Whistling while she works

B Y - M Y L E S - L U D W I G

GM goes to lunch with Disney producer Bonnie Arnold, who brought cybertoons "Toy Story" and "Tarzan" to the screen

I 'm one of those fast-talking Southern girls," says Bonnie Arnold apologetically, watching me scribble hurried notes on my pad. "I can rattle on."

We're lunching at Chez Nous, a chic restaurant-cum-bakery in the San Fernando Valley, which is also home to the Walt Disney Studios where Arnold (ABJ '77) goes to work every day in the top-secret Feature Animation Building.

"It's the one with the hat," she explains, a soft Georgia lilt still very present in her voice—the hat being a Brobdingnagian version of the wizard's cap Mickey Mouse wore in "Fantasia."

It's hot in the Valley and Arnold is dressed casually in a lemony, cable-knit short sleeved sweater, white skirt, and matching sandals. She wears little jewelry, her frosted blonde hair is swept back neatly from a cherubic face, and her dark eyes sparkle with the enthusiasm of someone who has produced two consecutive box office smash cybertoons: "Toy Story," the world's first full-length computer-animated film, and, most recently, "Tarzan."

"I've been really fortunate in my career to have been associated with successful projects," says Arnold, who looks more like a soccer mom living the SUV life than a deal-wizened producer whose screen credits include "The Mosquito Coast" with Harrison Ford, "Dances with Wolves" with Kevin Costner, and "The Last of the Mohicans" with Daniel Day-Lewis. She orders iced tea, then continues: "Tarzan has been one more step."

Bonnie Arnold does, in fact, drive an SUV, a brown Lexus RX300 that she uses to commute from her Santa Monica home to the Disney lot after dropping her four-year-old off at school. She likes the RX300 "because it's made for short people; the only one I could get into! And I have to schlep around so much stuff." She makes business calls during the drive ("Thank God for the cell phone!") and listens to audio books like Cold Mountain and Into Thin Air. "I listen for pleasure," she says, "which I rarely get to do in the business."

Arnold's route from UGA to the movie business has been anything but direct.

"I had a teacher in grad school who said it took her 10 years to figure out what she wanted to do," she recalls. "I thought: My God, what's wrong with her! Of course, I was only 20 at the time—that's about what it took me."

After UGA, she went to Boston University for a master's, interning at the local public TV station, then back to Atlanta and GPTV, where she worked on a pair of films for American Playhouse. "But I was still searching for that one thing I wanted to do," she says. Hired as a publicist when her American Playhouse internship was finished, she wasn't satisfied. "I got tired of it kind of quickly," she recalls. "I wanted to be more involved in the day-to-day making of the movie."

Arnold's first job on a Hollywood feature was as production coordinator for Neil Simon's "The Slugger's Wife," a 1984 film shot in Atlanta and produced by Ray Stark, who was responsible for many of Simon's and Barbra Steisand's movie hits. "I got a real sense of filmmaking the Hollywood way," Arnold recalls. "Everything was big and huge."

After that came "The Mosquito Coast," followed by a small project with producer David Picker, who would become her mentor. Her big break came when Picker was tapped to head Columbia Pictures and suggested she join him in Hollywood. "Things always come around in this business," she says. "Because of 'The Slugger's Wife' I got 'Revenge,' which Stark produced and starred Kevin Costner.

"But you have to make your own luck and let people know what you want to do. Through Kevin, I met his producing partner Jim Wilson. That got me an associate producer job on 'Dances With Wolves.'" After two more films, Arnold paused to assess what to do next. "I was ready to make the move to producer," she says. "I decided to hold out until something came along."

That something was "Toy Story."

"To be honest," she says, "animation was the farthest thing from my mind. I knew nothing about animation. It was right on the brink of the wave of computer animation, before 'Jurassic Park,' and here I was—still using a typewriter!"

After years of financial and creative insecurity as a freelancer, Arnold says the "thought of a two-year commitment on 'Toy Story'—which ended up being three—was very appealing.

