It’s a tale as old as time, but it’s never looked quite so shiny and new before. Ahead of Monday’s release of the Beauty and the Beast trailer, ET got on the phone with Bill Condon, the director behind such varied projects as Dreamgirls and both parts of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, to discuss what it was like seeing Emma Watson in Belle’s yellow dress for the first time, what it took to bring the Beast to life, and whether there might ever be a shared cinematic universe where all the Disney princesses team up, Avengers-style.
WATCH: Thrilling First ‘Beauty and the Beast’ Trailer Drops With Emma Watson and Dan Stevens
ET: How much leeway do you feel you can take, creatively, with a story like this?
Bill Condon: This was not a case of some other retellings of fairytales where you’re coming at it from a different angle or wanting to reinvent the wheel. It’s so beautiful as is. The thing was translating it into this other dimension, into a new medium, really — a photo-real, live action film — and then filling it out. People do behave differently, obviously, in reality from the way they do in an animated film. So it was more about translation and expansion than reinvention, I would say.
What kind of pressure do you feel adding new songs in with all of these iconic tunes that everybody already knows and loves?
I didn’t feel that much pressure, only because we didn’t drop anything. That score is iconic and great, but also perfect! So, they’re all there. But we do have new story elements that kind of expand on what’s there. A bit of story about how the Beast and Belle wound up being who they are when we meet them. So, that really informs all of the new songs. It’s new songs for a new aspect of the movie.
Is there one song that you’re most excited for fans to hear?
You know, I wish I could say that, but the three of them are all just so beautiful. It’s amazing, [composer] Alan Menken has been away from this for over 20 years now and he just picked up his pen and started playing piano and it’s all right there. It’s just so thrilling to hear him write something that fits into the fabric of what we know so well. There are three of them. But maybe I’d say, the excitement of waiting the whole movie and then the Beast finally telling us how he feels in song [“For Evermore”], that’s pretty thrilling.
We know you’ve already enlisted someone famous to sing the end credits song. Can you give us a little hint as to whom?
[Laughs] I don’t think so! Because it’s not completed yet. I think that would be a mistake. I’m sorry!
Can we at least get whether it’s a male or a female performer?
Um…yes. [Laughs] That’s a good answer, isn’t it?
What does Emma bring to Belle that no other actress could?
You know what it is? Belle was the most modern of Disney heroines, and it’s who [Emma] is. It’s the contemporary nature of her Belle, I think. She takes that thing that was so fresh 25 years ago and brings it into our time. It’s informed somewhat by her own work in real life, but also just the sense of being such a smart and fearless woman and the difficulty that that can create for somebody in fitting in.
She’s talked about tweaking Belle’s backstory to make her an inventor, too. How involved was Emma in crafting this take on the character?
I wouldn’t say that so much about the backstory as just she and her father both share this quality, but we very much worked through the scenes with her and with every actor. It wasn’t [just] Emma. We spent weeks around a table, going through the scenes, because every word matters in something like this. With all the actors digging deeper and deeper, that would lead to certain changes in the script.
The supporting cast includes everyone from Ewan McGregor to Sir Ian McKellen. Is there one of those performances that you think will most surprise fans?
I think there are a lot, but I have to say that from the moment he showed up at a read-through – and it was the first time that I heard him do it – Ian McKellen just, like, who knew how drop dead funny he is? I always knew Jackie Gleason was his favorite actor, but he’s got the most perfect comic timing and he gets to sing and dance a little, which is a first for him in movies. I think everyone who knows Magneto and Gandalf might be in for a surprise.
There was a lot of speculation about how Cogsworth (McKellen) and Lumiere (McGregor) and the gang would translate to real life. Can you tell me a little about how that process was for you?
It really started with design. We decided to set the movie in the period that the story was written, the first half of the 18th century in France, which was an especially ornate period of design. Once we knew that, we said, ‘OK, we’re in a realistic medium. Let’s look at what a real candlestick and a real clock looked like.’ It was fun then, to find the human features within those objects. So, I think more than anything that was the process of discovery, and it was amazing, because when you’d find it, when you’d finally crack the code on one, then you’d sort of have to start over with another. Each one presented its own challenge.
