Interview: Director Khoa Le of “Walt Before Mickey”

Posted on September 20, 2015 at 10:52 am

“Walt Before Mickey” is the story of Walt Disney’s earliest years in animation, filled with passion and imagination but also plagued by failures and setbacks. “American Pie’s” Thomas Ian Nicholas and “Napoleon Dynamite’s” Jon Heder play brothers Walt and Roy Disney. The film was made on a micro-budget with a first-time director, Khoa Le. It was a pleasure to speak to Le about the challenges of coming to this very ambitious project at the last minute and bringing it all together in a very short time frame.

“I got the call on Christmas Eve in 2013 and my friend asked me if I wanted to make my first feature film and I go, ‘Yes, sure. What is it about?’ And he goes, ‘Well it’s about Walt Disney.’ And I said, ‘Wait this is a Disney film?’ and he goes, ‘No it’s a film about Walt Disney,’ and I said, ‘Is it a documentary?’ And he goes, ‘No it’s narrative feature film. It hasn’t been fully casted yet and they’ve been going through some trouble.’ and I said, ‘So that’s the catch to my opportunity.’ Just like anything else, any first-time opportunity, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices. And at the time I was growing my business and we were in the baby stages of the business. And I had to make a decision if this was something that was going to propel the career or hurt my career or risk the opportunity of losing my business at the same time because I knew I would have to step away at least for a few months to make this project work. Instead I stepped away for almost a year because we had to go into post production and all that type of stuff to make this movie work for almost no money at all. But I’m glad that we did it with blood, sweat and tears and with so many issues that were presented on the set. And I think as a first-time feature it couldn’t have been more perfect, even with all the mistakes that we had, seeing how the production was pretty much a disaster coming on board because of another director had left. I always believed that you only succeed from the failures, you always learn from the failures, so if we never went through those failures then I’d have to learn all of this in my next feature production. Instead I get to learn it from here. So during the film I wanted to kill myself, I got sick, I had pink eye, it was a mess but I think it comes to show that no matter what the budget is as long as you have a strong mind and a set of people that’s willing to pull this forward then you can make any project as successful as it can be.”

The challenges made Le appreciate even more the challenges his main character, Walt Disney, went through in life and was going through in the film.

“When I came on board I didn’t know how many crew I was going to be managing, I didn’t know I had a crew of over 100 people. I thought it was a much smaller team but we had an experienced crew. We had costume designers that worked on Pirates of the Caribbean and people that worked on Fast And Furious as well. I was really intimidated because I’m probably the most inexperienced one out of that group but what I was much more experienced about was running an organization and growing a business because I just came off from winning Small Business of the Year For Fastest-Growing Business in Hudson County New Jersey and we were becoming this 1/2 million dollar organization and continue to much further growth. So I knew that if I go in there telling them, ‘Okay guys this is what we’re going to do,’ we’re going to have a problem, but if I going there even to inspire the crew and get them to believe in what I’m capable of without having to question me and then I return the same thing obviously we would be able to create a more manageable team and a more structured organization when we are making this movie.”

With a tiny budget and short schedule, shooting a period film with several different locations meant enormous challenges in the sets, cars, props, and costumes. Though the story takes place in the Midwest and California, most of it was shot in Florida.

“To start with, it took me 18 hours to get to Florida because of a snowstorm. From a micro budget standpoint, everything had to be shot on the medium-size, I couldn’t shoot anything wide because if you go into anything wider you might see a light pole or might see a construction site. Sound was a problem because you hear modern cars flying by, effects really tough to work with. We shot one part in Kansas City which is more period, but the producers are from Florida so that’s where they wanted to shoot. It’s their home town, they knew everybody over there so I guess it makes the most sense. But from the directing standpoint it was a nightmare because I would say, “Can I have this?” “No you can’t do that, you can’t do it right here.” “Can we lock down the street?” “No we don’t have the budget for this.” “Can I get at least two picture cars in the scenes? And I wanted a crane for the farm scene, but that was too much, too. And of course the producers are very inexperienced as well so we were learning together. If you’re making small changes on the day of whether you’re having another actor in or you’re taking another actor out or you change the shot just a little bit, I learned that it affects all the other departments. Costume has to change, make up has to be fixed, and it creates this craziness on the set.”

