It's a Jungle Up There

You might find this surprising but I never wanted to be a story artist at the Walt Disney Studios. It’s not that I didn’t have an interest in storytelling. I knew creative storytelling was what set Disney apart from the competition. More often than not I found myself prowling the hallways of Walt Disney’s story department in the evenings or early mornings. The story department was located on the second and third floors of the legendary Animation Building. I found Disney’s story department fascinating but I left that component of cartoon making to those much wiser than myself. The task of spinning an effective narrative seemed daunting to this inexperience kid and I knew such challenges should be left to the gifted few who occupied the upstairs offices.

However, there was another cause for concern. The Disney story department could be filled with peril. In many ways it was a jungle up there. On my many visits to the upstairs story rooms I often watched as nervous story artists feverishly prepared a pitch for the Old Maestro. Ash trays were filled with smoldering cigarette butts and apprehensive artists made a fair number of visits to the Pago Pago or Aphonse’s. These were nearby “watering holes” where old story guys sought solace in a glass of booze. Then, there was the eventful day when the boss finally arrived to check out what the guys had done. Naturally, to this dumb kid everything looked fine and peachy. The beautifully drawn story boards were fun and fanciful and the ideas felt fresh and new. The boss, Walt Disney was sure to love this stuff, right? 

Remember, you’re getting this unique view of the early sixties first hand because I was there to observe it all. Naturally, I was not in the room when all the meetings took place. I was simply a novice from the animation department downstairs. However, I’ll admit I was curious how things were going behind the closed doors of the story room. More than once I waited outside the upstairs story rooms for a verdict to be handed down. Suddenly, the door would slam open and Walt Disney would make his way out of the room. If the boss wasn’t smiling it was a pretty good indication things had not gone well. A quick glance inside the room revealed the story team nervously lighting up another cigarette. As you can imagine, they were not smiling either. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the hapless story team and I breathed a sigh of relief that I was not tasked with such an impossible job. For the moment, I was safe downstairs in the Animation Department. This was an area the Old Maestro seldom visited. Walt Disney had no need to ride herd on his animators. After all, they were the best in the business and continually delivered the goods. If you worked in animation it was doubtful you’d ever find the Old Maestro looking over your shoulder. The work was challenging, yet there wasn’t all that much pressure. Compared to storytelling, life in animation was serene.

However, life can be filled with unexpected twists and turns. Early in 1966, storm clouds were brewing on the third floor of the Animation Building and Walt Disney’s premiere story man, Bill Peet could not come to terms with the boss on how the story of The Jungle Book should be adapted. Peet had created a narrative that was dark, mystical and mysterious. The tone of the story even caused Walt Disney to make an odd and unexpected comment. During a tense story meeting, Disney exclaimed, “It reminds me of Bat Man!” The confrontation eventually came to climax with Bill Peet walking off the movie and Disney scrapping Peet’s adaption of the Kipling novel. Nobody could have been more surprised than myself when I was suddenly recruited from the animation department to join the story team on a new revamped version of the movie. adding to this task was its compressed time schedule. We had less than a year to turn the story around. Not to mention I had never done story work as a professional before. The amazing task was accomplished by Larry Clemmons, Vance Gerry, Al Wilson, Dick Lucas, Eric Cleworth and myself. It’s funny how things work out, wouldn’t you say? I had no aspiration of working in Walt Disney’s hallowed story rooms and I never dreamed of being on a story team. I was eager to avoid the trials and tribulations of Disney’s story department and preferred to remain at my safe and secure animation drawing board. Call it caprice or quirky, a decision had been made. A decision that would change my career…and my life forever.

Over fifty years have passed and audiences still seem to like this little movie. Who knew?

Over fifty years have passed and audiences still seem to like this little movie. Who knew?

The Jungle Book 2.0

It was a no-brainer, really. Disney had already created several live-action versions of its animated portfolio. Why not green light a new version of the hit 1967 animated motion picture, Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book. Actor, director, Jon Favreau would direct the new feature film and the cast would include a young actor and an assembly of animated critters. Add a top notch cast of voice actors and the film would almost make itself.

