Interview with Beauty and the Beast producer Don Hahn
I've thought about the First Post for this blog for a few months now. I've been thinking how I could introduce this new blog, what I could say, how I could put into words the swelling of emotions and failures that have led me here.
The sentences and ideas have been rumbling around in my head since July. I wanted to get it right.
In the meantime I created the bones of this website and began interviewing amazing creative people who I will write about in the coming months. But I knew I wanted the first post to be just me talking to you, telling you why I'm even doing this when a) I "should" be focusing all my time on my next book and b) I didn't even consider myself creative until this year.
In short, I'm doing this because I need to write like this again - the kind of unencumbered, write-whatever-I-want-to kind of writing; the write-it-and-publish-it-instantly kind of writing; the I'm-doing-this-just-because-it's-fun kind of writing. And yet, it took me a while to just sit down and write this first post, which was weird because writing blog posts is something I did almost daily for four years without a second thought. But since setting that first blog aside to focus on my next phase, I'd been feeling so lost. So unsure what to write at all.
After months of tears, worrying I was taking on too much, worrying this was a stupid idea, worrying that no one really wants to read anything I have to write, I finally woke up this morning and decided I need to just write whatever is on my mind - no "First Post" pressure. Just get something out there.
I woke up this morning ready to write. And then I remembered one of the reasons I hadn't written anything yet (and set the official launch date for January 2016) was because I still hadn't figured out how to get the logo to show up on the mobile version of this site.
But instead of procrastinating and going into the deep dark hole of amateur web design, I'm writing (and publishing) this post, before the website is perfect. Which is not my style. It feels uncomfortable to be publishing this before the site is ready. But that's precisely why I'm doing it anyway.
My next step though WILL be to find a way to get the logo to show up on the mobile site - because the logo is so much more than just a logo to me. In many ways, the logo says it all.
It was designed (for free, out of pure generosity) by Don Hahn, author of the book Brain Storm: Unleashing Your Creative Self and producer of amazing feature films like Disney's Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Maleficent, documentaries like Disney's nature films, as well as his own incredible documentaries like Waking Sleeping Beauty and High Ground. He's also still writing books, producing all kinds of films, and paints. And somehow, he also finds time to draw a logo for someone like me.
And Don would not care if no one ever knew he did this logo. While he gave me permission to tell people he did, he said I definitely didn't have to. He doesn't know I'm shouting it from the rooftops in this first piece. Don said he offered to design the logo for me simply because "It's fun!"
Therein lies what I've learned about creativity from Don, and how he's inspired this site.
Imagine every stereotype there is of a Big Hollywood Movie Producer. If you've imagined an arrogant, loud, in love with himself, always looking to talk to people who can advance his career or make him seem cooler, always looking out for himself, only concerned with talking to people at his income/status level or higher, being fake and making big promises, stringing people along and then ignoring them, then you've perfectly imagined the exact opposite of Don Hahn.
Don is quiet, thoughtful, kind, and humble, humble, humble.
It was meeting him and getting a sense of the kind of person he is that gave me hope that maybe I could be (was) creative too. That maybe I could find a place in this harsh world while still being my quiet, sensitive self.
While Don inspired me in numerous ways through his creative work before I ever knew his name, it was discovering his book Brain Storm while roaming through Disney World that led me to meeting him. Disney is a place I roam.
I've lived in Florida my whole life and have had an annual pass for ten years now, and in those ten years Disney has become a place I roam, still a place with a million things I haven't yet done or seen. A place that still gives me hope when I'm feeling terrible.
