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Leslie Iwerks: “Be the change you want to see in the world”

Aha, moments have come in different shapes and sizes throughout my career. I’ve always had a soft spot for underdogs in society, marginalized people or victims who don’t get a voice. I came upon such a story in Guatemala in 2003 when I saw the thousands of families who had escaped dangerous parts of the […]

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Aha, moments have come in different shapes and sizes throughout my career. I’ve always had a soft spot for underdogs in society, marginalized people or victims who don’t get a voice. I came upon such a story in Guatemala in 2003 when I saw the thousands of families who had escaped dangerous parts of the country during the Guatemalan Civil War and were relegated to the safest life they could find… living and working in the largest landfill in Central America, the Guatemala City garbage dump. My producing partner at the time and I had been filming an ethnographic documentary on the modern Maya culture in Guatemala, capturing gorgeous imagery all around the country. But once I saw the realities of making a living inside a garbage dump, I suggested we put that story on hold and tell this story! On and off over a period of several years, and many trips to Guatemala, I shot and edited about a hundred hours of material down to a thirty-minute documentary that ended up getting nominated for an Academy Award. The fundraising screenings for the non-profit organization Safe Passage, helped to raise 3 million dollars to build new schools and provide education for the children of the trash pickers, offering them another chance outside of the landfill. Since then, I have made it a point to make films that can inspire, and, hopefully, make a difference.


As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Leslie Iwerks.

Leslie Iwerks is an Academy Award® and Emmy® nominated director and producer who currently serves as the CEO and Creative Director of Iwerks & Co., a Santa Monica based multimedia production company. Iwerks creates critically acclaimed and award-winning documentaries, features and series that celebrate the genius, risks and rewards of creative visionaries, showcase heartfelt human tales, from the depths of the Guatemalan garbage dumps to the toxic tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and that document the human story of innovation and enterprise globally. Her body of work encompasses feature films, such as The Pixar Story, Citizen Hearst, Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible, The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story and League of Legends Origins, acclaimed environmental documentaries, including Recycled Life, Pipe Dreams and Downstream, the in-depth docuseries, “The Imagineering Story,” which debuted on Disney+ in 2019, and, most recently, Selling Lies, an award-winning short film that looks at how digital disinformation impacted the U.S. presidential election in 2016 and continues to threaten democracy today, with a focus on the hundreds of Macedonian teenagers who spread fake political news on Facebook for profit. Iwerks’ desire to innovate and push boundaries with her filmmaking has been cultivated and inspired by her family upbringing, as her grandfather, Ub Iwerks, was the original designer and co-creator of Mickey Mouse and a multi-Academy Award®-winning visual effects pioneer, and her father, Don Iwerks, is also an Academy Award® winner for Technical Lifetime Achievement.


Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

I grew up in a “Disney/ film industry” family — my grandfather was the designer, animator and co-creator of Mickey Mouse with Walt Disney and multi-Academy Award-winning visual effects pioneer. My father, Don Iwerks, also a Lifetime Achievement Oscar winner for Scientific and Technical contributions to the film industry, worked at Disney for 35 years. He and my grandfather pioneered many of the film technologies we see in the Disney movies and theme parks. I loved going with my dad to the Disney Studio as a kid. While he worked in the studio machine shop on weekends, he let me loose to run around the backlot where I’d get lost inside the old wooden western saloons and movie sets. I remember seeing the “Herbie” Volkswagen car parked on the backlot and it was like seeing a celebrity parked in their off-hours. Then we’d go down to Disneyland, enter through the back gates, where I’d see the Disney characters in their off-hours having a coffee break, or the animatronic figures slung up on a rack for repair. It was all magical to me, and was my first glimpse into a world behind the scenes of movie making and entertainment.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

