Don Hahn is a producer with the Walt Disney Studios whose films include the animated classics “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King”; documentaries such as “Waking Sleeping Beauty”; and the Disneynature films “Earth,” “Oceans,” “African Cats,” and “Chimpanzee” and have been nominated for 18 Academy Awards®.
Having worked with the Walt Disney Studio for over 30 years, I asked Don to speak about how it happened that the son of a Lutheran minister ended up one of the most powerful and successful producers of our time.
Don: “To really tell the story of how I began working at Disney, I first have to tell you that as a child, my favorite Disney movie had to be ‘101 Dalmatians.’ Now, my family didn’t have a lot of money, because preachers don’t, so we’d always go to the drive-in theater. Believe it or not, I never set foot in a movie theater until I was probably 20. Never. You went with the family, later with girls, and, I mean, it was always the drive-in. We’d go in our station wagon and we’d watch the movie with the tailgate open and the screen would be right there. I had a brother and sister, and we’d all have our pajamas on. I can remember all of us lying there watching ‘101 Dalmatians.’ It just riveted me, that movie. It was charming and funny, and I never even thought about the drawings or how such a movie was made. That didn’t matter; it was just entertainment. So, being at the drive-in, in the back of a Rambler station wagon in pajamas eating snack shack food, the swing set underneath the screen, mono speaker in the window, mom and dad dozing off in the front seat, was great. Those were very, very happy times.
“When we got color television, though, as a kid, that was like the Holy Grail. And ‘Wonderful World of Disney’ on Sunday evenings — well, I would watch ‘Wild Kingdom’ leading into it, which is probably why I’m making animal movies now, but the most impactful movies to me, in terms of ‘Wonderful World of Disney,’ were the ones that took you behind the scenes at Disneyland: They were building Pirates of the Caribbean, or they’d show you the Imagineers working on It’s a Small World. I think for anyone of that age, those were really important because they gave us the opportunity to realize, ‘People do this for a living? Huh?’ I had never thought about that. I loved those, and I saw every one of them. In fact, if you went to my high school library and looked in the books on Disney and the art of Walt Disney, they were all checked out to me. If you looked in them even today and looked at the library card, you’d see written ‘Don Hahn-Don Hahn-Don Hahn-Don Hahn’ because I’d turn it back in and then check it out again, turn it in and check it out again.
“Then, when I was 20 years old, I got a summer job interning at Disney. I was going to school at Cal State Northridge studying music. My job here at the animation studio was delivering coffee and delivering scenes. I was just basically a runner. What was amazing was that when I worked here then, the guys who had worked alongside Walt Disney, the ‘Nine Old Men,’ were still here. All of them. Delivering scenes was a really big deal because I was delivering them to the likes of Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, and Milt Kahl. It was amazing.
“Then, there was an opening for assistant directors and I ended up working for [Wolfgang] Woolie Reitherman, who had directed. . . ‘101 Dalmatians’! So there I was, the kid who loved that movie growing up — along with ‘The Jungle Book’ — and I was working for the guy who had directed them. Woolie was a real John Wayne type. He had a scar on his mouth and a Hawaiian shirt, and he’d been a fighter pilot in WWII and a decorated airman, and I was . . . just a kid. It was spectacular. He was a producer in the old-fashioned sense of the word. He had a great work ethic and discipline, but had a good time while he was doing it. I was very lucky to get to work with him.
“I didn’t ever know Walt or get to meet him, but being around all of those guys, I got a sense of Walt; I saw what made those guys click. Through those men, I got a sense of their common viewpoint, and who Walt was, and what was important to him: it was family; it was entertainment; it was storytelling. It was all the things that my dad did, and those guys were the same.
“The other thing I loved about those guys was that they had full lives outside of the studio. One was an architect; two played Dixieland jazz; a couple of them built wood furniture in their garages. They had full full lives. They traveled, they lived, and they brought their life outside the studio back into the studio, and I think that showed up in their work. That was inspiring.
“I came in at the same time as John Lasseter and Tim Burton, Brad Bird, John Musker, Ron Clements and Henry Selick. There were a bunch of us in our 20s and a bunch of them in their 60s, and no one in between. Those older guys, the Nine Old Men, they took time with us. We’d put our drawings on their desks and they would patiently go over them. What you had thought was a great drawing, the minute it was put on their desk, it looked awful [laughs], because you saw all the faults, and they’d say, ‘Well, whatcha gotta do here is…’ They would hold us by the hand. Ask any of us who were here during that time, and they’ll all say the same thing. There were certain people who really took time with us and weren’t selfish about their information and knowledge and wanted to pass it on. Working here in the late ‘70s was amazing. Being here at that time is what really fueled making ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty,’ which is a movie I am really proud of.”
“Waking Sleeping Beauty” is available on DVD at the Disney Store.
Photo by Scott Watts.