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11 Things We Learned About 'Aladdin' from the Cast and Crew

24 May, 2019    added by : Kit Bowen
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Aladdin is big, colorful fun that stays true to the 1992 original animated classic but puts its own stamp on it, adding in a new song and giving it a fresher, more relevant feel.

The story is the same: Aladdin is a poor street urchin in the city of Agrabah who steals food with his pet monkey, Abu. His adventures begin when he meets and falls for Princess Jasmine even though he knows she must marry a prince by law. Aladdin’s luck suddenly changes when he retrieves a magical lamp from the Cave of Wonders. When he unwittingly releases a fun-loving Genie, he gets his wish to become a prince so he can be worthy enough to marry Jasmine. But things don’t go as planned when Sultan’s sinister advisor Jafar exacts his own plans for both Aladdin and Genie.

At the recent press conference, director Guy Ritchie, stars Will Smith (“Genie”), Mena Massoud (“Aladdin”), Naomi Scott (“Princess Jasmine”), Nasim Pedrad (“Dalia”), Navid Negahban (“Sultan”), production designer Gemma Jackson and composer Alan Menken talked about making this fun film.

Here are 11 things to know about the latest Disney live-action film, Aladdin:

On finding his own Genie (and pardon while Will Smith goes deep here):

WILL SMITH: I took a couple of years off essentially to study. To study and journey spiritually – and Aladdin was really my first sort of coming back in and seeing if my heart was even still in this kind of performing. What I discovered is everything starts with what am I saying to the world? How does this piece contribute to the human family? Can I go around the world with the ideas that the movie represents and can I teach and preach these ideas in good conscience? And Aladdin checks all of those boxes. I love the idea of Genie and one of the things that I related to is the Genie has shackles. The Genie has these spectacular powers, but he’s shackled. Like he is a prisoner of his spiritual fate. That is sort of how I felt with Will Smith. I was sort of shackled by Will Smith. In these last couple of years, I’ve just started finding my freedom, getting free of Will Smith and I’m getting more comfortable being me. So Aladdin was that first step back out.

Disney magic is real. This is my first Disney movie. There’s something that Walt Disney did in the design of these stories, the core, is that they shock the inner child within you and forces it to come alive and smile and appreciate the moment. So for me, coming into this, it definitely started with fear, what Robin Williams did with his character was… he just didn’t leave a lot of room to add to the Genie. But then when I got with the music, it just started waking up that fun childlike silly part of me. This was the most joyful experience of my career.

On one particular song that resonated the most from the original:

WILL SMITH: The song that got me over the hump of yes, I can play Genie, was “Friend Like Me.” I went into the studio the first day and I really wanted to play with it to see if I could add something to it. And literally 30 minutes in the studio, and starting to play with it and find that in that 94, 96 BPM range, we were playing around in there thinking ultimately it was a little bit faster than that. But that 94, 96 BPM range is right old school hip hop. I grabbed the Honey Drippers “Impeach The President,” which is a really classic old school hip hop breakbeat. I had them throw that breakbeat under there, and I messed with that. I know you got sold under “Friend Like Me.” I was like oh my God. I’m home, I’m home. Then I started playing with the hip hop flavor and then the Genie was really born in my mind from the music. I understood once I played with “Friend Like Me.”

ALAN MENKEN: It was great. Absolutely. I say this a lot. I liken myself to an architect. I design a house that others are going to live in. And Will, you threw a hell of a party in that house. I just loved it. Once he did that, I just go, just back off and let him do what he does. Because it’s so good.

On what Guy Ritchie felt he could bring to the story:

GUY RITCHIE: You’ll be surprised how familiar I am in this territory considering I’ve got five kids and the oldest one is 18, which pretty much means I’ve been up to my eyeballs in Disney production. By sort of family demand, it was about time I made a movie that we could all watch together. So Aladdin ticked the box in the sense that it was a street hustler and I was familiar with that territory. My wife is a big Disneyphile, anything to do with Disney princesses is high on her list. It was really a question of demand by the family. Frankly, I was just ready to do something in this world. And then, of course, it’s very hard to be objective about your own work, but inevitably, what happens is that you leave an imprint upon it. You know some clever director once said that the lion’s share of directing is casting. I think that’s true. I think once we got our little team together and we were all on the same frequency and it didn’t take us long before we all dialed into that frequency. But then it just all worked from there. It all came out very organically actually.