When he arrived, the script was not even ready. “The producer gave me the book to read and also I had two scripts to look at. One was a script that was 150 pages which is nowhere close to a shooting script, it was more of a draft but it had a lot of ideas and good elements in it. The shooting script didn’t have the strong element but could fit within that budget to make it work. But it was tough because both of them were not ready to be shot so when I got down there and this is before I met Frank Licari, he is actually my film partner now but at the time I didn’t know him. He is also the co-producer on the movie and also the additional writer on the movie. This guy was a phenomenal writer and I knew right then and there this guy is going to be my right hand through this process because for two weeks while over there I didn’t even get to set up anything that was for directing purposes, everything was trying to fix the script. And so by the time we got to the last week we didn’t have an actor to play Walt Disney until the last week of production. We didn’t even stop looking for locations the week before we had the shoot.”

He turned over as much as he could to the experienced crew members, telling the costume and prop people that “I’m going to leave it up to you guys to be very creative and I want to trust you because we have no time to debate on these things so at the end of the day I kind of set them free on any restrictions, no micromanagement, you can’t and that’s how we collaboratively made this happen.” He regrets missing the chance to film some of the scenes they could not get to, “with the details that I wanted to shoot to make the transitions and the cast more interesting just didn’t have any time or opportunity for that.” But “I’m still proud of the movie for sure. I think people are going to be surprised. I look at Walt Disney as more of an entrepreneur than just a creator. Every entrepreneur has a reason why they exist in the world. What is their cause and their belief to pull through. He could just as easily create animation and call it a small business forever and just do that but he didn’t. He wanted to create something that could change the world. He created something that could be iconic, and could create a legacy not for himself but for people that experienced what he created. So it’s about happiness at the end of the day. If you could create a world where it’s just pure happiness and nobody’s fighting, nobody is jealous of anything else or a place where you could come back to and could rekindle a family or save a marriage or help you raise a child, that’s a life worth living. And I think that’s what Walt Disney did. That’s why when you watch the movie, you watch it not only for the educational piece, but you are watching it for yourself. Because everyone goes through adversity, everyone goes through challenges; everyone goes through all these obstacles in order for you to achieve your dream. It doesn’t get handed to you on a silver plate at all and Walt Disney just like you and me, he is just a normal person like just you and me with a reason why he wanted to create all of this with a passion. That is more than just watching it, if you could realize that someone iconic that created a world that you live in of knowing what he did, in my opinion, that’s breathtaking.”

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Directors Interview

Interview: Sarah Colt on the PBS Documentary “Walt Disney”

Posted on September 13, 2015 at 3:18 pm

Copyright PBS 2015
Copyright PBS 2015

Sarah Colt’s two-part “American Experience” documentary about Walt Disney is a fascinating look at one of the towering figures not just of film history but of American history. Disney revolutionized film and the way we tell stories with his animated features, nature documentaries, and family entertainment. He created a new industry and a new way for families to vacation together with Disneyland and the Disney World properties. He was a pioneer of new technologies from sound recording to photocopiers and animatronics. And he built one of the world’s most successful businesses. It premieres September 14 and 15, 2015, on PBS stations.

Director Sarah Colt told me that the Disney company opened up its vast archives for her with no restrictions and no right to review the film before it was made public.

