Brennan's of Houston chef Danny Trace calls her "a pistol," even in her 90s. It's no surprise then, that another powerful woman, director Leslie Iwerks, says that when she met Ella Brennan, the force behind Brennan's both here and in New Orleans, as well as the storied Commanders Palace, "We just hit it off." For Trace, Brennan became a mentor that launched his career. Iwerks, on the other hand, committed the restaurateur to posterity. In conjunction with a new book by Brennan and her daughter Ti Martin, Miss Ella of Commander's Palace, Iwerks is releasing a full-length documentary, Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table.
Iwerks, perhaps best known for docs The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story about her grandfather and the self-explanatory The Pixar Story, will present the new film at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts at 1 p.m. on November 12 as part of the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, less than a month after its New Orleans world premiere. In advance of the event, we talked to Iwerks about working with a nonagenarian, learning that Emeril used to be shy and how Ella Brennan is the Berry Gordy of restaurateurs.
Houstonia: You flew out to meet Ella Brennan at the urging of producer Debra Shriver. How did it go?
Leslie Iwerks: We started immediately talking about everything under the sun! Different subject matters: politics, feelings and ideas—we share similar sensibilities, I suppose, and we just hit it off. She was like, 'Why would you want to do a documentary on me?' And I was like, 'You’re doing a book. We could do a film too.'
We thought maybe we could do a 40-minute film or something shorter, and as soon as we started and I traveled around interviewing different chefs and restaurateurs, the stories they were telling made it much more robust in addition to Ella’s story. I realized quickly it would be more than short film, a longer form documentary telling the history of Ella’s life, but also the story of New Orleans and regional cuisine in general. It became almost three storylines all woven together. I had never done anything about food or New Orleans before and it was of interest to me.
What was it about her that lent itself to a full-length film?
When this came to me, I thought, Here's a great subject. Not only a strong woman, but at a time when women weren't really running their own businesses and breaking the glass ceilings.
I had worked with Berry Gordy on a project that never got finished. Having spoken to a number of top CEOs and innovators in numerous industries, telling their stories in intimate ways, to hear Ella talking about what she did fit right in line with so many of the values and ways of working that other people have done. You could call her the Berry Gordy of the restaurant scene in that she could find a raw talent in somebody and really bring that out in them and shape it and help form it and mold it.
When you look at like [former Commander's Palace executive chef] Emeril Lagasse, that early footage of him, he was very shy in his early twenties. People talk about how he was a very shy guy who looked down a lot. But in the decade that he was with Ella, he came out a different person. He had the confidence to come out on his own not only from a food standpoint, but also a business standpoint. Same with [Lagasse's predecessor] Paul Prudhomme. Her skill is taking someone and turning them into a real champion. I’ve documented Walt Disney a lot and he had the same sensibility to bring out the latent talent in people.
Was it a challenge working with a star in her later years?
Ella is 90. We’re not gonna get her like she was in her 50s. At times she would walk into the kitchen. She had meetings with [current chef Tory McPhail] and she met up with Emeril. We got good footage where we were able to be a fly on the wall and really get a sense of her. I had quite a bit—probably six hours of interviews with her over the course of shooting.
Food films are so popular right now. Will you do more?
I would love to. Several things that are being discussed now are a live action film based on this documentary—there are female-based companies that are looking at it as a potential live action, which would be amazing. A second is a series we’re developing as a similar idea but totally different storyline in the food space. There are a lot of opportunities in the food world, especially about the pioneers in the food world.
How does your grandfather’s work inspire yours?
First of all, he’s a hard act to follow. He’s been an inspiration. I was one when he passed away, but I had grown up learning about him. Really doing the film that I did on him, it gave me a firsthand look into what drove him and that he was always innovating and solving problems and always wanting to make things better and he was a perfectionist and I think that certainly permeates me with my work. There’s usually not a negative answer to anything—you never say, 'No, you can’t do that.' There’s always a solution. Always do your best work.