The Imagineering Story interview

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Leslie Iwerks is about to unveil her newest documentary. The Imagineering Story is a six-part documentary series which tracks the history and evolution of Imagineering in Walt Disney theme parks, and it serves as a sort of spiritual follow-up to her 2007 film The Pixar Story, which chronicled the genesis of that company and its eventual rise to creative dominance. But this series has a special resonance for Iwerks.

Leslie is the granddaughter of Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney’s original business partner and the co-creator of Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Her father was Don Iwerks, a former Disney executive and Oscar winner for his technical contributions to the film industry. Because of her family connections, Leslie was taken behind the scenes of Disney parks as a child and got to see behind the curtain as these engineers were creating new additions to “The Happiest Place on Earth.” I sat down with Iwerks a couple of weeks ago to talk to her about her new documentary, how she’s trying to share some of the wonder she felt as a kid, the definitive Disney theme park attraction, and more. 

Disney fans can be obsessive and many of the most voracious of them have tried to dig into the history of Imagineering themselves, so there’s some information out there on this topic already. But what’s the most interesting revelation you uncovered while making this project? 

Well, if you’re speaking about the fans, it’s how intense fans are over what any Imagineer touches. We did a story about Kim Irvine, who is one of the senior Imagineers at Disney. She has a long lineage – her mother was Madame Leota, and her father was Dick Irvine, one of the former presidents of Imagineering – and she told me about how when she was re-doing [It’s a] Small World, it was like a real, real issue. The thing is, when the internet came about, now fans had a voice, and they had no qualms about posting everything they feared, everything they thought before they even knew the truth, what was happening behind the scenes. So she comes across really funny, because she’s like, ‘I love the fans, but also, I want to wring their necks sometimes because they have to trust us!’ That kind of thing. So much is secret behind the scenes until the very end. So I think, just speaking of the fans, that whole story of the Imagineers and how they deal with fans’ expectations, that’s pretty funny, actually.

I imagine you’re not looking at this doc as an opportunity to create any “gotcha” moments about the company, but does Disney allow you to be critical of certain elements of anything that they do if you stumble across that as you are making a project like this?

Yes. This film has definitely got its warts and all. I came into the film as a very transparent and honest director that this is not a puff piece, this is a documentary – a legitimate, serious documentary – about this company. What are those issues? Where were the mistakes made, and why were the mistakes made? Were they the fault of Imagineers? Were they the fault of economics? Were they the fault of the leaders of the company? At the end of the day, what I found most interesting, no matter what the conflict was – it could have even been economic or physical, like tsunamis – these Imagineers, and that DNA that Walt started with Disneyland, is so rock solid that they basically can get through anything. That sort of DNA of story and innovation just keeps going. And everyone wants to live up to this “Happiest Place on Earth” mantra, which I actually find fascinating, because I don’t know if Walt Disney came up with it or it was marketing, but the fact that they put the stamp down that said, “We want to create the happiest place on Earth.” Happiest place on Earth: think about that.

That’s a high bar.

That’s a high bar. That was sort of our kernel – or at least it was mine. That’s the nucleus of this entire story. Everything that comes out of this, all these narrative threads, come out of that nucleus. What really is the takeaway is, Walt Disney wanted to create the happiest place on Earth, but creating happiness is hard work. That’s really the story.

Do you know if any of your grandfather’s cartoons will have a home on Disney+? Has anybody talked to you about any of that?

You mean the Disney cartoons?

Yeah.

Sure, I’m sure they will. I don’t know. I haven’t been tracking what they’re putting on in cartoons, but I can’t imagine they wouldn’t put the Mickey Mouses and the Oswalds and the Silly Symphonies.

What was the culture of Imagineering like in those early days? Was it a big family, or more like Mad Men in theme parks?

You know what, I think it hit on both. Those guys were going out for martini lunches, coming up with stuff like Madame Leota, you know what I mean? [Imagineer] Yale Gracey and my dad used to go to lunch and brainstorm on all sorts of things. At the same time, there was a real family element. Walt Disney himself was very much a family man. But when you look at this footage, it’ll crack you up. All this old stuff. Everyone smoking, construction workers are out there with their shirts off. The rules and regulations were so much different back then, there was a sense of freedom – maybe they didn’t know it back then, I guess compared to now, there’s a lot more freedom – but it was like this imagination factory. There’s some great footage in the series of all these animatronics and people working on things, and everyone was just on this unified vision to make Walt’s dreams a reality. Your engineers, your artists, your storytellers, your sculptors like Blaine Gibson, everybody came together to make this dream come true. That was fun, it was just a fun time. My dad always says that when Walt died, it was the end of an era, because it was such an imagination factory and a playground for him and for so many other people while he was there.

The Imagineering Story Mickey

You mentioned in a presentation earlier that once Disney+ came on board, they gave you the ability to shoot more footage. What did this doc look like before you knew it would live on this streaming service?

