The first line of Maleficent, Disney’s new summer blockbuster that casts Angelina Jolie as the titular villain, is, “Let us tell an old story anew and see how well you know it.” It’s veteran Disney screenwriter Linda Woolverton who’s telling the story of Sleeping Beauty anew—from the perspective of the misunderstood horned fairy who induces the world’s most famous power nap—and you’d actually be surprised at how well you know her work, some of which could be described as “a tale as old as time.”
You see, though Maleficent boasts the most famous actress in the world in its leading role, it’s the star power of Disney itself that helped the behind-the-evil origin tale dominate the box office this past weekend. That Disney has accrued that star power over the past decades is owed to Woolverton, who has not only made dark reboots of iconic Disney franchises her specialty of late—she also penned 2010’s Alice in Wonderland—but also co-wrote the screenplay for two of the House of Mouse’s most iconic animated properties: The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.
Maleficent is the kind of complex female protagonist we’ve come to love and even expect from pop culture in the age of Frozen and Brave and The Hunger Games and Wicked. She’s a protagonist who’s a hero and a villain, who’s motivated by brains, strength, and ambition as much as she is by emotion—and that emotion isn’t relegated solely to being gaga over a guy. (Namely, Prince Charming.) It’s fitting that Woolverton scripted Maleficent’s spotlight moment, as she may be singularly responsible for Maleficent’s, the movie, very existence.
Woolverton was the first woman to ever write one of Disney’s animated features. When she penned the screenplay for Beauty and the Beast, the studio was riding high on the success of The Little Mermaid, and being a Disney princess meant singing songs about how much you love combing your hair with a fork and giving away your voice if it meant you got to marry the guy with that dreamy chiseled jaw. That Beauty and the Beast’s Belle was an adventurer, a tomboy, and pursued her own wants and desires instead of men and the perfect recipe for a cake is owed to Woolverton’s own crusading in the Disney offices. The rest is history.
On the occasion of Maleficent hitting the big screen—and not to mention the upcoming 20th anniversary of The Lion King’s release—we chatted with Woolverton about turning the villain into the hero, being an indelible part of so many Disney kids’ childhoods, and the progress we’ve made from Belle to today.
What were your first impressions of Maleficent when you first watched Sleeping Beauty?
She was my favorite villain! She just dominated that film. She’s everything that’s interesting about that movie. Aurora doesn’t speak much and sleeps a lot. Maleficent is, to me, the most interesting thing in the Disney feature.
What makes a villain like her more interesting than the heroine? What are we drawn to?
It was back when Disney heroines were pretty…were pretty. You know? And even-tempered. Those were the valuable aspects of womanhood at the time: being pretty and even-tempered and sweet. We’ve come a long way from that. Of course the villain attracts you because she’s strong and temperamental and she’s powerful. She’s strong. She has power. That’s a very attractive quality.
When you watched the movie all those years ago, were you wondering if there was more to Maleficent than we were seeing?
I didn’t, although I did wonder why she wasn’t invited to the party. That happens all the way back to the original fairytale, actually. She wasn’t invited and she was mad about that. I was like, “Well, why wasn’t she invited?” It kind of makes you empathize with her, even then.
I can’t even imagine how one starts to create a backstory for someone like her.
I had to figure out, first off, what happened to her that she would curse a baby. If we’re going to have her as a protagonist, first we have to understand the “why” of it. And it’s more than not being invited to the party. We weren’t about to tell a story about a woman being mad because she wasn’t invited to the party. So what happened to her? I had to figure that out, and it had to be so powerful that we could even understand the motivation behind that curse. So it had to be something enormous that happened to her, that would turn her heart cold. And even beyond being scorned, something really horrific had to be stolen from her because she was going to be stealing something from someone else. So what was that? What happened? And I didn’t know she was a fairy!
I didn’t know that either! Who knew she was a fairy?
