I also loved the idea of transporting an audience to the 80s and 90s, scratchy VHS video and all. There’s no need to cut to a 4K version of Don Hahn telling you what’s going on. That pulls you out of it. So the combination of those elements—archival video, audio—gave an intimate portrait of who Howard was.

You have some incredible archive footage here. The footage of Angela Lansbury talking about her teapot collection is amazing, both because of its weird Meta value, and because she’s such a lady.

[Laughter]

Related: Leave it to a gay man to write a musical this demented…and this fun

Let it also be said—and this is one of the most intriguing points in your film—that those songs, though written through characters, are also very much about Howard. “Part of your World” is about knowing you’re different, yearning for a different kind of life. “Beauty and the Beast” is about unconventional love. “Kill the Beast” is about homophobia. How aware were you at the time that Howard was infusing so much of himself into his work?

Never aware. I really mean that. We never talked about that at all. There’s some argument of how much he was aware of it. He was incredibly smart about these things. His sister says he would never have put himself into those lyrics; that those were all just about the characters. There’s sort of a bell curve of responses to that question in terms of how much or how little he put in. He was 100% committed to the characters and needing a song to tell a story. That was always in the room, and always what we worked on.

Of course.

30 years, looking back at the times & Howard, it’s easy to come to that conclusion. But any artist does that. Any artist is a product of his time. Any artist can’t help but put their lives into their work. Whether you’re a songwriter, a dancer, a painter or whatever—you’re a product of a time, and Howard was doing that. Tom Schumacher, in the film, even says that. He says: “Even if you’re not aware of it, you can’t help but put yourself into the work.”

Howard Ashman with Alan Menken (right)

Absolutely.

But never in the room. We never talked about his illness even in the room.

I was happy to see you include some of his tantrums in the film; that’s sort of a notorious part of his legend. As a director, how do you approach something like that? How do you balance the warts-and-all approach?

I think it’s part of him, part of his character. So you want to include it. I had experienced it first hand, luckily not directed at me. But I was in the room a few times. Kirk Wise, one of the directors of Beauty and the Beast said [Howard] could have been a trial lawyer. He was so articulate about what he wanted. So if you wanted to counterpoint that, you had to come to work incredibly prepared with your A-Game counterargument, and why—citing evidence for why your argument might be a better idea.

OK.

But Howard was collaborative. He was open to that. But if you were persistent in a stupid way about wanting to change something, I don’t think he suffered fools. Most of the time Howard was a delight and the funniest guy you’d ever work with. But there’s a limit to someone like that—and rightly so—that believes great pieces of art have a singular sensibility about them. And so much of Howard’s sensibility became The Little Mermaid or became Beauty and the Beast.

Of course.

So I wanted to include that because it was so much a part of him. And if he threw an ashtray or tape recorder once in a while, as long as those stories didn’t come from me—they came from Alan Menken or somebody, they were authentic. Being authentic about Howard’s story was the driving impulse behind what I wanted to do. So when someone told those stories, I wanted to include them.

You mentioned his disease a moment ago. Do you think he kept his illness secret because he was just a private person? Or was he trying to protect Disney as a company? Or protect the films and his work?

Well, it was a very different time. You could lose your insurance. You could be fired. Peter Snider articulates that in the film. He was a gay, Jewish man from Baltimore writing children’s songs for Disney movies. People are going to react to that in some way, positive or negative. So he was very conservative about who he shared that with.

I think, even moving to upstate New York to a house that Bill had designed, I think that is partially escaping from that, but also being exhausted from trying to explain [his illness] to everyone. I think Bill even regretted moving up there, which is interesting. But for Howard, it was the right thing to do. To me, he seemed so exhausted by that. Having to explain his health, just socially, to everyone. And then, he’d found a community in Broadway that was losing so many creative people at the same time. [AIDS] just wiped out the Broadway talent pool.

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman recording “Be Our Guest.” YouTube Screenshot

Very true.

So I think so many of those things most of us will never know or experience anything like that. And I think that was his caution, and a caution that you saw in the LGBTQ community as a whole. It was a very difficult time.

Yes it was. Now, in a sense, the movie isn’t just about Howard. It’s about the Disney Renaissance, and in a sense, it’s about you. When you, as an artist, have to focus so much on a lost friend, on a chapter in your own past, how does that affect your day to day life?

[Long pause]

Wow. I’m not sure I can self-analyze that well. I did have to walk away from the movie a couple of times, just for a few days because it gets to be intense. And you do compartmentalize something in your life that happened 25 years ago. Mostly, that was a joyful time. It was difficult to make a movie. It was difficult to lose Howard. But mostly it was a joyful time. The movie is a reflection of that.

Yes.

But at times I did have to walk away from it. I knew I had to be in the movie because I felt like I was a legitimate eyewitness. I wanted to fill the movie with eyewitnesses to Howard’s life, not a third-person pundit or something. So as a person to lead you into the movie, someone to take your hand and lead you in, it was a legitimate way to lead you in. I tend to fade myself into the background in favor of Howard himself. But it’s odd. I’m not sure I can put it into words. It’s like saying I’m going to go back to a moment in my life. And I had forgotten so much of it. When you’re sitting with someone like Sarah or Jodi Benson or John Musker, Ron Clements—it is group therapy. You’re all recalling things, largely for good, joyful reasons, but they have been suppressed. So it’s a very raw feeling sometimes.

