Moment of Truth: Waking Sleeping Beauty Goes Behind Closed Doors at Disney

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Welcome back to Moment of Truth, Movieline's weekly spotlight on the best in nonfiction cinema. This week, we hear from the filmmakers behind Waking Sleeping Beauty, which was opens March 26 in limited release.

The riveting documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty is a film that probably shouldn't exist under virtually any or all circumstances. The behind-the-scenes story of the renaissance at Walt Disney Animation between 1984 and 1994 is dense with candid insights from the animators and studio bosses -- including Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy Disney -- who were there at the time, and the truths it reveals about the ego and fragility of the enterprise are of a quality you never see coming from Hollywood, let alone from the fortified walls of the Disney compound. Thankfully, like the creative culture that gave the studio its second golden era, the circumstances were just right for director Don Hahn and producer Peter Schneider to reconvene the insiders for the definitive tale.

It didn't hurt, of course, that Hahn and Schneider were once insiders themselves: Hahn as the Oscar-nominated producer of Beauty and the Beast and other Disney masterpieces; Schneider as the executive in charge of animation under Katzenberg. Exploiting their exclusive access to interviews and scores of art and film archives from the period (not to mention the trust of Disney itself), the pair craft an ingenious, intrepid group's climb from rock-bottom to industry cornerstone in a decade flat, only to watch it teeter as the front office titans clashed. It's a must for fans of Disney, animation, Hollywood intrigue, industry gossip, documentary innovation, scathing caricatures, the late, great lyricist Howard Ashman, and... well, movies period.

Movieline spoke with Hahn and Schneider this week about opening the vaults at Disney, their "no talking heads" rule, and where exactly to find footage of Jeffrey Katzenberg being attacked by a lion.

I can't believe you guys got the access and clearances you got for this.

DH: Yeah, we can't either.

PS: I've been wanting to make this movie for about 10 years, and it was only after we got Don Hahn on board that we actually got some traction. That was about two and a half years ago. So Don and I, the first thing we did was go to Dick Cook, who was then the chairman of the studio, and asked Dick's permission to go make it. And without hesitation, Dick said, "Yes." We're all neighbors; we all live in the same town, La Canada, in Southern California. And Dick said, "Let's go make it." And I said, "No, no, no... Dick, before you say, 'Yes,' we want to make a movie with the warts in it -- with the manipulation of the media and all these things." And Dick said, "Yes, I was there. Go make that movie." We've never looked back. No one ever said to us, "You can't do this," or, "You can't have these clips." It was that easy. The making was harder, but it was that easy to get permission.

This level of candor requires a certain sacrifice on both your parts, too. How concerned were you about finding out things about yourselves that maybe you didn't want to remember or revive?

DH: Years of therapy will follow.

Right? What was that like?

DH: It wasn't so bad; it was actually good. I enjoyed working with Peter a lot. It's something that you don't know going into it -- if it'll be a good or bad experience. But I enjoyed it a lot. I mean, yeah: You do have to face a lot of your failures -- and successes -- from that period of time, but it was nothing I didn't already know. To be able to put it up in a movie is certainly a public way to air your views, but it wasn't about me or about Peter. It was our point of view, perhaps, but it was about a much bigger issue and a much bigger time. I think that's what made it easier to deal with.

PS: And we both wanted to make a movie that was not a puff piece -- that was not a DVD bonus extra. We really, really felt this was a very, very well-documented period. There was a tremendous amount of stuff on bonuses and makings-of, and [Disney] made a great one for The Little Mermaid. But we said, "If it comes out as a promotional piece, than we've failed." Therefore, the first thing you have to look at is yourself. If you're going to tell the truth about other people, you've got to tell the truth about yourself as well.

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The film fuses cutthroat Hollywood history with a sort of unprecedented glimpse at animation technique. I presume there had to be some trial-and-error in there. How did the story develop?

DH: It was kind of a tightrope act, but we had some rules. One was, "No talking heads, and no old guys reminiscing." Our second rule was, "Show us something we haven't seen; tell us something we don't know." And our third rule was, "No process." In other words, if you want to go learn about animation, go to school or read a book. Now having said that, I thought it was very important to know enough about animation and the process to appreciate what these people went through, so in the background of the principal story -- in our B- or C-plot -- you'll see people painting cells. You'll see people working on a computer. You'll see people working and flipping paper. So if you pay attention, you'll get a subliminal lesson in animation. But that's not what the movie was about.

PS: I also think that the big decision -- which Don came up with pretty early on -- was to do it all with archival footage. Everything was shot before 1994. We were meeting on a Wednesday, and Don said, "What do you think of this idea?" And the minute Don said this what he wanted to do, we instinctively knew that was the right choice. We said, "Oh, that's great." And that became the basis of it. And I think the second decision that was really key was to bring in Patrick Pacheco to help us write the piece and to interview people. He's a journalist, and he wasn't part of the process. He didn't know the people. He knew me, he knew the story. When I told him the story, he said, "Make a movie!" So I said, "Come and help us."

DH: And he didn't care. It was the best of all circumstances because he didn't care; he had a journalistic point of view. So he could come in with the most brutal, honest revelations that people had said, and he didn't have a vested interest in it, as Peter or I might have had. That was a huge asset.

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