Amon Warmann chats with Beauty and the Beast director Bill Condon…
Bill Condon is not just a fan of Beauty and the Beast – he’s a superfan.
The director – whose previous credits include Dreamgirls, another popular movie musical – has studied all the original texts and watched the Broadway production multiple times. While that means he’d be the all-star of any Beauty and the Beast trivia team, it more importantly meant that he was the perfect choice to helm the live action adaptation of the 1991 classic.
When we sat down with Condon ahead of the film’s release, we talked the resurgence of the movie musical, the thinking behind the gay relationship between LeFou and Gaston, and why he thinks that his version of ‘Be Our Guest’ is the most elaborate musical number ever filmed. Have a read below…
Were you anxious when you were offered this movie?
Yes, because the original movie is perfect so why tamper with that. But I was also very excited because I love musicals and I knew that score – which had really been inspired by live action musicals both on stage and screen – had more to reveal in a live action format. I’ve made a couple of musicals and they’re lavish but tightly budgeted. No one’s ever sure that there’s an audience for that type of genre on the other end but with Disney there was a sense that there would really be a lot of support for it.
What made you choose Emma Watson as Belle?
When you look at the filmography of a star – people who get to choose the roles that they play – it turns into a kind of autobiography. And with Emma, it’s first of all who she is and what she can do but also the combination of Hermione – her most famous part – bringing that iconography into this movie, and then also the fact that she is similarly smart and obsessed with reading books in real life and an activist. All those things seemed to cohere.
Gaston is a much more beefed up character in this adaptation. Why was that important for you?
Gaston is a great creation in the animated movie, but I don’t think that person could roam the Earth. If you look at his relationship with LeFou, LeFou is basically a punching bag in the cartoon. So we were thinking what’s a new take on male narcissism and everything that Gaston represents in terms of exterior beauty and interior ugliness? And adding that development of being quick on the trigger and violent and being a warmonger – that seemed to bring him into something that’s more familiar to us in real life.
At the end it’s implied that LeFou is gay and that he’s in love with Gaston. Where did that idea come from and were Disney always fully on board with that?
Disney didn’t know about it [laughs]. It was something I was thinking about and that I talked to Josh Gad about. Our joke was that one day he gets up and he wants to be Gaston and the next day he wakes up and he wants to fool around with Gaston and he hasn’t quite landed on it yet. It’s just a moment in the film, and I get a little weary about talking about it too much because then it seems like a more heavy-handed thing. But I kind of enjoyed that and it’s in the fabric of everybody falling in love that that couple falls in love too.
The ‘Be Our Guest’ musical number is a standout moment in the film. What was it like working on that sequence?
I suspect it’s the most elaborate musical number ever filmed. First it starts with me and Anthony Van Laast – the choreographer – figuring out the concept of the song. The song is obviously iconic, but it doesn’t actually follow a through line of first we prepare the meal and then serve it then we serve the desert… In the animated film there had been a tip of the hat to Busby Berkeley, and I thought it’d be fun to put in 20 references instead of just 1 so it is littered with all of that.
So then he builds that on dancers, we put those dancers in motion capture suits, they go into the computer. Then with the cameraman Tobias Schliessler we figure out how to shoot every shot, then that gets computerised, then the set gets built with these incredible set designers from New York who light it for real. We shoot it – which takes over a month – and then it literally takes another 15 months to make all the animation come to life.
Amon Warmann: The actors sing the songs a little bit differently to how they’re sung in the animated film. Was that a conscious decision on your part to direct them that way?
Not at all. It was really just giving the actors the freedom to do it their own way. For example, Ewan McGregor – who, in addition to having to do a French accent, is the only person on Earth to not have heard ‘Be Our Guest’ – was learning the notes for the first time so that meant that he could make it his own.
What was the most challenging part of the movie for you?
In addition to the ‘Be Our Guest’ number, I would say the design of the Beast. Even from the amazing stuff that Andy Serkis has done, he hasn’t quite been at the emotional centre of the movie the way that the Beast is. And the Beast having a big song – can a CGI character sing a big song and hold it? It’s really a tribute to Dan [Stevens]. His achievement of breaking through all of that stuff and really being himself, and the performance I saw on set is what you see in the movie.
Disney’s last live action adaptation was Cinderella and it was almost the same length of the animation, whereas yours is 40 minutes longer. Was that intentional?
That’s just how it turned out. I don’t love making longer movies, but we had to really believe that Belle and the Beast would go from antipathy to friendship into something deeper, and that involved knowing more about those two characters as individuals and making them less archetypal characters.
Amon Warmann: Did you ever find yourself thinking “If I had a shot at this, I would do this” before you actually got the call to come and do it?
That’s a good question. I hadn’t actually. For Dreamgirls, that was true. I saw Dreamgirls on opening night and I imagined what that movie could look like, but it never struck me that Beauty and the Beast would be adapted. I don’t know why, because they did it for Broadway so it’s inevitable they would have done it for film. Maybe it’s because unless you think about it you don’t realise that technology has caught up to that animated film and that you can actually create photo-real versions of what they were doing, but no.
This film is coming out right on the heels of La La Land. Do you think there’s a public desire for more movie musicals?
I hope so. I’m really excited by not only that movie but the popularity of it. It just keeps growing. When it comes to musicals, it’s a contract with the audience that you suspend your disbelief, and the fact that a wider international audience is accepting those conventions only makes it easier for the rest of us. People talk a lot about La La Land, but there’s also that 60 minute film Beyoncé made called Lemonade that’s a brilliant musical film. So the possibilities going forward for what movie musical can be is exciting. We’ve gotten a lot of superhero movies lately so it’d be nice to explore this genre for a while.
The film touches on issues like freedom and fear of the other, which is very relevant right now…
Absolutely, and that definitely resonates more now. But I had other reference points before Donald Trump came along. There are plenty of other examples of that both in my country and around the world. The funny thing is that it’s just more dominant now than it was then. What I find delicious is that that instinct in the movie is undone by teacups and teapots, and that kind of takes the air out of the balloon a little bit.
Amon Warmann: If you could watch your own version of the film with the original author – Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve – what’s the one thing you’d ask?
That’s really interesting. Our biggest homage to her was that we set it in the year she wrote it . So I think it’d be “does it feel like the life that you were leading back then?”