Arts & Culture

SLO film festival honoree tells stories behind the stories

Documentary filmmaker Leslie Iwerks meets ‘Mother Goose & Grimm’ cartoonist Mike Peters.
Documentary filmmaker Leslie Iwerks meets ‘Mother Goose & Grimm’ cartoonist Mike Peters. Courtesy photo

As a child, documentary filmmaker Leslie Iwerks would wander through the Burbank backlot of Walt Disney Studios past sets and props for “Herbie Goes Bananas” and “The Shaggy D.A.”

“I grew up behind the scenes of Disney,” said Iwerks, whose grandfather, Academy Award-winning animator Ub Iwerks, worked with Walt Disney to design Mickey Mouse. “It was always more (about) the craft and the magic behind the scenes. That sparked my interest in how things are done.”

Leslie Iwerks’ lifelong fascination with filmmaking makes her the ideal person to receive the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival’s Spotlight Award, according to Wendy Eidson, the festival’s executive director.

Eidson said the award is given to a film industry insider who “doesn’t typically get put in the spotlight but is very, very deserving.” Celebrity photographer Timothy White became the first recipient in March 2012.

“She’s young, she’s versatile She’s the perfect person to honor,” Eidson said of Iwerks.

Iwerks will screen her 2010 documentary “Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible” on Wednesday at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival’s opening night gala.

The event, to be held at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo, also features a panel discussion with Iwerks, production designer Mark “Crash” McCreary, animation supervisor Hal Hickel and visual effects expert Warren Franklin.

Iwerks’ 2004 surfing film “The Ride” will screen during Thursday’s Surf Nite in SLO event at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo, along with “Storm Surfers 3D.” And Friday, the festival will screen her 2012 documentary “Citizen Hearst” and present her with the Spotlight Award at Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

Iwerks was just 1 year old when her grandfather died, but his legacy as an entertainment industry pioneer loomed large in her family.

Her father, two-time Oscar winner Don Iwerks, spent almost 35 years with Disney — earning plaudits for his work with 360-degree filming equipment and techniques — before leaving in 1985 to form his own company, now known as SimEx-Iwerks Entertainment.

His daughter followed in his footsteps, graduating from the USC School of Cinema-Television in 1993. Her first film was the 1999 documentary “The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story.”

“I went on a journey when I was in my teens and 20s to write (my grandfather’s) name in the history of Disney,” Leslie Iwerks recalled. “It was really a great way to learn about the grandfather I never knew.”

Over the years, Iwerks has taken moviegoers behind the scenes of such industry stalwarts as animation studio Pixar and Lucasfilm special effects house Industrial Light & Magic, which director George Lucas founded to handle visual effects for “Star Wars.”

“It’s just unbelievable how much work goes into any one scene or shot,” Iwerks said. “I’m always shocked by that.”

She’s also delved into socially conscious filmmaking, tackling such controversial subjects as the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011’s “Pipe Dreams” and the Alberta, Canada, oil sands in 2009’s “Dirty Oil” and “Downstream.” Her 2006 short documentary “Recycled Life,” about the thousands of children and adults living and working in a Guatemalan garbage dump, earned an Academy Award nomination.

“People fighting for justice, fighting for truth These kinds of stories motivate me,” Iwerks said. “They need to be told. They need to be heard.”

Her latest documentary, “Citizen Hearst,” examines the legacy of publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, who began building the media empire known collectively as the Hearst Corporation about 125 years ago. The title refers to Orson Welles’ 1941 movie “Citizen Kane,” loosely based on Hearst’s life.

“At the time when (‘Citizen Kane’) came out, he was such a mythical figure in the sense that people were dying to get the inside scoop on what he was like,” Iwerks said. “Here was this man who had this bigger-than-life personality, who did what he wanted to and spent what he wanted to.”

In the film, narrated by actor William H. Macy, Iwerks visits Hearst Castle, interviews Hearst family members and chats with movie critic Leonard Maltin, news anchor Dan Rather, talk show queen Oprah Winfrey and other high-profile personalities.

Whether she’s interviewing surfer Laird Hamilton or mycologist Paul Stamets, Iwerks said she’s always seeking answers to the same questions: “What makes people tick and what makes them successful? What are the traits over time that make you hugely successful or bring you down?”

The most prosperous companies, she added, have “an overarching vision from the founder on through that carries on through the years.”

Film screenings

Want to see documentary filmmaker Leslie Iwerks at work? Check out the following San Luis Obispo International Film Festival screenings.

  • A Tribute to Industrial Light & Magic. 7 p.m. Wednesday. Reception at 5:30 p.m. Spanos Theatre, Cal Poly. $20 to $30.
  • Surf Nite in SLO. 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Fremont Theatre, 1025 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo. $17 to $22.
  • “Citizen Hearst.” 5 p.m. Friday. Hearst Castle, 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon. $400, including reception, award ceremony and silent film screening.
  • “Recycled Life” and “Pipe Dreams.” 1 p.m. Friday. Downtown Centre Cinemas, 888 Marsh St., San Luis Obispo. $8 to $10.
  • “The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story.” 4 p.m. Saturday. Palm Theatre, 817 Palm St., San Luis Obispo. $8 to $10.
  • “The Pixar Story.” 1 p.m. March 10. Avila Beach Community Center, 191 San Miguel St., Avila Beach. $8 to $10.
  • “Citizen Hearst.” 6 p.m. March 10. Fremont Theatre, 1025 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo. $8 to $10
  • For more information about the festival, which runs Wednesday through March 10 at locations throughout the county, call 546-FILM (3456) or visit

    Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune