Ted Thomas discusses the making of his new documentary, Walt & El Grupo, revealing a hidden chapter in the fabled life of Walt Disney.
The new Walt & El Grupo documentary from the husband and wife filmmaking team of Ted Thomas and Kuniko Okubo (Frank and Ollie) opens today in limited release in LA and New York. It's a fascinating convergence of art and politics, following the adventures of Walt Disney and his animators on a goodwill tour of Latin America in the summer of 1941, during the tumultuous studio strike, at the urging of the Roosevelt administration to counter Hitler's attempt to woo the region over to the Axis. It may have been an opportune time for Disney to get away, but he wasn't interested in a PR escapade, so he managed to swing a sweet production deal, and out of this invaluable cultural exchange came a series of Latin American-themed films, including Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. I recently chatted with Thomas, son of legendary Disney animator Frank Thomas, who was on the tour.
Bill Desowitz: I really appreciated the new insight gleaned about Walt from the movie.
Oh, good. Well, I'm hoping so. I've come to feel like this is the missing chapter in Disney's biography. We really get the opportunity to get a different insight into what made him tick.
BD: How long did you work on it?
TT: We started the project in 2003 and wrapped at the beginning of 2008, which gave us five years to really dig into it.
BD: What motivated you to take this on?
TT: Well, it was a coming together of a lot of different elements. I had grown up hearing stories about the trip, since my dad was on it, but those were pretty funny.
BD: So the funny little anecdotes didn't give you the full sense of what they experienced?
TT: Either they were funny or insightful on a people to people level. My dad would comment, "You know, when we were there, every vendor on the street had a song for whatever it was they were doing." And then I had the benefit of being an exchange student to Brazil and then studying in India and living in Japan, so a good part of my adult life has been living and traveling internationally. It was in 2003 that I heard that J.B. Kaufman was doing this book on the "Good Neighbor" films, which is coming out in October and called South of the Border with Disney. And at the same time, Diane Disney Miller gave a call and said that J.B. had this shoebox of photographs from the trip that I should take a look at.
BD: That must've opened up a treasure trove.
TT: Well, it really did. But it was also like opening up a long, lost tomb because here are all these photographs -- and the Disney people are recognizable -- but then here are all these hosts and artists and dignitaries they're with and who the heck are they? So, the challenge for us was to go to school and find out who these people were. And then once we did that, mainly by making use of the itinerary that was kept, [we could dig deeper] because the trip was government-sponsored.
BD: Yes, $500,000.
TT: I think that included film budgets too. And that's where it came in the most help because years later Walt was very careful to point out that these were loan guarantees for the films, they were not actually bankrolled. He made a big point of the fact that Saludos Amigos made its money back and then some and Three Caballeros also. But FDR got what he wanted from the trip.
BD: Right, they were trying to make sure that Hitler didn't have too much influence in the region.
TT: Very much so. Academics told me that there wasn't actually a government yet that was teetering on the edge but there were politicians within each government who had very strong ties or sympathies with the Axis. And the feeling was, if they're going to throw their weight around in South America, then we'd better do the same thing. Once the war breaks out, it would not be a good idea if there was a weak flank in that region.
BD: So, what were some of the main challenges?
TT: Well, it was definitely the kind of film that evolved as you made it, because so much of it was informed by what you uncovered and who you met. I'd say the big challenge was figuring out how to integrate all of these various elements. That was also the most fun. Clearly we had the films to work with and we found these outtakes and, boy, they were a jumble. Some are only a few frames long. And we stretched them out to make shots. We had to figure out where they were and whatever kind of photographic reinforcement there was, and then we had to figure out if there was a people story to tell, either from the El Grupo side or the side of the hosts.
BD: That's really the heart of it, isn't it?
TT: Yeah, the families and the families, and, in the end, the film is very much about family: how we create them and rub up against each other and the way we influence and affect each other. Certainly meeting the descendents of the people who were involved in this trip felt like a great, big family reunion after a while because certainly the children of El Grupo were eager to have the story told, and when we found someone in Latin America they were equally interested in talking about the experience and the stories that they had heard, and the impact that this cultural exchange had on their families.
BD: Speaking of family, where did your financing come from?
TT: It came fully from the Walt Disney Family Foundation. So that call from Diane Disney Miller got the project started but it certainly didn't ensure it. Basically it was an invitation to do research and whether there was a film to be made and then whether the foundation wanted to support it.
BD: What were some of the biggest revelations?
TT: I don't think that I was as aware how devastating a period the strike was, or the extent to which it changed the financial problems and the reorganization of the studio. I came to feel that it really was a different place up until April 1941 and then a different place again after August 1941. It was still a fascinating place, but it was not the place that had made Snow White.
BD: You really get the sense of the strike and the war really soured Walt.
TT: Yeah, well, you can say, blame it on Hitler. If there hadn't been a World War II, we'd be living in a different world and the Disney studio would've been different. I would say that the other big thing that struck me was how that generation, and, in particular, those people, reflected hard-nosed optimism. It's an optimism having lived through a lot of hard knocks and, in spite of it, they were very funny, upbeat people, in particular, when the world around them was going to hell in a hand basket. It makes for such a vivid contrast and made me reflect on our own time, too. And I draw certain inspiration from the way those people looked at the world, Walt, in particular. He says, "Well, you know, something good comes out of it -- you pick up the pieces and you go on." If you want to know what made him tick, I think that one sentence tells you.
BD: The movie reveals a very dramatic impact on the young Mary Blair and how it would shape her future work. What was the impact on your dad?
TT: I think that it made an impact on him on a people to people level in terms of how you stage an idea, communicate an idea, to go across cultures. What kind of business can you come up with to communicate who your character is?
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.