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Meet the Producers Who Breathed New Life Into ‘Beauty and the Beast’

UPDATED: “Beauty and the Beast,” the fairy tale, dates back nearly 300 years. It’s had a long and winning life in film, television, and the theater, culminating, for recent generations, in 1991 with Disney’s animated version of the story of unbounded love. Now, Disney’s new live-action version of “Beauty,” which has experienced a small tempest over an “exclusively gay moment” — a novelty for a conservative and tradition-bound company — is on pace for a robust $120 million opening weekend.

That’s due in no small part to the contribution of the two veteran producers charged with bringing a fresh jolt to the age-old tale. David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman knew they faced a formidable challenge when they were handed the reins to one of Disney’s crown jewels in 2013. When they assembled their cast for the first time for a reading in early 2015 at Shepperton Studios outside London, anticipation and pressure were high. Some of Disney’s top brass flew in for the occasion. The producers and director Bill Condon decided to gussy-up the table reading with a full production of the movie’s songs, complete with the climactic dance featuring stars Emma Watson and Dan Stevens.

When the time came for the rendition of “Beauty and the Beast,” Emma Thompson (who plays animated teapot Mrs. Potts) took the microphone from the professional singer who had been hired to make sure the song went off without a hitch. With “I-got-this” assurance, Thompson not only captured the song’s tenderness but finished with a diva’s power. Watson and Stevens waltzed the song away.

On the brink of the film’s March 17 release, Hoberman recalls that moment as “one of the all-time great read-throughs, and a career highlight.” Lieberman remembers the composer for both the new film and the 1991 animated version, Alan Menken, breaking into tears. “It was crazy,” says Hoberman. “Quite the moment.”

With “Beauty” one of its first releases of 2017, Disney has big expectations. Last year saw the studio produce four $1 billion-plus worldwide box office hits and a fifth film, “The Jungle Book,” that fell just short of that lofty plateau. Fandango reports that “Beauty” sales are moving at a faster clip than any other family-oriented film in the history of the ticket-selling service, outpacing the brisk sales for another Disney tentpole, 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.”

Dan Doperalski for Variety

Disney CEO Robert Iger has noted other signs of audience enthusiasm, telling shareholders at a meeting last week that the first trailer for “Beauty” drew more than 127 million views in the first 24 hours it appeared online. That’s more than watched the first trailer for the company’s blockbuster “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

The film needs to do big business to cover Disney’s major investment of about $300 million for production and worldwide marketing.

Said Iger, “Whenever you take on one of Disney’s most beloved stories, the stakes, we know, are quite high, and so are the expectations. I want to tell you this movie does not disappoint. It’s beautiful, it’s heartfelt, and it is fantastic.”

The film’s one messaging hiccup came in the final weeks leading up to the debut. It began when Condon gave an interview with a gay magazine, in which he touted supporting character LeFou as creating the first “exclusively gay moment” in a Disney film. Josh Gad, who plays the foppish sidekick to the villain Gaston, tweeted that he was “beyond proud” of the scene — a fleeting recognition of same-sex attraction.

But the brief moment at the end of the two-hour, nine-minute movie (likely to pass unrecognized by at least some viewers) was enough to alienate the owner of one drive-in theater in rural Alabama, who said she would not show the film. And the Russian government signaled that it would not allow children into theaters showing the film, potentially cutting into revenue in that territory.

The film’s backers and Disney quickly tired of the controversy. Condon gave a new interview in which he said the discussion had been overblown. Disney execs say they don’t think a story about the film should focus on the issue; they say the message of “inclusivity” is what’s important, and they prefer not to discuss the matter further.

Hoberman has issued a statement asking that the movie not be pre-judged. “As Bill Condon has said, the movie is about inclusivity,” says the producer. “It is also about accepting people for who they are. I would hope that people will make their own decisions about the movie after they see it.”

Hoberman, 64, and Lieberman, 44, landed the film because they are trusted hands who work on the Disney lot and have a long association with the studio. Most of the big franchise films of the world’s No. 1 studio are now in the hands of its name-brand subsidiaries: Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm. But “Beauty and the Beast” falls outside those domains, so Disney needed producers who could deliver an on-time, on-budget feature from what could have become an unwieldy stew of live action, computer animation, and music.

Enter Hoberman and Lieberman. The producing duo had a first-look deal for their films at the studio for many years, and Hoberman once served as president of Disney’s motion picture group.

“They know the company and the brand well,” says Sean Bailey, Walt Disney Studios president of production. “They know how we like to operate. At the same time, they know how to roll up their sleeves and get deep into a production.”

Hoberman and Lieberman have worked together for 18 years and are co-owners in Mandeville Films, the production company known for “The Proposal,” “The Muppets,” “Insurgent,” and the 2010 best-picture nominee “The Fighter.” They attribute their long and successful partnership to candor and a willingness to take turns leading on various initiatives.

