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Interview: ‘Sneakerella’ Executive Producer Rachel Watanabe-Batton

“Sneakerella” was released on Disney+ last May.  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.

The movie was a hit with viewers and critics alike and garnered 11 Children’s & Family Emmy® Awards and four wins including Outstanding Fiction Special and Outstanding Choreography.

In the movie, 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.

Triple threats Chosen Jacobs and Lexi Underwood respectively star as El and Kira alongside a multi-talented, diverse ensemble cast including John Salley, Devyn Nekoda, Juan Chioran, Bryan Terrell Clark, Kolton Stewart, Robyn Alomar, Yvonne Senat Jones and Hayward Leach. 

“Sneakerella” is a Disney+ original movie from Disney Branded Television, directed and co-executive produced by Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum. Jane Startz and Rachel Watanabe-Batton serve as executive producers. The teleplay was written by David Light & Joseph Raso, Tamara Chestna and Mindy Stern & George Gore II and is based on a story by Stern & Gore and Light & Raso. Chestna also serves as co-executive producer.

Recently, Disney Plus Informer had the opportunity to interview Executive Producer Rachel Watanabe-Batton who discussed what her recent Emmy win meant to her and shared insight on Contradiction and Struggle, the production company she founded which aims to reframe history and conventional politics of respectability and branding and talked about the possibility of a sequel to “Sneakerella.”

Read on for the full interview with Rachel below:

You are the Executive Producer of “Sneakerella” which is now streaming on Disney+. The musical earned an impressive 11 nominations and 4 Children and Family Emmys. First of all, congratulations! That’s so amazing. But before we talk about “Sneakerella,” I was wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about yourself and what projects you worked on in the past.

Well, I have been a producer for many, many years, probably about 25-30 years. And I grew up in New York City and went to school in Cambridge and started making films while still in college, actually. I didn’t know that it was supposed to be hard back then and really had my first film on WGBH when I was there with a woman who’s still my friend Lauren Greenfield, another director. And then moved to L. A., where I just kind of fell into working with people that I loved, with Danny Glover, Paula Weinstein, and Mark Rosenberg all at Warner Brothers. Then I got to assist a director who I still am a big fan of, Peter Weir an Australian director, and really learned my craft. I came up in New York going to high school music and art the year Fame came out and so I’ve always been a lover of musicals and musical and visual artists. My friends have always been in that field. So, it was natural for me to start working with friends when I moved out to Los Angeles as well, some from college and then new collaborators. I think that’s always been my joy. I got a job at Warner Brothers and kind of took off from there.  But it really comes from just being an artist myself and loving the medium. So, that’s how I got my start.

Let’s go back to “Sneakerlla” which is kind of this modern-day Cinderella story of sorts but it’s adapted in a very different sense. Can you describe the movie for us and also what makes it so unique?

Sure, “Sneakerlla” is a modern-day Cinderella story as you mentioned, and really focuses on El who is, in this case, our Cinderella… and it’s a gender twist and also racial and ethnically diversed Cinderella. El, our lead character, is a sneakerhead and is the one who has to do all the chores in the classic Cinderella sense. But it’s really set in the world of modern-day sneaker culture and New York City and I was fascinated by the whole twist on this new take that really felt like I could see myself and my friends in.

How did you become involved with the movie?

The other executive producer on the project is my dear friend Jane Startz. She and I worked together on other projects and she sent me the script and I loved it. I could immediately, as I mentioned see myself and friends of mine who were sneakerheads in it, and I loved that it was a musical and I immediately signed on and said yes in the midst of a pandemic. So, you have to know how much I loved it to be able to leave my home and go work on this.

As executive producer, you were involved with multiple departments of the film. What main aspects were the most important to you in telling this story?

We have so many wonderful collaborators from our director, Liz Allen… to my other producer as I mentioned Jane Startz and our writer Tamara Chestna and one of my strengths is really visual… in terms of bringing some of the elements of a child who grew up in New York City to that and infusing that kind of authenticity. I’m also really involved in costumes and hair and makeup in particular, having come from a background that also included making music videos for many years. So some of those scenes…just thinking about what’s the popular culture versus very classical musicals which I also grew up loving as I mentioned from my early high school days. I was very involved as a producer on location, the E. P. along with our line producer D. J. Carson. And every day we would have intensive meetings talking about the music, the choreography and costumes, reviewing hair and makeup and the sets. So, my role there while on location was very much to be both my opinion but also to keep everyone in communication along with the rest of our production team. But I’d say my strengths are definitely the look.

