'Beauty and the Beast' Director on How 'La La Land' Is Bringing Musicals Back

Melanie Dunea
Disney didn’t exert “any kind of corporate pressure,” says Bill Condon, photographed Jan. 6 at his home office in New York City.

Bill Condon reveals how Disney approached the live-action remake and what he learned about WikiLeaks' Julian Assange while helming 2013's 'The Fifth Estate.'

A longtime fan of movie musicals, Bill Condon wasn't fazed when Disney entrusted him with turning the 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast into a $160 million live-action movie starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens (opening March 17). But transferring the hand-drawn classic into a 3D world took nearly three years, requiring six months of R&D before preproduction even began. "There was a lot of trial and error," he admits.

A New York City native, Condon, 61, graduated from Columbia University with a degree in philosophy before heading to Los Angeles, where he planned to enroll in UCLA's film school. Instead, he found a job with producer-director Michael Laughlin, for whom he wrote the early '80s sci-fi tales Strange Behavior and Strange Invaders, before eventually directing his breakthrough movie, 1998's Gods and Monsters, for which he won a best adapted screenplay Oscar.

Condon and his longtime partner Jack Morrissey, who works with him as his co-producer, divide their time between New York (where Condon edits his films) and Los Angeles. The director spoke with THR about why audiences are now more receptive to musicals, how Disney approached the Beauty and the Beast remake and what he learned about Julian Assange while directing the 2013 biopic The Fifth Estate.

When you wrote Chicago and directed Dreamgirls, you were careful to provide a reason for why the characters were singing in case audiences weren't ready for a full-fledged musical. So how has your thinking changed?

Yes, and I think that was right then. It's ironic because it's come full circle. People had grown up without the convention of people breaking into song, and there was a contract with the audience that was broken. But it was doable in the context of an animated film, which is completely artificial and stylized and geared toward children. So the first musicals in the rebirth of movie musicals were the animated Disney musicals of the late '80s, early '90s. They opened the door and the next step was Moulin Rouge!, Chicago, Dreamgirls — each movie takes a different approach to make people comfortable with people singing. In Chicago, they're all onstage, and Moulin Rouge! is a huge stylization of design, and the camera that gets you to giggle and relax. Dreamgirls, again, was very connected to the stage. The next step started on TV with some TV musicals, and now that contract with the audience has been renewed. The audience has now grown up in a more comfortable relationship with people singing. Beauty and the Beast is a fairy tale, but we very much approached it as set in a particular time and place: France in the 1740s, when the story was written. So it's real in that way. It was very liberating to be full-on presentational with these songs. I do think the musical form has reasserted itself.

Why didn't the success of Chicago and Dreamgirls lead to more musicals at the time?

Chicago and Dreamgirls were shows that took 25 years to come to the screen. In a weird way that's become a magic number. Because those movies were based on Broadway shows; everyone went through the canon, but there weren't a lot of titles that made sense.

What impact do you think the success of La La Land will have?

It's going to be enormous. It's a rom-com musical, sort of a double-genre. It's so unique, you hope it suggests the way for people to be open to the idea of musicals of all scale, sizes and genres. La La Land points the way to the original musical, which has been rare onscreen. Beauty and the Beast points the way toward animated musicals, which were kind of Broadway musicals brought to the screen. And Beyonce's Lemonade points the way to a whole other form — music and artist-driven 21st century songbook musicals. Maybe the classic Broadway canon may not be the place where future move musicals come from.

Why did the initial trailers for Beauty and the Beast seem to downplay the music then?

When you're hoping to appeal to everyone, it's the boys, right? You want to reassure the male audience that there's enough there for them. By the third trailer, the latter half is cut to the beat of the Ariana Grande-John Legend "Beauty and the Beast" duet, and you finally see full-on dance.

So as Disney remakes its animated classics into live-action movies, is there a formula it is following?

