If you’re a Disney fan and looking for something cool to watch, the documentary Adventure Thru the Walt Disney Archives (which was previously only available for a single screening to D23 members) gives a peek behind the magical curtain at The Walt Disney Company. While exploring the Studio lot, a warehouse of iconic treasures, and the theme parks, all with producer and host Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Maleficent) as a guide, viewers will hear from Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger, Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige, Pixar’s Pete Docter, film historian Leonard Maltin and others, as they get a fuller understanding of the detailed history that’s helped shape every aspect of the company.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, director John Gleim talked about how this one-hour documentary came together, narrowing down what to showcase, just how vast the archives collection truly is, the knowledge of the archivists and researchers, the magic of being in Walt Disney’s office, and compiling all of the interviews together.
Collider: This is such a delightful documentary. I enjoyed it tremendously and I feel like I could have watched a 10-hour version of this.
JOHN GLEIM: I would love to make a 10-hour version.
How do you take all of this material and edit it into what we see?
GLEIM: Yeah, that was really the hardest part. We shot tons of interviews too. This is really a love letter to the archives and it was originally made to celebrate the archives’ 15th anniversary. And I didn’t wanna do just a straightforward documentary like, “The archives were established in 1970,” because you can read an article about that. I wanted people to see the locations, meet some of the archivists, and really experience what it’s like to be at the archives and see some of these awesome things that are there. It was really about working with Becky Cline, the director of the archives, and figuring out what the broad topics were. It’s documents, dimensional objects, all of those different costumes, and all of those different categories. And then, it was about the various locations of the archives. There’s the reading room, which is the main headquarters of the archives and where Becky’s office is. And then, there are the various warehouses and other locations. We also wanted to show that the archives does work outside of their buildings too.
Then, I put together what I thought was cool. I’m a huge fan of Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I’m huge fan of visual effects, like matte paintings and stuff like that. And then, I said, “Now, I wanna hear from you guys. I gave you examples of what I think is cool, but I’m just guessing, in some cases, about what sounds good. I wanna hear from the activists. What’s important to you? What are iconic things? And what are also some obscure things that people might not think about as being important to preserve and why are they important to preserve? So then, we took that entire mishmash of ideas and locations and people and artifacts, and tried to build a story around it. What inspired me was the 1941 movie The Reluctant Dragon, where Robert Benchley tours the studio, trying to see Walt Disney. We had Don Hahn on board very early and thought he would be a great host, so we put Don Hahn in that Robert Benchley role, trying to get to Walt Disney’s office, which is also an important location for the archives because they’re the ones that were responsible for restoring it.
Thank you for including Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
GLEIM: Yeah, it has this reputation as being a not as good movie as Mary Poppins, and there are so many cool things in it. It does follow a similar structure, but it’s still a different movie. Just setting it in that World War II period is really interesting, and there’s some great animation in there too. Obviously, Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson are fantastic. I could go on about it. The archives has some great stuff from there. They have a bedknob, which makes a fun little cameo appearance, there’s the matte painting that’s in there, and they have the Isle of Naboombu kid’s book. They have a bunch of props from there and they have a bunch of really fun behind the scenes photos too. It was a pretty well-documented movie, which makes it fun.
What was it like for you to experience this journey yourself and realize all of the layers that have gone into making Disney what it is today and the history that has been kept?
GLEIM: That was amazing. I do a fair amount with the archives already and that was partly why I wanted to show off all of the great stuff that I get to experience there, but then to go even further and see just how big the collection is, all of the care that the archives takes to preserve these artifacts, and all of the archivists and being able to talk with them about the stories behind all of these artifacts, the history just branches from there. One of my favorite things to talk to them about is the serendipity that happens, with outside researchers and historians who come and work with the archives. They’ll find some random interview in a magazine that has this tidbit of information and they can bring that piece of information to the archives and the archives can go, “We have another interview with this person.” Being able to make all of those connections is so exciting. When we go to Walt’s house on Walking Way, which was an incredible experience, the whole discovery of that famous picture of Walt that’s used all the time, for years and years, everyone just assumed it was at the Hyperion Studio. Through some research and different people looking at different things, they were able to discover that was actually taken at his house, and I love stories like that. That’s so fun. There’s always more to discover. The archivists are still making new discoveries, all the time.
What do you think would most surprise people about the archives and what’s housed there?
GLEIM: Yes, Disney is the largest entertainment company in the world, but you would still think there’s a finite amount of things to preserve, and there’s not. There are four million photographs. I’m a huge movie nerd and I love all of the behind the scenes photos. I was in there one day when they were scanning behind the scenes photos from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and it was the coolest thing ever, just being able to see that stuff. I’m always impressed with, when I speak with the archivists and the researchers there, their vast knowledge of everything. It’s not just names and dates, but it’s contextual things too and being able to tell stories about things. I love that part of it. That’s why this could be 10 hours or 20 hours. It could go forever. We’re just scratching the surface of how Disney archives things. There’s the Walt Disney Archives, but then there’s also the animation research library, and Pixar has their own archive, and Lucasfilm has their own archive. I would love to branch out to those places too and do more of this because it’s a blast.
I really liked the format that we ended up on. It was very inspired by The Reluctant Dragon, but it was also inspired by the Disney TV shows from the ‘60s, where Walt would just stroll around the studio and meet with an Imagineer and go, “Oh, what are you working on?” It just has this fun spirit about it that I really liked, and I tried to inject some of that into this movie to make it feel light and fun, but you’ll still get to see all of this cool stuff and learn about what the archives does. Another side goal was teaching some of the history of Walt Disney, himself. It’s easy to forget about the person that started the company. With Walt, there’s always more to learn about him. One of the things that I tried to do is, if you are a Disney fan and you know most of Walt’s history, there’s still really cool artifacts that maybe you haven’t seen before. But if you aren’t as familiar with Walt and his history, then you can learn some of that too. I think that’s really nice. That’s what’s so great about ending at Walt Disney’s office too. That’s another place where I never get tired of it. You just absorb the energy of Walt being, and I just love that.
You also get a real sense of the collection of people connected to Disney, from Bob Iger and Kevin Feige to Mark Hamill. What was it like to put the interviews together with people encompassing Disney?
GLEIM: That was a blast and it very hard to pick and choose clips from them. I love hearing how Bob’s a fan and Kevin’s a fan. There’s a story that Mark Hamill told, where he saw Walt Disney when he was at Disneyland, that just blew my mind. I loved doing that. Everyone’s so excited to talk about the archives and what they do, which made those interviews such a blast.
Adventure Thru the Walt Disney Archives is available to stream at Disney+.
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