I’m not sure how interesting or funny, but I can certainly offer some snapshots of just a few highlights: Flying in a helicopter over the famous Hawaiian big wave surf spot, Jaws, with renown surfer, Laird Hamilton as he jumped out of the helicopter into the 50’ crashing waves below, flying over the Cuchumatanes mountain range in Guatemala filming helicopter aerials when we came this close to a telephone wire that would’ve sent us crashing to our deaths (thank you to my DP, Suki Medencevic for spotting the wire in time!), being the first to film inside the much anticipated Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland before opening day in 2019, filming in a kayak in beautiful Antarctica with my friend (renown paleoanthropologist and discoverer of the Lucy skeleton) Don Johanson, and having a fascinating two-hour sit-down interview with Steve Jobs at Pixar!

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I’ve had the pleasure to interview and work with some of the most respected and successful entrepreneurs and creative people of our time, including Steve Jobs, Bob Iger, George Lucas, Ralph Lauren, Oprah Winfrey, Hayao Miyazaki, Tom Hanks, John Lasseter, Jane Goodall, Angela Bassett, Tom Cruise, Ella Brennan, Danny Meyer and Harold R. Levinson, to name a few! It’s been really insightful to have casual conversations with these folks, learning what has motivated them, their processes, and what they would do differently if they could.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

We are about to release a powerful short documentary called Selling Lies in partnership with ShortsTV on October 9th across multiple digital platforms including Apple, Google Play and Amazon. This is the inside story of the Macedonian teenagers who were able to infiltrate Facebook and create hundreds of fake news websites that attracted millions of American followers in 2016. It follows one ringleader who hired American writers to write pro-Trump propaganda and disseminate fake stories and conspiracy theories all across the web leading up to the election. Additionally, I am in production on numerous documentary projects with various studios and writing some narrative biopics.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

I’ve always been inspired by my grandfather, Ub Iwerks, who took a chance with his teenage friend Walt Disney and started a cartoon business that ultimately led to the creation of Mickey Mouse and the formation of the Walt Disney Company. I’ve also had a fascination with Alfred Nobel and his unrequited love, Bertha Von Suttner, who inspired the Nobel Peace Prize. I’ve read all of the Alfred Nobel biographies and traveled in his footsteps to Italy and Switzerland. Building a dynamite empire that led to the first weapon of war and terrorism, to creating a peace prize that has inspired humanity is a great story that I would like to tell.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

Selling Lies is my latest documentary that will be released on Oct. 9th on various streaming platforms including Apple, Amazon and Google Play. In 2017, I traveled to Macedonia to investigate the inner workings of the fake news industry populated by teenagers who had infiltrated Facebook and were disseminating tons of fake news stories to American readers. The fact that Facebook was the main portal for fake news and was getting more traction than mainstream media was shocking. So I traveled there on my own, joined up with my Bosnian DP, Suki Medencevic, and we started unraveling the story, meeting IT professionals, the instructor who taught kids how to harness Facebook, various government officials, and the fake news writers themselves. One of the main ringleaders is an attorney named Trajce Arsov, who, along with his brother, hired U.S. writers, including one named Paris Wade to spread pro-Trump fake news and conspiracy theories. Trajce had over 2 million followers for his fake, manipulated stories. My hope is that people will see another side to the stories they read, realize there is big business in fake news, and question the validity of their sources.

I also believe in the power of films to simply entertain. It gives me great joy to make people happy and take them into places they’d otherwise not be able to go, such as taking viewers inside the Disneyland Matterhorn in The Imagineering Story.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

