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‘Gleason’: How Filmmaker Clay Tweel Found an Unexpected Story of Hope

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The director breaks down how he crafted the story of his remarkable documentary.

Gleason

“Gleason”

Editor’s Note: When New Orleans Saint defensive star Steve Gleason learned he had ALS, his wife Michel was pregnant. Instinctively, he picked up a camera and started talking to his unborn son, and so began the documentation of a man’s determination to tackle his disease head-on.

“Gleason,” now an Oscar candidate for Best Documentary, quickly grew beyond being one man’s video diary. Under the guidance of director Clay Tweel, Gleason’s story was painted on a far broader canvas, one following a traditional hero’s journey that is able to capture the sadness, triumph, and joy of a family facing impossible odds. IndieWire recently asked Tweel about how he crafted the Gleasons’ inspiring story from 1300 hours of painfully intimate footage and how the project evolved as the NFL star’s body weakened.

The Challenge

There were two challenges that immediately presented themselves on this project. First of all, Steve’s story has been covered by a number of media outlets over the years, from ESPN to NFL Network and NBC. So my job was to be able to find a narrative that went deeper and connected to people in a different way than the previous coverage of Steve and Michel.

Secondly, I was concerned that the movie was going to be too overwhelmingly sad. I remember right when we started post, my co-editor Brian Palmer gave me the book, “This Much Is True,” a compilation of interviews with documentary filmmakers. One chapter on “Emotion” is a conversation with Louise Osmond, and she says that the best way to make a sad movie is to make it as funny as possible.

Fortunately for us, that fit perfectly for our film because Steve and Michel are always finding the laughter in even the darkest of situations.

The Footage

There was a wide array of footage, ranging from stuff Steve shot on his iPhone to scenes we shot using professional cameras, which was its own unique challenge. We needed to find a way to keep the audience engaged with the scene and not feel thrown out of the setting if the aesthetic massively shifts. A lot of this intimate low resolution footage exists in a bit of a vacuum that, devoid of context, robs these moments of some of their power. My approach was to find the minimum amount of context needed that was shot on our pro level cameras, and then try to bookend the scenes with that footage. This way, we could curate the setup and resolution of the audience’s experience for much of the family’s journey through the disease.

That said, it ended up being more art than science. Each moment had a different threshold for mixing and matching.

 

There are a million different movies that can be made from that much footage. There are storylines about the role of technology for disabled people, the challenges of building a successful charity, as well as the village full of people that it takes to take care of a person with ALS — but what resonated the most for me was the story of fatherhood and love. These themes were the avenues I felt were most likely to allow me to tap into a larger audience and have more satisfying conclusions.

An Unexpected Story

I’m always in search of finding ways to tell stories that unearth universal truths. I love subverting the audience’s expectations of what the trailer, poster or logline might tell them. For example, in my past film, “Print the Legend,” the story is not about 3D printing companies; instead it’s about the perils of building a business. In “Finders Keepers,” the story is less about who gets custody of a human leg and more about which one of these karmically connected addicts will learn acceptance. In “Gleason,” everyone is expecting a movie about ALS and perhaps football.

 

For me, Steve’s relationship with his father is the core of the film and it allows the narrative thread to be about the connection of generations of a family. At one point, Steve’s dad talks about the idea of “generational sin” — the concept that each generation must be aware of the flaws of the previous in order to break a cycle of discord. In my opinion, this is exactly what Steve is doing by filming himself and leaving these messages for his son. In a way, the movie evolves into an exploration of parents and their children, even more than it does into the gender specific dynamic of fathers and sons.

Michel

Michel’s inclusion and importance were the biggest surprise in making this movie. Like I said before, the father and son theme was so strong, I wasn’t sure that the movie could successfully manage more storylines. But once I realized how honest and raw Michel was in the footage, there was no way we were going to make this movie and not detail her journey. Her role as caretaker is one that I find to be incredibly complex and important to showing how this disease rips through an entire family’s life, not just the person afflicted with ALS. In the film you see her run the gamut of emotions — from heartbreak, to elation, to resentment, to shame and exhaustion. But the genuinely inspiring thing I saw in telling her story was that some of that light and spark come back to her by the end of the film. The resilience that both she and Steve show is something that I think sticks with our viewers the most.

 

Simply put, the biggest takeaway for me is perspective. Life is a constant roller coaster of joy and suffering, and no one expresses these two polarities better than Steve and Michel. I hope I never lose the feelings of gratitude and presence that telling their story has brought into my life.

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