One of the great things about working for Disney is that I’m surrounded by so many richly talented people. Many of the long-time veterans here either worked directly with Walt Disney, or were mentored by the “nine old men” — the men who literally invented modern day animation. In fact, the windows of my office look out over the original animation building where Walt had his office. While the building isn’t used for animation anymore, it houses many of the production companies responsible for most of the recent Disney films.
One such production company is Stone Circle Pictures where Don Hahn has his offices. Don’s 30-plus year tenure with the Walt Disney Studios includes 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, Chimpanzee and Bears. Most recently, he served as Executive Producer of Maleficent.
Some time ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Don in his offices. He shared stories about his childhood and his own father, becoming a father himself in the midst of producing Beauty and the Beast, and how being a parent inspired his work and fueled his imagination.
I began by asking Don to talk a little about his childhood in Southern California, and what his own father was like.
“I was born in Chicago, but we moved to LA in 1959 when I was three years old. My dad was a Lutheran minister and he came out here for a church in the San Gabriel Valley. I probably grew up a stone’s throw from John Lasseter, actually.
“I don’t think we were unusual for a family living in Southern California, especially in that era, but we went to Disneyland every chance we could get. We went there so often, in fact, that I knew where every drinking fountain was. I grew up at Disneyland. Literally.
“I never really considered working at Disney, though. I guess I thought that was unattainable, or at least didn’t fit into what I was doing. I was a musician: I went to music school, and was a percussionist, a drummer, a cello player, a bass player. Disney, though I loved it, never occurred to me as something that would be a good fit at that time. There’s an interesting story here, though, and it might explain to some degree why I was destined to end up at Disney doing what I do.
“The thing about my dad was, fundamentally, that he was a storyteller. He’d get up on the pulpit every Sunday and he was as much an actor as he was a preacher. And he’d tell great stories. Sometimes they were scriptural, sometimes they weren’t; he was simply a great storyteller, and that meant laughter, and tears, and grabbing people’s imaginations and making them pay attention for 20 minutes. It was just good-old-fashioned, around-the-fireplace, storytelling. Every Sunday of my life for 17 or 20 years, I watched my dad tell stories.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but that made a huge impression on me because suddenly I figured it out: This is mythology; these are tales that communicate our social ethics. Storytelling has a purpose! It’s how we pass our culture on to the next generation. It’s how we tell them who we are as a people and as a civilization, not even in a religious sense, but just in a behavioral sense, you know? Now I appreciate it even more than I did ten or 15 years ago, the impression that realization made on me.
“My mom was a musician, playing piano and organ music all the time. Having that storytelling and music in my life as I grew up, I guess it would make you think, ‘Duh! Maybe I would end up doing something with storytelling and music…like animation for example.’
I know in my case, my relationship with my father was something I really grew to appreciate as I got older and became an adult. Were you and your father close when you were a kid?
“I think my experience may have been similar. My father had a great influence over me, though as a kid I had the kind of relationship with him that was typical of the 50s and 60s. I didn’t really see him a lot. He was working all the time — he was always at the office, or, in this case, the church. He was busy. When I did see him, he was tired.
“Later, when I was grown, he and my mother moved to Seattle. But then even later on in his life, in his 80s, he moved back to Los Angeles. My mom had Alzheimer’s and eventually passed on, so I got really close to my dad because I became the caregiver in a funny way. I would go over and make him dinner about three nights a week, and we’d just sit there and talk in a way that we never had before. Before that, I didn’t really know the man: I knew him as my father, and I respected him and looked up to him as any kid does, but I didn’t know him as a human being and I didn’t know he had any faults.
“Those moments together were great because I got to know him as a guy, and find out that he struggled like I struggle, and that he had disappointments, that he was upset and depressed about certain things and ecstatic and thrilled about other things. That time together at the end of his life helped me see that he was a guy who put his pants on one leg at a time. That ability to go over there and cook him my relatively low-quality meals [laughs] and just sit across from him and talk was fantastic. I feel like I was able to be his student for a while, and then his friend for a while. He lived to be 92 and really happily so. He was sharp as a tack until his last days. I really value those last ten years and that time we got to spend time together.”
Read my review of Don’s film Waking Sleeping Beauty here.