Last year, the Disney+ Original film, “Sneakerella” picked up a number of Children’s and Family Emmy awards, which is a film set in the vibrant street-sneaker subculture of New York City, “Sneakerella” is a high-energy, music-driven movie that puts a contemporary twist on the “Cinderella” fairy tale.
El is an aspiring sneaker designer from Queens who works as a stock boy in the shoe store that once belonged to his late mother. He hides his artistic talent from his overburdened stepfather and two mean-spirited stepbrothers who constantly thwart any opportunity that comes his way. When El meets Kira King, the fiercely independent daughter of legendary basketball star and sneaker tycoon Darius King, sparks fly as the two bond over their mutual affinity for sneakers. With a little nudge from his best friend and a sprinkle of Fairy Godfather magic, El finds the courage to use his talent to pursue his dream of becoming a ‘legit’ sneaker designer in the industry. El is now ready to lace up and dream big.
Recently, I got to speak with the film’s executive producer, Rachel Watanabe-Batton, about the film, where she shared some of her experiences and stories about creating the movie for Disney+.
Could you give us a bit of an introduction to yoursel?
I’m one of the two executive producers on Sneakerella, along with Jane Startz, my dear friend. And I have been a producer for about 25 years, starting off in the studio system at Warner Brothers. Worked for a director named Peter Weir as his assistant, who’s a great director. And I did a lot of music videos for many years. So I’m definitely someone who likes both very popular culture and also very indie films. I worked with a director named Julie Dash, who’s been kind of an influence on many other filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and people like Beyonce, and I really just love Disney movies. And so as growing up, I watched a ton of musicals. I grew up in New York City and went to High School of Music and Art the year that Fame came out. So all my friends were in the movie and I did a lot of filmmaking when I was in college.
What did you have to do as an Executive Producer on this film?
Well, really the EP in television is a creative person and so fortunately I didn’t have to deal with any of the logistics, so to speak. We had a great line producer for that, DJ Carson. But I really was involved with the casting, involved with all of the look of the production, things like with the story, how to bring forward possibly, for example, a scene with the mother and daughter, how to navigate that. And my own background, I am African and Asian, Nigerian and Japanese American and grew up in a very strong musical black working-class family as well, some of my relatives. And so I really could bring, quite frankly, a lot of the authenticity to it as my other EP, Jane and I are both from New York City. We have grown up kind of knowing and living in a very diverse cultural world and making sure that resonated along with our director Liz Allen.
And so my speciality just in life and my kind of expertise are costumes because I actually had a fashion company at one point and sold to Barneys and Bendel’s years ago. And also, when you make music videos, a lot of it is about iconography. I do a lot of museum work as well. And so that was a big strong point, working with costumes and hair and makeup and our brilliant production designer, Lisa Schwabe as well. All of them are incredible. And just making sure that our director’s vision is really being supported throughout and I think we did a good job with that.
The film is very modern but still has some little nods to the original film, was that intentional?
Yeah, I think the story of Cinderella is something, as they always say, a tale as old as time and the others, but it’s really about finding oneself. And so how to do a gender twist and also in a very diverse, the most ethnically diverse place in the world, in Queens, in Astoria. And really also make sure that these stories and these kinds of dilemmas that we all have growing up, how do we fit into our community? Are we valued? Those are things that are not exclusive to a young girl growing up. These are things that each of us has to navigate and I think the power of changing it to be in Astoria with a black male teen as the Cinderella character, El, and a sneakerhead just made everything so much more relevant. The sneaker culture of New York, which is one of the hippest around, and this is the dream. And how do you galvanize your community to support you?
And I think one of the main things is we have to actually tell people what we’re interested in doing and we all need… One of my favorite characters is Devyn Nekoda, who plays Sami, and she’s like the best friend we all should have in life. We could all use their… We used to call her Sam Wise Cam she in some ways, but really just, those iconic characters can be anywhere with any kinds of backgrounds for the people in the movie.
