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Interview: Leslie Iwerks on Bringing The Imagineering Story To Screen

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The Imagineering Story, which track the building and development of the Disney parks by the Imagineers (a title thought up by Walt to encompass something more than an engineer or designer) through the years is one of my favorite originals on the new Disney+ service. I love it not just because I’m a sucker for the parks (though I am),  but because of how director and producer Leslie Iwerks takes us to behind the magic to places the public rarely, if ever, see. Iwerks took some time to chat with the Mary Sue about making The Imagineering Story and bringing unknown corners of Disney history to light.

Leslie Iwerks has Disney in her blood. She’s the third generation in her family to work with the iconic company and that makes her the perfect director for the Disney+ series The Imagineering Story. The filmmaker behind The Pixar Story is the daughter of Don Iwerks and granddaughter of Ub Iwerks, one of Walt Disney’s earliest collaborators, and as an upcoming book by Don Iwerks calls him “Walt Disney’s Ultimate Inventor.”

“My grandfather was one of Walt Disney’s first business partners back in Kansas City, in 1919” Iwerks told us. Ub Iwerks joined Walt in California to animate shorts like Oswald the Lucky Rabit. “Then ultimately went on to design and co-create Mickey Mouse.” Ub Iwerks struck out on his own in the 30s but returned to work with Disney in the 40s.

From there “he went on to only do technical work at the studio,” according to Leslie. “He was a multifaceted innovator and technical genius who developed all sorts of projections systems, camera systems, lens, you name it that ended up in the Disney Theme park.” His work crossed over with the Imagineers, and he was credited with many things, including the fireflies in the Pirates of the Carribean Ride.

walt disney on the ground of the florida project that would eventually become walt disney world

Walt walks the grounds in the area that would become Walt Disney World.

Leslie’s father, Don Iwerks was also part of the Disney family, first working under his father then ultimately heading up the Disney machines shop that worked in conjunction with Imagineering to build the parks. Iwerks grew up playing in the Disney lot, seeing Herbie and The Shaggy D.A. being filmed, as well as the production on Captain EO, (which cost a million dollars a minute to film). “To be able to retell the Imagineering story as an adult and relive my past has been a real joy,” Iwerks told us.

Iwerks moved behind the camera for her own work. After seeing her work on 2007’s The Pixar Story, Marty Sklar, former head of Imagineering asked, “When are you going to do the Imagineering story?” according to Iwerks; “And I said, well you tell me, I’d love to.” That led to talks with Disney and an eventual plan to allow Iwerks to film and interview Imagineers and Disney leaders – including Michael Eiser – over five years.

This took place long before Disney+ was even a concept. “Basically it was commissioned as a ninety-minute film and we had no idea where it was going to air or what we were going to do with it,” said Iwerks. “It was just more of, let’s document for the first three years and a half year, let’s just shoot…and by the end of it we had so much footage that I thought: ‘how are we ever going to boil this down to ninety minutes?'”

cinderlla's castle under constuction

Cinderella’s castle under construction.

Iwerks told her editors to make the film as long as it needed to be and the result was a six-hour cut. “And it was just very interesting as a six-hour cut,” Iwerks said. Disney agreed to reconceive the film as a series. “And at that point, we were so fortunate because Disney+ wasn’t out, but it turned out to be a great thing for Disney+,” and Iwerks and co. rushed to finish the series in time: “Over the last year we threw everything we could at it to finish it up.”

The result is a fascinating and surprisingly moving look at Imagineering, from its beginnings as “WED Enterprises. ” The series gives viewers insights into the hundreds of people that worked to imagine and build the Disney parks, including the many women, like artist Mary Blair, who mark is all over the parks, but who often go unsung. The Imagineering Story takes us through to the highs of successful new parks, to the losses of leaders like Walt, and later Disney president Frank Wells in the 1990s. The series takes us to places cameras and outsiders have never been in the parks for a truly unique perspective.

“We’re used to seeing Disneyland the way it is, the way that the Imagineers want the guests to see it,” Iwerks explained. But she and her crew were allowed behind the curtains and into the inner sanctums – sometimes at two in the morning before the parks opened – to get the real story. One of the most moving moments of the first episode comes when the crew follows the designer of the original Matterhorn, Bob Gurr, into the mythical basketball court inside the ride. He sinks a basket and finally gets to sign the wall of the ride that generations of cast members have written on.

“Some people may not be happy with me for sharing that because they want to keep it a myth, but other people loved that.” Iwerks assures us, however: “There were still a lot of secrets we didn’t share, so we’ll leave it at that.”

bob gurr rides the monrail to the materhorn in the imagineering story

Designer Bob Gurr before taking a trip inside the ride he built years ago.

Upcoming episodes will give fans a chance to see newer parks and attractions, including many of the innovations at Shanghai Disney, which Iwerks practically saw built over the course of the project. She shares her favorite two rides are the original Pirates of the Carribean and the new Pirates in Shanghai. We’ll also see how the Imagineers balance original ideas with integrating known characters and stories into the parks. “It’s a fine mix and it’s a fine line,” Iwerks says of integrating known stories and new concepts. “That’s kind of the DNA of Disney, finding new stories that can become interesting experiences, that can transcend the motion picture screen.”

Those rides and the park mean a lot to guests in an emotional way, which is reflected in how the series has been surprisingly moving and dramatic so far, but that makes sense to Iwerks. “There’s a lot of emotion to this company, and what the Imagineers do,” Iwerks said. “The take away was the real sense of pride that the Imagineers have and that the cast at the parks have. Because, you know, how many places do you go to where the people that are working there are just as excited as the people who are going there?” That’s evident to anyone who’s been to Disneyland or any other park.

new attraction in shanghai disney

A new attraction in Shanghai.

“They come together and there’s this real, joyful experiences. And I’m not trying to put rose-colored glasses on – there’s challenges in any business,” I werks went on. “Walt Disney set up the DNA for the Disney company and certainly the Disney parks that it’s the happiest place on earth, and that’s the mission every day for the employees, to make this the happiest place on earth. And so for the Imagineers, they’re just constantly pushing the boundaries of how do we make this really different and really cool and really and immersive experience and how do we stay on top of this technology and really push it forward and really surprise the guest?”

“One of the unexpected gifts that came out of this was not only being able to share my grandfather’s story but my dad’s story,” Iwerks added. “It’s just been a real gift to us to be part of the Disney story.” How they do that has made for a fascinating, nostalgic and insightful series so far, and it’s clear that Iwerks truly has the Disney DNA in her in the way she’s made it.

(images: Disney)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.