I once heard someone describe Walt Disney as a stubborn optimist. And if you know anything about his life story, you know he was no stranger to intense failure, tragedy, betrayal, loss, and heartache. In the incredible American Experience documentary on his life that was recently shown on PBS and produced by Sarah Colt (met her at an event and wow is she smart, creative, kind, thoughtful, and talented), there is a scene where Sarah shows us the dwarves crying over Snow White's coffin and then shares commentary of an interviewee saying that he thought Walt told these stories in this way because he wanted people to feel even the darker things he was feeling; that what some may write off as a corny or unrealistic, idealistic, or even a naive brand of hope was perhaps not an ignorance of the cruelty in the world, but a fight against it. Rewatch the way the dwarves cry and you'll see real pain there. When I saw it again in this documentary I recognized the way my shoulders first arched the first time I learned someone in my family died. It was my grandma. I got the call while I was at Disney.
My mom told me the news. There wasn't anything to do be done. The funeral would be days away. My husband and I were staying in a Disney hotel for a few days for our anniversary. So we stayed. We walked around Disney. I cried during the entire Country Bears show.
I remember thinking about that earlier this year, in March, when my husband and I were roaming around Disney one Saturday afternoon, doing what we do. We walk. We point out new details. We laugh at nearby dad jokes. We smile at the warmth of being around people from all over the world. And we eat.
Usually it's a source of great joy and often creative inspiration, but on this day, I remember walking down Main Street feeling kind of depressed. I was at a point in working on this book I'd been working on for almost a year and was feeling very unsure and uncertain about my future, wondering what the heck I was doing. Writing a book is exciting, but it's also scary and can go from feeling like the best thing you've ever done to the worst mistake you've ever made - sometimes within the same day. This is my second book, yes, but in many ways, it has felt like my first, because it's the first one that has involved intensive research, financial investment, and a creative capacity I've never had to use before - one, to be honest, I never thought I had. I always figured I wasn't creative since I couldn't draw or play an instrument or write songs or paint or get an A in pottery class (I got a B, one of only two B's in high school...and I'm not saying that to brag, I'm saying that to help you understand that pottery was AP Calculus to me). So since I was never one to shine in the arts and crafts department, I decided I was definitively not an artist. I loved artists. I wished I could be one. But I knew I wasn't. Oh well.
But working on this book, interviewing people about how they achieved a dream, changed my whole perception of what it means to be creative, what it means to be an artist. It showed me the artist that I could be.
I also learned that act of you "creating" something also usually means on some level you're making something that doesn't already exist, at the very least, by you. Even if you have a map or a recipe, you still don't know how it will turn out when you do it (see: Pinterest fails).
And for the things that definitely have never been done before in any capacity, that uncertainty is multiplied. That's where the thrill comes from, but it also can be a source of panic and heartache, because while you're in the storm you have no idea if it's going to be worth it. You have no idea if it's going to work. Will it be a Pinterest success or fail? You don't know. You can't know. That's what makes it creative. As Seth Godin says about the mentality in the act of creation, in all its experimental glory: this might not work.
I learned that to be an artist I have to learn to be okay with that.
It is not easy for me to be okay with that. I like to do things I know will work. Give me the syllabus. Tell me how to get the A. I will get it. (Unless it's pottery.)
Creativity does not work like that. So to transition from being a Straight-A-Student to a creative person is hard. It requires some big mental shifts. Because you have to get comfortable with F's. So if you weren't a good student in school or you're struggling with your grades right now or your 4.0 was just ruined by your last report card, fear not! You have a leg up on all those annoying goody-goody straight-A students, okay?
So there I was, my annoying Straight-A self walking along Main Street last March. The scent of popcorn and sugar did not mask my panic. I was scared and oddly sad when I thought about the uncertainty of what I was doing. I think the sadness came from knowing I was doing this to myself. I had made the decision to do this creative project. For the most part, it had created some of the most incredible experiences of my life, but as it progressed into the "there's no turning back now" phase, the reality of "this might not work" started to set in and every bone in my body wanted to turn back.
We walked around the entire park, and then on our way out we took a shortcut through a shop on Main Street. Before we walked on I got distracted by my favorite section of any shop - the books. I saw a new one: Brain Storm: Unleashing Your Creative Self by Don Hahn, "Producer of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast." I gasped, grabbed the book with both hands, and literally hugged it to my heart like I was nine-years-old in my purple cotton Beauty and the Beast dress. I turned to my husband and said: "I have to get this." It's not like I had to tell him or convince him. I just had to say it out loud. And then, the craziest thought came into my head, "I wonder if I could interview Don Hahn for my book when I'm in LA next week."
