Leslie Iwerks is an Oscar and Emmy-nominated documentary director and producer. Many of her films shed light on global issues, while others intrigue audiences with a behind-the-scenes look at the entertainment industry.
She has produced several films for Walt Disney Studios, which is fitting given her grandfather, Ub Iwerks, worked with Walt Disney as an animator, inventor and special-effects technician. He is also the man behind the first animation of Mickey Mouse.
As a filmmaker, Iwerks finds inspiration in the African proverb “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” As she puts it, “stories are meant to be told.” And to the delight of many Disney fans, Iwerks has preserved Disney’s insider stories in her 2019 documentary series “The Imagineering Story.”
To capture these stories, Iwerks followed Disney employees around the world, traveling as far as China where she donned a hardhat and boots to shadow workers as they began construction on Shanghai Disneyland.
By the end of filming, Iwerks had interviewed more than 200 Disney employees including original imagineers like Bob Gurr, a former Disneyland ride designer who worked with Walt Disney when the park first opened in 1955.
In “The Imagineering Story,” audiences watch Gurr as he makes his way through Disneyland’s Matterhorn attraction, a ride he helped build, to a secret basketball court known only to Disney employees.
“That basketball court was something I knew that had always been off limits,” said Iwerks. In planning the interview Iwerks thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have Bob Gurr take us into the Matterhorn?”
The scene becomes even more special when Gurr surprises everyone, including himself, by picking up a ball and making a successful shot into the basket. “Here he was at the beginning of this entire attraction, saw it in its skeletal formation and helped design the track layout, and then now, he’s just kind of shooting hoops,” said Iwerks.
While speaking with the original imagineers provided insight into Walt Disney’s vision, it was speaking with former CEOs Michael Eisner and Bob Iger, which gave Iwerks a deeper look into managing the Disney Company. Iwerks explained, “They are coming from it from the top down, and you’re seeing a totally different perspective of what it’s like to run an entire company.”
Although “The Imagineering Story” is an exciting documentary for Disney fans, it also acts as a case study for those wishing to examine their own organizations.
“At the end of the day it’s all about humanity and people,” explained Iwerks. “We as human beings, as viewers, can relate to that and the more I can bring that emotion out and really bring out the conflict that is real – that we can all relate to – the better.”
While Iwerks entertains audiences with films like “The Imagineering Story,” she also captures heart-breaking stories, which bring attention to global issues.
“It’s fun to do films that are entertaining and inspiring, but there’s also the ones that make a difference in humanity, and those are the types of films that I really love to make,” said Iwerks.
In the 2006, Oscar-nominated film “Recycled Life,” Iwerks follows the inhabitants of a more than 40-acre open landfill, one of the largest in Central America located in Guatemala. The garbage dump is still home to more than 60,000 people living in extreme poverty.
The film brings awareness to those living in poor conditions and at times can be difficult for viewers to watch. In one scene, we see a young girl lying on a trash heap, taking a nap.
“She’s trying to sleep in the garbage dump while her mother picks trash. There’s vultures hopping around her looking for food, while her mother is fighting for the same food,” explained Iwerks. “Things like that literally will make me cry as I’m sitting there behind a camera lens.”
Not only did the film gain Iwerks an Oscar nomination, it more importantly helped raise millions of dollars for the non-profit Safe Passage, an organization that helps the landfill’s inhabitants by providing services and educational opportunities.
“I always felt it was a powerful story,” said Iwerks. “They treated us as equals, and we treated them as equals. They knew that we were out for their best interest.”
Iwerks continues to explore a wide range of film subjects. Currently she is working on a story about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the restaurant industry. She also hopes audiences will have an opportunity this fall to view her new documentary, “Selling Lies,” about a fake-news cottage industry operated by a group of teenagers in Macedonia.
While Iwerks dreams of one day winning an Oscar, it is not what motivates her to make films. “What drives me is making the most powerful films I can and finding the most interesting stories to tell.”