While other studios struggle to create compelling new content, the Walt Disney Studios has a rich legacy of animated films to fuel their production pipe line. Proven properties can be repurposed to feed an eager market ready for another entertainment fix. I hate to say it, but it’s almost like printing money. Let’s face it. Could anything be sweeter for a production executive? Don’t get me wrong, because I’m not here to bash the Disney sequels. A number of them have been pretty darn good including Kennth Branaugh’s recent retelling of the Cinderella legend. Blending traditional Disney storytelling with the magical tools of todays technology proves to be a winning formula. For those who question the viability of the recent Disney remakes, I can only add the current box office receipts more than answers the question. 

There were those who had doubts about a remake of Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book. Hadn’t this been tried before, they wondered? And wasn’t the resulting movie less than spectacular? All true. But that was then and this is now. I knew that director, Jon Favreau would bring something new to this retelling of the Rudyard Kipling novel. Even though the movie we made back in 1966 still delights audiences both young and old, this new motion picture would require a different sensibility. After all, today’s world has changed since the spring of 1966 when we first sat down with Walt Disney to discuss a rewrite of the movie. Director, Jon Favreau’s movie version is admittedly darker and more intense. Back in 1966, The Old Maestro insisted we keep things light in our storytelling and if there were to be violence it would be implied not shown. The tone of the movie would remain fanciful and light throughout. I didn’t know about the others on our team, but it was clear to me that Walt wanted a movie filled with laughter and fun. The dark, mysterious film Bill Peet had envisioned was scrapped and we began our journey through the jungle ready to provide our audience with laughs.

Having said this, I’ve no problem with the current Disney version of The Jungle Book and I love what director, Jon Favreau has done with the movie. Even though it’s a very different film in tone, the movie pretty much follows our story beats throughout with the notable exception of the return to the Man Village at the films end. However, you don’t have to be a genius to know what’s that’s all about. Why didn’t little Mowgli go home, you ask? Why didn’t he meet that cute little girl at the river? The answer should be obvious. You can bet there’s a sequel already in the works.

Not quite the film we made back in 1966, I still believe Jon Favreau did one heck of a job.

Not quite the film we made back in 1966, I still believe Jon Favreau did one heck of a job.

James P. Sullivan

John Goodman doesn’t simply play a role…he owns it. Should you be lucky enough to play a scene with this talented actor please be advised the audience will probably be looking at him, not you. Goodman has a way of stealing every scene he’s in. He makes it look easy. Most good actors do.

If your even close to being a movie buff like myself you’ve seen John Goodman play a number of roles. He’s done so many movies it’s difficult to name a favorite. On occasion, John Goodman will play a television role and he manages to nail that as well. He’s just a darn good actor with a marvelous range. And, he manages to play each character with his trademark roguish charm. Everything from the Klu Klux Klan con man in “O’ Brother Where Art Thou,” to the certified nut job, Walter in “The Big Lebowski.” Goodman’s free spirited drug dealer in “Flight” allows him to steal scenes from the likes of Denzel Washington and watching him play the sleazy, bombastic movie producer in “Trumbo” was a sheer delight. Goodman’s characters are totally believable and he reminds us how a motion picture benefits by the presence of a gifted, talented character actor.

When you work in the world of animation you pay special attention to an actor’s vocal performance. I’m an old guy and I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of actors who were trained in radio. A radio actor had to deliver a performance using only their voice. Good looks won’t save a bad performance and casting a poor actor simply because they look “hot” is a bad idea. Once again, Mr. Goodman delivers the goods. Whether it’s a role for a Pixar or Disney film, you know he’s in the zone. His voice can be gentle, soft and soothing or a thunderous roar of rage. Whether he fills the frame in a live-action movie or simply the booming voice on an audio sound track, John Goodman is an actor you can trust. You can imagine how I felt when first meeting Mr. Goodman some years ago. He’s a big guy so approaching the actor was already a challenge. I first had to convince myself he wasn’t going to brandish a weapon like “Walter” in “The Big Lebowski” and shout, “Mark it zero!” Lucky for me, John Goodman was more like the character he voiced in “Monsters, Inc.” Like James P. Sullivan, his voice was rich, warm and soothing, and he even called me, sir. This was most unexpected from the big guy I fearfully watched onscreen wielding a baseball bat. Deferential, and soft spoken, John Goodman couldn’t have been a nicer gentleman.