"At that point, I thought, I don't want to be at one more Days Inn in the middle of nowhere. Having a kid was in the very back of my mind. I was 37 and I thought, Life's getting short. You don't want to wake up one day and realize it's too late. I decided it was now or never."

"Toy Story" was a blockbuster, and Disney offered her "Tarzan."

Arnold (ABJ '77) grew up in Atlanta, but worked her way to Hollywood and caught the wave of computer animation. When "Toy Story" became a box office smash, she produced "Tarzan," overseeing a crew of 1,100 and a $150 million budget—five times that of "Toy Story."

The night before our lunch, I drive to the local multiplex to see "Tarzan," the only unaccompanied adult in the theater. The film has style and substance. A new computer-generated technique called Deep Canvas gives the jungle dimensionality, making it feel like a character itself. Tarzan—with his Jay Leno-like jaw, Bob Marleyesque dreadlocks, and quasi-simian knuckle-walk (he was drawn by Disney-veteran Glen Keane, who also created that babe-in-the-woods, Pocahontas)—seems more anatomically authentic than cartoonish. And his pedal-to-the-metal vine-swinging and branch-surfing antics (inspired by Keane's observations of his teenage son's skateboarding stunts) are exhilarating.

"Tarzan" has a mercifully low treacle quotient, is mostly faithful to the 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs classic, and doesn't shirk from the angst of what it means to be human, as well as the differences and similarities that bind or separate us. Grammy Award-winner Phil Collins' original music is engaging, and even the most terminally-cute characters don't suddenly burst into song to decorate plot points.

None of this is accidental, I say at lunch, and Bonnie is pleased to hear my impressions. "I'm very proud of it," she says. "It's near and dear to my heart. There were struggles, ups and downs. We sent the directors to Africa (touring animal reserves in Kenya, visiting mountain gorillas in Uganda and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest) to get a real feeling for the jungle. We went back to the original story; it was a challenge to make it fresh."

Although this was the first full-length animated version of the tale, it was the 47th time it had been told on film, a record broken only by Dracula. Burroughs had, in fact, contemplated an animated version in 1936, noting: "It must approximate Disney excellence."

Our lunch arrives, grilled perch for her and curried chicken salad for me. "A Disney project is a legacy," she notes. "We like to say we make movies for kids of all ages."

As a kid growing up in west Atlanta, Arnold's favorite Disney film was "Cinderella."

"I had the 78 record and would play it over and over. I got such pleasure out of it," she smiles. "And I was a big fan of Disney's live-action pictures—'Mary Poppins' and 'The Parent Trap.' "

I want to reach over and pinch her cheek. But beneath that bubbly exterior, I know there's a steel magnolia, tempered by nearly two decades of movie-making. "Tarzan" was three and a half years in the making with a crew of 1,100 and a budget that the Los Angeles Times estimated at $150 million—five times that of "Toy Story."

"My role is like a partner with the directors, helping them bring their vision to the screen," says Arnold. "An animated picture is put together differently than a live-action film where, after you have the script, it's shot, then edited. In animation, everything is immediate. They say a day in live action is like a week in animation. There's considerably less stress, a little more sanity, and you can pace yourself.

"You have a script, but it's not script dependent. Concept drawings set the style, then storyboard artists make every scene visual to work out the action. They're filmed as a story reel—like a flip book you had as a kid—with dialogue plugged in." In this way, the story evolves. "Good storytelling is the most important. Everything else supports that. You tell what you need to tell."

Arnold was involved in every aspect of the process: choosing the animators ("we call them actors with pencils"); finding the writers; determining what pieces of the story to tell; helping to come up with the vocal talent (another UGA alum, Seinfeld's Wayne Knight, voiced Tarzan's pachyderm pal); making the deals with agents; communicating regularly with Phil Collins, who's based in Geneva, and with Keane and his 100 artists, animators, and technicians working out of Disney's Paris studio via daily teleconferences, trips abroad, and via some proprietary telecommunication innovations.