On how everyone else felt about working with Guy Ritchie:

MENA MASSOUD: I think the beautiful thing that Guy does on set is that he creates a sense of family and community and everybody feels free to create and bring their take on it. Then he kind of molds it from there. But he allows us to play. I think that’s something that no one else could have done as well as Guy.

WILL SMITH: Yeah. That’s a really beautiful approach that he has. I heard an idea in the Alchemist about a Shepherd leading from behind. That’s a really beautiful approach that Guy takes. It’s like the first five or six takes, he doesn’t say anything. He just watches. And he just lets you do it and you do it and he sees what everybody’s choices are naturally and he watches and everybody gets excited and we’re playing and we feel like we’re making it. Then he comes in and just gently starts to guide everybody back towards what he wants. He’s wildly collaborative and open. It’s a rare combination to be that open and that definitive at the same time. It’s a very difficult thing to do. He has mastered that very well.

ALAN MENKEN: Another example, though, a perfect example might be like “One Jump Ahead,” right? “One Jump Ahead” is one of those songs in the animated movie which is almost choreographed. It’s very sweet, very clever, very stagey. And Guy I know wanted to get to the truth underneath it – to go, “Who is Aladdin in this?” more than just a guy performing, as Guy said, jazz hands. So we tore that song apart. We tried it this way, we tried it that way to get the swagger into it. He challenged me and the whole music team to go to a different place. We went to some pretty extreme places. Then what we came back to, it feels like “One Jump Ahead” to me but it feels very real. So whatever happened in that process worked.

NASIM PEDRAD: I think a lot of it, too, has to do with the fact that Guy is truly the least rigid filmmaker. I feel like when I would watch the film, so much of the joy that is there came from his spontaneity and his comfort in finding something on the day. Which I would imagine is a challenge for a movie on this scale. You look around and you’re like the money is being spent. There are so many pieces in place and it’s really easy to just be locked into an idea you had of something. But he was so open to finding new things on the day like you just mentioned. It made it so fun for us.

On singing Jasmine’s new song “Speechless”:

NAOMI SCOTT: I think that number one, you’re kind of singing in character in a way. How I naturally sing is a bit more kind of in my own voice, you know, so definitely I had to put on some type of voice. But it was a challenge. We had like an earpiece and I was basically singing A cappella in this quiet room to myself like a crazy person. Literally. I was in character, but I didn’t want to put on a music theater voice. I didn’t want it to feel like performance-y. I still wanted it to feel like you’re kind of going through what she’s going through, but also bringing a little bit of my own flavor.

ALAN MENKEN: To add to that, every aspect of that song kind of raised a different bar that we had. Because once that song was in place, we go okay. Now how do we set that song up? How do we create the moments when she would actually break into that, that worked with the story and organically we lead into it? So we divided into those two parts. The first part is, I don’t want to remain speechless. The second part is I won’t remain speechless. Then also yes, it does have much more of a pop sort of feel to it. We did a lot of work number one threading themes in and taking that pop orchestration, but adding the colors of Aladdin in. You know, it’s nerve-wracking, but at the end of the day, I think it really works. I’m so relieved.

On how “Speechless” resonates today:

NAOMI SCOTT: The fact that they wrote a song and I get to sing it, first of all, I was like wow. That’s already surreal. But also then when I heard it and just the words and the lyrics and how timely it was, the message behind the song and the idea of not going speechless, that everyone has a voice, doesn’t matter who you are, doesn’t matter what you look like, doesn’t matter what your gender, your voice matters. And speaking out against injustice matters. Not just standing by and being a spectator. It was really emotional because I wanted it to feel raw. I wanted it to feel like it’s what she’s going through in that moment. We did some of it live as well which was a different type of challenge. The song is for me, it’s like, it’s the world’s song. Like whatever it will be, it will be. And then whatever people take from it, they will take.

On how the Sultan bonds with his daughter:

NAVID NEGAHBAN: I believe the most important thing was for him to show how much he appreciates her. I think every father, no matter what, they see a princess in their little daughter. And we had a discussion with Guy. We were sitting and we were talking about the kids. And I have to say something about Naomi. There is a princess inside her. I never forget, we were on the set and we were working. Some of the ladies, they were a little bit stressed and they were yelling in the background actors. And this girl took the mic, went over on the balcony, and said we can be nicer to each other, can’t we? So the princess is inside her. It’s just finding your inner magic, believing in yourself, who you are, and what you are is special. There is nobody else like you.

