In the Beginning
A new film shot in Central Florida explores the early struggles of Walt Disney as animator, before Mickey and magic gained a foothold.
Thomas Ian Nicholas (playing Walt Disney) and Jon Heder (Roy Disney) get instruction on a scene from director Khoa Le.
A hazy winter light breaks through the windows of a foreclosed historic building in downtown DeLand. Even in its heyday, this former title office could never have been as crowded as it is on this morning—half a dozen men in vintage shirts, ties and suspenders sit elbow-to-elbow at drafting tables. A camera crew and everything it entails surrounds them.
“Light those smokes up,” an assistant director shouts. “We’re ready!”
Matches flare, cigarettes and a pipe disappear in smoky clouds, and the scene begins.
“No, no, no!” Michael Rubino shouts as he stops tracing. “My pencil refuses to respect me!”
He’s playing a highly-strung animator named Thurston. “I am an artist. Do you even understand what that means?”
The mustachioed actor trying to calm him (and failing) is Thomas Ian Nicholas, of the American Pie movies. The character Nicholas is playing is Walt Disney. This smoke-filled room, packed with actors portraying animators, background painters, clean-up artists and “in-betweeners,” is what came to be called an “animation bullpen.” But this isn’t just any bullpen. It’s the first one, where Disney and assorted collaborators took tentative steps toward stardom—in Kansas City and later Los Angeles in the 1920s. Walt Before Mickey, which finished filming in and around DeLand in mid-February, will be the first movie to tell that part of the Disney story on the big screen.
“It’s Walt Disney—everybody knows him,” the 33-year-old Nicholas says, checking the moustache that was Walt’s lifelong signature. “Even I have faint memories of him on TV, in the blue cardigan sweater. I have to get him right, this younger version of him, when he was driven, when he had all this energy.”
Walt Before Mickey is a biographical drama about exactly that—Walt Disney’s years of struggle, “all these failures he went through before he became ‘Walt Disney,’” explains Orlando actress Kate Katzman, who plays the woman who would become Walt’s wife, Lillian.
“He kept failing, he went broke. He had to beg for money. It seemed everybody he worked with tried to take advantage of him,” says Arthur L. Bernstein, producer and the screenwriter who adapted Timothy Susasin’s book about the Walt Disney that America doesn’t know. Disney, Bernstein says, started hearing “no” at an early age. He never let it stop him.
“He’d practice drawing on the walls of the family barn, and get yelled at,” Bernstein says. “He was never happy, I think. That’s a secret to his success. Pushing, driving himself and everybody else.”
Walt Before Mickey shows a little of Walt’s childhood, in Marceline, Missouri, and then in Kansas City. It captures his first successes, the “Alice” movies that blended animation and live action, the creation of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And it shows how these successes were taken from him even as he started assembling the team that moved with him to Los Angeles, created Mickey Mouse and launched the animated film as an art form.
It’s a film with heroes—Jon “Napoleon Dynamite” Heder plays Walt’s business-minded brother, Roy. It also has villains—producer/distributors Charles Mintz and George Winkler exploited Walt and his creative team and claimed ownership of the first breakout characters Disney produced.
“There were believers, but also opportunists with him in those early years,” director Khoa Le says. “That’s what we’ll show.” The great animator Ub Iwerks was a Disney loyalist. Fred Harman and Hugh Ising, who later became legends animating Merrie Melodies at Warner Brothers and Happy Harmonies cartoons with MGM, threw in their lot with the folks who took Disney’s early characters from him.
“I heard Disney failed seven times before he made it,” Le says. “I love that idea that he stayed positive despite all that pain and failure.”
The key component in that optimism was Walt’s most steadfast backer—his brother, Roy.
“Walt was the dreamer,” Heder says. “Roy was the businessman, the guy we don’t know that much about. That gives me a lot of license in playing him.”
Heder understands that brothers-on-a-team dynamic, coming from a large family where he was “the dreamer” and older brothers, whom he went into business with, “were the serious ones, the people who could make the dreams come true.”
Nicholas researched Disney and zeroed in on Walt’s early ambitions as an actor, the nascent showman who would eventually introduce his movies on the big screen, and later the small one—a genial, grandfatherly host who became the greatest brand in entertainment. Nicholas says that back-engineering the patient, powerful and persuasive Walt who became the Walt Disney of the holiday hit Saving Mr. Banks (in which 1960s Walt was played by Tom Hanks) is one of the greatest challenges he has faced as an actor.
Walt Before Mickey itself has been a challenge to finish. A low budget ($1 million) film, it was a troubled shoot, with original director Ari Taub abruptly leaving the production, along with the director of photography. That led to a three-week hiatus as other crew quit and the production re-booted. First-time director Le was eventually hired and he found himself tinkering with the many drafts of the overlong “happy, but dark” script as he scrambled to catch a flight between blizzards to get from New York to Orlando. “The crew was demoralized when I got here.”
But the producers take heart in Walt’s example, by Disney’s famous suggestion that “it’s important to have a good hard failure,” because it takes away the fear of failing and makes eventual success that much sweeter. They hope to have Walt Before Mickey in theaters or available through video on demand in June, and say they have distribution lined up with Lionsgate/Summit, which distributes The Hunger Games films.
Le has let some of that eternal Disney optimism rub off on him as well.
“Saving Mr. Banks has people thinking about Walt, who he was and how he got to be that man. And that gives this movie a good chance to find an audience.”