Just about everyone in the world knows the name Disney. Before most kids in the U.S. are able to walk, they have a favorite Disney character or know the words to a song from their favorite Disney movie. But how many know the story of the man behind the name? On Monday, PBS will begin airing "Walt Disney," the two-night, four-hour documentary event that tells the iconic animator and innovator's life story as part of the award-winning "American Experience" series.
"Walt Disney" director Sarah Colt, a veteran of the "American Experience" series, became fascinated by a man whose "drive and vision were remarkable." Colt spoke to the International Business Times about the making of the film, gaining access to the Disney archives, and why the film stays silent of allegations that Disney was an anti-semite.
Read the full interview with Sarah Colt below:
International Business Times: Obviously this film is part of the "American Experience" series, but why Walt Disney and why now?
Sarah Colt: Well, I think Walt Disney is so important to our history and I don't think you can think of anyone who has had more cultural impact on us than Disney, so I think he's a pretty obvious choice for "American Experience. I think the reason we were able to do it now is because for the first time the Disney company really opened up their archives and allowed us to use their collection in order to tell the story. It would not have been possible without that agreement and that agreement included that they would have no editorial control, which is something they have never done.
IBTimes: Do you think the prestige of the "American Experience" brand helped in getting that permission?
Colt: I absolutely think it did. To be able to say that "American Experience" was going to give the time to Walt Disney that we had given to Presidents and other notable Americans, and the track record of "American Experience" as being fair and balance and really doing our homework -- it had to be important to their decision.
IBTimes: After digging through all of that material, what made it into the film that fans may have never seen.
Colt: We had access to both archival footage and all of the films and television shows and some of the television shows have been forgotten, so that was a lot of fun. But we also had access to the archival material from behind the scenes and to some amazing audio. To give an example we have audio of him at his parents' 50th wedding anniversary where he's pretending to be a radio host and he's interviewing his parents and it is very revealing about who he was and who his parents were and just to hear his father's voice was so amazing. I had read about that audio and worried that it was not going to exist -- sometimes things like that get thrown out and they just have a transcript -- but in fact they still had the audio!
IBTimes: What did you personally learn about Disney that you did not know going in to the project?
Colt: I was really struck by the early Disney, which I really didn't know a lot about. In the 1930s, what he was able to do building up his studio, it's really an amazing story. It's full of great details about what he was trying to accomplish personally. I really think he felt like the studio was a family and he was trying to create a family atmosphere that maybe he did not have growing up, which is fascinating. Then, his ability to innovate, his confidence in his own ideas and his ability to recognize talent and bring talented people together and inspire them to work for his vision was fascinating. My big question was where does that come from? What about him and his environment and upbringing was responsible for that confidence? Most of us, even if we have a lot of ideas, the first time someone tells us we have a bad idea we move on, but not Disney.
Watch the trailer for 'Walt Disney' below:
IBTimes: The film does not address rumors that Disney was an anti-semite. How did you approach the more unflattering aspects and rumors about Disney's life, such as his anti-communist politics?
Colt: I did not want to shy away from any of those things because you want to give a fair and balance portrayal of a person. I don't think Disney was a political person in any way. I think he ventures into politics with his anti-communism efforts, which I think are really fueld by a personal sense of betrayal after the strike in his studio in 1941 when some of his writers and art directors went on strike, which was so confusing for him. To us watching it might seem obvious, but it was so confusing for him. How could they betray him in this way? The only way he could believe it was to come up with a fall guy and, for him, communism was that fall guy. I think after he testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) he retreats. He's not interested in it. It's not his comfort zone.
As for the other allegations against him, certainly people believe he was very anti-semitic. Now, all the evidence that was gathered by historians that have looked through all of his papers have not found any real evidence that he was vehemently anti-semitic. I did a film on Henry Ford and he definitely was anti-semitic and did some terrible things that were very destructive. There was no evidence that Walt Disney ever did. Ultimately, we don't talk about it in the because we could find no evidence that he was and it's a strange thing to talk about if it isn't true.
We do talk about women and gender. Basically, I'd say Walt Disney was a man of his time. He was not out front or behind. When you look through the lens of history, he was not hiring animators of color or women animators, but nobody was at the time. It's a complicated thing.
IBTimes: Do you think the anti-semitic perception is a tragic misperception of Disney? That label has stuck for decades now and seems to have been cemented by him testifying before HUAC.
Colt: Yeah, I think the people in Hollywood who were labeled communist were often Jewish and whether they were or were not communist you can extrapolate to say that if he was anti-communist, then he was also anti-semitic, but there's no evidence that he was. I think there are a lot of myths about Disney -- some people think he is still alive and is cryogenically frozen! -- because he looms so large, it's hard to imagine one person having such a big impact on the world, which is why we dedicated four hours to him in the movie.
IBTimes: So, just to be clear, your trips to the Disney archives did not turn up any evidence that Disney is cryogenically frozen?
Colt: They did not! You can write that in the story if you want. He is not cryogenically frozen. He is buried in a cemetery in Los Angeles.
The two-night premiere of "Walt Disney" begins Monday, Sep. 14 at 9 p.m. EDT on PBS.