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    Author Michael Barrier Talks About Walt Disney - a disneytim Interview


    Author Michael Barrier
    (Photo courtesy www.michaelbarrier.com)

    Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with author Michael Barrier about his new book, The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. The book is an interesting, if somewhat incomplete, account of Walt's life. Nevertheless, I found Barrier to be a fascinating person to talk with, a man who is not afraid to share his opinions on Walt Disney and his body of work--some of which may not be popular with hardcore Disney fans.

    Despite his strong opinions, I found Barrier to be soft-spoken and thoughtful. He chooses his words carefully and makes his points without being argumentative. He was also very generous with his time (we talked on the phone for nearly an hour and a half), for which I am appreciative.

    Below are excerpts from the first part of our conversation . . .

    On researching The Animated Man and having limited access to the Disney Archives:

    I spent a lot of time in the Disney Archives from 1990 to 1997. I canít even guess how many months in total, but probably 4 or 5 months all together. I went through a tremendous amount of material and I used a lot of that in Hollywood Cartoons, my earlier book, but I also used it as a resource for this book. Iíve also drawn on a tremendous number of interviews I did for Hollywood Cartoons with people who worked for Disney or knew Disney, going back to Rudy Ising and Hugh Harmon who knew Walt back in (the early 1920s). Thereís a body of material that Iíve drawn upon thatís more extensive and closer to the source than what has been typical of Disney biographies. Bob Thomas, of course, did have access to a lot of Disney primary material that other writers didnít, but I think he was constrained by the need to be writing an ďofficialĒ biography that had to fall within certain boundaries.

    By not having access to certain documents at the Disney Archives, some of them family documents, I had the incentive to go out and look for other sources of information. In Marceline, (Missouri, Walt's boyhood hometown) for example, I found a local historian who had a great accumulation of information about the early years of the last century and could provide me with dates (such as) when Elias Disney visited Marceline looking for a farm one night, the exact date when they left and moved to Kansas City, things of this kind that are not in anyone elseís book and I think give a more solid underpinning to the book than a lot of other books have. There are other Marceline related documents I turned up that, as far as I can tell, have not been used by other historians and other biographers and I think give the book a richer texture.

    There were a lot of things that I probably would not have pursued as energetically if Iíd had the access to the Disney Archives for this book. I think the Disney Archives can encourage a certain laziness because thereís so much there you can wind up not pursuing other leads that may give you a different perspective and illuminate aspects of Waltís life that simply relying on the Archives canít. Not being able to use the Disney Archives this time did prevent me from having some kinds of details in the book, but it probably resulted in other kinds of details being there. On balance Iím not sure I came out badly.

    I have continued to add file drawers full of clippings, full of copies of documents and original documents in some cases. I still add to them. Iím still interested in tracking down every detail I can find about Waltís life. Iím posting little corrections and clarifications on my website (www.michaelbarrier.com) as new information comes up or I discover I have a couple of dates that I was slightly off on in my book for example I posted corrections of that.
    On Walt Disney, the person, and writing the "definitive" biography:

    He was a fascinating man. He had so much energy. He was involved in so many things. He was always looking for some new outlet, something to get excited about, something to pursue. My wife was reading the manuscript of the book and at one time she just laughed and put the manuscript down and said, ďI canít believe how many things this guy was doing. He was always charging off in so many different directions.Ē It was true. Up until the very end of his life, he was still trying to find things to get enthusiastic about and pursue. And this means thereís a tremendous paper trail and a trail of personal reminiscences about him that, in some cases, (are) still waiting to be uncovered. Thatís why I write in my book I donít think a definitive biography is probably even possible. I thinks itís not possible to write a definitive biography of anybody who was interesting enough to warrant having a biography written of them. If you have a definitive biography, it means probably the person wasnít worth the trouble in the first place.