I have to ask. Have there been any discussions for a sequel to “Sneakerella”?

Well, what’s so funny… you’re not the first person to ask me. People ask us and I think there could be. We discussed it while we were making it and I’d love to work on part two and let’s see.

You are also the founder of the production company Contradiction and Struggle which aims to reframe history and conventional politics of respectability and branding. Can you kind of elaborate a little bit more about what that means?

Sure. I would say because I’m somebody who loves both very popular and also kind of independent and experimental art and stories, I am always looking for how to marry the two, how to make these classic stories that I grew up loving, more inclusive. I happen to be African and Asian, I’m Nigerian and Japanese American and I also grew up in the Lower East side around very multicultural, Jewish, Italian, Chinese, Puerto Rican…very immigrant culture. And so one of the things that I really love is being able to look at highbrow and lowbrow kinds of traditionally seen, that way culturally… both the content and context… to really give a different perspective on what we may sometimes be unconsciously assuming one way or the other. So, just given my own very diverse background. I try to bring in people who are expansive in their thinking and so I think actually what I do is not that unusual, but that is my mission and it’s my focus and it really leads everything that we do at Contradiction and Struggle.

One of the things I read on your website, which I loved, was “storytelling has the power to create compassion and freedom or bias and fear.” I love that because it’s so true. What was your main inspiration for starting the production company and what first steps did you take to make this vision a reality?

My main inspiration is just growing up with lots of friends who are in the business and seeing some of the difficulties that they’ve had getting heard. I’ve worked with other partners and production companies that are amazing and I feel like a lot of the work that I was doing as an advocate…I shared the Producers Guild of America Diversity Committee for a decade and founded the Women’s Impact Network and a couple of other organizations as well as being on the board of New York Women in Film and Television. I see the intersection of some of the things that are happening, both in front of and behind the camera, and I thought I could be of use in making some of those connections there with large scale studios as well as independent media, public media and museum. So, really what I love is iconography and storytelling and exploring the kind of genius that exists in every kind of culture and class and race regardless of gender or any other isms.

What key elements do you look for when starting a new project?

It’s pretty simple. It just has to speak to me. I hope that it’s a story that I haven’t seen before, but perhaps it’s something that is told in a very new way. I’m interested in story structure, whether these characters are really rich. Do I know who they are?  Do I care about them?  And what is the journey that I’m gonna take for the next maybe one or two and often several years along with the creators. Quite frankly, the film business is full of personality. So, are we able to communicate well together? Because we’re not coal miners, right? We are in the entertainment business and it should be a journey that is not so painful where we can really communicate and bring some joy to the rest of the world and connections.

Finally, for my last question, what did those Emmy nominations and wins mean to you?

Well, having virtually every department nominated from “Sneakerella” was such an immense win for us.  We worked so hard on this film. Everybody put their joys and their talents, trying to bring things to it in the midst of 2020, 2021, and 2022..our production designer Elisa Sauve, our D. P. Matt Sakatani Roe, our line producer D.J. Carson, of course our director Liz Allen, our costume designer Rachael Grubbs, hair and makeup, Rukey Styles and Brian Hui  and on and on. Our composer who won. Elvin Ross is just a brilliant musician, thoughtful storyteller with his music. Our editor Ishai Setton is an amazing collaborator who has worked with Liz on many things…he’s a mensch… really wonderful human being and our choreographers, Ebony Williams and Emilio Dosal, having them win as first time nominees and their first real leads as choreographers meant an affirmation that when you give talented people an opportunity and you support them creatively and financially they can really be rewarding for everyone. And the work that we produced will just keep on, being shared in the world. And honestly, these Emmy wins give each of us who are nominated and got a win an opportunity to put other great stories together and especially shout out to my collaborator Jane Startz who’s been in Children’s media for so long and is a force and so it makes me so happy for her to have this win as well as the rest of our executive producing team and our execs at Disney who were immensely supportive of us.

You can watch a trailer for “Sneakerella” below:

The Disney+ Original movie “Sneakerella” is available to stream now on Disney+.

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