The late lyricist Howard Ashman gave us the gift of many of the most-loved Disney songs of the modern era, teaming with composer Alan Menken to write “Beauty and the Beast’s” “Be Our Guest,” “The Little Mermaid’s” “Part of Your World” and “Aladdin’s” “Friend Like Me.” In the new documentary “Howard,” streaming on Disney Plus from August 7, director Don Hahn — who knew his subject well, having produced the original animated version of “Beauty and the Beast” — goes in for a look at Ashman’s life behind the music.
Hahn talks with Variety about the importance of remembering Ashman (pictured above working on “Little Mermaid” with actress Paige O’Hara) and making a documentary about his life, the art and his music with the people who knew him best, such as his sister and life partner.
What made you want to finally tell Howard’s story?
It hadn’t been told and I was a little afraid it would get lost. His sister runs a blog, but I felt there’s not been a biography, a book, or a film. I wanted to dig into it, and I knew the players and I knew him and the people who have been in his life. I started to pull together the elements to see if there was a movie there — and in the end, there was, and it was more compelling than I thought it would be. It’s the same thing where you think you know somebody that you work with, and you don’t until you dig into their lives and you see their struggles.
You open with a behind-the-scenes look inside the studio during the making of “Beauty and the Beast.” What made that the perfect opening to tell Howard’s story?
We tried a lot of different things, including Howard telling stories to his little sister. We recreated the fantasy that might have been in his mind, but it wasn’t gripping enough. The real headline of Howard’s story is a brilliant life too short. So that opening was a way to show, in shorthand, “Here’s a guy at the top of his career doing some of his best work — and the hidden secret that nobody knew except for Howard.” And in that shot, he wasn’t going to be around for very long after. That’s the sad truth about the story, and that intro seemed the right hook into the rest of the story. [Ashman died of AIDS three days before “Beauty and the Beast” opened in 1991.]
You didn’t fill it with every hit — instead, it’s a family story and this person growing up. How did you carve the narrative?
The most interesting media that I was collecting was Howard. I’d find tape recordings of a lecture he gave or a talk that he gave at the 92Y or a radio interview that he did. He was so clever, interesting and emotional. The more I listened to him the more I thought I needed to stay out of the way of his story. That was my marching order, to let Howard (tell his own tale), which meant no narrator and no talking heads. I didn’t want to do a fluff piece, either, with a bunch of old guys reminiscing about how great he was. It was more interesting to know about the man and the art. He’s the man that gave us “Part of Your World” and “Be Our Guest,” but here’s what went into that and this is the person. His joy and struggles all became part of the story that I wanted to tell.
What were some of the toughest moments to leave out when you were editing?
I came across a tape of Howard and Tina Turner; I wish everybody could hear it. It’s two hours long and Tina is making Howard lunch while he’s asking her about her life. He was writing a screenplay about her life at that point. But it wasn’t central to his career because that never got made. His close friend Kyle Rennick had some tapes when Howard was sick, talking about his life in the theater. I should probably do a podcast on it, but you have to stick to the key moments of emotion and stick to what’s essential to the story and what’s not. But those were some of the fascinating moments.
How did his family react to the documentary when you showed it to them?
I was terrified. But rather than surprising them at the end, I sent them sections of the documentary. I finished the first act and sent it their way. They would never send back notes, so I asked for faction notes and if anything was wrong. They were supportive, but sitting down to interview them was tough, especially when I had to sit down with Bill, Howard’s partner. I had to ask him about being a partner and caregiver. He had given a lot of years of his life taking care of this man. I wanted him to talk about being in a gay relationship at a time when that was difficult. He was unbelievably honest to be able to talk about that.
I was speaking to Alan Menken the other day and he did the score for your film. How did that come about?
I wanted to show to Alan because he’s a part of the family, just about. I showed it to him right before Christmas time in 2017-18 and he called me back saying, “I have to do the score for this.” I told him I couldn’t afford him! But he didn’t care. He ended up writing the score over the holidays. It was a huge gift and his way of paying tribute to his working partner.