I was leaving in two days for an LA trip I'd scheduled to do some interviews for the book, and two people had to cancel after I'd already bought the ticket. It was one of the reasons I was feeling a little depressed - I was terrified that I was spending money on this project that had no guarantee. I was terrified that I was making a huge mistake, that what I thought was an investment was really just idiocy.
When I had this thought I had no idea Don lived in LA. Somewhere in my brain I just assumed Producer = LA, which does make sense. But still. That's the least of it. I did not know Don Hahn. I did not have his email. It wasn't public. And why would someone like that talk to someone like me? Even if for some crazy reason he did, someone like him would be way too busy and important to be willing to make time in his schedule to meet with me with two days notice! Get real, Isa.
But this is why I call myself a dreamer. Because somewhere in my brain I have crazy ideas like this. So many times they fail and I feel terrible about myself. But for some reason, I don't give up. And trust me, I've tried. I've wanted to. Being a dreamer will break your heart. (However lately I've been starting to think that maybe what feels like a shattered kind of broken might actually be more of a breaking open of sorts. But more on that in my next book.)
As soon as I got home I devoured Brain Storm. It was a revelation, the first book I'd ever read that gave me, little old 3rd-graders-draw-better than me me, permission to be creative, permission to be an artist, permission to try, fail, have crazy ideas and try to make stuff that doesn't exist.
I don't think it's a coincidence that the first time I said "I'm a writer" and really believed it was to an Uber driver in LA, a few days after finishing Brain Storm, and, unbeknownst to me at the time, a few hours before I would meet Don Hahn.
The story of how I met Don Hahn will be fully told in the book, but what I can tell you now is this:
There are a million reasons why Don Hahn could have never been a person I could call my friend, a million reasons why I could have missed walking by his book that day, a million other paths we could have taken on our way out of Magic Kingdom, and a million reasons Don could have been busy or out of town on that one day I had in LA. And even if all that was in the cards, the chances of me finding a way to contact him so quickly? Impossible.
Except for a childhood dream, one unrealized, that ultimately made it happen. Even the dreams that don't come true still do amazing things, I think.
I've always been enamored with Disney animators. I wanted to be one when I was really little. The conundrum, though? Drawing is not my thing. I also wanted to be Belle on Broadway. But singing? Me, not so good.
My thing, though? Writing. Interviewing people. So for example earlier this year I interviewed the woman who is the longest running Belle on Broadway for the book (she was everything I'd hoped she would be and more). But I started merging my childhood dreams (the ones that didn't account for my true level of interest in the craft itself) with the work that did interest me years ago, when I interviewed an animator named Paitoon I found on LinkedIn (who seemed amazing) for a blog I did a few summers ago where I interviewed people about their first job out of college. Spoiler alert: he was amazing. There was something about who he was as a person that made me understand a little more about why I was so drawn to animators even though I didn't draw, why I felt giddy walking through the halls of Pixar even though there's probably not a job there I'd be very good at, unless they create one that involves professional fawning or interviewing the artists there and writing about their life stories and creative processes (also interviewed an employee there for the book and met the artists and omg was it one of the best days of my life).
Paitoon was a crafstman, a professional, a creative. He was generous. He had heart. He was thoughtful. He had grit and boldness, but also an indescribable warmth. He was sensitive but ambitious. Hard working but didn't take himself too seriously. He was kind. One of the kindest people I'd ever met.
When I was finishing Brain Storm on my flight from Florida to LA, I remembered Paitoon did some animation for The Lion King. It was a long shot, but I Facebook messaged Paitoon when my plane landed and asked if he knew Don. He got back to me right away: he knew Don. He loved Don. He said he'd introduce me.