Everyone in Hollywood wants to be a producer, but I'm exhausted just listening to her run down the list.

"Somebody has to keep their eye on the prize," she says. "I have a team and we'd meet in my office or at working lunches. I'm like the gatekeeper—keeping it on track, moving forward." And within budget? The question draws a smile. "To the best of our ability."

Arnold stays involved even after the picture is done, consulting on marketing strategy and merchandising. After lunch, she's headed back to her office to work on the "Tarzan" DVD and edit a making-of-Tarzan book. She's reviewed the manuscript of every book about the movie. "I'm a better editor than writer," she says. "I can look at the material, and see what works and what doesn't."

"Isn't it difficult," I ask, "juggling motherhood and such a demanding career?"

"It's hard because of the time factor," she says. "But I've had lots of support from my family. I hope I can be an inspiration to other women. I take time with people who want to get into the field. I try to be helpful, but realistic. It's competitive and tough and you have to be able to stick with it—and still have a little bit of a life."

One of the perks of doing "Tarzan" was getting to work with rock star Phil Collins, who did the music.

Several days later, I visit her at Walt Disney Studios. Like other motion picture lots, it's mostly a collection of featureless buildings that resemble immense warehouses, separated by narrow streets lined with trailers used for wardrobe, hair and makeup, and the starwagons, where actors relax between takes. Inside the buildings are the sound stages where movie magic is made. I park in the Zorro Garage. The art deco facade distinguished by a stained-glass frieze composed of the faces of Donald Duck, Daisy, Goofy, and Pluto. Mickey looks down from a water tower, Jiminy Cricket from the recycling center. Cartoon gods. I walk across the street and under the wizard's cap into the Feature Animation Building.

The feeling is eerie. I have entered the holiest of cartoon shrines, the source of the great and mystical media mythology of my own childhood (though my animated icons were hand-painted on cells that are now high-priced collectibles). I am inside The Temple of the Mouse. The Tabernacle of the Duck. Wow!

I walk past a showcase of sketches, images, and memorabilia, including Walt Disney's special Oscar and pictures of Walt himself, the avuncular figure who bestowed on me a virtual lifetime membership in The Mickey Mouse Club. There's Bambi—and, hey, there's a photo of Bonnie Arnold at the drums with Phil Collins grinning behind her! And there, at the top of a winding staircase, like a fragment of a dream, an immense charcoal drawing of a scene from the first movie I can remember—the movie that taught me about conscience, right and wrong, truth and deceit, and the terrible effects that can result from the hubris of denying one's elemental, however wooden, nature—Pinocchio!

Arnold's momentous words about a Disney picture being a legacy come back to me. It's a kind of trust.

After a short wait, she greets me—again the casual coed style in white blouse, gray skirt, and the white sandals. She leads me through corridors lined with Disneyfied art, explaining backgrounds, concept drawings, storyboard sequences. Behind the closed doors, off-limits to everyone but Disney associates, I imagine hundreds of happy, whistling workers at their computers, creating new characters that will be the anthropomorphic icons for generations to come.

We walk outside, cross the street and down a lane running perpendicular to Donald, Minnie and Mickey avenues. Bonnie walks quickly, pointing out historic cottages that have been on the lot since the 30s and the bulbous executive tower with its strange, bold relief facade of the Seven Dwarfs. We stop at Dopey Drive by Snow White Boulevard to sit on the terrace of the commissary, where she does some career counseling for the benefit of today's college students: "It's okay if you're not sure what you want to do. Unless you want to be something specific, what you're studying might not be what you end up doing. You have to take chances."

What special strengths does Bonnie Arnold bring to her job?

"I'm a great people person, very good with relationships," she says. "I'm good at understanding the big picture. I've been doing it for a long time and I know what it takes to make a movie."

And then she's off to another meeting, keeping her eye on the prize.

Myles Ludwig is an author and journalist.

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