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Bill Condon on Beauty and the Beast, His Musical Influences, and Lindsay Lohan’s Plan for The Little Mermaid

As director of the live-action Beauty and the Beast, Bill Condon had quite a task ahead of him: Render one of the most beloved animated films of all time — a movie that included not only just a beast-man but also talking candles and teacups — into something resembling the real world. Fortunately, he’s no stranger to musicals, having written Chicago and directed Dreamgirls, nor films facing high fan expectations — he managed not to disappoint Twilight fans on the two parts of Breaking Dawn. A few weeks before B&B hit theaters, Vulture caught up with Condon to discuss how LeFou’s sexuality became more than he bargained for, Belle as a modern-day activist, and whether he would obey Lindsay Lohan’s wish to direct the actress in a Little Mermaid remake.

I’ve heard that Walt Disney himself was intimidated by the prospect of making Beauty and the Beast because of the Jean Cocteau version.
They did work on Beauty and the Beast, he started I believe in the ’40s — that was an incredibly long process for them. It didn’t get fully musicalized until late in the day. That was actually Howard Ashman and Alan Menken being brought in to see where they’d gotten to. If your question is leading to, “Were you intimidated by the Cocteau as well as the animated film?” [the answer is] to a degree, because it’s such a beautiful movie, and it’s a favorite movie of mine. But I thought, this is one of those stories that, in so many different art forms and media, it does continue to stay relevant and get reinvented. There are several tips of the hat to Cocteau in this film, but I did feel as though I could put my own stamp on it by adapting something from an animated world into a live-action world. It felt like a new medium for it.

How did you handle the balance between animation and live-action as an overall question, in terms of making everything fit together?
The crucial thing for me was to make as much of it real as possible. We did build these big sets, and we weren’t depending on, oh, we’ll see a sliver of the world and then let CG take over. We built the whole village, so that it was CG only when it absolutely had to be. “Be Our Guest” is obviously a number performed by these CG characters, but it’s on a real set, and beyond that, the light that’s reflected off of the dishes as they perform the number is real. We had legendary New York lighting designers creating light along the walls that was reflecting off of nothing. It was really this wonderful thing to watch, and I think you feel the difference. You feel like that’s a stage number. That is Lumière and company putting on a number for her. CG light versus real light, you can tell the difference.

At the beginning, it almost feels like you’re going for a Jacques Demy movie, with the color in the costuming and the way the camera’s whirling around. What were your influences in terms of the live-action element?
You’re right. For me, it was like going back to the beginning of movie musicals. There’s a great Maurice Chevalier movie called Love Me Tonight, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and Rodgers and Hart wrote this song where all of Paris wakes up, and I can’t believe it isn’t the inspiration for Howard Ashman writing “Belle.” I wish he was around and I could ask him. Looking at that, or [Ernst] Lubitsch’s version of The Merry Widow, to inform that big ball at the beginning, I liked being able to go back to the style in which those things were shot. It isn’t hyperkinetic in terms of editing: There is more of a sense of holding things for longer, and as you say a swirl, and that thing that early musicals did, which was make you feel the performance because you’re not depending on cuts.

Josh Gad’s character was striking, not only because of his sexuality but also his sense of humor. The humor is a big part of the film. When you set out to modernize the character of LeFou, what was the thinking in terms of how funny you wanted him to be, and in what way?
Funny in a specifically American way. You look at that musical, and it’s kind of an American musical comedy, and I wanted people to kind of be true to their nationalities. For a moment we fooled around with [giving Josh] a mid-Atlantic accent and that didn’t make any sense. He’s, I think, American, and he’s the court jester, right? Those characters tend to have a better sense of what’s going on than the people in the middle of the action. He also is the one meta voice in the movie; he’s the one with that sense of irony that’s so prevalent in American comedy. He gets to do that, there’s some license that he has. And of course, you get Josh, and there’s a mile-a-minute stream of ideas and funny stuff …

Did some of his jokes come from him, or were they all written?
There were some that came from him, absolutely.