It was really an amazing thing and we were thrilled. It made the project possible. From a documentary film maker’s perspective who has worked on a bunch of historical films this was like a dream come true. Because I was making a film about an artist, a filmmaker, and an animator. So not only was there material of him and the behind the scenes kind of stuff that you are always looking for but also his work. To be able to use big chunks of “Snow White” as part of the story was just amazing. So that was just incredible. I’ve never made a film about a filmmaker before. That was very fantastic to have all that material. And their photograph collection is very well organized. They have a really good database and we could access what we needed. The footage of the behind the scenes kind of material was harder to find because the Disney Company. They are not a professional archive and that’s not their main purpose so not surprisingly their collection is not necessarily all in one place, it’s in lots of different places and it was a lot of work. They totally helped us but it wasn’t a one stop thing where you just look in a database and there’s all the material. There was a lot of hunting and talking, asking questions and then were these big moments of excitement when we found things. I’ll give you an example, the footage of Disney playing baseball with his colleagues. I had seen it once somewhere in another film but we were not finding and nobody at Disney could find it and then all of a sudden they found it and not only did they find it but it had sound. Most of the footage from that era as you probably know doesn’t come with sound attached, so we do sound design. So when you hear those voices cheering Disney as he is hitting the balls and running the bases, those are the voices of the people there and those kinds of finds were very exciting because they helped to really tell the story in a way that you wouldn’t be able to do without that kind of material.

Disney’s fascination with using new technology is a theme of the documentary and there is a charming example of one of his earliest cartoons, before he had his own company, with a real little girl interacting with animated characters, like this Laugh-o-Gram production from 1923, featuring Walt Disney himself.

He was an innovator, no question in a lot of different areas, and technology was definitely an important part of his ability to innovate. So he was always pushing things. It wasn’t that he was actually inventing things but he would see how other people were doing things and he had these ideas to take them to the next level. I think sound is a great example of that and we use that as our main example of his technical innovation in the film. Other cartoonists were using sound and experimenting with sound and sound was becoming a part of the movie business. But what Disney did with sound was to take it and really make it an integral part of what the film was about so that the film didn’t make sense without sound, instead of the sound just being kind of layered on top of it. He had a way of pushing things and what I think is really interesting too is that he understood the potential. It wasn’t that he figured all these things out, it was like he had an idea and then he would surround himself with the most talented people in every category. If you’re thinking about artistry, the most talented artists, when it came to technology the most talented people with that, so a perfect example is his collaboration with Ub Iwerks. You know Ub Iwerks was very talented but also he really was technically amazingly savvy. So Ub helped Disney take things to the next level. I don’t think alone either of them could have done what they did but together they did these amazing things. So Disney was always collaborating with the top people. Now he was always in charge, there was no question that he was the visionary, he was in charge but he recognized talent and he was able to attract talent. And that’s how I think his technological innovation happened because I don’t think, he certainly wasn’t technical wiz, it was more that he was figuring out how to do that with other people’s talent.

But the documentary is frank in showing that he cultivated talent and he appreciated talent and yet he alienated a lot of the talent, resulting in a strike and defections to a rival studio, both which hurt him deeply.

Copyright PBS 2015
Copyright PBS 2015

He was a complicated boss. I think he was a very good leader. He knew how to create a sense of excitement, he knew how to translate vision and get other people excited about it but at the same time I think he could be quite insensitive. He treated some people very kindly, very well and then treated other people not as well and he was very unaware of how he alienated people. As the film portrays, the strike is the ultimate example of something that could have probably been avoided by a leader who had been more aware of himself and what was going on around him. He was blind to things that were happening right in front of him and so he could be a very difficult boss. I think he was very demanding. He demanded the highest level of performance from people and some people did very well under that but some people were mad that they were not being properly compensated. They were working long hours without being recognized for the work they were doing. I think he could be very difficult and so he was charming but he was also I think demanding and difficult.

One of the film’s most moving sections concerns the brief time Disney spent as a child in the small town of Marceline, Missouri, which he thought of always as the happiest time of his childhood. Disneyland’s Main Street and many of the settings of his film reflected his idyllic memories of Marceline.