I’m also specifically curious about Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). It looks like she’s a bird of sorts?
Yes, she’s a feather duster with a bird’s head as the handle. Very much a sort of very sexy French feather duster.
With those looks, is there one you are particularly proud of how it turned out?
Wow, again, that’s like choosing favorites and it’s really hard. It was interesting, because I’ve loved in other movies where it’s a little more unnerving, but we didn’t want to do that approach where you see that actor’s face exactly. Because that felt like it’d be a little creepy. You know, like, somebody stuck inside a clock. I have to say that without having been literal, there’s something about the design of Mrs. Potts that really captures everything we love about Emma Thompson. I think she really shines through there.
The Beast was created in motion capture and CGI, but did you ever consider doing it through makeup and practical effects?
Yeah, we did. There was something real for everyone to look at and see the height of [while filming]. We could have done it that way, but with this technology that has been recently revived, what became most important is, How do we get the most of Dan Stevens’ performance to translate? That became the main criteria, making sure that what Dan was doing, which was so extraordinary, came through, and this technology allowed every single bit of his face to come right through in every bit of the performance.
Can you tell me a bit about that technology and what that process entailed?
Dan would be in a kind of suit that gave him the height of the Beast and the width, so that Emma also had a sense of what he looked like. We actually built it. But then, and this was hard on Dan and this is an extraordinary feat, basically, he doesn’t have all those dots all over his face. He’s not walking around like that. He gives the performance right there and then later on, we go into a kind of Star Trek chamber and he sits in this little module where his face is sprayed, not with dots, but sprayed so that every pore is captured by these 20 cameras. And he gives the performance again. So, in a way he had to do it twice.
I think there are certain actors that wouldn’t be into that at all. It’s unbelievably difficult. But he got into the challenge of it. It actually became something he looked forward to. It was a marvel to watch. There was this amazing moment when somebody’s daughter was visiting and we were doing the oddest thing, which was he was recreating dancing the waltz with [Belle], dancing “Beauty and the Beast.” It was just what was happening on his face. So, he’s sitting in a chair, he can’t move, but we’re playing the music and he’s recreating the emotion and this little girl started to cry, even though all she was seeing was a guy sitting in a chair.
Speaking of that scene, when Cinderella came out, there was controversy over the waistline on Lily James’ dress. Was that factored in when designing Belle’s yellow gown?
It wasn’t factored in, because it’s such a different approach here. Obviously, in that story, that’s a gown made by the fairy godmother and it has a magical quality to it. This is a gown that the household staff has pulled together — and there’s one little magic thing that happens at the end of it. But in the spirit of Belle and Beauty and the Beast, it was all about something that felt beautiful, but comfortable. There was no question of adapting Emma Watson’s body to a dress. It was the other way around. It was something that belonged to her, that was in the story made for her. Our costume designer Jacqueline Durran was very true to the period, so that slightly more ruffled look of the animated film really wasn’t accurate for the period we were setting the movie in. Instead, it’s a riff on that.
What was it like the first time Emma tried on the dress?
Oh, man! I mean, it was exciting to see and then we went through many, many, many versions of it. So it wasn’t like, ‘Oh there it is! And it’s done and she’s putting it on!’ But it was still thrilling just to see her. That and seeing her in the blue in the village, it just felt like, Oh my god. It was thrilling, I think, is the only word.
Finally, do you think there could ever be a live-action Disney Cinematic Universe, where we see these characters interact? Cinderella and Belle and the characters from The Jungle Book?
Oh, god, that’s tempting. Shame on you! [Laughs] You’re probably right. I don’t want to see it, but you’re probably right. Don’t they do that on the TV show? I think they have a show where they do that. They put them all together. But I think it would only work if they also throw Batman and Superman in.
And they’re battling!
That’s right! [Laughs] Batman versus Belle!
Beauty and the Beast hits theaters on March 17, 2017.