Few films released last year carried quite the same political message than Disney’s Zootropolis, as a studio that so often preaches positive messages in the realm of a family adventure movie. Beauty and the Beast is no different, and when we spoke to Bill Condon, the man at the helm of the live-action reimagining of the classic animation, he discussed why this is such an important, pertinent piece of cinema.

So, why the Beauty and the Beast story, and why now?

Honestly, it wasn’t a now, I’ve always wanted to, it’s just, to be perfectly frank, I heard they were doing it and I wanted to get involved with it. I didn’t go to them and say, ‘you should do Beauty and the Beast’, but having said that, it did feel to me that it had a continuing relevance with a lot of the themes. Plus I love the musical form, and the chance to do a big movie musical and go to town on it was very exciting for me.

What was the hardest aspect of the job?

I’d say maybe three things. One of them was Be Our Guest, just figuring out how to do that number when nobody is there, that took a lot of figuring out. The look of the Beast and how to make him one of the two emotional centres of the movie, making sure that the performance could come through in a powerful way. Then finally, the tone. So the movie could have the broadness of Josh Gad’s La Fou, and the delicacy of Kevin Kline, to make sure everybody could fit inside the same movie.

In regards to the casting – Emma was your first choice. Why her?

So many things. It’s her obvious intelligence, her activism, the fact that she is a contemporary, strong female role model. But all of that means nothing if it weren’t for the fact she’s also a wonderful actress and also then discovering that she could sing, and she had an interest in the part. Then I heard this lovely thing, which is that when she grew up she had worn out the tape of Beauty and the Beast, and I started to think, there’s something so perfect in the closing of the circle that maybe part of what made her into such a strong woman was that from a very early age she had this model, and then having been slightly influenced by that, to then go and play a new version of that, that would then influence the next generation. That seemed like it could be a great thing. I also have to say that because Belle was such a breakthrough character in 1991, we wanted her to be in the forefront now, and I needed a partner, I needed somebody who was living this life. She is a 21st century feminist, and she knows more than I do about that, and it became such a crucial part of our relationship.

Did it feel like a dream come true for her?

It did, absolutely. She was very enthusiastic, which for her becomes very serious too, and very intent on getting every single detail right. I have heard that she’s looking to do another, which is exciting.

More what, work with you?

More musicals, she wants to sing more on screen.

Ah, I thought maybe we had a Beauty and the Beast sequel scoop there. Anyway, why Dan Stevens?

I worked with him on The Fifth Estate so I knew him, and because of that I sort of followed him and the interesting independent movies he’s done recently, and really have been blown away by the range, he’s so much more than Matthew Crawley. So that’s what the Beast needs, right, he needs to be terrifying and a very dark figure at some points, and then obviously he’s a romantic hero too. I just loved the process of working with Dan, and I knew how difficult this was going to be and it took a certain type of temperament. Again, there was the question of can he sing? And he went ahead and tapes himself singing from the stage show and it was great.

Years ago you could get away with not having the actors sing, like in My Fair Lady. Can that not be done now?

No, you cannot. People can feel it, and it hurts those movies now. You can’t, they have to do it themselves.

Emma Watson in Beauty and the BeastDoes the film have any contemporary, political meanings?

Yes I do. First of all this story, and the reason it’s been around for almost three centuries is that it’s very rich, certain things come into focus. Like the mob, I saw it after the election and it had a different resonance, their ideas seemed more familiar. But I gotta say, if there is a way to solve this predicament we’re in, wouldn’t it be great if it was with talking teacups?

You’ve added some new story-lines, why did you do that? Did you feel there was something missing from the first?

No, I just think it’s because this isn’t animated anymore. Like in the animated film for example they fall in love overnight, he sort of melts and suddenly it’s all sweet. But translating that into a live action format isn’t just shooting it with real actors, you have to believe the steps of how the Beast and Belle fell in love, so you have to know more about how they wound up where they are when we first meet them, and what makes them a little less archetypal and more individual. That’s where all of that sprang from.

How does it feel to fit into the world of Disney?

For me growing up, Disney was Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Mary Poppins. They always meant magic to me, jaw-dropping, how do they do that stuff. That is the part that I most connected to with this. I recently watched the final 3D version of Be Our Guest, and I still thought, how did Disney do that? Even though I knew the names of all of us who had done it, it still felt like it had that signature. But in general, it wasn’t something that I was aware of when making the movie, or felt from there, that there was this specific Disney formula or anything.

Do you think there’s another Disney classic that should be given the live-action treatment?

Well they’re doing them. They’re actively working on Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Aladdin, Mulan. They’ll continue from there, but I’m excited about all of them.

I love what you did with the La Fou character, it’s probably the most embellished character from the original. So how did that come about – through conversations with the writers, with Josh Gad?

Well I called Josh, who I’ve worked with once before, and asked if he would do La Fou. He read the script and said he was intrigued and that he’d like to, but could La Fou have more of an arc. It was really him, he was the catalyst for giving La Fou that growing sense of doubt. When we started working it was something that had been under the surface but we really brought out, that maybe on different days he wants to be Gaston, or be with Gaston, he was conflicted about how he was feeling about him. It is a lot about role playing, so it felt to me that the hyper-masculinity that Gaston represents, it was fun to play with that, and the anxiety he’s sitting on. He enjoys all the attention he gets from La Fou, but he doesn’t want to think about it too hard, or why he enjoys it so much, so that was fun to play with.

So are you one of those directors who always encourages actors to bring their own ideas to the table?

You have no idea, this movie really happened around a table. We’d all sit around dissecting the scene and the great thing is, when you have smart actors, they start to know the characters better than you do. For example, Dan Stevens’ Beast is more Darcy than puppy dog. It’s important that he go be able to go toe-to-toe with Belle and occasionally even topping her, he’s read more book than she has, and had a kind of ironic sense of humour. He brought in those little bits of wit and you’d be a fool not to take things from people you’re working with.

In regards to the runtime, the original is 84 minutes and this is over two hours. This seems to be emblematic of the family movie in general, two hours is often a minimum. What do you think has changed that audiences, and kids in particular and now watching movies this long? When I was a kid 90 minutes was my limit.

It’s funny because for me when I was a kid all the movies were two hours and 45 minutes, Mary Poppins for example. So we’ve basically skipped over your hopeless generation. I never set out to make a long movie, but I do think it came from putting it in front of an audience, with certain screenings made up of just kids and their parents, and if it had been a long sit we’d have had to cut some, but I’m pleased we didn’t. I’m grateful for the fact kids can sit that long, because I also wanted to make a movie that makes sense to grownups and one that means as much to them, and that really involved all that extra stuff that I don’t think we could do without. As for why people are suddenly more patient – I have no idea, but it surprises me actually. Maybe it’s because they can text in the middle of the movie [laughs].

Beauty and the Beast is released on March 17th and you can read our review of the film here.