'100 Years of Warner Bros.' Filmmaker Leslie Iwerks Brought Studio's 'Boldness and Brashness' to Life (Exclusive)

Documentary filmmaker Leslie Iwerks knows everything there is to know about Hollywood, as the granddaughter of Disney legend Ub Iwerks and having grown up in the shadow of the studios in Burbank. After telling Hollywood stories linked to Disney, Iwerks finally turned her camera towards Warner Bros., just in time for the studio's 100th anniversary. While making the four-episode Max Original series 100 Years of Warner Bros., Iwerks fell in love with the "boldness and brashness" of the studio, she told PopCulture.com in an exclusive interview.

Iwerks knew Warner Bros. was known for taking risks. After all, everyone knows this is the studio that made movies talk with The Jazz Singer in 1927. But while researching the studio's history, she learned just how far the Warner brothers – Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack – would go. In the late 1930s, the studio took big swings with the 1937 Best Picture Oscar-winner The Life of Emile Zola and their 1939 classic Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the first anti-Nazi Hollywood movie.

"When you look back on World War II, when they went up against the Nazis making Commissions of a Nazi Spy and Life of Emile Zola, those were real-life consequences on them," Iwerks explained. "They had death threats against their lives by the Nazis, and they were told by many, many people, including heads of state and U.S. officials, not to make a film that would go against the Nazis. And the Nazis too threatened violence if they had done anything like that. And they did it. They did it anyway."

When Iwerks learned this about the studio, it set the tone for the rest of the project. No one told the brothers how they were going to make their movies. "That boldness and that brashness and that commitment to quality and to morality were what made me fall in love with the studio in a way that I hadn't before. Because at that point, they continued to do other films that were very challenging," she said. "When you look at the 100 years of movies that they've made, there were a lot of examples of really risky bets. And that set the tone for me anyways, as a storyteller."

The series doesn't just cover the movies Warner Bros. made. During the 1950s, the studio followed the others into television production. Their most famous TV production, Roots, is covered in the second episode of 100 Years, with star LeVar Burton providing insight into the historic production.

"Roots was so important, not only to television, but it was an important subject to audiences around the world. And as LeVar speaks about it, this was transformative. Not just for Black people, but for white people [as well]," Iwerks told us. "People had not seen the story told from Black slaves' point of view, with the white people as the antagonists, as the bad guys. And no one knew how people were going to react to that TV show. But it was such a phenomenal hit, [with] top ratings all week long. And the risk that the executives took to book it in five consecutive nights, that hadn't been done before, really."

The film also gets into the nitty gritty details of the executive shuffles at Warner Bros. during the 1970s and 1980s. It might sound like "inside baseball" details to the average viewer, but Iwerks felt it was important to show the torch being passed on from decade to decade. The way these executives "were shaping the studio decade to decade" was important for the story. 

"Each regime passed the torch to the other. And each regime felt the competitiveness or the need to be as successful as those who came before," she said. "So it is a story of standing on the shoulders of those who came before and continuing not to drop the baton, not to fail."

While Iwerks has made films on subjects outside of Disney, this was the first time she told a Hollywood story outside the House of Mouse. It was "fun" to cover another historic Hollywood studio. "It was in my backyard in many ways. Tim Burton went to my high school, Burbank High. So it was fun to interview him. It was fun to talk to people who also knew how rich and wonderful Warner Brothers was as a studio, as a landmark in Burbank," Iwerks said. "To me, that was just fun. And to learn about these live-action films and television films. And then of course Looney Tunes, which doesn't get a ton of exposure in the show. Would've loved to have had more time to do that."

The first two episodes of 100 Years of Warner Bros. will be available to stream on Max Thursday. The third and fourth specials will be released on June 1. Iweks is also developing a special about DC Comics, which will be released in the future.