The animated classic Beauty and the Beast comes thrillingly to life in the first trailer for the new Disney musical that’s hitting theaters on March 17. After months of anticipation, fans get to see the Beast in live action: a magnificent motion-capture creature who looks unmistakably like the actor who plays him, Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens. Those who grew up watching the 1991 film — the first animated movie to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar — will recognize many of the moments and images in the trailer: the magical rose dropping its petals; Belle (Emma Watson) meeting servants-turned-objects Lumière (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth (Ian McKellen); the charismatic villain Gaston (Luke Evans) rallying a mob to kill the Beast. But, rest assured, the film is — in the words of writer-director Bill Condon — “very much its own animal.” And there’s plenty that this trailer doesn’t show, including the sure-to-be-startling “Be Our Guest” musical number (more on that below).
In this exclusive interview with Yahoo Movies, Condon talks about his approach to bringing the animated film to life, the challenge of making a motion-capture character a romantic lead, and the new developments in Belle and the Beast’s relationship. “I think, I hope, that you really feel that these people could only find happiness with each other,” Condon tells Yahoo Movies. “And that I think happens because we explore more of how they got to be who they are when we meet them.”
Yahoo Movies: What we see in the trailer is extremely close to scenes from the animated film. I know it’s not a shot-for-shot remake —
Bill Condon: Oh, God, no!
So how did you approach the decision about where to be faithful to the animated film and where to go in a different direction?
I like that you say it’s extremely close — because it, weirdly, isn’t. By which I mean, the approach to the design, the castle staff, the approach to the cinematography, all tried to capture the feeling of that [animated film], but actually it is very much its own animal. We want you to feel as though you’re seeing an expanded, photo-real version of what you had before. My feeling was that [the original] Beauty and the Beast is a great movie. It’s a perfect movie. So it’s all about the challenge of taking that and translating it into what is almost a different medium.
And by that I mean, it’s not just how it looks. Take Gaston and [his sidekick] Lefou, who are perfect animated characters that wouldn’t make sense in a real world: somebody who’s being punched and hit all the time, you know? [Laughs] So that’s an example — they have an interesting relationship that is similar to what’s happening in the animated film but also has a kind of psychological reality to it. And I think that’s true of everyone. All the important relationships in the film — certainly Belle with her father, Belle and the Beast — I think, I hope, that you really feel that these people could only find happiness with each other. And that, I think, happens because we explore more of how they got to be who they are when we meet them.
In the trailer we get a small glimpse of that relationship between Belle and the Beast. He says to her, “Think of the one thing you’ve always wanted, find it in your mind’s eye, feel it in your heart.” Now as someone who knows the original film, my guess would be that he’s talking about the magic mirror. But I wonder if he’s also saying something about their relationship.
And neither of those things is true! [Laughs] He’s not talking about the mirror there. Because it’s a sort of new aspect, I’d rather not talk too much about it, except to say that it’s one of our opportunities that we take to allow Belle to get in touch with her past.
I know you talked a little to EW about Belle’s deeper relationship with her father (Kevin Kline) and how she has been affected by the absence of her mother, which wasn’t really explored in the original film. What was important to you and Emma Watson when you were figuring out the character of Belle?
It’s like any script: You take out the fact that it’s a fantasy, you take out all those elements, and it’s like, “What is it about at its core? What’s the reality of every scene?” So I think that [priority] was, making sure that we were translating the independence, the kind of grit and fearlessness of that animated heroine into something that, while not being wrong for the time, has a kind of reality for audiences today. And then just making sure that we were digging as deep as we could and giving her a kind of individuality and idiosyncrasy too.
What part of this film are you most excited for audiences to see, or were you most excited to tackle?
There’s so much that I’m excited for people to see, and again, some of it is the new stuff. I think some of the emotional highlights come in surprising ways.
In terms of shooting, I think there are just some big, iconic moments like the title song and “Be Our Guest.” The idea of translating “Be Our Guest” into a photo-real world: That always, right from the beginning, just felt like the most exciting challenge.
Do we see any of “Be Our Guest” in this trailer? There are one or two shots of a big chorus of dancers.
I think you’d know if it were “Be Our Guest.” The only human in that number is Emma Watson.
Gotcha. We do get a better look at Dan Stevens as the Beast. It was honestly a little bit of a shock to see him in the still pictures, because we’re so accustomed to the animated character.
Yeah, the underbite and all that stuff.
But seeing him in the trailer, there’s so much that’s human in his face.
You’re exactly right. It’s a technology that has been used infrequently before: We were able to capture every single pore of his skin, every aspect of his face, and then the Beast face gets put over that. But, yes, it allows all of Dan’s emotion to come through. And the real idiosyncrasy of his face! It’s not a lot of animators doing this at all — it’s him. And what’s exciting about that is that we all know what brilliant work is being done in this area [of CG animation] now, but we felt we had this extra challenge because we’ve never seen a movie where this character has to be at the emotional center of the movie and be the romantic lead, you know? So there was a lot of trial and error until we figured out the approach that would, most importantly, allow Dan Stevens’s performance to shine through.
I won’t lie: One of my first thoughts upon seeing the first Beast photos was, I’m going to see a movie with Dan Stevens in it, and I would like to be able to look at him.
I know, right? It’s true. But you do get to see him without the makeup too.
Do we get to see more of his human life in this film?
Of course we do. Yes.