    I think there is still an inadequate appreciation of the magnitude of Waltís greatest accomplishments and I think that over time there will be a greater appreciation of them and there will be fresh biographical efforts that may cast new light on both phases of his career. I hope that as interest rises and other biographers go to work, there will not be this question of who is allowed to see the most stuff. I think itís a sad thing that Disney has been much much more restrictive in their archives in the last few years than they were when I was doing research in the 90ís. I think ultimately thereís going to have to be some sort of Disney Library, a Disney Archive that is available to qualified researchers whoíll take the full measure of this amazing man and look at him from different angles, give us different biographies that really have more solid footing than most of the books that have been written about him to date. Most of them have been either company authorized books that tend to look at him from a certain awestruck perspective or ridiculously bad books like the Marc Eliot biography (Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince) and the (Leonard) Mosley biography (Disney's World: A Biography), both of which are just dreadful books.
    On Disneyland:

    Itís a place I have come to like a lot. I saw it initially in 1969ójust two and a half years after Walt died and still very much his park. I remember being surprised that I was dissatisfied with it. Iíve since realized itís because I was measuring it against the films and itís a different kind of undertaking. In many ways, itís not as serious an undertaking, but on its own terms, Iíve finally come to accept that itís highly enjoyable.

    Considering that they built this thing in less than a year, itís an amazing piece of work, especially considering the financial constraints they were operating under. I just added a note on my website. The Disney people, the Disney books and Disney sources always say work on the site began in July of '54. Well, itís pretty clear now from whatís turned up since my book was published, work seems to have begun only at the very end of August. So they actually built this thing in a little over ten months which was just an amazing thing.

    I think in terms of physical scale, thereís no question that Disneyland was an amazing project. But, I think in terms of artistic ambition, in terms of scope and lasting impact, I think the best films are unquestionably greater achievements. But Disneyland on its own terms is a wonderful place. The last time I was there was in June 2005. I literally went there on a hot, summer day when it was going to be packed with lots of ordinary people, and I decided I was just going to try to experience the park as closely as possible as the average American does and I had a great time. It was very enjoyable.

    Something that I was very aware of then and later is thereís so much of the park that is rooted in the films and uses the films as a sort of a gateway for visitors to come into the park and their acceptance and enjoyment of the park, I think, is facilitated enormously by their awareness of the films and their enjoyment of the films. Some of the rides in Fantasyland, for example, simply donít make any sense unless youíve seen the films and are experiencing the ride as a. . . recollection of what youíve seen on the screen. In some cases, of course, the connections are more tenuous like Adventureland, which originally was going to be True-Life Adventureland, of course, and the True-Life Adventures have certainly faded in significance. A lot of the films, the later films especially, the live action films, have not held up well and are certainly not a major part of audience memories, not a major factor in their enjoyment of Disneyland or other Disney films.
    On his frustration with Walt's live action films:

    Part of it was the way he made them. In animated films, of course, he was very intensively involved in story and during the actual production of the film he was seeing the director very frequentlyóless frequently than he was seeing the animatorsóbut, every stage of the process, he was intensely involved in some of it and he could always step into other phases of it very readily and make his wishes felt. His directorsópeople like Wilfred Jacksonówere very gifted men, but they were devoted to giving Walt what he wanted, to understanding his wishes, to translating those wishes onto film.

    He had a different situation with the live action films. He was very involved in the script stage and he was very involved in the end phase of the films, the editing in particular. But, because his experience with animation had given him a limited sense of what a director could bring to a live action film, he liked people that were kind of low profile, efficient. People who would work with him on a script and take the script and give him film that he could assemble as he wished. What this meant as a practical matter was you donít have in the live action films what great directors bring to the best live action films in terms of the shaping of scenes, the staging and the pacing, the nuances of an actorís performance. You donít have the kinds of subtleties and richness that any great live-action director brings. You had people like Robert Stevenson, for example, who were obviously competent, workmanlike directors who would shoot the film, but you wouldnít have any Michael Cimino-type episodes with Disney films. I guess the closest to that would be 20,000 Leagues, but that was a very unusual situation in many respects.

    You have a lot of frustrating Disney live action movies. The scripts are, actually, frequently very solid. There are some very good actors in themóI think Hayley Mills in Pollyanna is just a marvel. But itís only rarely that you have a film that has the kind of depth, the exploration of character, a sense of strong characters interacting in interesting ways thatís a given in films like Snow White, for example. The few (live action) movies that I really liked were mostly directed by Ken Annakin, who was a British director who did The Story of Robin Hood and The Sword and the Rose. The best one he did for my money is Third Man on the Mountain, which is just a wonderful movie which Iíve seen several times now and it never fails to enthrall me. What you have in this movie is what you have in the best Disney animated films, which is a really sensitive, deep exploration of character. You have in Annakinís hands, like other Disney films, a good solid script, but you have this awareness of how people interact with each other, how they like and dislike each other. Thereís egos clashing, peoples ambitions, parental concerns, this constant interplay of motivations and emotions that just makes it a very rich film.
    On Disney's poor use of talented writers and actors:

    Thereís a completely forgotten Disney movie called Savage Sam with Brian Keith. I was looking at this movie and I was just going nuts. You could just see these actors not knowing what to do. And you could see Brian Keith being wasted, this tremendously strong figure. And you had a story that couldíve been as powerful as, say, The Searchers. It has that kind of resonance to it.

