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ESSAYS

A Few Thoughts About Interviews

[Written as the foreword for the second volume of Walt's People.]

I can't lay my hands on it, but I remember reading, not long ago, a newspaper article that reassured me about the value of interviews with people who worked for Walt Disney and sometimes saw him daily.

The point of the article was that our memories are not like tape recordings or reels of film. We don't simply store away what we see and hear, each memory waiting to be brought back to life with the right cue. Instead, memories tend to be strong and reliable according to how useful they will be to us in the future. And what memories could be more useful, to someone working at a studio like Walt Disney's, than strong, clear memories of the boss?

Time and again, in interviewing people who worked for Walt Disney, I've been struck by how intently they observed him. They stored up memories—not so that they could tell their grandchildren what it was like to work for a genius, but so they could avoid having that genius slap them down the next time they showed him a storyboard or some rough animation. What they remember about their co-workers may be vague or demonstrably inaccurate, but their memories of Walt have a sharp, clear edge.

Walt's people were attuned not just to his smiles and frowns, but also to the patterns of his finger tapping on the arm of his chair. They thought they could tell when he was pleased, when he was impatient, and when he was really angry. But, of course, not everyone interpreted his finger tapping, or anything else about him, in exactly the same way. He wasn't an easy "read" for anyone. David Hand—my interview with him is in the first volume in this series—studied Disney very carefully, and for the most part successfully, to the point that he became Walt's second in command, but eventually even he slipped from the high wire.

In later years, Walt's inscrutability and unpredictability grew. It seemed to one man who worked for Walt then as a contractor that his employees were terrified of him. I sometimes wonder, in reading interviews with people who experienced such fear at some point in their Disney careers, why so many of them stayed, often until Walt threw them out. The answer, I think, is that Walt Disney always wanted to surrender himself to some kind of work that absorbed him totally. At different points in his life, he found that absorbing work in animation, in his theme park, and finally in his scheme for a city of the future. To be around someone who thinks and acts in such grand terms is always stimulating, whatever the ultimate merits of particular projects, and Walt's energy was particularly attractive.

Working for Walt, you must have felt a little more alive. Frightened, maybe, but alive, and certainly aware. That heightened sense of awareness is fully evident in many of the interviews in this series. It makes the interviews credible, and it makes this series immensely valuable. I'm very pleased to be contributing to it.

[Posted February 17, 2005]

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