Sunday, October 19, 2008

Roy Disney helms a film that has personal meaning


Roy E. Disney, the 78-year-old nephew of Walt Disney, is the third-largest shareholder in the Disney Company, the last family member to be involved in its operation and a hidden power in the boardroom who has served as the company conscience since his uncle's death in 1966.

He also has been a creative force in the company, working as a film editor ("The Living Desert"), cameraman ("Perri"), writer ("The Black Cauldron"), producer ("Fantasia 2000") and behind-the-scenes mastermind of many of its biggest projects ("The Little Mermaid").

Roy E. Disney

Even so, he is more likely to go down in Hollywood history for two skillful palace coups he led that wrenched the company leadership reins from Ron Miller in 1984 and Michael Eisner in 2005 -- the last of which was chronicled in the best-selling 2005 book, "DisneyWar."

More recently, Disney has put most of his energy into a single film: "Morning Light," a documentary he conceived and produced that follows 11 young sailors he personally recruited to man a sloop in the Transpac -- a grueling 2,500-mile sailing regatta from Los Angeles to Hawaii.

Other than the Disney Company -- where he is now director emeritus -- sailing is Disney's true passion. He has competed in the Transpac 16 times over the years and won it in 1999 to set a world record of seven days, 11 hours, 41 minutes and 27 seconds.

In Seattle as part of a national tour to publicize the film -- which opened Friday -- Disney and his co-producer (and wife) Leslie DeMeuse sat for an interview in the Seattle Yacht Club. He is an unassuming, likable man who looks and sounds uncannily like his iconic uncle.

Seattle P-I: What has put a studio executive of your stature on the road to flog a movie?

Disney: It's the only way I know to call attention to the film, which is dear to our hearts. It's a documentary, which are always hard to sell, and it's about a subject -- sailing -- that's really not as popular or well-known in this country as it is in other parts of the world.

What made you want to make the movie?

For one thing, there's never really been a good picture about sailing before -- at least not since Victor Fleming's "Captains Courageous," back in the old black-and-white days. Even the best of them (reinforce) all the usual cliches.

What are those cliches?

That sailing is a lazy, rich-man's sport -- or not a sport at all. The truth is sailing is very tough. ... a blue-collar sport. It demands the most of everyone involved -- both physically and mentally -- and no sailing competition is more demanding than the Transpac.

You're quoted as saying, "Sailing is more than a sport -- it's a metaphor for life." Is that accurate?

It is. And nowhere is that statement truer than in the Transpac. ... You're going to have a lot of different conflicts and you have to figure out how to solve them -- now. You can't quit. You can't jump ship in the middle of the ocean, and there's no rescue if you run into trouble -- helicopters can't reach you when you're that far from shore.

How did the idea for the movie come about?

Our friend Tom Pollack came to us with it. He said, "How's this for a concept? You gather a group of kids -- all in their early 20s or younger. You train them by the world's top sailing experts for six months. Then you put them on a 52-foot sloop in the world's toughest sailing competition and see how they fare." I said: "I'm sold. Let's do it."

Is this idea a kind of movie version of a TV competition-reality show?

No. In fact, we went the opposite way. Those shows should be called unreality shows because they're manipulated to cater to the audience. We stayed out of the kids' way to let them make their own decisions. We simply recorded what happened.

How would you describe the movie then?

As an adventure film -- the story of a group of young people sailing across the world's largest ocean ... the obstacles they encounter and the bonds they form. It's also about the (dynamic) of becoming a team -- something that's more than the sum of its parts. ... And what these kids get out of their adventure in terms of self-confidence and building a foundation for dealing with their later lives is almost immeasurable.

Roy E. Disney

The film is subtitled: "A True-Life Documentary." Is that a homage to the great Disney "True-Life Adventures" of the '50s?

It is, sort of. We wanted to link the movie to the tradition of those films ("The Living Desert," "The Vanishing Prairie," etc.) ... and distance ourselves from the Michael Moore kind of thing. Also, we just liked the sound of it.

I know you probably don't want to rehash your involvement with the famous company battles of the past ...

It's not the right occasion.

But, in general, how has Disney fared since Eisner has been gone?

We're doing well. Bob (Chief Exective Officer Robert Iger) is doing a good job, and we're finding our way back to ... the traditions that made us strong.

Have you ever tried to define that special "knack" or "touch" that made the Disney films so magical in the company's best years?

I have. But it's very hard to define. And the closer you look at it, the more (illusive) it becomes. It's like what Supreme Court (Potter) Stewart said about pornography: "I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it." But, as a filmmaker, John Lasseter (head of Disney's Pixar division) has that touch. He's the only one I've seen since Walt who really does.

What do you think Walt would think of some of the sleazy films that have gone out under the Disney Touchstone banner in the past decade? Is he rolling over in his grave?

He'd mostly be upset by the quality of some of those pictures. There's nothing he hated more than a bad picture -- except maybe a totally negative one.

Is it possible for a mom-and-pop operation to become a giant multinational conglomerate and keep its soul?

I think it is. And it starts at the top with someone who encourages people to go their own way. Eisner was too much the control freak. For us, it also means (good taste) and optimism. The Disney company was built on optimism; that's really what we have to sell, and look around -- isn't that what the world needs right now?

P-I movie critic William Arnold can be reached at 206-448-8185 or

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