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[Award winning documetarist Ted Thomas (and son of one of Walt's legendary "nine old men," Frank Thomas) talked to me about the extraordinary, evocative, lyrical feature length film, "Walt and el Grupo.]
GREG: Let's start with the chicken-or-the-egg thing. Was this project ignited by J.B. Kaufman's book, "South of the Border with Disney," or did it originate with Diane Disney Miller and The Walt Disney Family Museum?
TED: Kind of all of the above. Diane was interested in having stories told about her father that would bring his life story back to center stage. J. B. had been working on the idea for a book on the entire "Good Neighbor" film project, which was at least a decade. In the course of that, I came across what I call it "the magical shoe box" of photographs that [Disney animator] Norm Ferguson's daughter had given to J.B.--travel snapshots that were taken throughout the trip. When I was introduced to J.B. and Diane, she said, "You ought to take a look at JB's shoe box," which I did.
Immediately I began to look at each photo and think, "Where was this taken? When was this? Who are they with? What's the story here?" Those, to me, are all things that I turn over in my head when beginning a project and deciding whether or not there is a film to be told.
GREG: Diane surely was pleased that so many of the clips and photos showed Walt having fun and being a "regular guy."
TED: Yes. I am very happy we were able to do that. I think that, outside of the Disney family films, there is more footage of him in this project than any film I know of.
GREG: Would you say that, percentage-wise, that a lot of what we see in "Walt and el Grupo" has never been seen by the general public before?
TED: Oh yes, oh yes. I would definitely say that is the case. Both for the photographs and the sixteen millimeter Kodachrome footage.
GREG: In the DVD audio commentary with you and J.B., it is mentioned that the group actually traveled in two parts for insurance reasons. It is edited to give the impression they are all going on the same flight?
TED: Yes. One of our bonus features covers this. The footage of them boarding the plane in Burbank it is not "verite" documentary footage. It was reconstructed several months later once they realized that they needed shots like that in "Saludos Amigos." There are a few other documentaries that have used this basic idea, but I would like to think that we finessed it a lot more than has ever been done before.
GREG: "Walt and el Grupo" is particularly entertaining because of a special three dimensional process in which the vintage photos are manipulated to create the illusion of depth. Can you explain how this was done?
TED: You start out by finding a photograph that is composed so it has a natural foreground, middle ground and background. If everybody is lined up in the background it doesn't work. But if it is something that already has an inherent depth to it, then you can use Photoshop to splice those three planes apart to create a foreground, middle ground and background. Then, using a program called "after effect," you can create your own version of a multiplane camera.
GREG: Also impressive were the shots of the studio that Walt and the artists set up in a hotel penthouse that were blended with current images of the same room today.
That is one of my favorite shots in the picture actually is when they "vanish." Everybody has left town and is going off different points of the compass. We faded away the studio and then we are left with the room today.
GREG: And then there's that rooftop dance scene, which you recreated for the film with people who had been there in the '40s. For those of us who watched "Saludos Amigos" and "The Three Caballeros" countless times, and seeing the people doing the traditional dances, it was fascinating to discover who some of the people actually were.
TED: Yeah. And to me, on some level, that makes a difference because now they no longer seem anonymous. They are people with lives, families and histories and a connection.
GREG: On a larger scale, I've always felt that, the South America Walt Disney films accomplished a lot in an era long before diversity was a corporate initiative or a big buzz word.People generally didn't know much about other cultures in those days. Walt Disney, probably more than any other filmmaker, was most instrumental in bringing the artwork and especially the music to America and to this day, we're benefiting from it.
TED: Absolutely! I couldn't have said it better. I agree completely and I think it was indicative of the kind of homework that was done on every single film. That what they observed and what they put through their own prism and made into their films is much more sympathetic to the cultures they came from than any other films that were being made at the time.
GREG: And "Aquarela de Brasil" and "Tico Tico" were not known at all in the U.S. and became standards.
TED: They became international standards, along with "Magic is the Moonlight". And "You Belong to My Heart" ["Solamente una vez"] became big hit. It is an incredible song.
GREG: I loved James Stemple's new musical score. Is there going to be a soundtrack album?
TED: We are still working on that. With the different parties involved there is a lot of sorting out that has to be done. Number one just get approval for that idea and number two convince people that in today's climate people would want it.
GREG: The new score captured the mood of the period yet was very contemporary.