See what I mean about kind?
I had one day in LA. I knew the reality of meeting Don was slim. Even when I had the idea when I bought his book it's not like I actually thought it would happen. It was just kind of this fun thought. A dream.
I was still surprised and elated when Paitoon said he'd make the connection, though I knew of course that didn't mean I'd ever meet Don. Maybe a nice, your book sounds great but I'm busy but best of luck! That'd be cool too.
I spent my one day in LA with an Uber driver, going across town to do that one interview that was supposed to be three interviews. After spending an hour in traffic he dropped me off back at my hotel.
Which, by the way, reminded me so much of Beauty and the Beast.
So I get back to my hotel room, assuming that's the end of my little LA trip that, honestly wasn't worth the money for one interview, and saw a Facebook message from Don. He would interview for my book for sure via phone! But he'd also be willing to do the interview in person at his studio if by some crazy chance I could get there that evening. I didn't even think. I looked up the address on my maps. It was technically 45 minutes away, but I knew enough about LA to know I should leave now to be sure traffic didn't make me late. Don said he would be available in two and a half hours, but I figured I'd leave right away, get there a little early and grab an early dinner nearby before going to his studio. Minutes after getting out of an Uber I pulled up the app again and called another.
With traffic, the ride took exactly two and a half hours. I made it just in time.
And what happened next is why this blog exists.
For this book, because of its focus but also because people are talking to me out of pure generosity, I only asked for 30 minutes of their time.
I only asked Don for 30 minutes.
I interviewed Don for two hours. We talked about his life (fun fact: he's a community college grad too, woot woot!), his work, his dreams, and what he's learned about creativity. We also strayed a lot from my normal questions for the book - we ended up talking about books and concepts and ideas that I'd never been able to talk about with anyone before in one conversation. I'd say something like "you know how Seth Godin says..." and he'd know exactly which book I was talking about, and then he'd be like, "you know Twyla Tharp says" and I'd be like "yes I loved that part in her book when she talked about..." It was quick and easy and the two hours felt like two seconds and two years.
And then there was the Walt Disney stuff. My eyes watered when he told me about sitting down with Walt's late daughter for a film he was doing for the Walt Disney Family History Museum, the same museum I'd visited months before, where I bought what I call my "Walt Disney Dreamer Hat" a hat modeled after one he often wore. I also got chills when he told me a story of how he and his team decided on the color yellow for Belle's dress. Belle. The character whose love for reading and longing for "adventure in the great wide somewhere" had a huge impact on me as a kid.
The producer of the film that ignited my love for libraries talked to me like an equal.
I instantly saw why Paitoon and Don got along, and why people like them were behind a movie like Beauty and the Beast.
I also got to know them and learn about all the creative projects they've done since. And there are so many. Because people like them are constantly creating, constantly challenging themselves, constantly trying new things.
That first interview, Don became a Yoda to me, teaching me about the creative force; welcoming me into a world I'd believed I would always be on the outside of, looking in.
After the interview he gave me copies of his documentaries and signed them, along with my now battered copy of Brain Storm. He told me about the Robert McKee Story seminar in New York. While I'm not an aspiring screenwriter, I consider myself an aspiring non-fiction storyteller, and Don knew that as a writer who also loved films, I would love this seminar (and oh my, I did). I bought my tuition for the three-day seminar and my tickets to New York on a credit card that evening.
The world Don opened up to me and the wisdom he distilled in that interview, though he himself would never call it that, was a turning point for me. We kept in touch and he invited my husband and I to his studio again when we were vacationing in LA four months later. Just because he's that nice. Seriously.
Don gave my husband the tour and then we sat around and talked. Don asked me how the book was going, and I was honest. When he asked I remember there being this other part of me telling me to not tell the whole truth: it said, "this is a big time producer for goodness sakes! Don't let him see your weakness! Don't let him see your failure! Don't let him see you're really a nobody! He'll kick you out faster than you can say Lion King!" But because Don is truly the least pretentious person I've ever met, and because when you start to talk to someone about creativity you start to get a sense that they know that the hard stuff is part of it and not a sign of weakness; they will understand, and maybe will even say something that will help.
