Leslie Iwerks has revealed that she wasn’t sure she’d be allowed to delve within the mythical innards of Disneyland’s Matterhorn for new documentary The Imagineering Story.
The ecosystem for staff within the bowels of the California attraction has always been a mystery, with rumours of a basketball court inside the mountain.
Telling the truth about what goes on within the Matterhorn was just one of the many secrets the director — the granddaughter of Mickey Mouse co-creator Ub Iwerks — was able to expose in The Imagineering Story, which will stream in six parts on Disney+.
The documentary focuses on the “Imagineers” — a portmanteau of imagination and engineers — responsible for realising the Disneyland vision.
When asked which elements of the documentary story Iwerks wasn’t sure she’d be able to tell, the 49-year-old filmmaker told Yahoo Movies UK that getting inside the Matterhorn was right up there.
She said: “That was something that was a myth prior, so that was fun. Going inside the utilidors [the network of private tunnels beneath Disney World in Florida] too — they were always a secret place.
“But really just going inside the walls of Imagineering was something that was kind of rare too.
“That behind the scenes access was just super cool. It’s giving the audience something new and fresh.”
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Iwerks said she was given “a lot of leeway” by Disney to tell the truth about the difficulties faced in realising Walt Disney’s theme park vision in the 1950s, and the innovations since then.
She added: “Bob Weis, the President of Imagineering, and even prior to him the management who helped to greenlight it, were very supportive of telling the real story.
“It really started with [the late Imagineer and Disney ambassador] Marty Sklar. Marty had seen The Pixar Story [which Iwerks directed] and, even in that film, they were all in support of me telling the honest story of what were the trials and tribulations of getting Pixar off the ground.
“When Marty saw that, he said: ‘You should be doing that for us because we have lots of trials and tribulations and no one really knows them. We should tell that story.’”
Read the full interview with Leslie Iwerks, discussing her celebration of the female Imagineering innovators, her own family links to Disney and the surprising movie she checked out first on the Disney+ platform...
Yahoo Movies UK: How much of an honour was it for you to be able to tell this specific part of the Disney story?
Leslie Iwerks: It definitely was an honour. I grew up in this world, behind the scenes at Disney, and I’ve known the Imagineers all my life. A lot of them were family friends. I’ve had a number of films under my belt and some experience, but for them to choose me to tell the story was a real honour. I think everybody was surprised as well because they hadn’t done this before and it was pretty unprecedented to have the access that we did to travel around the world, interview lots of people and go behind the scenes.
It was an evolving project. It started out as a 90-minute film and ultimately evolved into a six-hour cut. So it was a real adventure and a lot of fun.
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You mentioned all of the access that you got and the interviews, but you also had such a huge amount of archive footage. Was that daunting, or did it make the process easier?
There was so much that you had to really cull through, and it was the same with the interviews because we did so many. But I think that was good. We were also fortunate to have the time that we did. It wasn’t like we had to do this in eight months or something. We had five years to go through lots of footage and organise it so we could sort of let the story evolve and figure it out.
We had access to all of the archives around the world for the theme parks, so whenever we would get new material in, we were very excited. It was like putting together a big puzzle. You’ve got all of these little parts, but now you’ve got to put it into a puzzle and make it a complete picture. So, if you were missing puzzle parts, you weren’t sure if you could tell that story. It was interesting to say the least.
The documentary puts a lot of emphasis on how Disney, although it’s this huge behemoth, it’s also something of a family company. As someone who has come up through that yourself, how important was it to convey that?
For me, I think I was riding that fine line. I’m just one of many people who have grown up in this world, like [legendary Imagineer] Rolly Crump’s son and [current Imagineer] Kim Irvine and a number of other folk who are fortunate enough to be kids of Disney employees. But really, for me, the story was not just about one person — if anyone, it was really Walt Disney.
Everybody else brought their own unique things to the table. By no means could we document and tell everyone’s stories, but we did try to choose the people who could best tell us and guide us through that particular journey or turning point in time. Through all of those folks, you get this tapestry of history and challenge and tribulations and triumph.
You give a lot of time to the key women involved in Disney, like Kim Irvine who you previously mentioned. Was the role of these amazing women something you were keen to spotlight?
Yes, because I knew Harriet Burns — she was a family friend. She was really the First Lady of Imagineering and I heard her stories about working in a man’s world way back in the day in the model shop. She was one of the guys. She was fun and smart and could use a saw — you name it, she could do it. It wasn’t about being a woman or a man. It was about who was good at what they did. So I think it was important for me to at least tell a bit of her story because she was there for so many years.
But then you see the growth and the evolution of women through time, like how many women came in during the 70s and got roles right out of the gate. Disney was very wonderful in that way in that they brought in women as architects or you name it. Women were doing creative roles and it wasn’t an issue.
Now, over time, women are leading these projects and really running with them. They’re the creative leads and the project leads. Now, it’s not even a question mark. So that women’s story angle was one thread that I felt was important to include, but it wasn’t a driving force. It was just something that happened.
You mentioned earlier walking a fine line with your own personal connections. Did you also find you were walking a line between celebrating the genius of these people while trying not to just make it an advert for Disneyland? How difficult was that to do?
We were given a lot of leeway to be really, really honest. Bob Weis, the President of Imagineering, and even prior to him the management who helped to greenlight it, were very supportive of telling the real story. It really started with [the late Imagineer and Disney ambassador] Marty Sklar. Marty had seen The Pixar Story [which Iwerks directed] and, even in that film, they were all in support of me telling the honest story of what were the trials and tribulations of getting Pixar off the ground.
When Marty saw that, he said: “You should be doing that for us because we have lots of trials and tribulations and no one really knows them. We should tell that story.”
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It actually works, because not many companies were telling their own stories. I think I started doing that in my career and now lots of companies want to tell their stories. But it’s not really companies telling their stories, it’s people telling stories of a creative entity or enterprising entity. For me, I just felt like it was great to be able to share everyone’s stories as if they were all equal.
Were there any stories or elements that you were surprised they let you keep in? How close did you get to the line?
I think getting inside the Matterhorn. That was something that was a myth prior, so that was fun. Going inside the utilidors too, they were always a secret place. But really just going inside the walls of Imagineering was something that was kind of rare too. That behind the scenes access was just super cool. It’s giving the audience something new and fresh.
You’re part of the first wave of content for Disney+ UK. How exciting is it to be there on day one?
It’s thrilling for me because we worked for a long time on this project. It’s almost six years or so. It’s great to have this launch after not knowing whether it was going to be a 90-minute thing, or then where the six-hour cut would go or who would air it. Then Disney+ came in and it was a perfect fit, for the fans of Disney to have something like this at launch.
And now, with a lot of the parks closed [due to the coronavirus pandemic], it just feels like people can still get a bit of Imagineering and theme park access even if they may not be there physically.
As a final question. on day one for you, what was the first thing you wanted to seek out on Disney+?
You know what? People are going to think I’m nuts, but I actually watched The Shaggy D.A. I hadn’t seen that since I was on the backlot as a kid. I wanted to go back in time and relive the sets that I used to walk around on. That was fun. I also started to watch the first Herbie films because I was also running around the backlot as a kid when they were filming those. I used to see the Herbie car parked and I used to think “oh my God, it’s like a celebrity, there’s Herbie!”
So it was fun to relive those two movies because that was my era as a kid backstage. I wanted to confirm that my memories of what I had seen were correct.
The Imagineering Story is one of the original series currently streaming on Disney+ in the UK.