The Walt Disney Company gave PBS’s American Experience the keys to the Magic Kingdom and promised not to interfere. Here’s what happened
When PBS’s American Experience set out to document Walt Disney’s life three years ago, it anticipated a fool’s errand.
“I really thought it was going to be an impossible task, because it’s no secret that the company Walt created is very controlling of its brand,” says AE executive producer Mark Samels. “For Disney, there was the expectation of editorial input. I said, ‘Well, it’s gonna be very simple: you’re going to get to see the show when the American public does.’ And I fully expected it would be over at that point.”
Then a miracle happened: Disney opened the archives.
The result is the four-hour documentary, Walt Disney, airing over two nights, September 14 and 15, on PBS. The footage depicts a complex man, both beloved and feared, in his own struggles: wanting mass acceptance while pushing artistic boundaries, trying to control a burgeoning empire, driving his staff while wanting a workplace family.
“The real challenge to this project was that Walt Disney is so mythic, and people think they know him, but in reality don’t,” says Walt Disney’s Emmy Award-winning producer/director Sarah Colt. “I relied greatly on the scholarship that came before—Neil Gabler’s biography and other books, and archival research—and tried to understand him as a human being with many layers of complexity. Hopefully, once you’ve watched four hours, you really see him as a real person.
Watch the trailer here:
The Terrifying Visionary
“One of the things the film gets right is that Walt Disney does control everything”—a creative force who goes beyond a studio head to someone actually responsible for these animations and other films, says Gabler, who wrote the award-winning bestseller, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.
“He’s an instrumentalist, just like Steve Jobs,” he says. “So long as you are instrumental to what he wants, things are fine. When you are no longer able to give him what he wants, there’s no sentimentality. ‘Dead wood. Get rid of him. I only want people who can fulfill my vision.’ He was a terrifying father (figure) at work. The Walt Disney Studio operated like a cult, and Walt was the head of the cult, and everybody [there] drank the Kool Aid, at least in the ’30s and ’40s. In the ’50s and ’60s, it was a bit different, though they were still terrified of him.”
Those who towed the line were regarded an extended—and loyal—family. “When his animators went on strike in the early 1940s, it was a betrayal on a level that was life changing,” says Colt. “So for him, this family then turns on itself.”
The price of empire
In the 1950s, Walt Disney studios became too corporatized for Disney’s entrepreneurial and artistic nature. So he left to form WED, which stood for Walter Elias Disney, the precursor to what is now Disney Imagineering. There, he created the now iconic attractions: Small World, Carousel of Progress, Tiki Room, audio-animatronics.
“The essence that Sarah draws out in the film is the price of empire,” says Samels. “He puts down his brush. He is now in charge of something. He doesn’t have the personal touch with anymore.”
Adds Gabler, “The company got so big that Walt Disney didn’t want to be part of it anymore. It existed to make these animations, and then reaches a point where the animations existed to keep the company running. That’s when Walt leaves, makes Disneyland, and forms WED. It’s like the early days. It’s fun again. Like when he was doing Mickey Mouse, because he doesn’t want to be a part of a corporate structure.”
“What made Disneyland different was bringing a narrative to an entertainment carnival,” says Hahn, who produced The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. “So, when you go to that hub in front of the castle and turn left into Adventureland, it’s the equivalent of a cross dissolve. You go over water, a bridge, through some jungle, and there’s the Tiki Room, and you are in this other place. So he had a sense of narrative even in that live entertainment venue.”
How do you keep the vision alive when the visionary is gone? Disney’s absence left his company’s future animators navigating the line between his aesthetics and spirit, while keeping up with changing social mores.
“I was at the studio in 1976, and it was like a “What would Walt do?” studio,” says Hahn. “You really felt him in the hallways, and there was a generation of people there who felt we had to keep that legacy going. But it ran the danger of becoming a museum.”
“It wasn’t until we finally said, ‘You know, the last guy who would ask “What would Walt do?” would be Walt Disney. So let’s start saying “What would we do? What should we express as artists living and breathing in this age?’” he adds. “It was Disney’s risk taking and reinventing himself that we started to capture. That’s when we started making The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King.
“That goes back to you being yourself and an artist in your own era,” Hahn continues. “Walt Disney really captured his era and we can only try to do the same.”