Right from reading the first biography it was clear that Marceline was a hugely important place and whether it’s a real place or more of an imagined memory of a place it was crucial and so it was clear that we needed to include it in both his upbringing but also how he remembered it. And so we were especially happy to have footage of his return to the town with his brother as adults. It was just such a wonderful way to be able to take note of how important Marceline had been to him as a child and how important it was to him. And then what better way to see him as a middle-aged man in a suit kind of visiting this little town in the Midwest and how important it was. So I feel like that’s where my job as a documentary filmmaker is so fun because it’s like you’re using these finds that you have, we found that footage and I was like, “Okay, this is the scene and this is going to be how we really show how it builds into Disneyland and what does Disneyland mean and so Marceline is in a way kind of a version of a Disneyland for Disney. For Walt Disney it is this place in imagination, a place where he felt safe, a place where he was with animals and nature and an escape from the troubles and the problems of real life and so I think that’s what Marceline represented for Disney and then Disney takes that and makes Disneyland.

Colt wants the film to show people Disney as a person, a man of vision, a man of sentiment, and a dreamer who always liked to remind people that it all started with a mouse.

When people hear “Disney” they may think of the company or its products. It’s very easy now especially with the amazing success of the Disney company since his death to forget who he was and that he was a real person. I want people to be able to take away that he was human and that he was human both an exemplary human being and also he had flaws, and he was complicated and that some of his greatest successes came out of difficult things from his own personal life and experience. And that it’s a layered and much more a kind of deep and interesting story than the legend of Walt Disney.
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Biography Directors Documentary Film History Interview Television

Interview: Legendary Disney Animator Floyd Norman of “The Jungle Book”

Posted on February 10, 2014 at 8:00 am

floyd norman headshotI am a big fan of Disney’s The Jungle Book, the last animated film personally overseen by Walt Disney. Tomorrow, a gorgeous new Diamond Edition will be released, and so I got a chance to talk to one of the animators who worked on the film, the wonderful Floyd Norman.

Is it true that when this film was first being put together Walt Disney threw everything out and started over again? How did that all happen?

You know Walt Disney was the boss at the Walt Disney studio.  It was pretty much a one-man studio in the old days and that means Walt Disney ran everything.  So the good part is you only had to please one guy. That was the nice part.  But Bill Peet who was Walt’s ace story man had been developing Kipling’s The Jungle Book throughout most of 1965.  Now Bill liked to work alone.  He had done the adaptation of “101 Dalmatians” all by himself.  He had adapted and written “Sword in the Stone” all by himself and he was also doing “The Jungle Book.”  It was going to be another solo act from Bill only this time Walt Disney did not care for Bill’s take on the story.  He thought it was much too dark in tone and he and Bill had gotten in a big argument and Bill walked off the movie.  Well that gave him an opportunity for a new story crew to be put in place and I was part of that new crew to basically rewrite the film.

Is it true that Walt said to ignore the book by Rudyard Kipling?

Oh very definitely. Walt called us all in and he said he wanted a show of hands.  He said, “How many of you have read Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book?  Nobody raised their hands.  Nobody had read it.  Walt said, “Good, don’t read it.  I don’t want you to read it because I am going to tell the story a different way.”  So we started from scratch having never read The Jungle Book. I know it sounds crazy but that is what Walt wanted.

One of the things that makes this movie so popular is that it has some of the all-time great animated characters.Jungle Book DE_Concept Art10

Oh you bet! That is very true.  The characters are really the stars of this film.  Now keep in mind the characters had already been developed by Kipling in his novels and Bill Peet had already taken these same characters Bagheera the panther, Baloo the Bear, Kaa the snake, and Shere Khan the tiger and further developed them for Disney.  In a way we had our work already cut out for us.  The characters were already there.  The personalities were already in place.  All we had to do now as story artists was to take these characters and put them in fun, exciting, and entertaining situations.  So that was our job but as far as the character work, that groundwork had already been laid for us.

Had the actors been cast for the voices?

Many of them had already been cast when I started on the film.  Mowgli had been cast.  Walt had already chosen Phil Harris to be Baloo the bear.  We knew we would be using Sebastian Cabot as Bagheera the panther.  Sterling Holloway was already at the studio because Sterling was there recording “Winnie the Pooh.”  So Walt said, “Hey we’ve got Sterling here, we might as well use him while he is here.” We grabbed Sterling to be the voice of Kaa the snake.  So some of these things had already been done but a lot of them were happening as we were moving ahead on the new film story.