Well, and I’m guessing most of them probably never discussed those memories in much detail. What was the most emotional moment for you in those conversations?

A few come to mind. Jodi Benson was very emotional. I wish you could hear her whole interview; we ended up talking for an hour and a half. For her, Howard was more than a director. He became a friend and confidante. We hit a few raw spots in that time. The time when she was doing Ariel’s voice was a difficult personal time for her, and so a lot of that came back again.

Understandable.

And surprisingly, Alan. The last line of the movie is Alan talking about how Howard didn’t get to see it all. There’s a crack in his voice that I love, because it shows the personal nature of these relationships. They were professional, but they were also personal. And Alan thought his career was over when Howard died. Fortunately for all of us, it wasn’t.

Screenshot via YouTube.

Agreed.

I showed the movie to Alan just before the holidays in 2018, just as a courtesy. And he said he had to do the score for it. And I said “I can’t afford you!” He said he didn’t care, that he’d write the score. And he did. He went away over the holidays and wrote all these cues. We collaborated with Chris Bacon, who’s also a brilliant composer. For [Alan], it was his closure, his way of paying tribute musically in a way only Alan can to this man who made such a difference in his life. What a gift to the film, what a gift to the audience, to hear his score. That meant a lot to me.

Those moments are memorable. You just have to let a person have some time with their thoughts and stay about of the way. Part of me as a director loves that. I’m honored people want to or can talk to me. And part of me wants to be very protective of them—to put things in the movie that are authentic and real, but not too revelatory about some of the times of their lives.

You’re as closely related to the Disney company as just about any filmmaker out there. Is that an odd feeling? In other words, Disney is this massive corporate behemoth. Is it odd to be so closely associated with one?

You know, it’s not, only because I’ve only known that. I started at the company when I was 20 years old in the 1970s, with John Lasseter and Tim Burton and Brad Bird and John Musker and Ron Clements—some amazing people.

No kidding.

It was a little family-run company. Walt’s son in law was running the company, and you’d see Roy riding his bicycle peddling around the studio. That’s the company that’s still in my head. I feel like that, in a funny way, still is Disney. It’s easy to look at the corporation and the logo and see this huge media giant. And it is. But it’s just people. Pull back the curtain, and the Wizard of Oz is just a guy. Part of the reason I love making these movies is that they show that. They show that this behemoth company is really just people at a piano with a pencil and paper trying to find their way through a lyric. It humanizes it.

Yes.

I think that’s where the core of Disney always was, and still is: the artist behind the curtain just struggling to stay alive with their ideas and have a job the next day. Those are the real moments inside Disney. It’s easy to get lost in that company sometimes, but I count myself lucky that I was there at a time you could walk in and have lunch with guys who worked with Walt Disney: Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas and Eric Larson. You could hear stories about playing softball with Walt. It was very familial. That experience, I think, set me off on the right foot to say it’s a big deal but it’s no big deal. We’re all people. We’re all struggling. We’re all trying to entertain people. If I can get that across in my films I think it’s all the better.

YouTube Screenshot

I’ll have to have you back sometime. I’d love to hear more about those days.

Happy to.

So this is your third feature as a live-action director. As someone who came up as a producer in animation, what satisfaction do you get from directing documentaries that you wouldn’t necessarily get from producing or working in animation?

Well animation is really satisfying, but it’s a long process with hundreds of people. To be really honest, I just got to a burn out with some of that. I love making movies, and I love the people I worked with. But I wanted to have another chapter in my life, and that chapter was about something a little more personal. So to make a documentary where the entire crew can sit around the dinner table was very appealing to me. I also thought a documentary would be very personal in terms of who I am as a storyteller.

How so?

When I started this process 10 years ago, I wasn’t sure who that was. Every movie is different, but that is really gratifying to me at this point in my career. To sit down with my great producer Lori, or my editor Stephen, who is amazing, and just talk about story. Talk about how we’re going to tell people’s lives on film, and the dynamic of that. It’s a very different process from animation, and that’s given me a thrilling aspect of my recent life to be able to work in that arena. I still look back and I still love Pixar movies. I love Disney movies. I enjoy what they’re doing, but that’s not where my life is at right now.

Do you intend to stay with documentaries then? Do you want to go back into animation?

I love documentaries. I’m on that path right now. We’re in a golden age of documentaries.

YouTube screenshot

Yes we are.

I’m hooked on them. I can’t stop watching everything on HBO and Netflix and Disney. I love the art form. I love the way of storytelling non-fiction. This is a terrible admission, but I’ve never read fiction. My wife reads all the fiction in the family. I’m drawn to factual, real-life interesting stories, and always have been. To be able to dive into that now is a real treat. I would love to keep doing that.

What’s your next subject? Did you have one in mind?

I’ve been looking at Mary Blair. I’ve been looking at a lot of different people. The theme of artistic heroes really speaks to me. So I’ve been looking at dancers and painters and chefs—people that express themselves in unconventional ways.

Howard debuts on Disney+ August 7.

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