Leslie Iwerks is genuine Disney royalty.
Her father, Don Iwerks, is a Disney legend who worked alongside Walt developing camera systems for Disney live-action features like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and later influential Disney theme park attractions like the Circlevision-360 technology that powered things like America the Beautiful and 3D systems that powered the company’s inaugural 3D attraction Magic Journeys. And her grandfather, Ub Iwerks, was one of Walt’s original business partners and the designer of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse. Some of those original, highly influential short films, like “Steamboat Willie” or “The Skeleton Dance,” were animated almost entirely by Ub. So, like I said: Disney royalty.
As a documentarian, Leslie Iwerks has covered a number of pressing societal and environmental issues, but also returned to the company her father and grandfather called home, creating features about her grandfather, the Pixar legacy and, most recently, The Imagineering Story, an illuminating, 6-part documentary series that debuted with Disney+ in November. With The Imagineering Story, she went behind-the-scenes of the secretive group responsible for Disney’s theme parks, resorts and cruise ships. The access Imagineering afforded Iwerks, and the stories that the Imagineers told, were unprecedented. For Disney fans like myself, the series was a near-religious experience.
And it’s been a thrill to chat with Iwerks about the impact the documentary has had, how th Disney Parks are faring in these difficult times, being on the last Disney Cruise before quarantine, and whether she’d come back for more episodes.
Collider: How hard is it for you to not think about additional episodes of this documentary during this unprecedented time for the parks?
IWERKS: Well, you know, I just miss being in the parks, as everybody does. And it’s hard to see so much stalled at the moment, as far as expansions and new lands and new attractions, on hold. They’ll get back to it soon enough and this all be behind us. We’re just doing what we’ve got to do. I’m glad that The Imagineering Story is out there for people to at least watch during this time.
One of the most emotional moments in the documentary is the reopening of the Japanese parks after the tsunami. Do you expect similarly emotional reactions to when the parks open back up? Have you thought about that at all?
IWERKS: Yeah, I have. Obviously Shanghai just reopened and by what I saw, it seemed very similar and people were just thrilled to be back, obviously under different circumstances, social distancing and lines and things like that. I think just what you read in social media, what people are posting about, they just can’t wait to get back and these parks are special to people. They are a place for happiness and we’re missing that right now in this world. And I think more than ever, I think people are just going really appreciate the parks.
The ups and downs of Imagineering is such a huge part of this documentary. Was there anything compare this current situation to in terms hardships that they faced?
IWERKS: Well, I think what was fun about the documentary covering the whole history was that they have probably dealt with more than most realize over a 60-year history. You’ve got lots of different trials and tribulations that impact the parks, whether, it’s the economic or be physical, environmental things. And this is one that is unprecedented. Not all parks have been shut down all at once before. That’s a real blow to the company and you’re seeing the impact of that. But, you know, the reality is that I know that they can get through this. There’s a need for these parks, more than I think a lot of physical brick and mortar places in the world.
The hotel and restaurant industry is getting impacted so severely, as well as the airline industry, et cetera. I mean, you can say, “Well, most people want to go back to a Disney theme park.” You going to have some say, “Well, that’s my first priority.” But there’s a lot of people that say, “I need joy back in my life again.” And that’s what these parks more than any place really offer. It just feels like it’s unprecedented. There is unprecedented need for joy and happiness and places where families can get together and enjoy themselves and be outside and have exhilaration. And I think that’s what these parks will be welcoming them back once things are settled.
What’s so fascinating is that the documentary seems to have impacted the culture of Imagineering. Bob Weis [President of Walt Disney Imagineering] has talked about how it’s starting to open the doors of the division now, in part because of the documentary. How do you feel about having impacted them in such a way?
IWERKS: Well, I don’t know if I’ve had an impact. I think the reality is that the Imagineers have always been there. Now they have a film that has told their story, and if it wasn’t me, maybe somebody would have done it down the road in some way, shape or form. But I’m glad to be the one to have done it. But I do think that the story of the Imagineers is something that they realized was so beloved by so many people. For them, it’s like the lid got lifted off of this wonderful, magical institution that has always been very closed down and coveted and private and veiled in secrecy. And now maybe the film has given them that A-OK to say, well, we can be a little bit more open and we can share what we’re doing, or we can share at least the fun that we’re having.
It’s put the spotlight on them a little more and given them the opportunity to say, it’s okay to be a little more exposed. Bob Weis told me that he was at Starbucks one day and somebody was standing behind him in line and they said, “Oh my God, are you that guy in The Imagineering Story?” And he’s like, “Yeah, I am.” And he’s like, “Now I’m getting recognized, in places.” I think it’s a compliment to him and a compliment to all the Imagineers who’ve worked so hard and who are getting the proper credit for their work. And they’ve created such joy for people that love the parks. And it’s a joy for me to see that.
