In 2010, when New Orleans Saint defensive star Steve Gleason first learned of his ALS diagnosis, his wife Michel was pregnant. Instinctively, he picked up a camera and started talking to his yet-to-be-born son — and so began the documentation of a man’s determination to tackle his disease head-on. In 2012, Gleason brought aboard local filmmaker David Lee and Ty Minton-Small, a longtime friend, who embedded themselves in the Gleasons’ home and captured the ex-football player as he faced rapidly deteriorating physical abilities, spent time with his son River and reconciled with his father.
By the time director Clay Tweel (“Finders Keepers”) started working on the film in March of 2015, over 1,200 hours of footage had been shot. Tweel’s job: Craft it into a story.
“It was a daunting task,” Tweel recently told IndieWire. Yet, ten months after starting the edit, “Gleason” would premiere at Sundance to critical acclaim and now, backed by distributors Open Road and Amazon Studios, is strongly positioned to make a serious run at an Oscar nomination this fall. IndieWire recently asked Tweel to breakdown his process of turning what would become 1,300 hours of footage — that varied in quality and format — into a well-crafted 110 minute feature.
Tweel didn’t do it alone. In the editing room, he had his “Finders Keepers” editor Brian Palmer, while Lee and Minton-Small came aboard as invaluable assistant editors who, because they shot a great deal of the footage, could help prioritize the strongest footage. Nonetheless, the four men combined watched every frame. The key, according to Tweel, wasn’t just to watch the footage, but to create a system so they wouldn’t have to do it again.
Courtesy of Open Road Films
“From working on my other films, I now have an organizational structure for how to organize footage in a way that I can trace back and find things when necessary,” said Tweel. “That’s the dirty little secret of documentary filmmaking is organizing your footage and being able to as quickly and efficiently so you can find it later. ‘Oh, I need a shot of Steve where he’s got shaky hands, or I need a shot of River and Michel together hugging, or I need a shot of Steve and his Dad together in some kind of loving moment,’ I can quickly get to that as oppose to having to wade through 1300 hours of footage again trying to find it.”
That might seem like common sense, but when dealing with hundreds of hours of footage and four people in the editing room, a clear and logical system is vital. Tweel said the key to perfecting his system was to base it on the way his brain works.
“I try to keep the footage organized into two realms,” explained Tweel. “I have a very good memory for dates, so if I keep things in order that way, it helps me remember when things take place and remember the details of those events. Coinciding with that is pinning things thematically.”
Creating tags for footage — “fathers and sons,” “light hearted moment,” “caregiving” — meant that when it was time for Tweel to craft and piece together the narrative he had another logical way to quickly access footage.
Suzanne Alford/Open Road films
“You are kind of putting bookmarks on themes as you are watching them,” said Tweel. “So when you go back and outline it, you have a general sense of where some of these scenes could actually fit.”
Once done with that stage, Tweel took a step back and asked what were the strongest themes emerging, what was the most compelling footage saying about this story. “True of every documentary in general, your first idea never ends up being the movie you make,” said Tweel. “I initially thought this movie was going to be about a guy who is finding his purpose in life through tragic circumstances of his diagnosis.”
Soon another through line started to emerge: The intergenerational story of fatherhood.
“I really grasped onto this concept that Steve is passing his legacy onto his son, but that is directly reflective upon his own relationship with his father,” said Tweel. “This idea of trying to compensate for the flaws of your past generation, is something I thought could not only apply to fathers, but to humans, and in that way I thought it could be a really universal type of story.”
Like a screenwriter, Tweel started to outline the film sticking notecards to a wall. The first documentary Tweel worked on was “King of Kong,” directed by Seth Gordon, who has served as a producer on all of Tweel’s films. Working on “Kong” for three years, first as camera operator and then as an assistant editor, Tweel says he learned an important lesson about crafting a nonfiction narrative.
“The thing I learned from Seth was the ability to try, as much as possible, to use Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” [the American writer identified common patterns in myths] to structure and organize your documentary outline,” said Tweel. “It lends itself to more creative and imaginary storytelling.”
As the edit of “Gleason” progressed, so did the real life story. Tweel shot approximately 50 additional hours of footage to capture important ongoing stories that were part of his outline, but he also grabbed a few hours of material he could use to help tie the film together. “Besides Steve’s video journal, there’s not a lot of somebody telling us the context of what’s happening right now and how do I feel about it,” said Tweel. “So what we tried to do as minimally as possible was to have a couple of sitdown interviews to help here and there to guide the audience for some more context around some of the themes.”
Courtesy of Open Road Films
As inspirational as Michel and Steve Gleason’s story is, spending countless hours watching this family grabble with the devastating effects of ALS took an emotional toll on Tweel. “I’m not going to lie, I had some muscle twitches that I was pretty freaked out about as I was sitting there watching this footage,” said Tweel. “You start to absorb the story in such a way that it was hard to watch and process all of these things these people must be feeling all at once.”
Yet having that emotional connection through living with footage of the Gleasons’ most intimate moments also became a guiding force for the director. “There [are] complicated and dense emotional story points in the film, and I tried to present them in a way that stayed true to their density.”
“Gleason” is in theaters now.