From director Leslie Iwerks, the six-hour Disney+ docu-series The Imagineering Story, narrated by Angela Bassett, is a fascinating and unprecedented look at the unique blend of artists and engineers, known as Imagineers, whose job it is to carry on the legacy of Walt Disney in theme parks, around the globe. It’s a rare peek behind the curtain at the creation of Disneyland and every subsequent theme park – from Epcot and Disney’s Animal Kingdom to the parks in Tokyo, Paris and Shanghai – and highlights the trials and tribulations, as well as the joys and successes, including classic attractions from Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion to new favorites like Cars Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, documentary filmmaker Leslie Iwerks (whose family has their own Disney connections) talked about letting fans get an in-depth look at nearly 70 years of Imagineering history, how this project evolved from a 90-minute movie to a six-hour docu-series for Disney’s new streaming service, exploring the legacy of her own family while exploring the legacy of Disney, getting an inside look at the studio and theme park as a child, making sure to show the trials along with the triumphs, the similarities and differences in the theme parks around the world, whether the series will explore the never-built Disney’s America theme park, and what made Angela Bassett the perfect narrator.
Collider: Being a Disney and theme park fanatic, I’m very excited about this docu-series. What are you most excited about fans of Disney and fans the theme parks to get to see with this?
LESLIE IWERKS: I’m just excited for the fans to get an in-depth look at 67 years of Imagineering history, and learn what went into building all of these parks and attractions, and the trials and tribulations that went into it. I often say that Walt Disney created the happiest place on earth, but creating happiness is hard work, and that’s what this series is about
This was originally going to be a feature-length documentary movie, but as a result of Disney+, it’s now a six-hour series. How did that evolve, and what do you feel like you gained from that added time?
IWERKS: The added time was the opportunity to film around the world. It was commissioned as a 90-minute, but over five years. It was about going around to the different parks and interviewing the various Imagineers who were opening up different attractions and lands. That led me to all of these different places and talking to a variety of Imagineers working today. However, when we finished the project and finished the production, so to speak, the amount of material was so big. It was like, “Okay, what do we do with all of this?” I basically said, “In order not to waste so much material, to cut it into 90 minutes, let’s try to just edit it, as it feels right, and we’ll figure out how to cut back, from there.” We knew what we had, and that experiment gave us time to go into the archives and see what footage would support the interviews that we got. We went into Imagineering, where they have a room that’s just full of tapes and archival material and all of the footage that’s been shot, either for TV specials or raw test footage or behind the scenes experimental footage, etc., that we got access to. We just got a shopping cart and went in and went through several boxes, and then took the tapes off shelf and to my office to look through them, so that we could digitize or copy what we needed and start working with that material. Some of that was golden. Nobody has ever seen any of this material, and a lot of it’s very old. So, between all of that opportunity and new findings, we were able to cut a six-hour version that everybody really was excited about because they hadn’t seen this material in so along and hadn’t heard these stories. Everyone is focused on what’s happening now, but to look at the breadth of 67 years, in a six-hour cut, it gives you a great perspective.
It seems like this is such a rare opportunity, where you get to weave the personal and professional together. You’re a documentary filmmaker, but your father and grandfather also worked for Disney. What was that aspect of the experience like, getting to explore the legacy of your own family while exploring the legacy of Disney?
IWERKS: It was definitely a lot of fun. I had already done a film, called The Hand Behind the Mouse, back in 2000, so I had already scoured my grandfather’s history within the archives. But in this case, I was able to delve a bit more into my dad’s own history because he was head of the machine shop that oversaw a lot of the construction and design of the camera systems, projection systems, and ride systems that the parks utilized. He wasn’t an Imagineer, so to speak, but he was working with them, and along with so many of the Imagineers, I was able to trace their stories a bit, and I thought it was just fun. There were all of these new discoveries, with the editors coming in and saying, “We found this great shot of your dad.” The day Michael Eisner came and talked to the employees, he’s in the crowd. My dad also has a lot of great photographs, in his own collection, like Lincoln’s hands, for example. Those images that you see, of the mechanics of the hand, he shot all of those photographs and he was there during that whole construction, so I was able to utilize his photograph that have never been seen, either. It was just a big combination of finding great footage, from a variety of sources.
It seems like it would be amazing to learn that your family had a hand in helping to create Mickey Mouse. Did you have a moment when you realized the significance of the work that your family did, as far as being involved with Walt Disney, in that way?
IWERKS: I grew up around this, so from a very young age, I was aware of my grandfather and my dad ‘cause he was working at the studio. Every now and then, I was afforded the opportunity to go with him to the studio, on a weekend, and walk around the machine shop, and see all of the cool cameras being built, or run around on the backlot while he was working. There was The Shaggy D.A. set, and the Herbie Goes Bananas Volkswagen car was there, which to me, was like a celebrity because I used to love watching those fun, old Disney movies. So, to me, it was always in my life. It’s great. It’s a wonderful family, so to speak. I grew up with a lot of the Imagineers, as family friends, like Blaine Gibson and Harriet Burns, and I got to know a lot of them through the making of The Hand Behind the Mouse, as well. During the years when Walt was alive and during the Epcot years, it was very much like a family.