““Whenever you take on one of Disney’s most beloved stories, the stakes, we know, are quite high, and so are the expectations.”
Robert Iger

“We’ve had our own ups and downs that we’ve gotten through,” says Hoberman. “We’ve shared everything, cried in front of each other. It’s a true partnership. A relationship.”

The producers say they first approached Disney about a “Beauty and the Beast” live-action film nearly nine years ago. Their vision was to tell the story from the perspective of the beast, in a darker and more brooding take than the animated version. But Disney wanted a lighter musical version. On top of that, by the time of the smash success of “Frozen” in 2013, the company knew the power of presenting bold female characters.

So Hoberman, Lieberman, and their team refocused “Beauty.” As Lieberman says, they put the emphasis “on this strong female heroine, kind of pushing boundaries in her time and place.”

The timing was fortuitous in that Watson, one of modern cinema’s most popular female leads, had expressed interest in playing Belle for another “Beauty and the Beast” project then germinating under Guillermo del Toro at Warner Bros. But when the director dropped out in 2014, Watson jumped at the chance to join the Disney version. She had grown up a fan of the animated version of “Beauty and the Beast.”

“My 6-year-old self is on the ceiling — heart bursting,” she cooed on Twitter, adding, “Time to start some singing lessons.”

To deliver a fresh take, composer Menken returned (his lyricist for the original, Howard Ashman, died of AIDS not long after completing the original “Beauty”) and wrote music for three new songs — including one that plumbs the Beast’s emotions as he separates from Belle, and another for the heroine’s father, played by Kevin Kline. Another innovation for the new “Beauty and the Beast” was the creation of a backstory for Belle that explains her mother’s demise and father’s extreme devotion to her.

“How do we honor what has come before and then make this a very 21st-century version?” says Disney’s Bailey. “That was the trick.”

Working with Condon, the “Beauty” team choreographed a 75-day production in early 2015 that had to intermix shooting that shifted rapidly among four stages at Shepperton with the work of three special-effects houses: Digital Domain, Lola, and Framestore.

Digital Domain’s work with the facial animation technology Direct Drive — used to capture thousands of points on Stevens’ face — helps create a verisimilitude with human expression and emotion that is uncanny in the Beast, the filmmakers say. The cutting-edge technology does so while preserving the real look of Stevens’ eyes.

“For everyone involved, the eyes were the most important facial feature — the window on the soul as they say — and this technology allowed for that,” says Hoberman.

The movie had its beast, but the “monster” for the producers, they say, was scheduling an insanely busy and large cast to appear at just the right moments at the U.K. soundstages. The emphasis was on efficiency, but the filmmakers wanted to make sure they didn’t lose the sense of fun or import around what they were creating.

After shooting the climactic dance scene between Belle and the Beast, Hoberman took a microphone and asked the entire cast and crew to pause for a moment. “I know it’s so easy to just move on,” he recalls telling the group. “We have shot maybe the most romantic scene in the film, maybe in film history, on this set, with the work, dedication, and passion of all of you people guiding it.” He then led the group in a round of applause for itself.

Waiting for the film to debut, Lieberman and Hoberman have alternately been trying to manage high expectations and contain their excitement. Among their predictions is that the Watson renowned for her younger turns as Hermione in the Harry Potter films will emerge from “Beauty and the Beast” as “legitimately a giant movie star,” says Lieberman.

The duo is already well along with Mandeville’s next projects. They are again teamed with Stephen Chbosky, one of the “Beauty and the Beast” screenwriters, for the drama “Wonder,” starring Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay (“Room”), about a boy who overcomes obstacles created by his facial deformity. Chbosky directs the film, which recently pushed back its release date from the spring to Thanksgiving. “It’s a movie we feel like families should see together, and what better time could there be for that to happen?” asks Lieberman.

Still undated is the Mandeville team’s “Stronger,” a film that picks up where last year’s “Patriots Day” left off. Rather than a ripped-from-the-headlines reenactment of the Boston Marathon bombing, though, “Stronger” is the story of one survivor. Jake Gyllenhaal, their star from the acclaimed “Southpaw,” appears this time as the double-amputee Jeff Bauman, who became a reluctant hero and spokesman for the “Boston Strong” movement. Hoberman and Lieberman believe the film will resonate as a universal story of resilience.

There’s a certain return to simplicity in these most recent projects and others on their development list, without the layers of special effects and post-production that made “Beauty and the Beast” such an all-consuming venture.

So, did the producers get their fill of the tentpole world with “Beauty and the Beast”? Hoberman laughs. “Oh, no. We’re ready to do another one.”

WATCH: Emma Watson and the cast of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ bring the classic songs to life

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