He also did an interesting job of balancing Luke Evans, who is really good. He verges into that territory of being almost too likable for a villain.
I know what you mean. You know what it is for me: He’s singing the mob song at the end, and he’s leading this bloodthirsty mob to kill our hero, and yet there’s something about that voice coming out of him — and this is what I love about musicals — there’s this other level on which it’s working that you feel just the joy of musical performing. You’re smiling as you’re watching something upsetting happen. That is the conundrum of musicals, I love that. But I have to say, I think Luke[’s character, Gaston], when you get this glimpse into the ugliness of the soul, I think he’s doing some pretty scary stuff there.

Going back to Josh, where did the idea of his sexuality come in?
Can I just say, I’m sort of sick of this. Because you’ve seen the movie — it’s such a teeny thing, and it’s been overblown.

I was wondering what your interpretation of that was, because it’s become this sort of —
Well, people haven’t seen the movie. They have to see the movie, and they’ll understand that it’s not what it’s about.

It is such a small part of the movie, but it doesn’t feel insignificant.
Yeah, I guess so.

I felt like the movie was going for a level of diversity.
That was so important. We have interracial couples — this is a celebration of everybody’s individuality, and that’s what’s exciting about it.

Who do you see as the major audience for this movie?
It’s interesting. I saw it not as a child, I saw it as a grown-up, and I responded to the animated film. It does seem to me that — you don’t want to say this movie’s for everybody, but I do feel as though, inevitably, in bringing it into a live-action world, we’ve brought out some of the adult themes to the surface. I’m hoping it’s as rich an experience for adults as it is for children.

With Dan Stevens as the CGI Beast, how did you try to make the integration of that character into this live-action world as seamless as possible?
That was the biggest challenge: getting that right, getting the design of the Beast right, but also making sure that this beautiful performance that Dan was giving would shine through that technology. It was partly using a newish technology, or a new version of a technology that had fallen out of fashion, doing face replacement at the end of every night after the scenes. Something that made it as un-animated as possible. So there’s not animators figuring out what happens in between all the dots, it’s all there, it’s all him, in the way there’s so many muscles that are moving as I speak and as you speak. I do think Dan’s commitment to mastering that process and not letting himself be mastered by it is the reason it’s so successful.

There was nothing between him [and his co-stars], no camera gear or things like that. He just got to perform the scenes with Emma. That was so incredibly helpful because there was this connection happening. Part of what we tried to do to mitigate [the technology] was, we did as many rehearsals as we could, both in human form and then him pulling on some of that beast drag for a while, so that she got to act with that thing. But in a weird way, it kind of reflected the whole theme of the movie, right? It’s looking beneath the surface. So Emma was acting with what was underneath, and that’s Belle’s specific gift, the thing that’s pure about her, that she sees through Gaston when nobody else does. And for the Beast, it takes a while, but she starts to see what emerges in him. It was weird, that the act of imagination on Emma’s part was imagining the ugly exterior, but it felt very much like what the movie’s about.

With Belle, you guys steer into the feminist aspect of the character. What was your take on Belle as a character in 2017?
Absolutely. That was something that was so iconic about the original movie, right, that Belle was an un-traditional Disney princess. She liked books more than boys. But it’s 25 years later, and women have come far. How do we reflect that? I thought the big idea was that her interest in learning has turned into a kind of activism. She doesn’t want just to read the six books that she can get her hands on, she wants to help other girls to learn how to read, which obviously then represents a big threat to the social structure. The activism and the political nature of it is what makes it feel reinvented.

I saw that Lindsay Lohan said she would return to acting if you directed her in The Little Mermaid.
I know! It was sweet, it was very sweet of her. I hope she gets to make that movie. [Laughs.] I feel like I was so lucky in getting this crown jewel, but I’ll go see her in Little Mermaid, absolutely.

Bill Condon on Directing Beauty and the Beast