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.
I asked Don about when he became a father, and whether it came naturally to him. As soon as I had asked the question, his face and eyes lit up.
Don Hahn: “Fatherhood, I confess, came pretty easily to me. I’m crazy about my little girl, who’s not so little anymore. She was born in the middle of making Beauty and the Beast, in the most horrifically busy period of production time, so I had to wedge this enormous event into the middle of all that. It was life-changing in a way that nobody had ever explained to me beforehand. They say that having a baby is going to change your life, and you say, ‘Yeah, yeah, but why? And how?’
“Then, before you can answer those questions, you realize your life has changed profoundly. I don’t just mean in the maintenance way of changing diapers in the middle of the night, but in the sense of responsibility and wonder you feel when you look down and see this face that looks vaguely familiar staring back up at you. I realized I had to fill her brain with things that were going to be exciting and challenging and make her curious, just like my parents filled my brain with things that made me curious. I really took that seriously.
“My wife and I, we weren’t obsessive about it. We didn’t play Mozart for her when she was in the womb or anything, but we read to her constantly. We also drew for her. We always had pencils and paper for her on every surface; there was no such thing as making a mess. I’m really lucky because my wife had a good family growing up, too. And her dad was as important to her as mine was to me. We had the same aesthetic about raising kids from the get go, which is, ‘If you’re a parent, you’re involved. Period.’ If my daughter had a soccer game, I didn’t care what was going on here at work. I never missed any of her soccer games.”
One of the reasons I like working for Disney is that family is seen as important. But, like anything, our family time can get lost in the day to day business of things…
Don: “Yeah, I know what you’re saying. But it was funny, because I’d be like, ‘Jeffrey Katzenberg? I’ll talk to you tomorrow! I’ve got a soccer game.’ Oddly, people I worked with here would always understand; it was never a problem. I thought, ‘If this is really a family company, they’re gonna get it, and if they don’t? Then I’m not sure I want to work here.’ And they always got it. Whenever I said, ‘I’ve got a sick daughter’ or ‘I’ve gotta go coach a soccer game,’ they always said, ‘Yeah, go. Do it. Life is short.’”
Is there a particular story, or stories, about time you spent with your daughter, that really stands out?
Don: “One of my favorite memories with my daughter was when she was 6 or 7. It was when The Lion King opened on Broadway, so I think that was 1997. My wife and I took her to New York with a group of her friends. It was our first time showing her Manhattan, and it was wintertime. We did all the cliches: we went to Sardi’s; we went to Tavern on the Green, which was still open then; we went ice skating. We wanted to show her this place that we considered a sort of adult’s Disneyland, and we just had the best time. Then we went to The Lion King. I don’t think it mattered to my daughter at that age that I, her dad, had produced The Lion King; it was more that she could be there with her friends. It was the three of us, four girls who were my daughter’s friends and their parents, who were also friends of ours. All of the parents, by the way, had been tour guides at Disney World, and so had my wife, so this trip was truly a total Disney thing. We rented limos and arrived in style and had the time of our lives at the show. It was so great because we realized how lucky we were to have the resources to do something like that. It was so much fun, so much fun.
“Other memories that really stand out with my daughter are times when we went places together, just the two of us, because that’s when I had a chance just to get to know her, and vice-versa. Now, I feel like we’re friends. She texts me every day five times a day just with little things: “making vegan brownies,” or “just did this drawing,” and every time I get one of those, I feel like I’m so lucky. She’s in college now. She’s a pretty good artist, just starting out. She interned on Frankenweenie last summer. She’s into puppet animation but also fashion design, so she fabricates her own puppets, sews the little outfits for the puppets and then animates them and makes films. She’s one of those really crafty people.”
Let’s say that I’m a new dad having my first child. What advice would you give me about being a father?
Don: “It may sound obvious but it’s ‘Family First.’ We pay lip service to the phrase ‘Family First’ but I had always heard — and this has really turned out to seem really true to me — that when you look back at your life, as a dad, as a parent, you won’t remember the meetings that you missed, and you probably won’t even remember who the meetings you missed were with, but you will remember the day you left work early to see your child on stage in the school play. I’m not saying work isn’t important, but family’s more important. Of all the places on earth, the Walt Disney Company, being a family company, should and does understand that. Now that I’m a sort of veteran father I always encourage the young dads I work with to grasp this. Those times with your kids are so fleeting, family has to come first. You can’t just say that; you really have to walk the walk.”