Tale as Old as Time: Bill Condon livens up Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’

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When it came out in 1991, Beauty and the Beast marked a turning point for Walt Disney animators. One of the few cartoons to earn a Best Picture nomination, the adaptation of the 18th-century fairytale showed a new maturity and scope on the part of the studio. And it won millions of fans with its Oscar-winning score by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken.

In Bill Condon's opinion, that score was the key reason he agreed to direct a live-action version of the movie, opening March 17.

"That score had more to reveal," he says by telephone from his office. "You look at the songs and there's not a clunker in the group. In fact, Frank Rich described it as the best Broadway musical of 1991. The animated version was already darker and more modern than the previous Disney fairytales. Take that vision, put it into a new medium, make it a radical reinvention, something not just for the stage because it's not just being literal, now other elements come into play. It's not just having real actors do it.”

Condon isn't just referring to new technology that seamlessly combines live-action with computer-generated imagery. "It means starting from scratch and rethinking everything, starting obviously with the development of the screenplay. Take Gaston, what works well as an animated character has to have some kind of reality when you're doing live action."

Originally an arrogant buffoon and possibly the funniest role in the animated feature, Gaston (voiced by Luke Evans) has become a richer character, with less predictable motives. Even Belle (Emma Watson) has changed.

"In the animated film, she wants to learn to read," Condon says. "Here, she not only wants to do that, she wants to help other women learn as well. She wants to share, she's more active. It's a reflection of where the women's movement has come in the last 25 years."

Watson, a fan of Beauty and the Beast, admitted in an interview that she was terrified of singing in the movie. But Condon can't praise her work enough. "She was an insanely perfect fit, she came at it with love," he says. "Actors, stars of her caliber are in the position to choose what projects they're going to make. You look at her filmography and it's sort of an autobiography. Who she is, the work she's doing outside of show business for women's rights, that all mirrored the Belle introduced in the animated film and then updated by us. On top of that, Emma's got an instinct for musical performance that was a surprise."

While a purely digital character in the movie, the Beast started with motion-capture work by Dan Stevens. Other cast members include Kevin Kline and Josh Gad in live-action roles and Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson and Ian McKellen as household items in the Beast's castle.

This is the third collaboration between McKellen and Condon, after Gods and Monsters and Mr. Holmes. Here he plays Cogsworth, a pendulum clock. "I just love the fact that his favorite actor is Jackie Gleason," Condon says of the star. "Ian's a real song-and-dance man and comedian, and he finally gets to show it here. He's done something like this in London, where he played the Widow Twankey in drag for an Aladdin pantomime. People who know him know how funny he is."

Condon assembled the cast a month before shooting began. "We hadn't even rehearsed yet, and Ian showed up and just killed all his lines."

Physical shooting lasted four months, followed by 18 months of post-production work. Rehearsing and blocking were especially demanding, as elements of the frame had yet to be created.

"We got the cast together and rehearsed around a table, then on their feet," Condon explains. "We recorded the voices for the digital characters and had physical stand-ins for them while shooting. A lot of pre-vis to guide the way. It helped the actors to imagine exactly where in the frames the characters would move."

The director tried to keep CG to a minimum. "We could have done a lot in post, but I thought any time we have a chance to do something real, even when it came to lighting, let's do it. So we built these massive sets on really huge soundstages at Shepperton Studios. You could walk from the terrace of the ballroom all the way to the other side of the castle. And we built the entire village on a back lot."

The most dazzling sequence in the original film may have been "Be Our Guest," a kaleidoscopic tribute to Busby Berkeley and other Hollywood production numbers. Apart from a dozen or so cutaways to Belle, the entire sequence in the new version is computer-generated. "There's no one there," Condon notes, adding that without new technology the sequence would have been impossible even ten years ago.

"You have this number put on by a household staff that doesn't exist, lit by them since we're very firmly set in the period, early 18th-century French countryside. So how would they light it if they wanted to dazzle Belle?"

Condon brought the problem to legendary Broadway lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, who collaborated with him on his film adaptation of Dreamgirls.

"Jules has been doing this for fifty-plus years now," Condon says. "It was great to present him with a puzzle that took a while to figure out. Partly we do it by turning candles into flip lights, but mostly the light is reflected off the shiny surfaces of the dancing utensils and plates."

One of the advantages to working with Disney was the ability to fully explore ideas. "The recent musicals I've been involved with, Dreamgirls and Chicago, they had healthy budgets," Condon says. "But you never quite have as much as you need. But with this film there was the rare opportunity to be as lavish as it needed to be."

Condon admits he "went to town" with "Be Our Guest," creating a dance quiz for his friends. "It's got everything from Singin' in the Rain to Cabaret, Martha Graham, Bollywood, even a nonstop set of West Side Story references. Another example is the reprise of ‘Belle,’ where she's on a mountaintop and it's like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music."

Condon refers to postproduction for Beauty and the Beast as a long period of trial-and-error, frustrating at times. "The actual shooting period just sort of provides the fodder for the beginning of the making of the movie," he notes. "A sort of madness ultimately takes over, you do go a little crazy looking at the 200th iteration of something. Especially when you're trying to put something ineffable into words.

"For example, what is it about the Beast right there in that moment that doesn't quite convince? You have a shot where he suddenly doesn't look the same, because of the angle or the way the lights are hitting his hair. It's like you're always offering up a diagnosis, and sometimes it's wrong. You find yourself going off in the wrong direction, and it actually turns out to be something else."

Condon is reluctant to compare his Beauty and the Beast with the animated version. But he will point out some differences. "I do feel that the connection between the Beast and Belle, that slowly evolving friendship that turns to romance, happens very, very quickly in the animated film. Being able to do that again with characters more fully rounded, try to explain why these people are fated for each other—that was easier to explore in a live-action context. These two individuals, really, if they don't wind up with each other, they will have lost the loves of their lives."

Disney is releasing Beauty and the Beast in several formats. Condon had just finished checking the 3D IMAX print the day before we spoke. Is Beauty and the Beast better in 3D?

"In some ways yes, in some ways maybe not. What I love about the 3D, it adds an extra dimension to the CG characters that makes them feel more real," he says. "You feel it in 'Be Our Guest' and in the scale of the castle during the turret fight at the end, where people are hanging twenty stories in the air. You feel such a sense of vertigo in the 3D that is remarkable.

"At the same time, this is a musical. And part of that is having a communal experience. You always worry about the glasses cutting people off, putting you in your own world a little bit. I go back and forth. I think you have to see it twice," he jokes.

Unusually for a director, Condon has been able to alternate between blockbuster projects like the last two entries in the Twilight franchise and intimate character studies like Gods and Monsters, about 1930s Hollywood director James Whale. (A torch-lit mob scene in Whale's Frankenstein may have inspired animators for a similar scene in the earlier Beauty and the Beast.)

"It all starts with the same thing," he says. "Is it intriguing? Especially as you get older, do you want to devote two-and-a-half years of your life to something? Even a smaller film like Mr. Holmes can take a year."

Condon admits he was drawn to Twilight. "But when you're in the eighth month and you're longing to be in a drawing room with three British actors," he begins. "Look, it's thrilling to go back and forth. Being able to prep something in six weeks, shoot it in six, put it together in another twelve—that's such a delightful change to this kind of endeavor.”

On the other hand, Beauty and the Beast gave Condon the chance to comment on the 1946 film by Jean Cocteau, "a film I really love," as well as explore some of the experimental techniques Rouben Mamoulian used in 1932's Love Me Tonight.

In the end, "working with a score this rich, the opportunity to bring it back to what I believe it always wanted to be, a live-action musical on film, was too much to pass up."