Did you observe bears, panthers, or tigers?  There is a certain amount of animal movement but there is a certain amount of kind of anthropomorphic human movement in these characters.  How do you do that?

That became mainly the job of our animators.  They are the guys who were going to bring these characters to life.  So they are the ones that are going to be truly studying animal movement and behavior.  Guys like Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, and Ollie Johnson are the guys who are really going to be taking these characters and bringing them to life.  Our job as story tellers was knowing that we already had great Disney animators who were going to take our characters and make them live.  Our job was to basically tell the story.  So in one sense you might say our job was little bit easier in that we didn’t have to go out and go to the zoo and study animals.  We can kind of take a certain amount of license of knowing we are going to have bears, panthers, and lions and the like behave like people.  It made our job a little bit easier that we didn’t think about them so much as animals but as personalities.

With Kaa the snake however, you really take advantage of the coils and the movement of the snake.Walt & Studio

Kaa was a very shifty sneaky kind of character and Sterling Holloway gave him the perfect voice with his sibilance of a lot of hissing and a lot of “S” sounds perfect for the song “Trust In Me” a good deal of hissing there as well.   So we just had fun with the characters.  We had these marvelous characters and so it was just a great opportunity for a story guys.  Our work could not have been more fun to take these great characters and then just put them through their paces.  In many ways it made our job a lot easier.

I saw on your blog the photograph of the old setup that the animators had back in the 60’s.  The silver thing is like a Lazy Susan turntable?

That is exactly it.  It rotates so the artist doesn’t have to worry about moving his/her body they can simply rotate the disk and have it in any position they need to draw on.  So it was very practical.  It made sense.

Tell me a little bit about what you think the good and bad elements are of the changes in technology and animation.

Well you know that has been a debate that has been going on now for some time.  I think it popped up again this morning.  A bunch of animation fans — we call them animation geeks — started an argument over a statement made by our creative officer John Lasseter and it had to do with hand drawn animation and digital animation. This debate has been going on for the past few years and it is not going to stop any time soon.  Pixar really pushed animation in a whole new direction.  Technology changed animation and I think it changed it forever.  We don’t make films the same way we did in years past and that is why I posted that photo on my blog of the drawing board and the pencil, and the paper.  This is like today ancient history.  We don’t make films like that anymore.  This is not to denigrate that process because that process gave us Disney classics but now we have moved on to a new way of making films.  Technology has moved in and some might say encroached on the process but I think Walt Disney would have welcomed it because Walt Disney was always pushing towards the future and not looking back at the past.  You just move forward, that is all you can do and take advantage of the great new tools that the technology has given us.

Do you have a favorite moment in “The Jungle Book” or favorite song or character?

I could always say my sequence! (Laughter).  The song where the snake sings a lullaby to Mowgli.  He sings, “Trusssst in Me” and he hypnotizes Mowgli.  Well I knew that I could not have the boy just stand there and fall asleep, I wanted to make it fun.  I wanted to make it entertaining and funny.  So what I had Kaa the snake do was sing a lullaby to Mowgli but have him do things in his coils like the coils form a hammock and the kid rocks back and forth in the hammock.  The coils form steps and the kid sleepwalks down the steps and he does other things that are just fun and funny.  Well I had to come up with those ideas because you’ve got to keep things interesting on screen and you have to entertain the audience.

You don’t want to put your audience to sleep.  You want to put Mowgli to sleep but you don’t want to put the audience to sleep so I came up with a lot of interesting little bits where I could get a smile or a laugh and it was just such a pleasure working on this sequence and the recording session with Sterling Holloway because I was there with him when he recorded “Trust In Me” and just to create this great little sequence that was funny back in 1966 but it is still funny today.

My favorite parts are the expression on Mowgli’s face and also when Kaa falls out of the tree.

Oh yea, we had Kaa fall of the tree twice. (Laughter).  Each time complaining about his sacroiliac.

Was the portrayal by Tom Hanks of Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks” pretty much like your experience with him?

