PBS’ MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA began last year as a three-hour documentary. This year, it’s back as a six-part series, focusing on women in various arenas, including politics, space, war, comedy, business and Hollywood.

The “Women in Hollywood” segment airs Tuesday, October 7. Screenwriter/playwright Linda Woolverton is one of the interviewees. There is no question that her work has made a difference both in Hollywood and in the imaginations of many audience members of both genders and all ages, though perhaps particularly affecting young girls.

Woolverton, a California native, worked for a year in the entertainment department at Disneyland before she began writing for television. Her first feature screenplay was Disney’s animated 1991 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST; she also wrote the book for the stage musical adaptation. Among Woolverton’s other credits are the screenplays for 1994’s THE LION KING, the Tim Burton-directed 2010 ALICE IN WONDERLAND and this year’s MALEFICENT.

After a panel PBS holds on MAKERS for the Television Critics Association, Woolverton answers a few more questions about her work.

ASSIGNMENT X: When you heard about MAKERS, was your immediate reaction “Yes,” or did you have any questions before you signed on?

LINDA WOOLVERTON: I know Linda Milton, the director of the “Women in Hollywood” one, we were pals, so it was automatically “yes.”

AX: In MAKERS, you talk about some of the difficulties you had in getting the animation team to let Belle in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST be a strong female character in the film version. You also wrote the book for the stage musical. Can you talk about the differences between the film and the stage versions?

WOOLVERTON: Well, thank God, [on stage] you could talk more [laughs]. In animation, it’s all “Show it, don’t tell it,” which I fought with constantly, because I’m a writer. But in the theatre, it’s all about the words, so thank God, and I had an opportunity – everything I had to not do in the animation version I could do in the theatre version, because we were working with people with a whole different mindset. We definitely built [Belle’s character] much more in the musical. In fact, I can’t even watch the movie, because the musical’s better. It’s just better.

AX: Do you watch ONCE UPON A TIME, and if so, what do you think of their version of your Belle?

WOOLVERTON: I don’t watch it.

AX: You know that their Belle is your Belle, from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – she loves books, she wears the same costume, she emotionally connects with their version of the  Beast …?

WOOLVERTON: Oh, I didn’t know that, no.

AX: Lewis Carroll’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND is a famously amorphous story. When you did that for Disney, did you approach that and think, “How do I give this a narrative spine?

WOOLVERTON: Yes, that’s what I did. “How do I give this a narrative spine?” [laughs] I did not pitch ALICE to Disney. I had an idea – “What if Alice is older and goes back [to Wonderland]?” as an idea, and I went to [producer] Joe Roth with it. And then Joe Roth, above all of the development people, he went straight to [Disney chief] Bob Iger and sold it to him directly. So then I just went off and wrote it.

AX: It seemed like the very logical conclusion to the story is Alice facing the Jabberwocky with the Vorpal Sword, which is what you have. Did they have any problem with the idea of this young woman as an action hero with no male counterpart, or had we reached a point in action film history where they went, “Well, of course Alice should be the sole hero”

WOOLVERTON: Yeah. Because if you know the story, the only possible way to end the story is for her to take on the Jabberwocky. If you build the story right. With faulty storytelling, it’s very possible for people to derail you, but there wasn’t a question. She had to.

AX: And did they have any problem with there not being a central love story?

WOOLVERTON: No problem. And basically, I wasn’t writing a love story, I was writing this girl making the path of her life. So really, again, it didn’t come up.

AX: Do you think there is a film, or a person, or a set of films, or a set of people, that allowed the change between the kinds of fights you were having about Belle and the kinds of fights you weren’t having about Alice, what happened in the interim?

WOOLVERTON: Honestly, Tim Burton was a big part of it, because nobody’s going to argue with Tim Burton. And Tim Burton signed on on the first draft, and it stayed that way, pretty much. I got notes from him, he did great work, and I got notes from Johnny [Depp, who played the Mad Hatter] and it was all good. But Disney never really weighed in heavily at all. They just let Tim do his thing. And honestly, I believe that ALICE is the game-changer. ALICE itself, because it’s the first family movie with a female-centric heroine, made a billion dollars. ALICE was the first one. And so I believe that was the one that turned it, and it changed.

AX: Your MALEFICENT is also a big hit, which sort of takes the Sleeping Beauty story, keeps almost all of the familiar elements, but puts a new spin on them. Do you feel that’s one of your primary gifts as a creator – taking things that are very familiar to people and turning them around with aspects that just nobody’s thought of in that way before?

WOOLVERTON: Well, if you think about it, these things are created in the Fifties [Disney’s SLEEPING BEAUTY was released in 1959 and Disney’s animated ALICE IN WONDERLAND in 1951. We don’t think like that any more, and the characters were developed based on a culture that had a certain set of rules. We have different rules now, so I just look at it from the different rules and tell the tale from that point of view. And I also take on an issue, like with Maleficent. It was taking on the issue of, “What is love?”

AX: What are you working on now?

WOOLVERTON: I’m going into the world of television, working on a pilot with Ron Howard [which has since been announced as CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR].

AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say about MAKERS?

WOOLVERTON: I haven’t seen it yet, but I think it’s going to be remarkable.

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Article:Exclusive interview with screenwriter Linda Woolverton on MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA

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