Continuing their recent trend of adapting classic animated films into live-action films, Disney is set to release one of their most-anticipated films of 2017 this week when Beauty and the Beast dances its way into theaters. Based on the 1991 film of the same name, this new take on the tale as old as time includes some pitch-perfect performances from Emma Watson as Belle, Dan Stevens as The Beast, Luke Evans as Gaston, Josh Gad as Le Fou, and more.
Earlier this month, Disney invited us to attend the official Beauty and the Beast press conference in Los Angeles, and here are some of the most exciting revelations to come from the star-studded event.
For Bill Condon and Alan Menken, one of their biggest goals with remaking Beauty and the Beast was to expand on the French setting and backstories of both Belle and The Beast this time around.
Bill Condon: Get over the terror first, you know, but then you just start with that basic idea. You’re going to take it into a new medium, which is live action. They’re going to be actors. Emma’s going to be playing a character on real locations who has to fall in love with The Beast. So all the behavior which is – let’s face it, an animated film is sort of a little more exaggerated, has to come into reality, and once you start to investigate that then you realize, wow, there are questions maybe you never asked before that you want to know about. How did Belle and Maurice wind up in this village where they’re outsiders, you know? And that leads to new songs and suddenly you’re creating something new.
Alan Menken: When Bill came aboard we had meetings about what would we add, and one of the things we talked about, the music box moment and Maurice and getting into the backstory of how Maurice and Belle came to the town and backstory for the Beast, how he became such a cold and callous young man, and also trying to root ourselves much more in the time and place, 18th Century France, and that really helped immensely.
Emma Watson was intensely aware of how beloved Belle is, and wanted to make sure she kept the character’s strength consistent in the new film.
Emma Watson: It’s really remarkable to play someone that I’m almost sure had an influence on the woman that I have become. I think the first time I saw Paige O’Hara sing “Belle,” you know, it’s kind of the “I want” song of all “I want” songs. And I just immediately resonated with her. I mean, I was so young I didn’t even know what I was tapping into but there was something about that spirit, there was something about that energy that I just knew she was my champion. And I think when I knew I was taking on this role, I wanted to make sure that I was championing that same spirit, those same values, that same young woman that made me a part of who I am today.
And so every time we would address a new scene that Bill or Steve or Evan had put together, I just always had the original DNA of that woman in mind, and I had my fists up, you know, I was ready to fight because she was so crucial for me. And you know, it was just taking what was already there and just expanding it, and I love that in our version, Belle is not only kind of odd and doesn’t fit in. In our film she’s actually an activist within her own community. She’s teaching other young girls who are part of the village to read, and moments like that where you could see her expanding beyond just her own little world and trying to kind of grow it, I loved that, and that was amazing to get to do.
As it turns out, playing The Beast wound up being a primarily physical task for Dan Stevens as well, who found his way into the character through his movements and voice.
Dan Stevens: Well, it was a very physical engagement, I think just to support that muscle suit on stilts was a challenge that I’d never really encountered before. I’ve definitely been taking a more physical approach to my roles in the last few years and just training myself in different ways. I think with the backstory we decided that the prince before he was the Beast was a dancer, that he loved to dance, and so I trained myself like a dancer and learned three quite different dances for this movie. And getting to know Emma, first and foremost on the dance floor, I think it’s a great way to get to know your costar, and I’m going to try and do with every movie I do now, whether there’s a waltz in the movie or not.
But no, I mean the trust that Emma had to place in me that I wouldn’t break her toes… that’s sort of the essence of a waltz being two people in this whirlwind, and learning about choreography really, the storytelling through dance. Not just getting up and dancing but actually, really telling a very crucial part of the story in that big turning point. So yes, lots of physicality.
Belle and The Beast aren’t the only iconic characters from the animated film either, and for Luke Evans, he wanted to make sure that Gaston had a real arc in the remake. He wanted to make sure that audiences actually found themselves liking the villain at the beginning of the film.
Luke Evans: Well, I just think a villain shouldn’t start out as the bad guy. A villain should end up being the bad guy, and I think with Gaston, outwardly, you know, to a lot of people in that village, he is the hero. He’s a bit of a stud. He’s got the hair, he’s got the looks, he’s always impeccably dressed, not a bad singing voice. He’s got a great pal who makes everybody, you know, support him and sing about him. And I wanted the audience to, in a way, I just thought, “let’s make them like him a little bit first,” so that when the cracks start to appear, which they do very subtly, even from the door slam, you know, there’s something inside of him that he’s like, “I’m not used to this, this isn’t how it goes, this is not what she’s supposed to be doing.”
