Writer Linda Woolverton denies she’s a legend. Although she is responsible for such iconic images as the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast and the lifting up of Simba at the beginning of Lion King, the writer of Maleficent says she is no legend. I talked to the writer courtesy of the Writer Guild of America West’s Behind the Screen 2014 event.
You have a tradition of creating strong, positive portrayals of women. Why is that important to you?
I came up as a feminist, in my day. And when I was first approached to do Beauty and the Beast, I knew that you couldn’t do a throwback Disney victim/heroine. We weren’t going to buy it as women after a whole awakening in the 70s. No one is going to accept that. So that started me on a path at relooking at these Disney princesses in a sort of different way. I feel that you have to have an empowering message or you’re not going to be relevant. If you don’t stay relevant to how people are and how women are approaching life now, it’s not going to feel true.
Belle was a turning point in positive portrayals of women, not only in animation. But it gave depth to a character that could have been a stock character. What was the process in making Maleficent’s character?
It was the hardest thing to try to figure out how to make a villain approachable or someone we could root for. Because she curses a baby. That was my big challenge. “How am I going to do that?” They approached me about the project, and I said, “Sure” without really thinking it through. Then I started thinking it through and I said, “This is going to be really hard to do.” So I had to back it up to think what was it, what pained her so much that would put her in the emotional place to curse a baby to death. That’s what they do in the original. And we’re basing it on the original Disney version. Two things happened. I didn’t know she was a fairy. I thought she was a witch. When I found out she was a fairy, that was cool because I love the world of fairies, the whole dark fairy thing. I always wanted to write that world. And then I was looking at the Disney movie, and she threw up her robes, and I thought, “If she’s a fairy, where are those wings? What happened to her wings?” That’s what it was for her-someone took her wings. And then things started rolling from there. And then I had to redeem her.
Do you think Disney came to you because they knew you would put dimensions into her or do you think they were looking for a stock villain?
I know they wanted to explore her as a protagonist. Somebody there had the idea, and I think that was just, “Could we center a movie around Maleficent?” Because she’s the most beloved of the villains because she’s so deliciously wicked. She makes no apologies. She’s just evil. That’s hard to make that person a protagonist. And they came to me right at Comic-Con when I finished doing Alice in Wonderland. It was sort of “We’ll try Linda-see if she has an idea.” It was Don Hahn who I worked with in the past.
When you look at your career in perspective-your animation career and your live action career-how do you see yourself and the groundwork that you have paved for the rest of the community?
I feel really great about that. Every time out what I try to do is move women forward a little bit. So with Belle, it wasn’t about her beauty but her brains. Alice was about finding who you are, learning who you are. So every single one I’m hoping that whatever I leave behind is helping advance women and empower women.
And you are starting at little girls. They’re learning that they’re positive at the onset.
I hope so. I’m trying to make a cultural contribution. I can’t even approach a script…I’m being asked to rewrite a script right now, and I’m looking at this and am saying, “I don’t think I believe in this script ethically so I don’t think I can do it.” It really comes to how this is contributing to who we are as a culture and as human beings.
So that’s a definite criteria when you decide to take a project on?
Yeah. Not just the female characters, but really what it is about. You’re going to spend how many years, how many millions of dollars, [you ask yourself], “Is this going to be putting into the world something that will elevate us or just be another $200 million dollars just to entertain people for two hours as opposed to something they walk away from that changes them.” And I think that’s kind of arrogant, but that’s how I feel.
What are some of the images that made an impression on you that made you want to be proactive in your portrayals?
Movie moments I love: my number 2 favorite movie is Lawrence of Arabia. I am so moved by moments of Lawrence that I wanted to write something like that. I wanted to write epic, large, palated stories. When the two little boys are waiting for him and they see him and they stand up and they run and run-for me I’m crying. I wanted to write moments like that.
You do realize that the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast is like that?
It’s funny because people working have no conception of what they mean to other people.
The thing is you have to think is, “What really means something to me?” That moment in Lawrence of Arabia is overwhelming powerful to me. Moments like in To Kill a Mockingbird when he’s losing the case and they’re all on the top balcony and she says, “Stand up, Scout. Your father’s passing.” I want to write that and hopefully impact people like that. But I didn’t know [the ballroom scene] was an iconic scene.
Did you write the raising of Simba in the air at the beginning of Lion King in the script?
Yes. Mufasa killed in the river of Wildebeast. Yes.
The Lion King is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Maleficent, Woolverton’s latest project, is an undeniable summer hit.