So I was honest. I told him how much I was struggling. That I was in a "slog." The interviews were over, and I was feeling isolated without a "real job," trying to work through 800 pages of interview transcriptions and find a sense of belief in what I was doing again. I felt alone and all of a sudden so unsure of what I was doing. I'd gone from "This will work!" to "This could work" to "This might not work" to "This has to work" to "What the heck am I doing?!"
I honestly didn't know what Don would say when I told him this. There was still a small part of me that wondered if I was making a huge mistake in being this honest. But Don's look of recognition of the "slog", and what he said next, is why this blog exists.
He told me he knew exactly what I was saying. He had been there with every big creative project he'd ever done. He told me that something that helps him is what he called a kind of "creative dessert": doing a part of the project that's sweet and delicious, the kind of won't ruin your appetite but get you excited for more, get you excited for what you're making again, and give you that "sugar" rush of putting something together that you can be proud of, that feels complete in some small way.
He referenced a time where he and his team would do something like create a musical sequence for Beauty and the Beast first, or how he would edit a middle part of a documentary he was really excited about, do things completely out of order, to create excitement and give a needed boost to help him get through the more painstaking parts.
When he said this I loved it instantly and knew it was something that would help me. I wasn't sure exactly how to translate it to writing yet. At the time I was still deep into the early research phase of my book, letting the interview transcriptions create the book's form; so I wasn't quite ready to write a "musical sequence" for the book yet, because I was still working on the music itself.
But now I knew what to look for: a way to create some kind of dessert experience that would get me through this slump. I came away knowing that slumps were normal and maybe not a sign that I'm a huge failure idiot stupid person, and that there was a way out. That was enough, and in many ways, a seed for the idea that hearing about how creative people work, even if their art is not the same as yours, can be really helpful.
When I saw Don again a month later at a D23 Expo (a Disney convention that happens every two years where they announce upcoming films and projects), I still hadn't quite figured out what I would do for dessert, but I was getting closer; I knew I needed to find a way to produce creative stuff again that I could put out immediately while I was engaged in this long book process. I'd realized from Don's dessert stories that one of the reasons I was struggling is I'd recently stopped writing my first blog Community College Success (after four years I'd felt like I'd said all I had to say on that particular subject). I was still writing professionally for various publications and for Huffington Post, but those pieces would take days, sometimes weeks, to publish once submitted. I missed the instant publish button, the creating just for creating's sake, the putting something out there just to put it out there. I love my editors. Love love love them. Need them. But I also missed just putting something out there unjudged, something that made my heart sing in the pure writing and sharing of it, not having to worry about what anyone else thought, if anyone else even read it. Just loving it for its own sake and loving the feeling of doing it and then letting it go immediately, like releasing a balloon into the sky.
But since I felt I'd run out of college-related stuff to say, I wasn't sure where to take my writing voice next. Had I run out of balloons? Who was I outside of a community college author? Was I anything else? Could I be anything else?
Don and I began talking about creativity again at D23. He himself was toying with the idea of doing a blog or podcast on creativity and asked me to work on it with him. I was ecstatic - this was exactly the kind of "dessert" I was looking for - a project outside of the book to get me excited again, to make me feel connected to other people again, to make me feel less alone. I told Don this. And what he said next surprised me. He said he thought, indeed, it must be really hard for me, doing creative work alone.
He works on teams, he collaborates, he works with lots of people on creative endeavors.
One of my favorite parts of a movie is the credits. I love to sit through the whole thing and read as many names as I can and imagine the people who worked on the project. I like to think of the Facebook post they share when their movie or documentary or show comes out, how excited they must be. I like to think about the risks they took and the sacrifices they made to do such a crazy unstable fun creative artistic career. I like to think about the carpenter, the drapist, makeup artist 2, man behind hot dog cart, and the craft services chef. I wonder how they got to doing a job like this. It fascinates me how many people it takes.