    It was sort of indicative of the decline in the Disney live action films that you have Old Yeller, a solid piece of work with some good performances and a very good story, and then you come to Savage Sam. (Waltís) own interests were waning, obviously, and he was devoting much more time to Disneyland and other projects. Fred Gipson (author and screenwriter of Old Yeller and Savage Sam) was just anguished over what he thought was this mishandling of his book and he was right. It was so much a wasted opportunity. It couldíve been a much better film.

    Brian Keith was, to me, like (Davy Crockett star) Fess Parker. You have these tremendously strong, appealing male figures and they just get thrown away in movies that are not worthy of them. I looked at all the Disney live action features when I was working on the book, looking at them as much as possible chronologically, and itís very frustrating to see wonderful raw material and, in many cases, wonderful actors--Fred MacMurray, another example--and you see them thrown away thanks to this hack direction that Walt obviously preferred.

    It was a price he was willing to pay. He wanted to keep control, rather than hire a really talented director to come in and make a film that would inevitably have that directorís stamp on it. Walt preferred that the films be distinctively Disney even if that meant they were diluted and second or third rate Disney as opposed to the kind of great films that he made when he was totally involved (like) he was with Snow White or any of the early features. There was a kind of greatness in those films that you have in films that have been directed by first rate directors. Itís just a great pity that he wasnít able to step back and say, "These films arenít good enough. I want them to have my name on them and I also want them to be really good films, therefore Iím going to cede some of my control and Iím going to hire somebody, one of these exceptional Hollywood directors, and let them do their best."
    --disneytim--

    Last edited by dramaqueen; 04-22-2007 at 02:55 PM.

  2. #2

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    Re: Author Michael Barrier Talks About Walt Disney - a disneytim Interview

    You have gotten some amazing interviews! I'm so happy for you, thanks for sharing them with us!



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  3. #3

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    Re: Author Michael Barrier Talks About Walt Disney - a disneytim Interview

    Part Two . . .

    On Walt's growing "sophistication" and detachment from the public as he got older:

    Walt’s early films throughout the 30s were simplicity and directness and honest emotion. (They were) absolutely central to those films. One problem was that Walt, as he lived in Los Angeles for 40 years, he wasn’t a little country boy any more. He wasn’t a farm boy. The problem is if you begin with that kind of openness and directness, there is a risk entailed in that. You have to be willing to expose yourself in a way that a lot of artists do not. That becomes more difficult as you grow older, as you live in an environment that is much more sophisticated then, say, Marceline or Kansas City was in the teens or early 20s. Walt, by the early 1960s, had travelled far more than most Americans. He might go to Europe for months at a time.

    He had moved in exalted circles. (Actor) Richard Todd talked about this when I interviewed him a few years ago. At that time, Richard Todd was very much involved with some of the upper reaches of English society and Walt and Richard Todd were friends. Richard Todd gave him entrťe—it seems kind of funny that someone had to give Walt Disney entrťe to anything—but that was true back in the 50’s. Richard Todd, without being critical, said Walt was something of a social climber. He enjoyed meeting all these fancy people. He had become, in the early 60s, a man who was much richer than the ordinary American, much better traveled, much more sophisticated. He moved with his friends, the people he knew, the people he saw regularly. His correspondence certainly reveals this. He was just very much at ease and at a (high) level. President Eisenhower was one of his buddies in the later years. They saw each other in Palm Springs and they exchanged letters. They were on very friendly terms.