I thought she was witch. When I found out she was a fairy, I was like, “Ohhh…” And then I went back to the movie and watched the Christening scene and noticed that she didn’t have wings. I looked at the other fairies and they had wings, so I thought, “What happened to those wings?” And it all opened up for me from there, that we were going to meet her when she was young and innocent and in love with her world, and take it from that moment in time.
How did it come to be then that she would feel an affinity for Aurora and start to care for her?
Well we’re having a protagonist in this movie who is both a hero and a villain. She wants to be villain, but that part of her is reluctantly moved by the innocence of this child. Certainly as a mother, I understood the power of that. That love. The innocence of that child and how it can break down any barrier. Even spells.
Maleficent is an iconic Disney villain and has her own fans because of her status as the bad guy. Was there ever a fear that you’d be softening her too much, and losing a bit of that evil that people have relished in her for decades?
I was telling this version. I was this telling from her point of view. Always, always keeping in mind that she’s the villain. So it was a very reluctant turn of her heart—but if you don’t turn her, she’s not a protagonist. If you don’t show that, you don’t empathize with her or understand her. She’s not the protagonist, then, so why do it at all? Just leave it the way it was! So no, I did not worry about that, although Angie was very strong on making sure that she was always a villain as well.
What is a first meeting with Angelina Jolie like?
(Laughs) You know, there’s an intimidation factor, absolutely. Every time I meet someone on that level I’m intimidated at first. You know, like Elton John or Tim Burton or whatever. But after the initial you-have-to-get-over-yourself, that’s done. And they don’t want to see the fan thing in your face anyway. So once you get past that, you’re just working with a colleague.
What’s your favorite line reading she gives in the movie?
When she says “What?” when Aurora says, “You’re my fairy godmother.” She does the shock of it so well. I also like the line, “I don’t like children.” She’s saying it to her own child! That’s pretty great.
So this month is also the 20th anniversary of The Lion King being released. How different is writing a Disney movie, writing for a family audience, different now than it was 20 years ago?
There’s more women in the room. I’ve seen that happen over the years, which is a wonderful thing. The sensibility about female characters is different than it was. I don’t have to fight as hard—in fact, I don’t have to fight at all—to make them strong and interesting. It’s a different group of people I’m working with. Disney has changed along with the world. They’re not stuck in the past, I believe. I just feel like I’ve been part of the process.
Maleficent is the second movie in the past year where the big True Love’s Kiss at the end wasn’t between the guy and the girl. In Frozen it was between Anna and Elsa, sisters, and in Maleficent it’s Maleficent and Aurora. Two movies in the same year with that message seems to indicate that Disney is changing the ideas it’s telegraphing to young girls.
Yes. You know, we weren’t aware of that before doing this. But it’s in the zeitgeist, isn’t it, then? As a writer you must feel this, there are ideas in the universe whose time has come. In our movie, we really wanted to show that there are many aspects of love, not just romantic love. Obviously, that’s something then that we’re all embracing at this moment in time, since it’s in Frozen, too.
Back to The Lion King. It’s been 20 years and it still has a huge presence in pop culture. What’s kept it resonant for so long? What is it about it?
The music, for one. It’s so wonderful. It’s also a very powerful coming-of-age tale. It’s Shakespearean in its epic nature. It’s a boy becoming a man, and coming back from something he feels ashamed of you. And the loss of the perfect father, that’s emotionally powerful.
Do you have a favorite moment from it?
Oh, there are too many moments in The Lion King. The iconic moment for me is when Mufasa dies. It was a hard sell! (Laughs) How do we kill the perfect father? And I really wanted to make him be the best father in the world, to make that a really heart-wrenching moment. That we did that in the movie, to me, was really significant. And anything with Scar is pure fun.
It’s funny that you brought up Mufasa’s death. Especially as these classic Disney films have resurged in popularity over the years with childhood nostalgia becoming such a major driving force of the Internet, it’s become a bit of a running joke that these Disney movies we grew up with almost always had dead moms and dead dads and orphan heroes. Why is it that such a thing?