Yes.  Yes.  I was simply delighted by Tom’s performance of Walt Disney and I have to remind people that Tom Hanks does not look like Walt Disney.  Tom Hanks does not even sound like Walt Disney but in his performance on screen I felt Mr. Hanks managed to capture the essence of Walt Disney so I thought it was simply a great performance and I loved the film.  I’ve seen it several times.  I like it every time I see it.

When you were growing up what were the images that really excited you?  What were the pictures that really made you think about being somebody who makes pictures yourself?

My grandmother used to take me to the Santa Barbara Art Museum when I was a little kid so I was exposed to art at an early age and got to know the work of the masters.  Even as I grew older they used to have art lessons on Saturday morning at the Santa Barbara art museum and I attended those so I was already headed for a career in art one way or the other.  I just fell in love with drawing and painting and eventually even with storytelling.

You worked with the greatest animators of all time.  Who were some of the ones that really taught you something?

Oh my!  Coming to the Disney studio when I did, believe you me they were masters were still here; that is the people who made the films I saw as a child were still working.  So think of the advantage I had to learn from the best and the brightest and to learn from the top animators, the top background artists, the top story tellers.  They were all here and they were very gracious with their time.  I wrote in my book Animated Life: A Lifetime of tips, tricks, techniques and stories from a Disney Legend that I had a master class in animation simply by being here at Disney; exposed to so much talent, to so much genius, and so many wonderful men and women who took the time to teach us young kids so that we would learn and become better at our craft as well.

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Behind the Scenes Interview

The Jungle Book

Posted on February 9, 2014 at 9:55 am

Lowest Recommended Age: All Ages
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, predatory animals
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 1966
Date Released to DVD: February 10, 2014 ASIN: B00GDT5T9Y

jungle book diamond editionThe last animated film personally overseen by Walt Disney  is “The Jungle Book,” inspired by the Rudyard Kipling story of a boy abandoned in the forest who is raised by the animals.  It has some of the most endearing and memorable characters in all of Disney animation, including two voiced by top musician/singers Baloo the Bear (Phil Harris) and King Louie (Louis Prima).  And it has some of Disney’s all-time best songs from the Sherman Brothers (the brother team recently portrayed in “Saving Mr. Banks”), featuring “The Bear Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You.”

A panther named Bagheera (the aristocratic-sounding Sebastian Cabot) finds a baby in a basket deep inside the jungle.  It is Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman, the son of director Wolfgang Reitherman).  Bagheera knows the infant will not survive unless he can find someone to care for him.  So, he takes him to a wolf, who raises him for ten years along with her cubs.  The animals call Mowgli “man-cub,” and he grows up happy and well cared for.

But then  Shere Khan, a man-eating Bengal tiger (silkily voiced by George Sanders), returns to the jungle, and it is clear that Mowgli is not safe.  Bagheera agrees to escort him to the village, where he can be with other humans.  But Mowgli does not want to leave the only home he has ever known.  He loves the jungle.  And the animals she sees along the way only make him more sure that he wants to stay in the only home he has ever known, even after he is hypnotized and almost killed by Kaa the python (husky-voiced Sterling Holloway, best known as Winnie the Pooh).  He marches with the elephant troops led by Colonel Hathi and his wife (J. Pat O’Malley and Verna Felton of “Sleeping Beauty”).  King Louie is an orangutan who promises to keep Mowgli in the jungle if he will teach him the secrets of being a human, like making fire.  But Mowgli was raised in the jungle, so he does not know how.  He loves the easy-going Baloo the bear best of all.

But the jungle is dangerous.  When Baloo tries to tell Mowgli that he has to go to the village, Mowgli runs away.  Kaa and Shere Khan are after him.  The animals who love Mowgli will have to find a way to show him that it is time for him to leave the jungle.

This is one of Disney’s most entertaining animated classics, and it is a pleasure to see this gorgeous new Diamond edition.


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Animation Based on a book Classic Coming of age DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy For the Whole Family Remake Stories About Kids Talking animals
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