    When you have that kind of life, when you've risen to that kind of level, you are a sophisticated, very well traveled, very wealthy man. If your stock in trade as an artist is sentiment, then you have a little bit of a problem because your connection with those people and with those emotions necessarily has been attenuated. You see this all the time with people who are in the media or movies or television. They become separated from their roots unavoidably and despite their best efforts.
    The people who interviewed (Walt) in the early 60’s were taken aback by the kind of man they found him to be. He was not this rural innocent. I think he still wanted to be at some level, but he was a man who had become a much more different kind of man with a very large company at his disposal. (He had the) opportunity to do things with that company and at Disneyland, in particular, that were simply beyond the imaginations of ordinary Americans.
    On Disney's total control of his company:

    He could not surrender control in a way that would let other people pick up the slack that his involvement in so many other activities had created. And that’s a great pity, but again, it’s a characteristic of the entrepreneurial personality. The hardest thing (entrepreneurs) ever have to do, as their companies grow, is find some way to share control, to surrender absolute control of their operation.

    Walt was extraordinary as the company became so much bigger, he still was in charge of it, in active control of it to a much greater extent than I think most entrepreneurs in that situation could’ve been. The price he paid for that was the quality of a lot of things that came out under his name. The movies, in particular, suffered. The people making them would fall back on what was safe and obvious because they were not going to get into trouble for doing that.
    On Walt's prickly relationship with his employees and the strike of 1941:

    I went through all of what’s called the interoffice correspondence, starting back in the early '30s, and every once in a while you’d find the evidence of exactly that. There were some surprising cases like Pinto Colvig (the voice of Goofy), for example. He was essentially fired, I guess in '38, because Walt had gotten sick of him from what he saw as a lack of commitment to the work and a whining attitude. There was a guy named Chester Cobb, who quit around 1939 or '40. He wrote a letter to Walt being very critical of the work that was being done. Walt wrote a very bristling letter (in return).

    He expected loyalty and commitment and it could be hard. There were people who wanted to give him that commitment but who essentially wanted to stake out reservoirs of their own personalities, of their own interests. So you had, particularly around the time of the strike when this was most acute, when you had situations like Art Babbitt’s (who was among the strike leaders). To me it’s revealing that, going back to NLRB documents and Babbitt’s correspondence with (animation historian) Robert Field, you can sense the feeling of betrayal on both sides. Walt certainly felt betrayed by people who weren’t willing to simply bow their heads and do what he wanted, but other people felt betrayed too because they saw in what he was doing a betrayal of the great ambitions that they all had for the animation medium.

    I think the reason (the strike) could have been prevented is that the Disney studio was a unique organization because it was dominated by people who really cared about their work. I think, not just at a professional level, but as artists. I think the esprit de corps at Disney was probably greater than certainly any other cartoon studio. I focus on the strike in the very first chapter of the book, the introductory chapter. This, I think, is a critical moment and I quote (assistant animator) George Goepper (about) a memorandum that he sent to Walt, suggesting that Walt needed to come to his people and say, “We’re in a jam. We need help. And here’s the problem.”
    Instead of essentially condemning his people for mistakes he had made, (Disney) should have come to them and said, “You know, we’re in a jam and I want to pull together. We have to figure out some way to ride this out. It’s going to mean some people are going to lose their jobs, which I hate, but we have to do it, and if we work together, we can survive this and eventually get back to doing what we all want to do.”

    I think this again is the entrepreneurial nature of his personality. I think it was very hard for him to do that. Entrepreneurs think their companies are extensions of themselves as much as their arms and legs and they expect their employees to simply fulfill the function within that structure. And the idea that their employees are in some sense their collaborators and that they are as dependent on their employees as their employees are dependent on them--Walt could acknowledge this in abstract fashion, but emotionally I don’t think he ever quite believed it. He was as dependent on his animators and other creative people as they were on him. And I think there was a greater willingness on his employees’ parts to acknowledge their dependence on Walt than there was on his part to acknowledge his dependence on them.
    There may have been some kind of strike under any circumstances. It’s impossible to say. But I think the bitterness and the lasting ill effects of the strike would’ve been much less if Walt had been willng to admit to himself that this was a time when he had to have the help of his employees. Simply being the benevolant godfather of the studio was not going to be enough in these circumstances.
    On Walt's "softer side":

    He was a very emotional man. He broke into tears in public on more than one occasion when this whole (strike) business came up. And I think if somehow his emotion had been channeled into a speech to his employees . . . that let them know that he cared about them--if he had been able to say, “I need your help,” in effect, I think the difference could’ve been tremendous because a lot of the people there really cared about him. And others would’ve cared about him if he had not become so remote, if he’d been willing to open himself to them and be as open and vulnerable as he was to people who worked with him earlier in the 30s.

