Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The John Musker Interview -- Part II

When John Musker arrived at Disney in 1977, the old guard was departing. Milt Kahl had left the year before and Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston would retire the year after. But the new guard hadn't yet found its footing. ...

TAG Interview with John Musker

Find all TAG Interviews on the TAG website at this link

The Disney animation department was then divided into two factions. John worked on the Christmas featurette The Small One, after which director Don Bluth exited the studio, taking half the animation crew with him. The department began rebuilding, and a short time later John was the first of the Disney newcomers to become a director.

Briefly assigned to The Black Cauldron. John received his first director's credit on The Great Mouse Detective, where he worked for the first time with Ron Clements.

Clements and Musker became full-fledged partners on The Little Mermaid, and commenced a fruitful collaboration with writer and lyricist Howard Ashman, about whom John writes:

... After getting Peter’s OK to try a script [for the The Little Mermaid] , we began by writing a ten-page treatment. We were surprised when Peter told us of Howard [Ashman’s] interest in Mermaid and that Howard had some exciting ideas for the project.

“He wants to make your British stuffed shirt, court composer crab Clarence a Rastafarian!! I don’t know, go talk to him, it’s wild!” Peter said. Ron and I had never met Howard but had seen and loved the LA production of Little Shop of Horrors at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood where Howard had trans-“plant”ed it from NYC. We loved Howard’s humor, the visual qualities, and the way the story was propelled in the songs. We were intrigued and excited to meet him, although a little uncertain about whether Howard knew anything about animation.

We had our first meeting with Howard at the Helmsley Palace Hotel in Manhattan in the summer of 1986. Howard was working on his musical Smile. We had sent him our ten- page treatment and now we would discuss with Howard not only the story itself and the characters, but most critically how songs could be integrated to help tell the story.

I don’t know why, but I had a mental picture of Howard before I met him: dark hair, mustache and beard, glasses, a little heavy. I have no idea where this picture came from, except that the only Howard I knew in life was dark-haired. Maybe the name “Ashman” headed me in the ‘dark’ direction in some goofy, literal way (ashes are dark, right?)

As we opened our Helmsley Palace hotel room door to a crisp knock, I first laid eyes on Howard. Just as I predicted! He had blondish, tousled hair, was thin, wore no glasses, was clean-shaven, and younger than I pictured, too. ( OK, so I missed….on everything…) He asked us if we minded him smoking and we said no problem. He lit the first of several cigarettes, which he smoked with a sharp intensity.

We had the meeting in that venue in part because Howard had never seen the inside of the Helmsley Palace and wanted to see its purported opulence first hand. Knowing him now, perhaps he was curious to see how Leona Helmsley, the Queen of Mean, would decorate. “Frankly,” Howard sniffed, as he sized up our room between puffs on his cigarette, “I’m disappointed.”

There it was: our first introduction to a man who had strong opinions on nearly everything. ...

Mermaid turned out to be the first of two storied collaborations between Ron, John and Howard.

(John has other memories of Mr. Ashman here and here.)


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