Well what have your interactions been like with people since the documentary came out?
IWERKS: Good. A lot of it’s been on social media in quarantine, so I haven’t seen a lot of people. But when we were at the park for my dad, my dad had a speaking event at Club 33 for his book, his recent book on my grandfather. And we were going up, I said, let’s go on Haunted Mansion. And we’re walking in and the guy at the front said, “Are you Leslie Iwerks, director of The Imagineering Story? I loved it!” And I’m like, “How do you even know who I am?”
And then, when we were on Pirates of the Caribbean, I’m sitting there with my cousin, Mike Iwerks and my sister and her husband.. My parents were in front of them. We’re in the back, and there’s two strangers behind us in the last row of the boat. And we’re going through it and the couple behind me go, “Oh my God, I remember seeing this in that documentary The Imagineering Story. I love that show.” And then my cousin just hits me and I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s awesome.” Good timing to be in that boat I suppose.
IWERKS: It’s fun to hear the reactions. It’s the thing with everything going into streaming versus theatrical now, not that this was ever going to be theatrical, but filmmakers love to hear response from their work. You’re sitting in an editing room for months and months, if not years. And you think you’ve got a scene that works, you think you’ve got a scene that might make people cry because I cry when I watch it, or make people laugh. So, no. Right. But then when you finally get it in front of the audience, it’s nice to get validated or not validated and to learn from it. So I didn’t really get that opportunity on this at all, except we had the first two episodes we screened at the studio for the Imagineers and then that was it.
I screened it with friends but never really got that sort of live visceral reaction. And then when we went on Disney+, the social media reaction was exciting – people were Facebook messaging me and saying, “Thank you,” and this and that. And even from people around the world to reach out was fun. I felt really thrilled and honored to be part of the Disney+ launch, to get that kind of attention for the series was really great, after all the hard work that we put into it for so many years.
Actually we did screen it. I was on that last Disney Cruise and for the Panama Canal trip. We were the last boat out at sea and we couldn’t go into port because things are shutting down. We were supposed to screen just episode one. And I did like five presentations on the ship and they ended up screening all six episodes because they wanted to fill our time when everybody was on the boat longer. So that gave me an opportunity finally, to watch it with an audience. All of the episodes. And that was fun because it was like diehard Disney fans. They loved it. They were happy. They were thinking me afterwards. Pretty soon I couldn’t walk anywhere on the ship without everybody coming up and saying something. If there was a button or a bow at the end of this whole process, it was to be on the last happiest place on earth cruise and watching six episodes of the show. I’m feeling like I’ve come full circle to show it there and get the feedback that I never had gotten prior.
You’ve accidentally said seven episodes. Do you have any more in you?
IWERKS: There’s more in me and I hope we can do more. That’s all I can tell you on that one.
People got their ears up recently about a potential spinoff exclusively about Disneyland. Is that something you are working on?
IWERKS: I had no idea that was even being out there. But no. There’s just so many different subjects that we could be doing and there’s a lot of topics being discussed at the moment but nothing concrete, nothing solid that I can even announce. We’ve done so much work on the series, we have seen so much footage that could be used for a lot of different purposes. And so now it’s just really like looking at like, “What could we do?” And I’m working on a bunch of other projects too, outside of Disney and developing some narrative work, so just busy during quarantine is all I can say.
The documentary unfolds in a kind of chronological way, but is there any way of adding additional content or interviews into the series as it stands? And is there a subject within the series that you’d like to devote more time to?
IWERKS: I have interest in a lot of the different subjects that I can totally deep dive in. I’m not saying that they would want to make it or that Disney would do it. Like I have a real interest in animatronics and I would love to do a deep dive on just the evolution of animatronics. But it might just end up becoming a science show. The evolution of different things within the Disney realm is great. And there’s characters within the Disney realm that could easily be spinoffs or episodes or partial episodes, like mini-biographies on various people in their backgrounds and how they evolved And some of the challenges they faced on certain things.
The good thing about Disney is that it did record itself quite a bit. It did self-document and not every studio or every company has done that. So it’s a real gift for biographers and filmmakers who have their sleeves rolled up into this history like I do. I haven’t spent a lot of time in the archives but knowing the photos and the binders and where things are. I’m certainly no archivist, but we’ve done enough on the series that we know where to go now, you know who to talk to.
It’s not too much of a guessing game anymore. We know we need to go to this person or this archive. And we also know what this binder kind of holds. That’s cool when you feel like you’ve gotten to a certain level of institutional knowledge about the company. No matter what I do going forward, I think that history that we’ve spent on the last seven years roaming around will help.
All of The Imagineering Story is on Disney+ right now.