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On March 14 Citizen Hearst will make it’s nationwide theater debut and in Chicago it will premiere at Chicago’s Showplace Icon Theatre. Academy Award-nominated director Leslie Iwerks’ documentary outlines the history of newspaper and publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and how his company, Hearst Corporation, has evolved over the past 125 years. The film, narrated by actor William H. Macy and features an unprecedented look behind-the-scenes at the dominating company that survived the Great Depression and other obstacles. Most of us know Hearst Corporation through contemporary publications such as Harpar’s Bazaar, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, O, The Oprah Magazine, Town & Country and others. Those unfamiliar with the man himself have likely encountered his character through the iconic Orsen Welles film: Citizen Kane. However, what was shown onscreen in 1941 is not exactly true to what Hearst stood for. He was painted as a villain in the journalism industry, known for popularizing the term “yellow journalism” and creating a media empire that still holds influence across the world. The documentary features interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Dan Rather, Mark Burnett, Ralph Lauren, Jay Fielden, Glenda Bailey,Donna Karan, Bob Iger, Leonard Maltin, Dr. Oz and Heidi Klum, and others. I had the opportunity to interview seasoned director, Leslie Iwerks, where we talked about about the documentary, Hearst, and her inspiration.
The man behind the corporation-William Randolph Hearst-was no mystery; his father was a multi-millionaire from the California Gold Rush, he attended Harvard, held a Senatorial position, and remained in the public eye for decades. So why choose to tell this story? “[With] his larger than life personality… he was able to control so much of the media industry in such a short period of time,” Iwerks said. “He was wealthy, he had money but he chose to use it wisely.” Hearing the title Citizen Hearst, one might think that the making of this documentary was influenced by Hearst’s own reaction to the Orsen Welles film. Perhaps even, that a family member sought to revitalize his image through a documentary. “His reaction didn’t influence me, but I think anybody who watched the film by Orson Welles was affected by it,” Iwerks said. Although his reaction didn’t influence her, his work ethic and character provided inspiration. “What left a lasting impression on me was the amount of courage he had to risk and gamble on things that he really believed,” Iwerks said. “He didn’t have to pull himself up by his bootstraps, but he had a very firm vision early on to prove himself, and to live outside of his father’s shadow. He had lemons. He had all these things bequeathed upon him, he took that and used it to create this influential empire.”
“I think it’s really about believing in your gut.”
It was an inspiring moment that left me with a renewed image of Hearst, even before watching the film. If just that was enough to change my thoughts on the media tycoon, how would the full documentary shift the audience’s perception of Hearst? “It’s the telling of his entire legacy,” Iwerks said. “Never before has a story been told about the present day company. You really get a sense of the true man—not this sort of tragic figure—and what he did. He just happened to have a lot more influence and money, so he would insert himself in things, for better or for worse, and that was his prerogative. A lot of people felt he was too controlling, but you look at how things are in the present day, and that’s how companies are run. Today, the story of Hearst is bigger; it’s about the man who founded a multimedia company that has engineered a legacy.”
The film is more than just a biographic documentary; “The story of William Hearst is really just a quarter of the whole documentary. It really is the legacy of William and how his company has evolved over the years.” Iwerks spoke with such intelligence that I could tell just by the power behind each of her words that this was a project she was truly passionate about. I was surprised to hear that it had been a little over a year since she got started with the Citizen Hearst project. From the way she talked about Hearst and his influence over the industry, it seemed like she had been working on the documentary for years! But her drive and expertise allowed her to get the entire project, from filming, to editing, to narration recording, and even contacting celebrities for interviews, done in a period of 365 days.
In such a fast-paced environment, I asked what Iwerks’ favorite part of making Citizen Hearst was, or if there was a particular moment that stood out the most. “Filming at his capital(San Simeon Castle), I enjoyed meeting his family, I enjoyed visiting the Houston Chronicle, seeing the process of printing newspapers, going behind the scenes of the printing press, and getting private tours, there’s really nothing in this film that I didn’t enjoy!”
Iwerks is also the founder and owner of Leslie Iwerks Production Inc. The company has produced content for HBO, Pixar, Starz, and National Geographic, to name a few. At first I was surprised to hear of her documentarian path as she is the granddaughter of the man who designed Mickey Mouse, I wondered why she chose not to go down the route of animation like her predecessor. “My family background has a history in animation, and I started as an artist, but I’m not an animator, Iwerks explained. “I made a film about my grandfather who does animation, and I loved the process so much that I decided to do more documentaries.”
“I love interviewing people on what drives them, what makes them tick. I like entertaining people through non-fiction and I love that truth is often greater than fiction.”
Iwerks truly embodies the role of Jack-of-all-trades. She not only directs, but she also produces, writes, and edits. As is often the case with multi-faceted artists, there is a role that becomes the “favorite.” I asked Iwerks if she had a particular role that she felt most drawn to, and almost immediately answered that she is first and foremost a director. “I love directing,” She said before going on to specify that non-fiction film crews operate differently than those on a film set for a fictional movie. “In documentaries, often times the director is a blend of all different jobs. Not every documentarian is an editor, but I love it. I’m passionate about it, and at the same time, it’s tedious work. But I love the research, the crafting, the interviews, the editing.”
Iwerks clearly did a lot of research on the history and evolution of Hearst Corporation, so much so that she was able to give insight into how the relationship between newspapers and magazines has changed since Hearst’s prime. “I think that reporting is still very much the same in the sense that you still have to get the facts in a way that’s truthful, but it’s interesting to see how newspaper and magazine has moved from an analog to digital way of providing information. William Randolph Hearst’s life was all about change and he saw how technology continued to evolve. The content in publications has been fragmented in such a degree that you can access things how you want, when you want.”
With this wealth of knowledge, there’s no doubt that Citizen Hearst will be an enlightening film. This documentary is by no means Iwerks’ first production and it certainly won’t be the last.
“I love the process. I love telling stories that need to be told or haven’t been told. I love being out and about and exploring new worlds and stories. I feel like it’s my calling.”