The Man Who Made Believe

Almost everyone above a certain age has heard the name Walt Disney. But who was he really? What drove him to such soaring artistic heights? And what about newer generations of people who don’t know much about Walt Disney at all—other than his name?

This fall PBS will air American Experience: Walt Disney, a two-part, four-hour documentary on the life of Walt Disney featuring a new and objective look at one of the world’s greatest-ever storytellers—one that will attempt to get to the core of this brilliant and complicated man. At The Making of American Experience: Walt Disney, a Stage 28 presentation held Saturday afternoon hosted by film producer Don Hahn and featuring Walt Disney producer and director, Sarah Colt, Walt Disney Archives Director Becky Cline, and Disney biographer Neal Gabler, audiences discovered the fascinating story of the making of this film about one of the world’s most fascinating men.

Hahn, who appears in the documentary, began the discussion by noting its complete objectivity in approach. “It’s a journalistic exercise, a third-person look at this man’s life.” Hahn adds that what makes the film so compelling is its reliance on eyewitnesses—men and women who worked directly with Walt. “We connected with [Disney Legend] Marty Sklar and other names you don’t hear from so much, including some of the artists who worked on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, who remember the long hours and the excitement of the project and the craziness of getting it all done on time,” Colt says about the film, which took two years to complete. “It was a long process and a really fun experience.”

“He had a stubborn optimism,” Cline adds. “He wanted so much to live in that perfect existence. He just kept driving everything toward it.

Interspersed with the interesting discussion were excerpts from the upcoming film, which airs September 14–15 on PBS. During one sequence that included an extended sequence from Snow White, the audience marveled again at the deep emotions that movie engenders even today. As Gabler says in the film, “What did this guy understand about the human psyche?”

“He’s a complex man,” Colt adds. “An extremely complex man; beginning with his childhood, which was dark in many ways. He seemed to alternate between darkness and a certain kind of lightness.”

“He had a stubborn optimism,” Cline adds. “He wanted so much to live in that perfect existence. He just kept driving everything toward it.”

If there’s one word that recurs in this four-hour film it’s persistence, and this pervaded every endeavor Walt undertook. “Disneyland, unlike his films, was this ongoing project,” Colt said. “He could keep investing his time and energy into it.”