Before I arrived, they were rethinking Beauty and the Beast more radically, more like Snow White and the Huntsman. There was a lot of conversation about the War of the Austrian Succession that didn't interest me. But then after Frozen opened, the studio saw that there was this big international audience for an old-school-musical approach. But initially they said, "We're interested in a musical to a degree, but only half full of songs." My interest was taking that film and doing it in this new medium — live action — as a full-on musical movie. So I backed out for a minute, and they came back and said, "No, no, no, we get it, let's pursue it that way."

Given how big the animated movie and the Broadway musical were for the studio, how much autonomy did you have? Were there elements they insisted had to be in the new movie?

I have to say I'm very relieved that they trusted me. It was clear that I was as protective, even more protective, of what had been created. I knew it so well. To their credit, there was not a sense of second-guessing. For example, there are a few songs that came out of the stage show that I would've liked to have used, but they didn't fit dramatically in terms of the script. There's a big Beast aria in the show that became a hit in its own right called "If I Can't Love Her," but it was written as an Act 1 curtain number. The Beast sings it when he drives Belle away, right before she runs out to the wolves. It's not the right place for the Beast to sing it in a movie. In the movie, there's only really one place, and it's when he finally lets her go and he thinks he's lost her. Now, unfortunately, those lyrics don't work at that dramatic spot. You could change the lyrics to "Now that I've lost her," and that's something that [composer and lyricist] Alan Menken and Tim Rice and I considered, but collectively we thought, "Let's write something that specifically fits this moment." Onstage, you can have a character express his feelings for three minutes in a beautiful, powerful song and that's enough. In a movie, that character has to be somewhere different at the end of the song from where he starts, the story has to keep on. So literally, that became the story of the new song. The Beast is climbing higher and higher in the castle so that he can still keep sight of her and so that he can see her for as long as he possibly can. The song reflects it, the lyric reflects it, and the music sort of ascends as he does. It's an example of something that became clear [as we worked on the film], and there wasn't any kind of corporate pressure to retain something that had been very successful elsewhere.

On the opposite side of the equation, what about the sense of fan ownership? How much did you have to consider fulfilling fan expectations?

It's a double-edged sword. The great thing about that is that there are so many people who are so eager to see the movie, and that's what you crave as a filmmaker, that there's an audience waiting and committed. But in terms of expectations, you can only make your personal version of what this is. Because I feel like I'm such a true fan of that original film, I could only use myself ultimately as a gauge. But I think, for example, there would have been people who would've preferred that kind of Austrian-curtain yellow dress for Belle [that she wore in the animated movie], but we couldn't do that and stay true to the period.

How much did you work with Disney's marketing department in deciding what the initial images from the film that they release would look like?

They've been great, and they consult. There's been a few things we've had conversations about, but I was very quickly impressed by the thought and sensitivity of their presentations. I trust in their judgment. With a movie like this, it's inevitable that you spend the first 15 or 20 minutes of the film trying to take it in: "Oh, that's what Belle's going to be like" or "That's what Mrs. Potts is going to look like." There's a lot of adjustment that has to be made when people first are exposed to how we've translated the animated film into reality. I found that the rollout of first images — of Emma Watson as Belle, then the other live-action cast, the Beast, then images of the household staff, then revealing more of that in the trailers — to me, that does a lot of good work because it kind of gets everyone over that hump. If they've been exposed to it, they enter the theater not having to make that adjustment. Over the past three years, the first question people who love Beauty and the Beast ask is, "How will you do 'Be Our Guest'?" And my feeling is that is something you should have to go to the theater and see. We showed two or three shots of it in the trailer, but the studio might have wanted to show a little more of that.

So how did you go about turning 2D animated objects into 3D CG characters?