With something like this, it seems that you have to find a balance between providing an accurate portrayal of what happened while also understanding that Disney wouldn’t want to release something that would seem too damaging to the brand. Did you have to keep that in mind, while making this?
IWERKS: In my career, I’ve done a number of documentaries that are enterprise stories and stories of innovation that are about companies and people within those companies creating innovative and interesting products, from Citizen Hearst to Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible to Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table to The Pixar Story. All of those films provided a backdrop that Disney could trust because I’ve done these types of films before. Nothing comes without tribulations. For me, it was about, if we’re gonna tell an honest and authentic story of the Imagineers, who are creative individuals, there has to be challenge to what they create. It’s the artistic journey and, at the end of the day, it’s a hero’s journey. I looked at these Imagineers as one of the heroes in the hero’s journey, so you have to overcome odds to succeed. That’s really how I framed this whole story. Of course, there’s things that Disney probably would not have wanted to resurrect, but I think they were so good and so bold, in doing that, for the launch of this network. All of that had already been in the series, prior to the network even acquiring it from Imagineering. So, all of these trials and tribulations that you’re gonna see in the six hours were already pretty much there in the six-hour cut.
And then, Disney+ came on board and said, “We have some thoughts on how we could make this more of a human story, or a first-person story, and get more vérité with certain Imagineers. And I offered the idea of going behind the scenes more and do more vérité, where we can have an Imagineer pull us into the Matterhorn, or take us into areas that the viewer would never see. So, that was all pretty bold decision-making, on their part, because that hadn’t been done before. Some of these locations that were taking you, they don’t allow media inside there. Through a gentle hand, from my team and I, we were able to say, “It’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna really give the viewer a cool experience. Trust that this is gonna really look good for the company, in a sense, by being so self-reflective and so honest about its own mistakes.” In our day and age, there are so many hard-hitting docs that you get slammed, if you aren’t honest about the hard knocks.
One of the things that I find most cool about something like this is getting to see unfinished early versions of some of the attractions, whether it’s the Jungle Cruise before it had water, or the mermaids that are no longer there, or the Autopia cars before they were on tracks. Do you have some of your own favorite early memories about Disneyland attractions, that either are no longer there or that are different now?
IWERKS: The thing that really sticks out to me is that, as a kid, my dad took me backstage. We would park back in the backlot and go in through the side, and to me, that was the most magical experience. I felt like I was such a privileged kid to see this other side of the curtain of Disneyland. To me, that was the magical part. I learned, from an early age, the side of filmmaking that a lot of people don’t get to see. I was privy to the making of very early on. To come back now, as an adult, and to have been given an opportunity to actually do a six-hour show on that making of, that I grew up around, is the ultimate gift. Now, I can not only relive a little bit of what I grew up around and the way in which I grew up, but I can pull the viewer into that same experience and I can also illuminate so many Disney fans to the behind the scenes and the making of these attractions that are so popular.
I’ve only gotten to see two hours, so I’m not sure of what you cover in the other four hours of the series. Do you get into the grand plans and the scrapping of Disney’s America? Is that something you explore?
IWERKS: Yes. I’m not gonna do spoilers, but we do go into some projects that never got made, so we go into that.
Having traveled to all of the parks around the world, in what ways did you find that they were all similar to each other, and are there any major differences that you’ve found, between the different countries?
IWERKS: Well, I had the opportunity to go to all of them, except Tokyo, unfortunately. That’s the last one that I really wanna see, but I was able to get a lot of footage and I interviewed a lot of people that worked on that. Shanghai Disneyland is the gold standard now for a modern theme park, with the innovative technology that went into that. All of them are very similar, in that they have that special DNA and fabric of a Disneyland and a Main Street and a hub. The only one that doesn’t have that is Shanghai, and that’s because the culture there doesn’t understand or relate to the Main Street U.S.A. that came from Walt’s era. But they all have this amazing appeal of entertainment, experience, immersion, storytelling, and detail that the Imagineers spend so much time putting into it. My takeaway from just seeing and being a part of a bit of what they all do is the level of hard work and concentration and dedication to detail is unbelievable.
You talked about how you’ve done other films about the legacy of Disney. Are there any other aspects of Disney, as a company, that you’d like to explore, either for another film or for a TV series?
IWERKS: Yeah, there are a lot of different subjects and people that I think are quite fascinating, and that would be interesting profiles and documentaries, in and of themselves. This is the biggest one, and I hope that it will continue to happen in the parks, around the world, and give viewers a glimpse inside of this interesting world.
How did you end up getting and deciding on Angela Bassett to narrate this?
IWERKS: It was tough. We went through a lot of choices, and we put their voice sample to picture and had to really to sit with those voices for awhile, to see if it would carry through a whole six-hour show. The key was getting somebody who would be a storyteller and not take you out of the story. It felt like there were a lot of men in this show, and we all collectively thought that a female narrator would be great to balance that. Also, we wanted somebody who had a range of voice that could pull you through, in emotional moments and fun moments. It was a real joy to work with her. She just surprised me and impressed me, every step of the way. And she’s a big Disney fan, so it was fun to get her. She was great. She was very excited to see the scenes that she was reading for, and she really enjoyed it.
The Imagineering Story is available to stream at Disney+, starting on November 12th.