Many years ago, I reported back to Pixar Animation Studios to begin storyboarding on a new film entitled, “Monsters, Inc.” Many still regard this Pixar Animation Studios motion picture as their favorite Pixar film. I regard it as one of the finest movies I’ve worked on in my long career. Having Pete Docter as director and Randy Newman as composer, made it all pretty cool. However, getting to meet Mike and Sully was certainly a thrill. While it was fun to storyboard Mike Wozowski and Roz (Billy Crystal and Bob Peterson) it was truly cool to meet an amazing actor named, John Goodman.

As monsters go, he's one of our favorites. Plus, it was my first time working with Dave Docter's talented son on a very funny film.

As monsters go, he's one of our favorites. Plus, it was my first time working with Dave Docter's talented son on a very funny film.

The Alchemy of Storytelling

More than a few years ago, I was making my early morning round of the Walt Disney Studio. Specifically, the animation building of the amazing entertainment facility. I walked into an upstairs story room to find several curious storyboards and multiple charts on the walls. A group of newly minted production executives occupied this special meeting room and it would appear they were given an impossible task. They were charged with finding the secret of Walt Disney’s successful story telling technique.

Now, how would one do this, you might ask? Of course, if you know the executive mind, you’d know that they would begin by analyzing the Disney storytelling method. They would attempt to deconstruct the classic Walt Disney films with the hope of learning the mystery of Walt Disney’s secret of story telling. Naturally, these creative executives had been sent on a fools errand because sadly, there is no secret to Walt’s story telling technique. There are no short cuts when it comes to creating a classic animated motion picture. There is only hard work, constant iteration and dedication. Even then it’s doubtful you’ll have any idea whether you’ve succeeded or failed. Trust me. This is our amazing story telling process, and it hasn’t changed all that much since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

I’ve been in this business a while and I’ve seen more than my fair share of storytelling gurus and “experts” attempting to analyze animated storytelling. While I’m often impressed at the serious thought given to these matters, most seem to focus on successful films rather than failures. Perhaps it’s simply more fun to discover why a film is successful rather than the alternative. My old storytelling colleague, Denis Rich defines filmmaking as “alchemy.” Hardly a science, you never truly know what’s going to work. Mr. Rich worked in the UK on some pretty impressive films. He’s done everything from “James Bond” to “Superman,” and he speaks of the convoluted movie making process with a droll sense of humor. “In animation, we’ve a good deal more time,” said the clever Brit. In live-action we’ve got to make our bad movie faster.” Much like Denis, I’ve been doing this job most of my life and I confess I still have little idea why some things work while others do not. I began my storytelling career on a motion picture that most viewed as marginal at best. We sat in screenings that often felt embarrassing, and we left the sweatbox thinking we were working on a turkey. In time, our movie moved through production and was suddenly on the big screen. We couldn’t have been more surprised when audiences embraced our little movie and thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Who knew?

I’m sure, there are storytellers at various studios today engaged in the same amazing process that I’ve been through for years. While I wish them well, I know there are no easy answers, and over time conclusions will eventually be reached. The eager audience will either love, hate - or totally ignore your hard work, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. I’ve often joked that we work just as hard on the bad movies as on the good ones. As my old friend, Denis Rich would probably say - “It is alchemy, after all.”

Walt and Jaxon. Walt Disney in a serious story session with director, Wilfred Jackson.

Walt and Jaxon. Walt Disney in a serious story session with director, Wilfred Jackson.