Bill Condon on the Beast’s New Song in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and the Modernized ‘Be Our Guest’

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At first, Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast might not look all that different from the 1991 original. Emma Watson‘s Belle shares a dance with the Beast (Dan Stevens) in her iconic yellow gown, the servants are as charming as ever, and the story is relatively the same. But there are some new flourishes that distinguish the remake from the classic many of us grew up with.

Bill Condon, director of Dreamgirls, the final Twilight two-parter, and the screenwriter behind Chicago, brings the gaudy exuberance of his musical films to this live-action remake. Condon’s Beauty and the Beast opens with an extravagant sequence that feels right out of Marie Antoinette and later the director spruces up the classic “Be Our Guest” with Bollywood influences and a Singin’ in the Rain homage. It’s familiar, but with the varnish of something new.

Over the phone the director told me about bringing the beloved 2D cartoon to life with live actors and CGI, the film’s modern updates, and why he, composer Alan Menken, and lyricist Tim Rice decided to give the Beast his own song. Though Condon previously told me his comments on the film’s “exclusively gay moment” had been “overblown,” he also talked about the other changes he made to the original film and its characters.

Beauty and the Beast is regarded as a Disney classic. How did you approach remaking that story without relying too much on nostalgia and without making it too much of its own original thing?

It’s a fine line, right? It was never going to be just a kind of retread because it is in a new medium. And that doesn’t just mean that you do the same scenes with actors, you know? It means that they have to become human beings, that you have to kind of translate everything into something that feels more real. And in our case, more grounded in a specific moment, period, you know? So once you do that then you start to ask questions about things you wonder about from the original movie and the story, so it’s kind of like a probing of the original and a kind of exploration of it, you know, an expansion of it. And yeah, in a weird way it’s funny cause I feel good about this. But I think it’s deceptive how different it might be. I think people don’t notice how different it is, in other words.

Do you want people to approach this film with the impression that it is going to be a different film?

Of course, yeah. Because it has things to say and you know, it resonates in a different way. I don’t think anyone just wants to go see the same film.

Your film re-imagines the 2D animated characters with CGI technology. What was the biggest challenge in making them feel more human and lifelike than they were in the original?

First of all, the fact that you have to pass that test of, like, “Do you believe that exists?” You know, I have a glass in front of me now on a table – that that could actually tilt, that that cup can actually tilt its face up to you and actually speak, you know? The fact that it’s not drawn, but it’s photo-real, again, makes the more complicated characters. Mrs. Potts for example, she’s still very lovable. But also she feels a sense of guilt, of responsibility. She helped to raise the Prince and turn him into the man who became cursed. So she feels like there were moments when she could have stepped in and steered him in a different direction. So that to me is something that again seems more nuanced because of it being in the real world.

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I read that when Disney first approached you about the project they weren’t sure if they wanted to make it a musical, but you advocated for that. Why?

When they first approached me they’d been through a process where it wasn’t going to be [a musical] and then they finally realized they wanted to. But what I was advocating for was going all the way with it. I think that they were maybe thinking just three or four songs, you know. And my feeling was that the animated film was so iconic and that score is great. There’s not one song in there you’d want to lose. And it just felt to me that the audience was ready to kind of go on that journey in a completely kind of musicalized storytelling.

The new soundtrack also includes three new songs. How did you decide where to add songs and where to change the original ones?

Mostly it came out of the same thing, which is making the characters, or telling more of their backstories. So two of the three songs, one of them has to do with Belle’s backstory, one of them has to do with the Beast’s. And then the third one just felt like that was a song you always wanted, which is, my God, the Beast lets Belle go. He sacrifices his future basically because he loves her. What a turning point. What a dramatic thing. That’s the kind of thing in a musical that you sort of want to hear a character sing about, how he feels at that moment. That was so exciting, just to be able to create a new song with Alan [Menken] and Tim [Rice].

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The film really sticks to the 18th century setting, but with the “Be Our Guest” number you do a Busby Berkeley-style sequence with other influences. What inspired that?

Well, the original. You sort of throw it all out the window. At that point, because they’re putting on a show, you make Lumière into this crazy guy who probably anticipates a lot of 20th century musicals, and even the Bollywood phenomenon. In the original movie, as you know, the big reference there was Busby Berkeley but here we have, just off the top of my head there’s Cabaret and there’s Chicago and there’s Ethel Merman and there’s Martha Graham, West Side Story, Singing in the Rain, and Bollywood. We kept those references coming fast and furious.

This story has of course been told so many times. Was there something specific you wanted your remake to stand out for and to distinguish it from previous versions?

Yeah, because I so identify with both lead characters and their positions as outsiders. I think that the emotional connection that develops between the two, and the fact that they’re both very solitary and alone in some way and they find the perfect kind of person for each other. I hope that comes through strongly. That, to me, was the thing that was worth exploring. The misfit, you know?

There are some progressive changes brought to this version of the story. Belle is even more of a feminist and has a profession, and there are more people of color in the cast. Was that something you knew you wanted to bring to this movie?

Certainly the feminist thing. It’s such a crucial part of the original animated film, right? So you just want to be true to that, but also that is, again, the case where it’s both in reality and it also needs to be updated because women have moved far in the last 25 years, and you want to see that reflected. That’s where Emma Watson was such a good collaborator because she is always gonna know more about that than me. She’s leading the life of a strong female role model in the 21st century.

The diversity; you know what I was hoping to suggest there? There’s this village where everybody does the same thing every day and they all think they’re alike, but actually they’re not. So it takes this story for them to all realize that they’re all individuals. I think there’s something interesting in having grouped people who look very different who actually all act the same.

There’s sort of a flamboyance to the aesthetics and the tone of the movie, especially in the opening sequence. Was that naturally part of your style or was that something you specifically wanted to bring to Beauty and the Beast‘s world?

I’d say both honestly. I do think it’s part of the joy of the costume musical. It goes back to the earliest ones. You look at a movie like The Merry Widow that Ernst Lubitsch made and it has that sort of similar overripe style. In the beginning, it’s also reflective of the decadence of that character. [The Beast is] too too much because everything comes easily to him and it’s part of what’s corrupted him.

It’s long been speculated that Beauty and the Beast has been a metaphor for the AIDS crisis and reflective of Howard Ashman’s own life. Did you approach your version as a metaphor for outsiders in a similar way?

Yeah, outsiders, absolutely. Belle especially is somebody who is a misfit. That’s what the story is about in a way. Her beauty has separated her from everybody. They put all this stuff onto it and they don’t see the inner beauty. So the idea of the paradox of her being a beautiful outsider, I thought that’s a great dramatic predicament.

Beauty and the Beast opens on March 17.

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