Disney has been brilliant in taking its classic animated movies and turning them into live-action spectaculars. Now we have the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast coming in 2017, with acclaimed director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) at the helm. The classic tale stars Emma Watson as the bright, independent young woman who is taken prisoner by the Beast (Dan Stevens) – and learns to look beyond his hideous exterior to the heart and soul of the prince within. Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ian McKellen, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor and Emma Thompson also star.
Fandango chatted with Condon about the biggest challenges in taking on such a beloved Disney classic, if Watson really can sing, who in the cast is unexpectedly hilarious, and composer Alan Menken’s three brand new songs. Could one be an Oscar contender?
Fandango: What was your initial reaction when you were approached?
Bill Condon: It was just excitement, really, because I just loved the movie so much. There was a sense of making sure you could bring something to it that's new and also live up to in any way what was so great about the original. But again, it's a totally different medium. It has been translated once onto the stage, and this felt like another version of that. By not being animated, it has to change in a basic way and contain human behavior we can recognize.
Fandango: You also used CGI and set it in a practical location.
Condon: From the very beginning, I worked with Sarah Greenwood, the designer, and we decided to set in the time and place it was written, in the South of France in the 1740s. It wasn't in some mystical kingdom far away. It wasn't in a fairy-tale kingdom or anything like that.
Once we had that reality, once we knew that, it informed everything, especially in the design of the household staff objects. We started to look at clocks and candlesticks from the period and imagined faces in them. And we started to imagine how they could be anthropomorphized. The penny would drop on one of them and it was like, “Oh wow, that could work there.” Then suddenly the whole thing would come to life.
Fandango: Are we going to exclaim, “Wow, Emma Watson can really sing!”
Condon: Yes! She sort of had to and wanted to prove she could do it. She had always loved singing, but in those years of doing Harry Potter she hadn't done it. She got her voice back in shape, took lessons and then there it was! This beautiful, sweet, pure sound that she has. It is interesting.
"There's nothing like someone letting loose in the joy of expressing themselves."
We don't usually think about movie stars being able to sing, and then they do it. Some people's voices just reveal something about themselves and seem like the essence of them. Emma is one of those people, there's a natural connection from the way that she speaks and the way she sings.
Fandango: The other casting also seems so spot-on, like Dan Stevens, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen...
Condon: Yeah, [Dan] has this really big voice, who knew? He is the Beast! And this is the first time Ian [as Cogsworth] has ever sung in a movie. To watch him sing and dance and be funny was amazing. In real life, people know how funny he is, but to let him be so shamelessly out there, it was really fun to watch.
Fandango: There is also a new character added to the household staff, right?
Condon: Yes, the harpsichord played by Stanley Tucci, who is married to the wardrobe, the opera singer. It seemed odd not to have a big musical instrument in there given the context, and he actually became a pretty big part.
Fandango: Can you talk about the three new songs added to the movie?
Condon: We keep all the songs from the original film, but in this translation, we expanded upon how Belle and the Beast become who they are when we meet them. Two of the new songs connect to that new material. “Days in the Sun,” in particular, is sung by Belle and has more to do with the household staff and how they see the future when the curse is lifted. But it's also as a song the Beast's mother sang to him when he was a boy. So it sort of comes full circle.
Finally, there's the song [“For Evermore”] the Beast sings as at a crucial dramatic point at the end of the movie. They always say you should only ever sing when speaking isn't enough. When you can't help but sing. And that's what the song is, a cry of pain. I think that's a really big, 11-o'clock cinematic number.
Fandango: Do you think one of those songs, like “Days in the Sun,” might be an Oscar contender?
Condon: Oh, God knows. It's up to them.
Fandango: How was Alan Menken to work with?
Condon: What really amazed me was, he has revisited something that he hasn't touched in 20 years, but is still in touch with what this story is emotionally. He writes these new songs that fit in so seamlessly into the fabric of the story. If you're a 10 year old and don't know the original movie, I don't think you'd be able to tell the difference.
Fandango: You, too, have an amazing ability to bring musicals to the big screen. What is it about the medium you love so much?
Condon: I think at it's best it has to give the audience the right feels, but man, when you have a story you're engaged in and an emotion that you're feeling that gets expressed in song, I think it just lifts you to a level that is hard for other movies to reach. Your action movies can do it in their own way, with the explosions and dazzle and all that, but there's nothing like someone letting loose in the joy of expressing themselves.