Mike Gabriel and Irene Bedard Talk Pocahontas

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Some readers may be unaware that earlier in my life, I earned a living as a professional actor in Los Angeles doing voice-over work, stage and television. I developed a pretty extensive and impressive resume, but it was hard work.

In fact, even after I moved to Florida from Los Angeles, I still did some occasional work including being the off-camera narrator and voice of several animals for the Disney produced half-hour syndicated television series Secrets of the Animal Kingdom (1998).

It was the first and only series produced by Walt Disney Attractions Television that produced the annual Disney Christmas Parade shows (and for a time the Disney Easter Parade shows as well). It was meant to teach kids about the life and habits of animals set in the backdrop of Disney's Animal Kingdom where two live action kids solve riddles each episode.

Pocahontas movie poster.

Especially in Los Angeles, an essential tool for any serious actor was the weekly edition of Drama-Logue "America's Foremost Casting Newspaper" filled with casting notices for union and non-union opportunities in local stage productions, television, student films, regular films and much more.

Most actors including myself would hover around a newsstand early in the morning on the day when the newest issue was released to buy it immediately and within a half hour send out photos and resumes for potential jobs. It was always more current and diverse than the trade papers Variety or Hollywood Reporter.

Besides those casting listings were articles, entertainment news, interviews, ads for classes to help hone your skills, reviews and more. Of course, within a week, those copies were tossed away in anticipation of the next coming week's edition because the information was no longer of value.

The competing Back Stage West magazine bought Drama-Logue in May 1998, and therefore all but cornered the casting notice business in Los Angeles. However, in the merger they lost most of the valuable elements of Drama-Logue.

I am somewhat of a hoarder as well as a collector and have an interest in a wide variety of topics, so while going through a box in my storage unit I found that I had saved a handful of Drama-Logue copies.

The June 15-21, 1995 edition was probably saved because it had extensive interviews with Disney director Mike Gabriel and actress Irene Bedard about their work on the animated feature Pocahontas (1995).

MousePlanet readers now get a chance to read those insights that most people have not seen for roughly twenty-seven years and that have never been quoted in other articles. I wish I had found this before I wrote my recent Pocahontas article but life is always filled with surprises.

Mike Gabriel

Gabriel co-directed The Rescuers Down Under (1990) and Pocahontas (1995). He began his career at Disney as an assistant animator on The Fox and the Hound (1981). In 2004, he directed the Oscar nominated short Lorenzo about a cat dancing with its tail. For the short, he designed the characters, storyboarded the film, painted all the backgrounds, and was responsible for the production design.

He works for Walt Disney Animation in a variety of capacities including director, animator, storyman, character designer, visual development, production designer and art director.

Mike Gabriel co-directed Pocahontas.

"I had just finished co-directing my first animated feature for Disney and I was a little surprised at how arduous these are to make. For the next one I wanted specific things in it that I really loved.

"I wanted it to be based on a love story. I wanted it to be a musical. I thought I wanted to do a western. I was thinking of Pecos Bill and Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley but they'd all been done to death. Disney did them in short form for Melody Time in the 1940s. They were really terrific and I loved them but these ideas seemed tired and dog-eared and then I thought of Pocahontas!

"Immediately Walt Disney's Pocahontas looked like a good marquee. A unique name that you recognize from history and you have affection for it. We'd never done American Indians in animation. This pure unspoiled world of nature. I love nature and animals. Knowing their respect for nature.

"I know the Eisner-Katzenberg regime loved the fish-out-of-water story. We had John Smith from a whole other land. When I pitched it, Michael Eisner immediately sparked up. 'That's it!' He knew a lot about it. I guess he was working on Disney's America in Virginia. I didn't even know about the project.

"I grew up with a burning desire to draw Disney animated features. I took every rejection as a cue to push myself harder. Now that I am a director, I miss the days of working in the trenches, developing characters. On Pocahontas, at first I went back to coming up with ideas for the film.

"A fellow named Joe Grant and I started drawing every day. He is 87. He was Walt's right hand man on Fantasia and Dumbo. He started in 1933 at the company and was head of the model department back in the 1930s and 1940s. He left in about 1950 and came back about six years ago. He and I had hit it off working on Swan Lake which is hitting a bit of a road block.

