The Archives Behind Disney’s Howard: Guest Blog Post by Lori Korngiebel and Don Hahn

The Indiana University Archives had the honor of assisting Lori Korngiebel and Don Hahn in their quest for archival materials on IU alumnus, Howard Ashman, for their documentary Howard. Director of Howard, Hahn is also a film producer who has produced some of Disney’s most beloved animated films, such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Korngiebel, producer of Howard, has worked on several Disney films and served as Associate Producer for Maleficent and the soon-to-be-released Cruella.

We are so pleased to share that Lori and Don were kind enough to answer a few questions about their research process as they worked on Howard!

Can you tell me about your archival research process? What repositories did you visit?

We were fortunate because Howard’s estate had gifted his archives to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Don and I started our journey there and spent days excitedly going through archival boxes, finding hidden treasures from Howard’s life (such as his handwritten notes during the “Little Shop” casting process and an audio recording of Howard talking to the “Little Mermaid” directors, Ron Clements and John Musker).  

After we left the LOC, Don and I traveled to NYC were we interviewed Howard’s friends and family, who were also so generous to share photos and videos with us. So, between the LOC and our F&F interviews, we went back to California with a strong foundation to begin building the documentary.

From there, as we began editing the film, Don and I would do research online, reaching out to the people and places that Howard may have had contact with during his life and career. The Indiana University Archives was one of the places we reached out to when we happened upon Kristin Leaman’s Howard Ashman blog post during our online research.

What are some of your exciting archival finds for this documentary?

We knew that Howard had done interviews at THE LITTLE MERMAID junket in Walt Disney World but after searching high and low we were not able to find any of them. Tragically, the 80s are a black hole of lost video tape archives and we had all but given up. Then, one day Don Hahn received a phone call at the office from a colleague saying they had found an audio cassette from the MERMAID junket that they believed had Howard interviews on it. Well, after literally YEARS of searching, we jumped on it and were over the moon when we heard Howard and Alan (Menken) answering questions. It may not have been video but that audio was like GOLD to us!

Did you find any archival materials that significantly impacted the film in a way you were not expecting?

We were told that Howard had learned about his HIV diagnosis on the same day that he spoke at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. We discovered that the Y did not video tape lectures back then but they did record audio and lucky for us they were able to find that audio. With this discovery we knew we would have to find a way to show the significance of this lecture. No one there knew what Howard and his partner Bill had just been told and it is gut wrenching to listen to the interview with the understanding that he is keeping it together, answering questions and making people laugh all while grappling with this horrible news.

What is the most exciting thing you discovered in the Indiana University Archives?

One of our most exciting archival finds came from the IU Archives! We were told there could be a local interview with Howard when he came to the University to see their production of LITTLE SHOP in 1987. When we received the footage we were THRILLED. Our goal was always to have Howard tell his story as much as possible in the film and there he was in an interview that probably hadn’t been seen in over 30 years. It was amazing!

Why was doing archival research and including archival materials in the documentary so important to you?

This is the story of an amazing man, who during his short time on earth, changed the lives of millions (and continues to do so) through his lyrics and songs. In order to do Howard justice, we needed to ensure that we uncovered every lyric, photo, interview and song so the audience could know the man who created the songs we already love and by doing so, fall in love with him, too.

Is there anything that you want people to know about the documentary?

I just feel so lucky to have worked on the film. Like our audience, I never met Howard in person, I only knew him from his work. But, because of the generosity of Don, Sarah (Howard’s sister), Bill (Howard’s partner) and countless other friends and family who donated their time, love and memories to the film… I feel like I do know Howard now and I am blessed to consider him a friend.

Howard Ashman sitting on desk during 1987 campus visit
Howard Ashman, April 1987, courtesy Indiana University Archives, P0026314

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