You have to answer so many questions  — like how the hell do they get up the stairs? How do they move? We spent six months in R&D with Sarah Greenwood, our brilliant production designer, and the artists at [visual effects house] Framestore in London. What made it possible to start the conversation was the decision to set it in this specific period. You start to look at a candlestick and you see how incredibly ornate it is or a teapot with this unbelievably dense painting on it. You start to see, "There could be eyes there, or a human face on a clock." That was the first principle, that they had to be absolutely period-specific, period-correct. And then secondly, we wanted to make sure that the design of the human features came out of each object's design. The clock face, that turned out to be fairly easy. The keys for setting the time, the hands becoming the mustache, all of that was the simplest one. And weirdly, [Mrs. Potts' son] Chip was simple — we saw him and his saucer as being kind of a skater boy. The movement, which you'll see in the movie, came out of that. And then you've got huge ones like Garderobe, the wardrobe played by Audra McDonald. She's someone we actually built, and that was real old-school with pulleys and pneumatic devices — and she actually moved. The toughest one was probably Mrs. Potts. Fans have a rabid interest and sense of ownership of Mrs. Potts. Famously, her spout was her nose, but there was no way not to make her look like a pig. There was no way to make that appealing in three dimensions. So there was a lot of trial and error. We built all of these objects, but Mrs. Potts was the one that really only came together in post. When they were finally able to use reference footage of Emma Thompson reciting all the lines as we recorded them. I didn't want a tiny little Emma Thompson face. It's more just the elements, the way her mouth moves at certain points or her eyebrows, her essence.

You dealt with visual effects on the Twilight movies? So how much of a learning curve was there in dealing with all the effects on this movie?

Thank God, everything I learned on Twilight made it so much easier to do this. [On Twilight, there was] a CG half-human, half-vampire baby. That was a disaster. We could never make it work, and now, I feel as though that wouldn't have happened. The thing that was fun, given that we knew there were these CG characters, was making sure that as many elements as possible could be real. The sets were massive, like an MGM movie circa 1950. You could go from the entry to the dining room in the castle, all the way to the ballroom, across two sound stages. They were all connected. We built the entire village in the backlot [at Shepperton Studios]. In the "Be Our Guest" number, the only human being in that number was Emma Watson sitting at the table. But I brought in Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, the legendary theater lighting designers, to figure out how to tell the story of how these household objects lit the number. And it was kind of mind-blowing because they had lots of fun little ideas — like butter dishes with candles turned over become footlights, and reflected moonlight can be a spotlight. After thinking about it for a long time, they decided the light was really going to come from the reflection off of these plates and dishes and utensils. In that set, they created the reflections of objects that didn't exist, which was extraordinary. But it makes a difference when you watch it. It's not CG-created light, it's real. 

There have been many versions of the Beauty and the Beast story. What's the psychological appeal? Is this story, like Twilight, about a girl who has to tame a wild boy?

I was excited to do Twilight because it was told from a female point of view. What's interesting about Beauty and the Beast is how split the point of view is. It's his story, and it's her story. [The late lyricist] Howard Ashman, it was his idea that the Beast carry equal emotional weight. Howard had discovered he had AIDS and wrote [the 1991 film's songs] while he was dying. So the pathos of the Beast — someone who has been cursed and whose curse is breaking the hearts of the people who love him — and the fantasy that he might be saved, it's unbelievably powerful. Something that you have to do in a live-action version as opposed to the animated version is fill in the blanks between these two characters. They're both outsiders, but how did Belle wind up being so different from everybody else in a town where nobody understands her, and how did the Beast become the person who earned that curse? That's the stuff we started to fill in, and it was those questions that led to the new songs — all of which center on those ideas.

Having made The Fifth Estate about Julian Assange, what did you make of the role he and WikiLeaks played in the presidential election?

One of the reasons that movie didn't find an audience is because we were consciously trying to take a nonideological approach, showing both sides of Assange. But what Assange got up to in the election is to me the worst part of Assange. It betrays what WikiLeaks is meant to be about — the transparency of institutions. It just felt like all of those basic principles got thrown out of the window in an attempt to strike back at Hillary Clinton. She is someone he demonizes. One of his first screeds against us was that Steven Spielberg, aka DreamWorks, was putting the movie into production because Hillary told him to. My joke was always, "Wow, it's so easy to get a movie made; just have Hillary Clinton call somebody up and say, 'Put the movie into production.' " It was so naive, but he's got a blind spot where she's concerned.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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