"We are simpatico and he immediately liked the idea of Pocahontas so we started drawing little dogs that the villain would have. Then we thought of what Pocahontas would have so he drew a raccoon sitting on a stump and a cob of corn on his head and Pocahontas was trying to shoot it off. So it is a lot of fun at that stage.

"It definitely influences our animated character by who is doing the voice. There are sessions of video recording to check their eye expressions and what their acting is doing. We also do video reference to check out body acting.

"As a director, I have the audacity to try and direct these great actors. They are usually so talented you just want to stay out of their way. You do every single line in the movies fifty different ways, three months later another fifty ways and three months later you do it again.

"I was delighted and astonished by the professionalism and generosity of Mel Gibson who provided the voice for John Smith. We went to Ireland a couple of times. Mel was so gracious about his time. I have done a number of these and it was unbelievable how accessible he made himself to our picture.

"When we began, he hadn't even started The Man Without a Face, so he went through that and made time for us. He went through Maverick coming in with sideburns. As he was doing the final Maverick stuff, he started talking about Braveheart.

"Then we went through the making of that with him. In the middle of shooting at eight pm, he would come in freshly showered and miserably sick with a cold. 'Sorry, I was in the dungeon all day, chained and shackled, have a throat thing here.' I thought he was nice to do this but we came all this way and he has no voice.

"Then we'd roll the tape and he cleared his throat and this glorious voice would come out! We used a lot of bits from that session. After that he invited us into his trailer to see dailies from the battle sequences of Braveheart!

Videocassette covers for Pocahontas and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World.

"On the film, our two greatest challenges were showing Native Americans in a positive light and women always being the victim in a Disney animated feature. Pocahontas is the most liberated. The old films were based on fairy tales where the mode seems for the most part to be female as victim. Disney just followed the stories he chose.

"These days we really are aware of role models and trying to encourage certain things in people. Maybe because we do have a lot of women around now. But we certainly want to show women with resources.

"That's one thing I felt with this story – in story meetings it is always talked about 'Nope, she's being a victim not proactive.' But Pocahontas is proactive. She saves John Smith's life. She throws her head over his and takes an active role in the outcome.

"She is not sitting around in the tower waiting for someone to come help her. You always want to do something fresh and different. The more sensitive issue was the treatment of Native Americans. Personally, I was never worried about it. I was never going to do anything but try to accurately portray these people.

"I didn't know anything about American Indians before I started the film. So I went back to meet them and we met the tribes in Virginia. This movie would be a complete failure if it felt like white boys made it. It was just a matter of admitting the fact that we are white boys and we had to go back and find out what their lives were all about.

"One great source was tribal chief Ray Adams. In the car driving to a reservation, I asked what he thought would have happened on the day that the English landed. The boat was there; the people were unloading and your people were looking through the woods.

"What would they have done? He said they would have brought food out and tried to welcome them in some way.

"We had a group meeting and asked what they would like to convey through the film. Ray said, 'We are a loving people, not just war mongers. We do other things besides shoot arrows. We are families and have children and grandmothers and communities in a structured social world.' I think we succeeded. I will feel good if I hear from Ray that it worked.

"There was some concern about the absence of a mother for Pocahontas. It is difficult because the chief would have many wives. At a certain age the daughters were taken to different aunts. John Smith's writings don't mention the mother role at all.

"Michael Eisner was concerned about the absence of a mother so I tried to find a solution. We had this wind in our movie. Pocahontas has a special relationship with the wind and leaves. The wind became a character in the film for a while.

"Early on I wanted the mother to be deceased and represented by a star. I asked advisor Geraldine Kemas about the spirits of rocks and trees and stars and foam. She said, 'These are ancestors from long ago.' So I wanted to make a star be her mother. She can relate to the star and the star beam can come down and guide her.

"It didn't fly with the executives. I tried hard. But it became this fairy godmother kind of thing. When Michael came in late in the process again talking about the mother, I brought up the star thing again. The writers liked the idea but then came back the next day and said, 'Let's say the wind is the mother.'

"We already had the wind come in at the last minute to help her. It was better than the star. That's when I love the collaborative process."