    I remember the first time I ever met Wilfred Jackson, we were just talking very calmly about what it was like to work for Walt Disney, and he started to cry. It’s just amazing. He was so moved. And it’s hard to imagine caring about a boss that way, but he did.

    Walt Disney was (also) a deeply serious man. He wasn’t being difficult or unpleasant simply to lord it over somebody else, to make a claim to them that he was the boss and they were subordinate to him. What was always most important, I think, was the work, what they were doing, the films. It was not a matter of saying, “I’m kicking you around to make sure you know who’s the boss.” It’s, “I’m kicking you around because I really care about what we’re doing and I want these films to be as good as possible . . . I’m going to be in there working to do better and, by God, you better be working to do better too.”
    On Walt's presence and corporate symbolism forty years after his death:

    There are a lot of companies that have their founders names still, that tip their hat to the founders. I think about Ford Motor Company—it’s Henry Ford’s name on it after all these years. But I think Disney is unique in the presence of the founder in the imagination of people who work there, not just his name and his picture. I saw Meet the Robinsons (recently). I was struck by the fact that they now have the Steamboat Willie logo at the start of the film, 80 years after it was made, and they have this quote from Walt at the very end, identifying him with the main character in the film. I don’t know of anything that compares to that. I wonder often about how healthy that is. It sometimes seems to me there’s a subtle undercurrent of negative thinking about Walt. Sometimes it must seem a little oppressive to have to always be thinking about Walt and trying to measure up to what he did. It’s still very much the Walt Disney Company much moreso than something like the Ford Motor Company is.

    I think there’s a diminishing awareness that Walt was a real person. To some extent that’s to the advantage of the Walt Disney Company and to some extent a disadvantage, I suppose. I think what’s really desireable now is finding some way to detach Walt—and this may happen naturally in the next 20 years or so. I think ultimately what will permit us to make a more intelligent assessment of Walt and his standing as an artist and an entrepreneur will be a certain separation between him and the company that may come about inevitably over time--as the things that Walt himself produced eventually slide out from under the company’s control and become more readily usable and available to other artists.

    There’s going to be the Family Museum in San Francisco, but I don’t expect much out of that. I certainly look forward to visiting it, but I can’t imagine it’s going to be revelatory in terms of what we know about Walt or what we think about his work. I think ultimately what will permit us to have a better perspective of Walt and his achievements will be when there’s an independent sort of Disney Library or Disney Archive where scholars can do the sort of research that has simply not been possible. I can’t say how or when. It may be sometime later in this century. Then we’ll not just have different perspectives on Walt by different scholars, but we’ll have better informed, more carefully analyzed perspectives on Walt. And I think then, maybe, we’ll have a better sense of what was really most enduring about his work and most important about his work. I think the films of the 30s are endlessly fascinating. Watching them in chronological order, it's just amazing to see how intensively Disney developed all these techniques and observations of human behavior that finally flowered in the early features.

    I won’t be around to see it, but I would be very surprised if later in this century he’s not regarded as one of the handful of truly great film artists, and Disney films are not studied as carefully as other great films or great works of literature or works of art. I think they hold up to that kind of scrutiny very well. I think because Disney is still so closely tied to the company, it makes it harder to look at what Walt himself did—who he was and what he did—and really evaluate his achievements without reference to what’s going on at the Walt Disney Company.
    Michael Barrier will be in Southern California next weekend to speak during the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA, April 28-29. He'll be part of the panel Biography: Icons on the Page on the 28th. Also participating will be fellow Disney biographer Neal Gabler, a speaker for Biography: 20th Century Lives later that day. Free tickets are available while supplies last. Visit www.latimes.com/extras/festivalofbooks for more information.

    --disneytim--
    Last edited by disneytim; 04-22-2007 at 03:46 PM.

  4. #4

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    Re: Author Michael Barrier Talks About Walt Disney - a disneytim Interview

    So nicely handled, another terrific job Tim!
    "If you don't know how to draw, you don't belong in this building" - John Lasseter 2006

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    Re: Author Michael Barrier Talks About Walt Disney - a disneytim Interview

    Really interesting!
    Thank you so much!

  6. #6

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    Re: Author Michael Barrier Talks About Walt Disney - a disneytim Interview

    Tim, that is an amazing piece of work. Thanks so much for taking time to bring us such an in-depth interview. I learned a lot.
    Rick


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