On bringing the new character Dalia to life:

NASIM PEDRAD: It was so fun because I think all the joy of creating something from scratch, but then watching that intersect with this story we all know and love. Which I had so much respect for coming into it. I’m a 90s kid. So for me, Aladdin was like the Golden Age of Disney. I’m so proud to be part of the most diversely cast Disney movie of all time I think. It really resonated with me as a child because it was the first time I saw a Middle Eastern protagonist in a major motion picture. So to get to be a part of that and play a little fun role in being Jasmine’s friend and handmaiden and especially under the guidance of Guy who is so collaborative and fun and every day, and it turns into a whole fun new thing that you wouldn’t have necessarily even seen on the page. It was just such a blast.  A lot of my scenes were with Naomi. We got to spend time together before we started filming. There was such an instant camaraderie and friendship that I think hopefully translates into the dynamic of the characters.

NAOMI SCOTT: She won’t say, but like, she kills it in this movie. I think also like she does so much improv because she’s such an amazing writer as well. She was just coming out with like I was just laughing the whole time. I couldn’t keep it together. But I think she brought more to the character than I think anyone could have ever imagined for this role. And like literally she just annihilates it.

On researching the look of Aladdin:

GEMMA JACKSON: The most fun part of researching I think was just throwing everything up in the air and letting it settle and thinking about the parts of the world that we wanted to explore for our kingdom and our land and let it all kind of gradually come together. And as the different demands of the film grew, then different parts of that set grew. And creating a world for this fantastic bunch of mad people I think was the best of my job.

GUY RITCHIE: Gemma and Alan and the rest of the team, what became fun is that everyone came to the spirit in no small way, because when Will came, he was number one on the call sheet. His positivity sort of flowed all the way down. It started from the top and it went down. Then everyone was, there was an incredibly positive spirit throughout the whole process. Actually, my job was really to encourage them to be more of themselves. So everyone had a degree of improvisation, which was just natural to them. I said, my job was just to encourage more of that. But people like Gemma and Alan, what was conspicuous to me is really that they are still like children in the best possible sense. In the fact that they’re still incredibly excited about their jobs. So Gemma gets very excited about what it is that she does.

On the incredible dance numbers:

MENA MASSOUD: Jamal Sims, the choreographer, and Nicky Andersen were spectacular. Jamal is one of the best in the business. I grew up watching Step Up, which to me was like the dance film of my generation. So it was amazing getting to work with him. Me and Naomi, funnily enough, we wanted to focus more on the connection in that piece because getting the choreography down is one thing. We wanted to focus on connecting. Then the other part of it, me and Guy had a fun time during that because I had to learn that choreography at the beginning, but then pretend like the Genie was manipulating me. We tried doing it with mime. Then Guy actually had this brilliant idea to actually attach these long puppeteering arms onto me and physically manipulate me. We had a lot of fun with that piece. It was definitely a fun part of the whole process.

WILL SMITH: It was sort of the vortex of everything. If you’re doing a dance sequence, the choreography was the vortex of wardrobe, of set design, all of the actors, we had decided how our performance was and things our characters would and wouldn’t do. Then it had to get worked into the dancing of it. Everything sort of fell on Jamal to make it all come together in a dance sequence. He really, he just captured all of that stuff, even the things like in the big sequence where I switch into the woman and then go behind and timing those things out. It was just, I wish he was here to get all of these props. He really captured the center of all of those things.

On what they are most excited about for people to see:

GUY RITCHIE: I suppose it’s the entire process that in the end, it’s what you’re left with in terms of a sensation by the end of the film. So I would say it’s how you leave the cinema. So it’s hard to be specific about exactly what it is that you’re supposed to derive from it other than a sensation which can only really be encapsulated by a very positive version of being un-cynical. That we want people to leave with a sense of positivity and hopefully a sense of freshness and all that sort of stuff. But really I think it’s a question of how it is that you leave the cinema.

MENA MASSOUD: You know, I’m especially proud of the representation and the ethnically diverse casting that was put together for this. It’s not often you can go to a movie theater and see all people of color represented like this. It’s certainly something that I was missing in my childhood. So I’m proud of the cast and the casting that Guy and Disney put together. So I’m excited for little boys and girls to go see people that look like them on screen, man. That’s what I’m proud of.

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