And while working with others on a creative endeavor has its own trials and tribulations, Don's recognition that doing a creative endeavor by yourself also has its own troubles was freeing. Because I was feeling so ashamed of my frustration - here I was with the ability to pursue a creative project, to write a book, and all I was feeling was terrible. I felt spoiled and undeserving, and yet unfortunately all that shame did was keep me from doing anything. It wasn't like the shame sent me off to help people with real problems. It just made me sink even deeper, become even less of a help to anyone. It made me disappear in a way I never had before, a shrinking of something that felt a lot like hope.
Don's acknowledgement of, yeah that must be hard, actually made it feel less hard. It gave me the fuel I needed to make things better, to see the silliness of it, to see my privilege, and to actually let that move me forward instead of shame me.
Whatever the medium ended up being, ultimately Don was thinking of doing a project where he wanted my help interviewing creative people about their creative lives. The idea resonated with me instantly because of our conversations, because of how much learning about his creative life had helped me. I knew interviewing other creative people about their process - the real truth about it, the digging deep and staying longer in the places that are usually brushed over, would be incredible. Would be helpful.
Don did too. But unfortunately, with so many other films and projects on his plate, he just didn't have time. But he encouraged me to move on with it anyway, in my own way, if I wanted to.
And here we are.
When I wrote Don an email thanking him for designing the logo for this blog, he replied that he did it because it was simply "fun." Don works hard, but it's obvious to me that he creates because it's fun. He paints on vacation.
In our conversations though Don never pretended that creating was always easy, and he was so open with me about the times in between creative projects where he felt lost and sad and unsure.
Don Hahn has felt unsure before.
Doesn't that make you feel better? It makes me feel better. A lot better. It makes me want to keep going. It makes me feel like maybe the frustration could mean you're on to something.
It was Don's stories that helped me see that I wasn't having fun anymore with this project. And while life certainly isn't all about "fun" and the creative process itself is filled with lots of very decidedly un-fun things, the part of doing the creative thing itself should be the fun part. Otherwise, why go through all the pain? Being able to exercise creativity is a massive privilege.
And so, this blog is me having fun. This is fun. And I think it's the kind of fun that will help me get through the more painful parts of the creative process that I'm in right now with my next book.
I've already had so much fun interviewing people about their creative lives for this blog, and I cannot wait to share their creative lives and processes and struggles with you. The main purpose of this site will be to share those stories, those people. To keep talking to people who create things and get a real sense of who they are, why they create, and how they get through the hard parts.
I'll be interviewing people who've done things you've heard about, as well as people you'll be hearing about for the first time. I'll be talking to people for whom creativity is their career (like a writer who's done features for Vogue), as well as people for whom creativity is cooking a new meal for their family or throwing their sister an amazing Willy-Wonka themed bridal shower (true story).
Most of all, this is a blog about creativity written by someone who never saw herself as creative until very recently.
My hope is to expand an idea that has so helped me - the idea that creativity is not just drawing, painting, music, etc. That it's that first drawing you can remember doing as a kid, that blanket fort you made in your living room, those silly plays and musicals you wrote and filmed with your brother when you were nine, that it's the way you choose to decorate your Christmas tree or arranged your living room, the way you dress your son or read to your daughter, the way you do your job every day, whatever kind of job it is.
That maybe creativity isn't the way your pencil shows up on a piece of paper, but the way you show up to your life.
I still have a lot to learn about creativity, and I thought maybe you'd like to come along. Not because I think I have anything you need, but because I need you.
This is my way of being less alone while I write this massive monster of a book. So while there will mostly be features written about creative people I think are really cool (people who generously give an hour of their time to talk to me about their creative life), there will also be random posts like this one.
Because this, right here, is my dessert. And it's delicious. And it wouldn't be dessert for me without you. So thank you. You are my cherry on top.
More soon. :)