And although he keeps believing that Belle will change her mind, that’s where the cracks appear in my thought process and then slowly, you know, the jealousy takes over, and who he becomes, especially Gaston as opposed to other Disney villains, he has no book of spells, he has no magic powers. He’s a human being, and he uses his status within that village to rouse a crowd and he does it all from just being himself, which is quite terrifying in a way. So I played on that, I played on the humanity of the character as much as he is larger than life. There was a lot to pull on, and obviously he was a war hero of sorts, we decided, didn’t we, Bill, from the past? That’s why his murals are all over the pub that he drinks in. And there is a slight soldier, this animalistic soldier, in him when he finally fights the Beast on the rooftops. You see this man out for blood, and it’s a scary moment to see the arc of somebody who was the loveable buffoon of the village to become the Beast almost, the monster.
Both Bill Condon and Alan Menken spent a lot of time talking about when and how they were going to add in new music to this version of the story, and it turned out the expanded backstories and the live-action format of the film were the biggest keys to unlocking the new songs.
Bill Condon: Let’s take one example, instead of talking about all of them. The song “Evermore,” the song for the Beast, you know? So they often say in musicals that people sing when it’s no longer enough to speak, you know, that their emotions are running so high. I think it’s one of the dramatic high points in all of literature, you know, the fact that the Beast at this moment, that he lets Belle go, becomes worthy of love, you know? And discovers what love is, but at the same time sacrifices his future, you know? And so we talked about the fact that we needed a song, and of course there had been a song in the stage adaptation.
Alan Menken: In the Broadway show there was a song called “If I Can’t Love Her.” But you know, each iteration of Beauty and the Beast is a different medium in a way. There’s an animated musical, there’s a stage musical, and there’s this – and they all have sort of different shapes. And the stage musical is definitely a two-act structure, so we wrote this song for the Beast, because at that act break is the moment where the Beast out of anger has driven Belle away and it was important – we needed at that moment for the Beast to sort of howl for redemption or just say I’ve given up.
But in the structure of a live-action film, which is more of a three act structure, Bill felt – and I agree with him – that the more satisfying moment is the moment when the Beast lets Belle go because she’s no longer his prisoner, and he loves her, and the spell will not be broken now, but at least he knows what love is. First of all, you have the initial tentpole moments from the animated movie and those are going to stay, and then what we do is, as you put them in place, you know, you look at it as like an architecture. Where do we need the emotional support?
Sometimes the songs will respond to a moment. Sometimes you’ll go, “I feel like we need a song in this spot,” and we will massage the story so a song could fit there. I mean, I could spend five hours talking about this right now, but essentially a lot of thought and a lot of collaboration goes into what song is going to come, where’s it going to go, what does it need to accomplish and how will it interact with the song that preceded it and the song that came after it? What will be the overall effect of it? What character is underrepresented in songs? You know, and there’s so many factors.
But for everyone involved, remaking Beauty and the Beast was always about finding a new way to honor the original film, and bringing the story to life for a whole new generation. That fact came to Josh Gad specifically, when he first sang “Gaston” with his kids.
Josh Gad: I remember first getting the call, and I immediately flashed back to being a kid. I was 10 years old, it was 1991, and I saw the movie in a small theater in south Florida, and I remember that the response was something I had never seen before, which was audiences applauding after these animated characters were singing these songs. It was very unusual. Prior to that, like The Great Mouse Detective didn’t have much applause when I saw it, and The Black Cauldron certainly did not. So what Ashman and Menken brought to the Disney library was hearkening back to a time of the Sherman Brothers, of you know, the early days of Disney, and that was for us, that was so a part of our childhood. Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid and Aladdin. I cannot tell you how important that was. So I got nauseous, I was like, ‘how am I going to bring a song like Gaston to life?”
And I went into my office and I started singing it, and I literally started choking up, because you cut to like yourself as a kid, you think back to yourself as a kid, you’re like, “oh my god, I’m doing this, like I’m doing this for real, and I’m going to be the version that a lot of kids are going to see.” And that was such a thrill. And my kids walked into the office and were so tickled that Daddy was singing this song that they know so well, and I thought to myself, “This is going to work, this is going to work, we’re going to work at it but we’re going to make it our own.” And it was that first day that we did the table read that I remember watching Luke perform the choreography for “Gaston” – took me a little longer to get it – and Emma Thompson performing “Beauty and the Beast,” and all of these pieces coming together before our eyes, and I don’t think there was a single one of us who didn’t have goosebumps, like that is like the stuff that dreams are made of.
Beauty and the Beast opens in theaters on March 17th.