Irene Bedard

Bedard was the speaking voice for the character of Pocahontas and Judy Kuhn provided the singing voice. Bedard also provided the speaking voice for Pocahontas for the character's cameo in Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018). She is of Inupiat and French Canadian/Cree (Metis) heritage and has appeared in several Native American roles on television and in films.

Irene Bedard voiced the title character in Pocahontas and Pocahontas II.

"Much of the joy of creating the role of Pocahontas was the ability to recall so much of what I learned growing up as a member of a Native American tribe in Alaska. Pocahontas means 'little mischief.' That and her curiosity are like me. She also has a sense of dignity.

"Whatever character I am playing, I say, 'Oh, yeah! I am like her.' But when I go back and look at the final product I see these characters really aren't like me. It seemed like it when I was doing them.

"From the beginning, Disney was willing to listen. They hired all Native Americans in Native American roles. It's a cultural perspective so I am happy they did that. They were very willing to pay attention to suggestions. It is a hard subject.

"A lot of people ask me 'What do Native Americans think about this?' I can't speak for all American Indians. There are so many different viewpoints and tribes with different ways of life.

"Inherent in the culture is the respect for elders. We used to always have these dinners at home eating muktuk, which is whale blubber and seal oil, and bread crackers with berries and tea.

"We'd sit around and laugh and laugh. My grandfather named me Goodiarook, meaning someone who drops things. He has a great sense of humor. One thing he said which I remember – and I must have been very, very young – 'When you go out in the world and see all these people, just look them in the eye and find out whether they are human beings or not.' I was too young to know what he really meant.

"I think I understand now. It is important to make contact with people and look them in the eye and find out if they can look you back in the eye. It gives you a better feel for everyone if you start off with that true contact. A lot of people maybe don't try to make that contact in the beginning.

"There is this story in the movie of the peace of Pocahontas. That's what it's about. These two cultures that are unable to communicate or won't communicate because of fear and prejudice. These two people, they make contact and their souls sort of touch because of their understanding and love.

"Through what her father and grandmother taught her, she was able to have the strength to know what was right. She has a great respect for human life and that was taught to her through family.

"I grew up on movies with Indians being savages and scripts written with a totally one-sided point of view. Indians were the bad guys and so no real, full human characters developed.

"In this movie Pocahontas is a full human being. She gets scared. She becomes unsure of herself. She is strong; she stands up for herself; she has opinions; she shows things to John Smith. I am glad these roles are being played by Native Americans.

"My first encounter with the word 'Pocahontas' was derogatory, a name I was called as a Native American girl. My husband said to me, 'You realize now in doing this that will be turned completely around. Girls everywhere will want to be called Pocahontas. That is a really positive step.'

"In Alaska, the only G-rated movies that came were Disney movies. I saw Benji and Alice in Wonderland and Freaky Friday and Escape to Witch Mountain. Those were the movies I was able to go to. Getting a lead in a Disney movie I had so much fun. It is all about imagination. Theater or film you have an actor to work with. In film you have all the surroundings. You get the whole visual image, the clothes you wearing, period dress all around you. For this, it is all about imagination.

"You don't have the waterfall. You have to imagine the distance between the people you are talking to. If you are supposed to be in a canoe you have to get the feeling of movement in your voice.

"It would be impossible to do a movie about Native Americans and not have environmental themes, because we are so very close to the earth and the animals and the surroundings. They are a part of the culture and language.

"This planet will go on even if we are not here. It is up to us if we want the human race to be living on this planet. Now people are so immediate they don't think about their ancestors. They don't think about the coming generation. I want my children, my grandchildren and great children to have a place to live.

"Huge industry has stripped what we have naturally. Yes, it does offer jobs. They have lobbyists and are able to keep up this huge machine that seems overwhelming to us simple people. We have to work out the means to make it work. We have the capabilities of making cars that run on natural gas.

"My husband's grandmother, a little Irish woman, has this light bulb in her house that has been there since she moved in 1930-something and it still works. We have the capability of making things that last long. Now they make them so we can make more, throw them away and make more.

"For any child who falls in love with Pocahontas, I say that whatever you love to do, pursue it. It may not be easy but if you do what you love you can't help but be happy. This life is for learning."