After being asked if she’d direct a documentary about Ella Brennan, the innovative and influential New Orleans restaurateur, Leslie Iwerks did some homework.
Iwerks' films have been nominated for both Oscar and Emmy awards. But she knew nothing about Brennan or the Brennan family restaurants. Not even Commander’s Palace.
“So I had to do some digging, make some phone calls and ask questions,” Iwerks said from her office in Santa Monica, California. “The subject seemed very interesting. She’s in a field that I had not yet covered in my documentaries, and food is a hot topic these days in TV and film.”
Iwerks ultimately threw herself and her company into production of the full-length documentary, “Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table.” The New Orleans Film Festival will present the movie’s world premiere Friday at the Orpheum Theater, red carpet included.
Before Brennan, 90, appears on screen, her words on the screen kick-start the story: “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through.”
Brennan’s contributions to New Orleans and American cuisine, and to dining in general, are far-reaching.
“She was always this grand personage who presided over a kitchen that was an incubator of talent,” journalist John Pope says in the film.
"Ella was really a visionary of where the food was and where she really wanted it to go," chef Emeril Lagasse says. "And not only just the food, but as a total restaurant, a total package.”
In the 1940s, Brennan helped make the original Brennan family restaurant on Bourbon Street a success. In the 1970s, she commanded Commander’s Palace, the upscale Garden District restaurant that launched Lagasse’s and Paul Prudhomme’s celebrity chef careers.
The first steps to Iwerks’ documentary about Brennan began with Debra Shriver, the part-time New Orleans resident who is senior vice president and chief communications officer at the Hearst Corp.
Knowing that Brennan’s autobiography was in the works (the recently published “Miss Ella of Commander's Palace”), Shriver believed the story also deserved a documentary film treatment. She spoke to Brennan’s daughter, Ti Adelaide Martin, about the possibility.
Shriver also believed that Iwerks was the right director for the project. Shriver and Iwerks had recently collaborated on “Citizen Hearst,” a documentary timed to the Hearst Corp.’s 125th anniversary.
After a meeting with Iwerks and Brennan went well, the director envisioned a 40-minute film that could be produced in a short time.
“I said, ‘Yeah. I’ll do this film. It’ll be quick,’ ” she remembered. “But then, as soon I started filming, I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to be a short.’ ”
Realizing Brennan’s life was too rich to be a short film, Iwerks threw herself, her company and her own financing into making a feature-length documentary.
“It became a passion project, something that took off unexpectedly,” she said.
Iwerks found Brennan’s perseverance especially impressive.
“Ella came out of the gate at a young age, with a fire in her belly,” she said. “Having an older brother, Owen, who was such a mentor to her, helped shape her — more so than even a college degree could have done. When Owen threw her trust and opportunity, she had to prove herself.”
At the time, Brennan was exceptional in being a woman who exercised executive authority.
“Ella is so engaging, so driven, so smart,” the director said. “And she did it when women weren’t running their own businesses as much as they are today. She broke barriers without even putting much thought into it. Her humility today is representative of that. She’s focused on going forward and making sure everything is the best at all times.”
Actress and New Orleans native Patricia Clarkson narrates the film.
“Patricia was so excited to do the narration,” Iwerks said. “So many people chipped into this film out of love, not wanting to get paid. It’s a film made out of love for this unique woman.”
Iwerks will attend the world premiere of “Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table” in New Orleans.
“We could have done the Sundance Film Festival route,” she said. “But we felt like this is more special, to premiere it here, and do it for Ella, because it’s all about her.”
“Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table”
WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Friday, Oct 14
WHERE: The Orpheum Theater