It happens in fairytales as well—I’m not the only one who’s done it! (Laughs) In a perfect world, you have both parents. In a perfect world, there’s no challenge, no conflict, no change. So part of it is that you take away one aspect of perfection and that forces the character to step up, to face courage, to find courage, to do all the things that heroes and protagonists do. In childhood, having an intact family with two parents is the perfect world. Because that’s what it says in fairytales, that’s how that’s depicted. So in fairytales to use that to tilt the characters’ world. So basically, to me, that’s one of the reasons that it’s done so much. We have characters that have lost a parent or both parents, because it’s the hardest thing for a child to imagine: to be alone in the world.
When I was growing up, my first concept of death, really, was Bambi’s mother being shot. I was so upset that my aunt tried to cheer me up by saying that Bambi’s mother didn’t really die, she went shopping and will be back later. That’s how upset it made me.
Oh, I’m still upset about that!
For a lot of children, their first awareness that there is darkness and death and sadness in the world comes from these Disney films.
I think that’s the whole point. We watch a character in a movie having a horrible thing happen to them, like losing a parent. Bad things happen in the real world. Parents do die. I think the whole point of these movies, or fairytales at all, is to show how to go about life. Life is full of these horrible things that happen to people. How do you come back from it? How do you survive it? These movies are very powerful, I think, in helping kids get through dark times.
To switch gears a bit to Beauty and the Beast. I remember reading a few years back how much you had to fight to make Belle such an independent and strong character, who wasn’t just in the kitchen baking pies. When you think back to that and then look now at Elsa in Frozen and Maleficent existing as its own movie, how does it make you feel to look back at that fight?
I feel good about it. I feel like it was a worthy way to spend my working life. The world is more open to gender equality. So I feel good to have been part of the culture and help that. Agree with me or don’t agree with me, this is the path I’ve chosen to walk down to make my contribution. And I feel very lucky to have done that, and I take the responsibility very seriously.
What did you think of Frozen?
I loved it. I was delighted by it, and it was such a surprise! And I loved that it was Disney Animation, and that there were a lot of women involved. It was all hooray!
There was the time right around the turn of the millennium, in the first decade of the 2000s, that people were saying that Disney Animation was dead, killed by Pixar. So when Tangled and then Frozen came out, people were surprised that it was alive again. But during that lull period, were you concerned that Disney was losing its mojo?
I was sad. It made me sad. It felt like a loss. I really was quite happily surprised that it came back so strong. I loved all things Pixar as well, but there was a sadness. Like part of our culture wasn’t going to be around anymore.
Do you have a favorite Disney memory? Or movie?
I love Dumbo. It’s so sad. I also love Lady and the Tramp. Apparently, I love the animal ones.
Is there a character you identified with the most? Maybe not Dumbo?
(Laughs) Tinker Bell, actually! I always loved Tinker Bell. I think I wanted to be her. She was so cool! She was a little fairy and she flew around and she had a temperament. She was spunky! I always wanted to be Tinker Bell.
Your daughter was very young around the time of The Lion King phenomenon. Did she grow up a fan of Disney?
She grew up with me writing these. She was born six weeks before Beauty and the Beast premiered. So this has been part of her life. So if you grow up with anything you just take it for granted. She’s in her twenties now, and she doesn’t want to have anything to do with the film business. She’s doing her own thing. For her, she grew up going with me to these things. And I wrote a lot of them for her! Maleficent was a love letter to my daughter. She grew up in school going to parties that were Lion King themed.
That must’ve been surreal. All of her friends are dressing up as Belle for Halloween and her mother created Belle.
So surreal! I can’t even imagine, you know?
So now that you’ve pulled this off with Maleficent, is there another Disney villain you’d like to apply the same treatment to?
Not at the moment. I want to be more earthbound now than in fairytale land.