Sneak peek: Finding the man behind the mouse in “Disney”

Realscreen spoke with PBS 'American Experience' executive producer Mark Samels about the challenges behind creating Walt Disney, the first definitive biography on the father of Mickey Mouse.
September 11, 2015

There have been few figures in American popular culture that have shaped the public’s upbringing quite like Walt Disney. By the time he succumbed to lung cancer in 1966, more than 240 million people watched a Disney movie and 100 million tuned into a weekly television program. Few people, however, knew the real Disney.

Now, the two-part, four-hour documentary Walt Disney from PBS doc strand ‘American Experience’ and Henry Ford producer Sarah Colt Productions is exposing a “warts-and-all” biographical take on the life and legacy of a cultural icon.

“I have to admit that once we started work on it and I told people we were making a biography of Walt Disney, I felt kind of foolish because the most common thing I got was, ‘You haven’t done that?’” Mark Samels, executive producer of PBS’s ‘American Experience,’ told realscreen. “There are some subjects so much in the foreground that you can’t see them.”

The project began three years ago when Samels decided to test the prevailing assumption that an objective biography of Disney could not be produced due to the company’s rigid control over its intellectual property and archival images of its creator. After nearly a year of meetings with the Disney Corporation’s senior staff, PBS and Samels managed to secure complete access to the Disney vault, much to the surprise of the ‘American Experience’ executive.

The game-changer, Samels says, was two-fold: the doc strand’s 27-year track record in creating distinguished documentaries on the likes of Robert Francis Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Henry Ford and Lyndon B. Johnson; and PBS’s insistence that Disney would not be allowed any editorial involvement or interference on the project.

“I wish I could say that it was due to my incredible negotiating skills,” he joked. “But there was going to be nobody on the hook for minding our film at Disney… No one was going to be responsible for making sure that we didn’t do anything they didn’t want us to do, so we got the ‘yes’ pretty shortly thereafter.”

walt disney 5

Walt Disney (center), Kay Kamen, Roy O. Disney (far right), Gunther Lessing and Representatives in Walt Disney for PBS ‘American Experience’.

Relying predominantly on archival footage, the Walt Disney team would experience an interesting dilemma that differed greatly from the vast majority of films using similar methods.

While documentarians tend to encounter significant voids in a storyline due to gaps in corresponding footage, PBS managed to continuously unearth material that hadn’t been seen – or was seldom seen – by anyone outside of the Disney organization, including early animation sketches, footage of animators training, and Walt Disney addressing his staff and playing softball.

“The biggest challenge was to interweave an ongoing biography of a man with a really interestingly evolving exploration of his work,” Samels says. “We then had to deal with the fact that by the time you get into the ’50s and ’60s you have such an enormous output of material. What do you focus on?”

In the end, the two-part project spotlights the hardships of a young man striving to develop a career as an animator, explores the world Disney created through a celebrated body of work – from films and television programs to theme parks – and details the disparities between him and the persona he created for public consumption.

  • Part one of Walt Disney premieres September 14 at 9 p.m. EST/PST on PBS’s ‘American Experience,’ with part two following on September 15 at 9 p.m. EST/PST.
  • Check out a sneak peek from the two-part project below:

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.