A Conversation With Ted Thomas, Director of Walt & El Grupo
Written By Max Burke
Walt & El Grupo is a new documentary film about a relatively obscure trip that Walt Disney and a number of employees at Disney studios took in 1941. The trip saw them visiting Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay and was part of the U.S. State Department's “Good Neighbor” program which sought to curry favor with potential global allies against the Axis in the period before direct U.S. involvement in World War II. It was also a research trip for Disney artists, animators, and writers who produced a number of films based on their experiences in South America. I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Ted Thomas about the film's production and the history of Walt Disney's representation as a cultural icon.
One of the first things that came up in our conversation was the phenomenon of Disney obsessives who can, for good or ill, project onto Walt Disney. Remarking on a few audience members who attended the screening and may fall into the category of Disney fanatics, Ted observed “[that] one of the fascinating things about Walt Disney, what stands out, is how he's reached that cultural level that is sort of beyond human. Both in terms of attracting people who find, who in a way, impose a lot of goodness on him and those who impose urban legends on him. You get both types of people. And you know Disney's not unique in that, there are other figures in our culture who have attained a similar status.”
As a cultural icon, some may have a tendency to “project upon Disney...all sorts of things that don't necessarily have to do with the flesh and blood man. And one of the things we're trying to accomplish in this project is to tell a story about a man, Walt Disney, who actually lived and breathed and had artistic accomplishments and...had a personality beyond the things that get projected on to him. It's so interesting to me that there are a ton of written biographies about him, not that much film done about him. I think that one of the things that film accomplishes that the written word does not is that if you have a lot of footage of your subject you can, to a great extent, allow them to speak for themselves. Either visually or verbally. Just seeing the physical image of someone also communicates.”
Commenting that the film was a revelation for me, as it shows a side of Walt Disney that many people of my generation have never seen, Ted responded, “I would like to think that when people see him taking this trip and being completely relaxed, and sure there are plenty of times when he knows where the camera is and he's smiling at the camera. But there are plenty of times when he's not doing a public appearance. And i think that you get a much different grasp of the man than we have previously, because most of the visual record of him is the Sunday night TV show and he got that nickname 'Uncle Walt' and all of that.”
Walt & El Grupo is also a fascinating study of public figures in the limelight. The adulation that Walt is greeted with, and the classy way in which he handles the crowds, is in stark contrast to the bare-all tabloid culture of our modern times. As for some of the more outlandish rumors about Disney, such as the oft-repeated and totally untrue assertion that his body is preserved in a cryogenic chamber (the worldwide impact of this urban myth is briefly touched upon, to amusing effect, in Walt and El Grupo); “[...]it's so much easier to speak ill of someone and have it stick than to tell a story about somebody. But you can't disprove the dirt. It's also like in a newspaper, if a reporter misquotes, nobody reads the retraction. Or even if they do, it doesn't create the same stir that the initial article did. There's a lot of stuff about Disney that falls into that category [...] it does make commentary on our culture that we'd rather go see a film about somebody, about a conspiracy theory, than have confirmation that somebody actually had dinner with his family.”
One thing that you will not find in Walt & El Grupo is government or military officials, who were instrumental in arranging the trip. As for this notable absence, Ted responds “My interest more than anything else, the ongoing interest I have, is trying to communicate the experience of creating art. And the thought process and the emotional process of engaging the world. Because that was one of my primary goals, I kept the artists and the descendants of the artists front and center. Thinking that the geopolitical context of it was gonna come through anyways. Something happens, the more you make your story about geopolitical context, the less room there is for distinct personalities of people to come through. Because you're dealing more with meta-data than with the personal.”
Although the film is about a previously unexplored aspect of the Disney story, Walt & El Grupo sprawls and moves in unexpected directions. In Thomas' words “it's definitely a film that's based upon discovering the story as you went because when you begin with the one line promise of 'Walt Disney took a trip to South America, 1941, and came back and made two movies,' you think you're gonna make a film about making movies. That's fine but it doesn't have any relevance to it. When you look in to who went, then you say 'Oh, well gee, that divides between the old guard - the people who were with him from the Mickey Mouse days - and the new guard, people who were part of the art school crowd.' What does that tell you? That begins to tell you how his studio evolved during the 1930s. Well what else was going on at the studio? Well, this happened right in the middle of the strike and all of that. So you being to think about that.”
When Disney took the trip to South America, his studio was in a great period of flux. Labor leaders had organized a strike and, for the first time, Disney was feeling the pressure from his employees. It was completely at odds with the image of a friendly, progressive working environment that Disney believed the studio embodied. This subject is touched upon briefly at the beginning of Walt & El Grupo, and is an important backdrop to the story the film tells. The story of the strike, however, is complex enough that Thomas evinces a desire to perhaps one day devote an entire feature to that episode of Disney Studios history; “It very quickly becomes, it was such an unfortunate and acrimonious dispute, that it would be impossible to cover it in greater depth in our film without it hijacking the greater story. It'd be a difficult film to make because there are a lot of people who are still very sensitive about it. And in terms of access to what material is available, there'd be a lot of confidence building that would have to be done. It would be fascinating: a story of labor management relations in American business, [and] I think it would do a lot to get to some of the urban myths.”
Four elements are used throughout the film to tell the story. According to Ted these elements are the still photographic record, collected from some of the relatives of those who participated in the trip. Second, the stunning color film footage shot on the journey - “we had heard that there had been all this research footage shot on the trip but itad never been cataloged. And so with our contacts we made inquiries and eventually were able to find this stuff in the vaults and take a look at it and were very, very impressed because it's basically travel movies, home movies...” Third, the letters that had been sent by El Grupo back to their relatives, who are seen in the film reading the actual correspondence produced by El Grupo. Finally, and “probably most critical,” was the trip to South America that the filmmakers took. “We were then be able to find survivors and descendants in South America. And then the story became not just a one way story, it's a mirror, a mirrored story where at least half the story has to be told form the perspective of the people who hosted El Grupo and what was their perspective when these out-of-towners came. So the trip, instead of retracing their steps, there was this very, maybe in hindsight it looks obvious, but there was this uncanny feeling that we were duplicating the experience that they had. In terms of engaging with the culture and trying to figure out how do we make a movie out of this. And there was this eeriness being the places where they stood or the room where they danced, or the hotels where they slept.”
Just as fascinating as the newly shot footage in South America, however, are a series of audio clips from interviews with Walt Disney that play during some of the crucial moments of the film's narrative. “It's fantastic material [...] background recording for a series of articles that were going to be in the Saturday Evening Post in the 1950s [...] It was hours upon on hours of interviews that a journalist named Pete Martin did with Walt Disney, and he talks about his entire life [...] The stunning thing about that is they give us a better image than anything else, I think, of a measure of the man.”
Walt & El Grupo is a deceptively complex film, a simple travelogue-cum-historical documentary about one of the most influential cultural figures of the 20th century that unfolds into a deeply felt mediation on subjects as disparate as the price of fame, the history of globalization, and the complex processes through which art is created. It is a thoughtful and perfectly realized film. A few days after our meeting, Thomas sent me a brief e-mail with some follow-up reflections, referencing the work of Horton Foote (Tender Mercies) and Paddy Chayefsky (Marty), and concluding “I strive to make films that reflect their moment, but are rooted in something timeless,” an apt description of the superb Walt & El Grupo.