It was a strong six-hour doc prior. Because we showed it at Imagineering and Bob Weiss and the president there, those folks did not know what to expect and they were blown away with how much footage we got. They were like, “Wow, this is like reliving our past.” They were shocked by how much we found that they had never seen before. I interviewed probably 250 people for this project. It was commissioned as a 90 minute film shot over four years, edited in the last year. So four years of it was just filming, and the last year, we had a mountain. We were like, “What are we going to do with all this?” So we had to cut a long piece to figure out how to shape it down. We had to figure out what were the storylines that were important, then we had to go to the archives and figure out what material did we have to support that story. Sometimes we didn’t have it, so we had to cut back on how long that particular segment was. So there’s a lot of – it was like an accordion: long, short, long short. Overall, the narrative arc of the whole 65-year history was there in six hours and they were so excited about it. They wanted to get this out there. Then when Disney+ came in, they said, “OK, we love this. What do you want to do? What do you think, in your heart of hearts, you’d love to do that you haven’t been able to do?” I said, “Well, I’d like to have more time to go back and do more verité and take viewers behind the scenes in the same way I got to do when I was a kid,” going behind the scenes on the lot or at Disneyland or whatever. So that sense of awe and wonder is what I brought to it. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I wanted to do that.

You also said before that each of the six episodes have their own arcs and cliffhanger endings. How much rewriting and re-editing did you have to do in order to shape the form of specific episodes instead of a continuous story told over six hours?

We had the six hour cut, and it was originally shown as six different episodes.

Oh, it was?

Yeah, because we had these natural arcs and endings. Walt passes away, that’s one episode. And then there’s a new turning point. They were all based on turning points, and usually it was the end of an era. So Walt Disney World and then Tokyo Disneyland, the end of that was sort of the end of an era because the company almost dissolved, almost broke apart. That was a major, major cliffhanger. We might not have Imagineering at all today had they not come in and rescued the company. Michael Eisner coming in and Frank Wells coming in. So then it became like, “OK, now we’re on a new story. The Frank and Michael Show.” Then when Frank Wells died, it became a whole new energy and spirit and the dark period at Imagineering, so that became its own episode. And then Michael Eisner having to leave the company, and that becomes another era. So it was really shaped more by what happened big-picture in the company that shaped Imagineering, and that’s how we sort of found our turning points.

I rewatched The Pixar Story as soon as I found out I’d be speaking with you, and I was impressed all over again by that movie, and I was especially struck by the sheer amount of archival footage you had access to there. I imagine that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what you had for this project. I’m curious about how many iterations there were of a project like this. You said it was like an accordion – was there a ten-hour cut at any point and you decided to shape it down, or was six the long end of it for you?

I think six was the long – definitely certain episodes were longer. Episode one was originally…it could have been a two-hour [episode], just leading up to Walt’s passing. So there were definitely sections we wished we could have gone longer because we think there’s an audience there, but at the same time, I really respected Dan [Silver, Disney+’s VP of unscripted content] and Agnes [Chu, Senior VP of content]’s input, because they’re looking at it as an objective viewer. I tried to, too, as a filmmaker with my editors, who are so vested in this subject matter. By the way, I had amazing editors on this project and they were so passionate. But at some point, you have to go, “OK, where’s enough enough? We’ve got it, you know?” It’s just that very fine line of, one minute longer, even, you’re like, “OK, I got it.” That’s where Dan and Agnes were really good at saying, “OK, I think you can trim it a little bit more.” They wouldn’t tell me where, they’d just say that it might be going a little long and they got it. That’s what you need as a filmmaker, I think. You need a network executive to sort of be your better half or whatever portion they are, but that better part of you as a filmmaker to say, “We think this is awesome, but feel free to trim where you need to,” but not tell you where.

The one thing that struck me rewatching The Pixar Story now was it was a little strange to watch now considering all of the stories out there about John Lasseter. I was just wondering if, when you were working on that movie, you ever heard any whispers about any of the bad behavior that was alleged to be going on back then or if you were as blindsided as we all were by those stories?

I was definitely blindsided as well. Having done The Pixar Story, having known John as long as I have, having a great relationship with John over the years, it took me completely by surprise. But it did not stop me for one second to think – you know, he’s in this film. He’s part of the Disney DNA and Cars Land and everything else. So I’m thrilled to have John in the film.

I want to end with a fun one: in your mind, what is the definitive Disney attraction? The one that best sums up theme park design as an art form?

I would say Pirates of the Caribbean. The original, and then the current one. If you look at the evolution of the original Pirates, it was an accumulation of amazing storytelling, an amazing ride system – as Bob Gurr calls it, it was a trick building that had water going downhill, uphill, all over the place. It had music that was fantastic, which was actually written by the Winnie the Pooh [and the Honey Tree] creator X Atencio, who had never written a script for a ride before. It was amazing storytelling, amazing technology, amazing costumes, and amazing animatronics that had all come together in one pinnacle attraction that was state-of-the-art at the time. Every other theme park – well, they weren’t really theme parks, they were…what would you call Magic Mountain? It’s not a theme park.

Yeah, something in between. It’s not quite a carnival, but not quite a theme park.

Yeah. So everyone else looked up to this one attraction as the bar, right? So now you cut to all these decades later and you go to Shanghai and you go to Pirates of the Caribbean there, it is state-of-the-art. It’s like these Imagineers were so inspired to stand on the shoulders of the original Imagineers who built that first one and just say, “We’re going to plus every single element to the nines, as far as we can go.” That’s how it is. So I think everyone should visit that one.

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The Imagineering Story begins streaming on Disney+ today.

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