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Interview with FLOYD NORMAN: AN ANIMATED LIFE directors Michael Fiore & Erik Sharkey

August 25, 2016

Sharkey_Norman_Fiore

 

With the release of their new documentary “Floyd Norman: An Animated Life” on August 26th, I recently had the opportunity to speak with directors Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey over the phone. These guys had the pleasure of getting to know legendary Disney artist and all-around nice guy, Floyd Norman, with the intent of introducing him to viewers and confirming just how important and influential he is to filmmaking, especially animation. Their film recently screened at San Diego Comic-Con, where it won a Best Documentary Award and is now seeing a limited theatrical release as well as digital platforms such as iTunes, Amazon and VOD. 

Our brief interview proved to be very easy-going and quite informative. These guys have learned to master the art of making the interviewee comfortable, which can prove to be helpful for any documentary filmmaker, but I must say I wound up feeling quite at ease as we spoke about the process of making this wonderful documentary. You can find my full review of their film here, but all you need to know is that “Floyd Norman: An Animated Life” is about a Disney artist veteran who worked on classics such as “The Jungle Book” and “Sleeping Beauty”, who was forced to retire at age 65. Now at age 81, Norman has been rehired by Disney and serves as a consultant for younger artists, taking odd jobs here and there. He is a youthful man who has no intention of quitting anytime soon and Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey are two filmmakers who saw in Norman someone who should be shared with the whole world….

 

David J. Fowlie: I’d like to start off by asking when you guys first learned of Floyd Norman?

Erik Sharkey: Well, I first met Floyd Norman at Comic-Con in San Diego a couple years ago when I was there promoting a documentary I directed on Drew Struzan, who did the poster art for “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones”….

DJF: I know it well. I saw it and enjoyed it.

ES: Oh great. And he came to an event we had and it’s not often that you’re talking to somebody and they say, “Well, when I was working with Walt Disney on “The Jungle Book”….”  (everyone laughs) And he had all these great stories about Disney and working on all these classics and working at Pixar and he was so charming and he had such a great personality that we wanted people to know about him and felt it’d make for a great movie. Luckily, Michael reached out to me and he wanted to make another film and I told him about the idea and I’m very grateful that Michael wanted to make this movie too.

Michael Fiore: Yeah, we share common bond in our mutual friend and music composer Ryan Shore, who worked on this film and scored “Drew: The Man Behind the Poster” and I’ve been working with him since 1999. And, I knew of Erik through Ryan but had never met him. And, so I was aware of the “Drew” doc and I cold-called and asked him, “So, what are you working on next?” And I had just come off of a movie – a feature narrative that’s just coming out this winter from Screen Gems called “Keep Watching“. And so this was back in the early winter of 2014 and he got on the phone and we talked and he pitched me this story in particular and I was like, “Oh my God! It’s a no-brainer!” And so we sat down about twice within a two week time and within a week or two of that we were in L.A. and we were filming and we just said, “Let’s keep this easy – let’s you and me and a small supportive team, you know a sound man and a P.A.  – and let’s just do it ourselves. Let’s control our net gain, instead of the opposite, where you’re working with notable producers and actors and, it’s just like, let’s do something that’s so creatively fulfilling” – and it has been.

DJF: Great. So, what was Floyd’s response when you approached him about making a documentary about his life?

ES: Right away, he was really open about it. He was flattered and excited about it. Floyd is the one who loves to share his history and his stories and his experiences. So, it definitely wasn’t a hard sell. When me and Michael went out to L.A. he was very happy to open up his home to us and take us around the animation building and Walt Disney studios. So, he was game right away.

MF: He would talk in such a way that it was almost bemoaning, he would say, “I just don’t understand why anybody would want to tell a story about me” (everyone laughs) He’s so humble. He means it. And it’s just so funny, because it’s like “Absolutely! You are the history of animation – well beyond Disney, you know with Hanna-Barbera and Pixar and all these other things – and it’s like, of course we want to make a documentary about you.” I was always shocked that no one had. What was interesting was, his wife Adrienne, who we’ve come to know very well – she’s wonderful and equally talented as an artist. She works at Disney Publishing where she does beautiful work. She was the one, the first time Erik and I walked into their house, she looked at us and – when you first meet her she’s just very deadpan, she’s just staring at us, “Now why do you want to tell a movie about Floyd?” (laughs) And she wanted to know, you know, why we were here and we proved to her at Comic-Con –  just two weeks ago – she thanked us and said “I love you guys. Thank you for doing this”. She seemed very appreciative, but the first couple weeks she was naturally very protective. She kind of acts as his manager. So, I don’t blame her at all, but it was funny to see the evolution, because it started off with like, “Why do you guys want to do this? What are your intentions?”And then she realized that we only had the best of intentions and so she was thrilled to be a part of it.

DJF: That’s great. Are there any aspects of his life that you had to cut out for the sake of time or in thinking of the overall flow of the movie?