TED: Plus I wanted the music to give audio signposts about where we were geographical. It was a real tough assignment on an independent film to say "Okay, I want to be geographic specific. I want it to feel like we are in Brazil or feel like we are in Chile," but you can't hire a separate musical ensemble for each place.
GREG: You also mentioned in the commentary that there were a lot of, to quote the Sherman Brothers, "happy happenstances" in making the film. Certain things just fell into place -- like finding the handmade dolls that Walt had brought back from South America as gifts for Diane and Sharon.
TED: The dolls were found on the day of shooting! That really is serendipity. Diane had talked about them but hadn't been able to locate them. When we showed up on that day, she arrived and said, "I am so sorry. It would have been really nice if I had found them but I just don't know where they are." Then Michael Labre, the curator, said, "Diane, we have been cataloging this stuff, do you have any idea what these are?" And it was the dolls. It was literally like that.
GREG: And they've held up very well over the years.
TED: Considering. They are in very good condition.
GREG: There was another image that was very striking to me, and I'm sure to those who love these "Good Neighbor" Disney films. At the end of "Saludos Amigos," we see the lighted URCA nightclub/casino sign flashing and never really knew much about it, just figured it was some famous place and that's it. But in "Walt and el Grupo," it becomes part of one of the most touching sequences because of how you combines images of then and now. It's very haunting.
TED: Yeah, I'm glad it touched you because it did me also. When we went on the scouting trip and saw the exterior, from that moment on I wanted to go inside. We worked very hard and very long and got turned down many times before we got permission to go in there. The neat thing about it is that in addition to being able to film inside this "temple of pleasure," as it was called, was the fact that the city government had taken an interest in renovating part of it which since we made the movie has been done. Part of it has been renovated as a design school. That is the seaside, the side that faces the water. The side with the grill room and that stage is still a ruin.
GREG: That must have been gigantic underneath too, because that stage moved and closed and opened.
TED: And dropped. It was. When the stage went down it must have been pretty low overhead, pretty low ceiling, but you could see pullies and different mechanisms left and you could also go back and see where some of the dressing rooms were. Nothing palatial, believe me, but what shows they put on there!
A lot of these encounters took a couple of hours and, with some people, even longer periods of time. But the impression that was left [by the Walt Disney visit] and the stories that were told lasted for generations. It's been sixty years yet people would talk about it as though it happened last week. I found that quite remarkable.
GREG: Since the film has been in limited theatrical release and more people have learned about this moment in cultural history, have you learned about any contemporary Hispanic performers? Have some artists come to realize or were they impacted by the fact that so much music came to this U.S. as a result of these efforts and that it has sort of grown from that?
TED: Well, like many things between the Americas, there is more awareness of that in Latin American than there is here. Like the huge popularity of songs like "Brazil," "Tico Tico" and "Solamente una vez." They're huge worldwide hits, but what might not be known is the fact that it was a Disney film that made it popular around the world.
Maybe you already know this from J.B.'s book, but the fascinating thing was that they did recording sessions in Rio during this trip but the miking of it wasn't satisfactory. So the only one of the tracks recorded in Rio that was usable was a flute improvisation that ends up over the little train that goes to Baia in "The Three Caballeros."
And when Walt's musical director, Charles Wolcott, heard the pan pipes in Lima he then composed a melody for the Donald Duck "Lake Titicaca" section. Of course, he couldn't get the authentic instruments when they recorded it, so he got two soprano recorders, had them tuned slightly differently and had them played in unison so that they had just the right degree of dissonance.
GREG: You also mention in your commentary that you feel your films are as much about politics as they are about art, because the two intertwine. Disney is also releasing "Walt and el Grupo" on DVD at the same time as two other major films about two other pivotal times in Disney history -- and it seems that while Walt and el Grupo is about art and the politics of government, "The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story" is about art and family politics and "Waking Sleeping Beauty" is about art and corporate politics.
TED: That's a great observation. It is a fascinating that politics and art are about the same thing. It is all about interpreting life. Politics is about setting up guidelines and rules that bring order and art is about democracy or starting a conversation or exploration. They both have a really interesting dynamic tension.
GREG: What would you most like viewers to take away with them when they see "Walt and el Grupo," especially young people?
TED: I would love it if they would be inspired to see Walt Disney as a man -- as a human being. The mythology that has grown since his death is all well, but I think that it is very exciting to see him as a creative individual, as an artist, because it reminds us about the role of art in the world and how each of us can to contribute to it.