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Tribeca 2015 Women Directors: Meet Andrea Nevins – ‘Play It Forward’

Tribeca 2015 Women Directors: Meet Andrea Nevins - 'Play It Forward'

Academy Award-nominated Andrea Nevins has produced, directed and written for documentary film, television news, public radio and newspapers for over 25 years. She has produced critically acclaimed and award-winning documentaries for “Peter Jennings: Reporting.” This role garnered an Emmy Award for her work on an ABC News/Time forum on the issue of gun control in America. 

Nevins produced and wrote her first independent documentary project, “Still Kicking,” which earned an Academy Award nomination. The short chronicled the experiences of former dancers getting back on stage in their golden years. Following this, she co-produced NBCʼs DuPont-Columbia Award-winning Tom Brokaw special, “Why Can’t We Live Together,” about a town south of Chicago that was “tipping” from white to black. Nevins partnered with producer Cristian Reilly to tell the story of aging punk rockers turned fathers in “The Other F Word,” which served as the genesis of Rare Bird Films. (Press materials) 

Play It Forward” will premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival on April 16.

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing. 

AN: “Play It Forward” is about the relationship between two brothers, the reluctant football star and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez and his older brother and wingman Chris, whose heart’s desire was to play the game as only his little brother could. The film follows the Gonzalez brothers over the course of a pivotal year
as Tony’s career is winding down, as are his chances of finally getting to a
Super Bowl, and Chris, who has lived in his brother’s shadow, chases his
mid-life dream of becoming a firefighter. This candid, heartfelt film explores
brotherhood, sacrifice and what it takes to achieve greatness, on or off the

W&H: What drew you to this story?

AN: Five years ago, the seeds of “Play It Forward” were planted in my when my producing partner, Cristan Reilly, and I were struck by Michael Strahan’s impassioned, poignant stories of NFL players and the rough road many of them had when they entered retirement. His stories resonated because my own father was transitioning and seemed out of sorts. As a head and neck surgeon, he had faced life-and-death situations almost every day of his adult life, and then suddenly, he was at home, pager silenced, phone quiet. 

I anticipated telling the story of a superstar athlete in transition as a way of telling a universal story, albeit writ large, about life’s passages. But, as often happens when making a documentary, a different story began to unfold in front of the camera. Future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, who was about to retire when we started, did not retire.

That next year that we followed him turned out to be a pivotal one for him specifically, but also for all the members of his family. Tony’s step-dad and mentor began losing his fight against cancer, propelling Tony to fight even harder for his dream of making it to a Super Bowl. And Chris, Tony’s brother, who had put his own life on hold to be Tony’s champion, wingman and unofficial coach throughout his football career, finally pushed forward his own dream of becoming a firefighter.

The story took on a magnitude far beyond the lessons of retirement and became a story about the grit, love and family sacrifice it takes to achieve greatness. The Gonzalez family taught me much about what it means to live a life with a full and gracious heart.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

AN: You might think it was being a woman in the
very male realm of football. But it wasn’t. The biggest challenge came in the editing room.
Because Tony is such a big star, and because, initially, we had set out to tell
a story about his retirement, it seemed obvious to tell the story from his
point of view. But after we had spent a year in the cutting room and had a nice
90-minute rough cut, it became clear to me that telling this story from the
voice and perspective of Tony’s brother, Chris, would have greater emotional
resonance. He was more of the underdog, so his journey felt more epic.

problem was that I hadn’t shot for Chris’ story. The other problem was that my
producing team, Cristan Reilly, Michael Strahan and Constance Schwartz, were
eager to get this story out there. Fortunately, they had my back and let me dig
back in. My edit team, Geoffrey Franklin and Graham Clark, also stepped up to
the plate, and we did a thorough re-combing of our footage to find Chris’ voice.
It was an interesting, sort of scary, sort of exhilarating three-month
marathon, which was enormously gratifying to all of us in the end.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

AN: There’s a line in the movie that I think about
daily. The head of Chris’ paramedic school says to her class of future heroes,
“How you rebound from setbacks speaks volumes about who you are.”

She is
talking about character. She is talking about grit. I think we come to art, we
listen to stories and we watch movies in search of an upside to pain and in search
of a path to true character. I hope people will come away with some strong
examples of how to live a life of virtue by sharing 75 moving minutes with the
Gonzalez family.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

AN: The world needs your voice. It’s a sad,
destroyed place right now. We need to reshape the story. I would also say, job
share. I shied away from making documentaries when my three kids were little
because neither kids nor directing have controllable schedules. But I was able
to jump back in because I found a partner in my producer Cristan Reilly, to whom I could
throw the ball when needed.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

AN: I often get asked if I was part of the culture
I was documenting before beginning my films. Many assumed I was a long-time punk rock fan before making “The Other F Word,” or a diehard football fan before
making “Play It Forward” or HBO’s “State of Play: Happiness.” I was neither, but
rather a curious onlooker.

My mentor, Craig Leake, taught me the wisdom of
asking the stupid question. The stupid question frequently elicits the careful
explanation, rather than the insider’s shorthand. So I have found it helpful to
be more of an outsider in the world I am filming.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

AN: We were lucky enough to sell movie rights to
our last film, “The Other F Word,” and reinvested that into this project.
Additionally, we had support from our executive producers, Michael Strahan and
Constance Schwartz of SMAC Entertainment. We are a very small and efficient team. We all wear several hats, which really helps.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

AN: In
high school I had played with ways to marry words and photographs, but it
wasn’t until I got to college and saw Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, U.S.A.” that
I realized the magic of documentary filmmaking. Kopple was able to tell a
story, with no narration, about a real issue by focusing on the characters and
letting them develop on screen so the audience could come, seemingly on their
own, to love them and their plights and their triumphs. I knew right then and
there, that’s what I wanted to learn how to do. I love that film and am
grateful to Kopple, because together they really set my trajectory.

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