Aha, moments have come in different shapes and sizes throughout my career. I’ve always had a soft spot for underdogs in society, marginalized people or victims who don’t get a voice. I came upon such a story in Guatemala in 2003 when I saw the thousands of families who had escaped dangerous parts of the country during the Guatemalan Civil War and were relegated to the safest life they could find… living and working in the largest landfill in Central America, the Guatemala City garbage dump. My producing partner at the time and I had been filming an ethnographic documentary on the modern Maya culture in Guatemala, capturing gorgeous imagery all around the country. But once I saw the realities of making a living inside a garbage dump, I suggested we put that story on hold and tell this story! On and off over a period of several years, and many trips to Guatemala, I shot and edited about a hundred hours of material down to a thirty-minute documentary that ended up getting nominated for an Academy Award. The fundraising screenings for the non-profit organization Safe Passage, helped to raise 3 million dollars to build new schools and provide education for the children of the trash pickers, offering them another chance outside of the landfill. Since then, I have made it a point to make films that can inspire, and, hopefully, make a difference.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I’ve been honored and touched to hear from a number of people who have seen my films. One young man saw The Pixar Story as a kid and was inspired to go to animation school. Not only did he do that, he ended up getting a job at Pixar eventually! There have been a number of people who have contacted me from around the world who have watched The Imagineering Story on DIsney+ and it has motivated them to focus on theme park careers. I love inspiring people through the stories of others, whether it be my grandfather, Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, the founders of Pixar, Imagineering, Industrial Light & Magic, the innovative teams at Hearst, or the late restaurateur, Ella Brennan who launched the careers of so many successful male celebrity chefs. They all have great life lessons and entertaining journeys to learn from.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

Documentaries in particular have had an astounding rebound since Netflix came on the scene, and it’s great to see so many people making great content and audiences consuming them more than ever. I think ongoing funding by governmental and private grants will continue to give filmmakers a voice and a platform. I believe the connections that can be made between philanthropists who have funding with filmmakers who know how to tell stories will be the power couples going forward. I’m always looking to team up with like-minded financiers and investors who can provide the funding opportunities to take the message to the next level.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Life is a series of incremental steps and building blocks. When you first graduate film school you have the confidence and energy to think you’re going to hit it out of the park right away, a slam dunk. But the reality is, that’s very rare. It takes a large amalgamation of events and happenstances to coincide for such good fortune to happen — the right talent, story and film, the right executive(s) to believe in your project and shepherd it, the right network to buy into it, the right distribution window, a strategic social media campaign, the right amount of publicity, the perfect (social or political) zeitgeist your film can fall into, and the right amount of viewers to appreciate your film and give it lift off. It’s about luck and timing and making your own luck. All the while, you are the one to take your project by the leash and lead it to where it needs to go, believingyou know exactly where that is! The truth is, we’re all learning every day through every project. There is no one way of doing any of this. My dad always told me as a kid, ‘do what you love and the money will come.’ Well, I took that to heart, but I also learned how to be a businesswoman and negotiate for myself, know my self worth and ask for it. I also think being a public speaker is an incredible asset to sell your projects and yourself, having the confidence to speak in front of groups and be convincing and engaging. It’s a lot harder than it looks!

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Why shouldn’t they? Our entire point on this planet is to have a purpose and to support the planet that gave us life, to inspire each other to do the same. If we do not champion this planet, and instead pillage it for our own financial gain, it is not sustainable for future generations. This is a theme that runs through my environmental documentaries, Downstream and Pipe Dreams about the oil industry. I despise lies, fraud and hypocrisy, and there is so much of it coming out of the Trump Administration and on the corporate levels now. One of my greatest passions is to find stories that people need to know about, and then illuminate and inspire them to make the changes we need to see in the world.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

It’s hard to narrow down my heroes to just one. If I had the opportunity to work side-by-side with Barack Obama or Bill Gates on social impact projects, I think I could do some real damage. 🙂

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be the change you want to see in the world’ has been the line in my head that keeps me motivated through thick and thin. There are a lot of problems in our world and we only have so much time in a day, but picking one issue and finding a way to get your voice heard, whether it be through community activism, creativity, donating time or resources, whatever you can, just try to do something that can make a difference.

How can our readers follow you online?

We have our website Iwerksandco.com that we keep updated with new projects. Iwerks & Co. is also on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter! We love hearing from people!

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