And I thought it was important that the best friend is LGBTQ and the stepfather is not an evil stepfather. He’s trying to make his way but doesn’t understand. And so I think there were a lot of these, the nods were even modernized. What are these conversations in an era where women do have more opportunities than to just get married and find the prince? But that actually, these moats that divide represented in the East River are still things that sometimes are physical barriers and sometimes they’re in our head. And so I just love the movie because I think it’s a gift to us young and old to reflect upon who we are and how we can support those around us.
The film recently won a number of Emmys in the children and family categories. How did that feel winning those Emmys for “Sneakerella”?
Well, it was amazing, actually. So rewarding to have that recognition for the film and for each of the department heads really. And they worked so hard, all of us worked hard. We were away in Canada and filming a lot of this and just a lot of the department heads were new. And particularly some of the ones that won, like our choreographers, Emilio Dosal and Ebony Williams and our composer, Elvin Ross, who won, as well as our editor, Ishai Setton, they were such amazing collaborators, excuse me. And it’s rewarding to put together a really diverse crew of department heads and have them be recognized for that. And I also want to say that we wouldn’t have been recognized for any of this if we didn’t have such an amazing cast, and so that was wonderful to be able to work with them and to see that people in our industry really love the movie and appreciate it. That means everything to us.
You mentioned that you filmed in Canada, so you filmed it in Toronto. How did you make the film feel like New York?
Yeah, it’s kind of amazing. Toronto was the safest place to shoot during a pandemic. And our production designer and our DP worked very, very hard to make sure with our VFX that our set extensions really work. We spent a lot of time after we completed principal photography, working on the post-production for that. And it was a lot of preparation going into it, making these set designs. Our director had a brilliant vision about how to do this.
And I think the other part of making that happen is of course, the cast of characters because the story is such a diverse place, but luckily Toronto is as well. And we spent a lot of time crafting that, thinking about even the dancers, how do you create a subway? So a lot of those things were really done on sound stages. And the train set was pretty incredible. Having these cars and recreated by our production designer and our incredible art team, and then matching that with doing second unit in New York and having those put in in the VFX later.
And then adding all the magic of course, because that’s part of any good Disney movie, is really having the natural kind of touches of magic. It’s sort of thinking about the everyday magic that are in our lives.
What was the biggest challenge working on Sneakerella?
Well, I would say the biggest challenge was of course, dealing with a pandemic and creating a film that is really about joy and resilience in a time where there was a lot of chaos in the world. And so there’s always production challenges. The usual, it’s freezing over, and you’re trying to do these exterior scenes with dancing. Those are normal production challenges. I think from my point of view, it was really, and that’s part of the job as an executive producer, is making sure that the spirits are lifted, right? Because we are creative people, a lot of us are empaths. We take in what’s happening around us, and the actors have to be on-screen. But I mean, we were wearing shields and using microphones and boxes, and yet it’s a very intimate thing, talking to people about these emotions, losing your mother in the center of this all. And I think really was just navigating how to keep up the good fight and to know that, in the end, we were really giving a gift to the world making this movie.
Did you know if “Sneakerella” was going to be released on Disney+ or if it was going to be a Disney channel film first?
We knew it would be Disney+, but you never know what’s happening. That’s above my pay grade with the media outlets, but I think we all believed as producers and Liz, the director and writer, that we were making something that would resonate globally. And a story is the most multicultural place in the world. And as someone who is… My father lives in Nigeria, and I grew up here, I’m fourth generation, an Asian American, but all of us are in this movie. And so I think in the world we live in, you just have to assume New York is full of people from other nations. Of course, this is going to resonate.
And my final question to you is, what do your sneakers say about you?
By the way, I have several members of my family and friends that are sneaker designers that I grew up with. So I’ve loved sneakers forever. I think, well, I’d like my sneakers to say that I’m a little bit practical, but that I’m also very fashionable. I like a little personalization, little do dads. I have little gold buckles on my Converse that I wear. And I think one of the things about sneakers and sneakerellas, you can wear a ball gown and sneakers. Sneakers are meant to just give you a comfort and a way of expressing your own style, individuality and be ready for anything, to be on the go. And so I think that’s what mine say about me.
Roger has been a Disney fan since he was a kid and this interest has grown over the years. He has visited Disney Parks around the globe and has a vast collection of Disney movies and collectibles. He is the owner of What's On Disney Plus & DisKingdom.