MF: Oh yeah. I mean, we had a three-hour cut of the movie about a year ago that we really fast-tracked. The editorial process went very very quickly. And we had to just say, “Let’s look at what we have. And the first hour of that cut was really his time at Disney, which is now condensed in the form that everyone is going to see on Friday. It’s condensed down really to about 15-20 minutes of Act One. And we were in love with that hour-long segment that was filled with all these Disney details, but on the flip side, we were covering eighty years of one person’s life and then fifty to sixty of a career. Covering Disney that much just didn’t feel like it gave the rest of his life the justice it deserved. You know, someone was critical online yesterday, “How can they only spend one minute on his time in Korea?” You know, you have to cherry pick what you emphasize. Plus, that’s not what this movie is about.

The one thing, we were talking about this earlier, that we wish we hadn’t have done with out was the interview with the executive that played a part in Floyd’s forced retirement. He went off-the-record on a phone call with me, where he kind of outlined what happened and I tried to get him on camera and he said he would. But then in a vary passive-aggressive way, he reneged and said he was too busy and then I phoned him the next year to try see if he would come to the table for a few minutes of interview and every time, “Oh, I’m too busy. I can’t.” And then we said, “Oh we’ll come to you – wherever you are in the world. We’ll talk for ten minutes.” And he always reneged. That would’ve been a beat in the story that would have been important and it would’ve added to some of the forced retirement drama. But, you know, we tried – very very hard – to get that Disney perspective on why he was let go. So, what we tried to do in the version that exists is let people kind of gauge for themselves why he was force retired. Was it his age? Was it that he was  a pain in the ass, or a “troublemaker” – even to the point where they were looking to get him out? So, we don’t try to make a statement. We try just to show, “Here’s what the man is like, here’s his temperament – now, it’s up to you to determine why he was force-retired.”

DJF: I kind of like that approach to the film. I wanted to ask how you guys approached directed this together, how do you guys handle directing duties?

MF: The way it worked out is, with questions – Erik would always start out with questions and he would send me his list. I then I would come at it like ‘Okay, what if we add this and what if we chopped this?” Because I was taking on the editorial. I was editorializing, whether we were prepping a shoot or if we were on the shoot. And then, when we’d get on set, Erik would more times than not be the interviewer and I’d be shooting. A couple of occasions we would go out with a second cameraman, but for the most part I’d just shoot. So, it was a very shared kind of role – in a sense that, you know, we were trading on different forms of director duties. I was the director of photography for the animation, while – it was like a stew – and we worked really well together, so we were like, “Let’s just jump in the pot and make a flavored stew.”

ES: It worked really well with the interviews because there were so many amazing stories and it helped that we had such a small crew. It just made it a lot more intimate. So, they were able to open up a lot more and give us a lot more and it just streamlined everything. So, it was very smooth.

MF: One of the things I love about working with Erik is that he – I was always mesmerized by this – we would have a list of 30 questions, let’s just say on average – he would memorize every one of them and he wouldn’t have a piece of paper on his lap. And I would say to any documentary filmmaker out there – that is huge. The key to getting someone to connect, not only with the interviewer, but also with the audience by way of the camera, is to make them feel comfortable. And so Erik always treated it like a dialogue and he always allowed them to talk, even if it didn’t go to a place we needed. He never stepped on them. He allowed them to continue their train of thought and I think too many people step on the toes of the interviewee. So, it was funny, because there were a couple shoots where Erik was in New York and I was on business in L.A. and I was kind of forced into doing an interview and I learned from him. I didn’t use a piece of paper. I was just like, “Oh, that’s the best way to do it.” So, I probably forgot more questions than he would have, but that aesthetic of not looking down at a piece of paper, I found to be a huge reason why all the people feel so real and not feeling like they’re performing.

DJF: It’s almost like the directors or the interviewers should know their lines, instead of, like you said, looking down at a piece of paper. 

MF: (both laugh) That’s right! It should just be a natural conversation.

ES: I would hope it would just be an open dialogue.

DJF: Right. You know what you’re going to talk about and you just go with it. 

MF: Exactly. And the thing that’s key is, you do need to go in there knowing the beats you want to hit and that’s where the memorization is so helpful, because I would sit behind the camera and I would have a list that I would be checking off and not the rare occasion I would tap him and go, “hey, we have two more minutes, let’s get this question in next, ” but again, that aesthetic of not reading from paper – it’s the best way to do it.

DJF: Excellent. Well, I’ll be posting my review very soon. I really enjoyed the movie and I’m looking forward to promoting it. 

MF: Sorry we were a bit late, but we really appreciate the time you took.

DJF: No problem. You guys have a great day. Thank you.

ES: Thank you.

MF: You too. Goodbye.

 

 

 

Fiore Sharkey Norman

 

For more information on the movie and to purchase a blu-ray copy, click here

 

 

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