How ‘Gleason’ Director Clay Tweel Turned Family Video Into a Global Story: Awards Spotlight

The documentary's director talks about establishing trust with his subjects and managing the story's raw emotion.

Clay Tweel

Daniel Bergeron

The documentary “Gleason” has taken on resonance well beyond what former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason originally intended: shooting footage of his life, post-ALS diagnosis, for the benefit of his young son.

READ MORE: IndieWire Awards Spotlight: Welcome to Our 2016-2017 Series

There’s the community that saw Gleason as the symbol of a resilient city, both in his career and in his fight against the disease. There’s the love story between Gleason and his wife Michel Varisco, whose sacrifice and support resound throughout the film. The documentary also serves its original purposes as a lasting testament from father to son with a message of decency, strength, and creativity.

One of the stewards of this honest portrait is director Clay Tweel, a documentary filmmaker whose previous work includes last year’s “Finders Keepers.” Tasked with assembling and fine-tuning more than 1,000 hours of footage, Tweel helped evolve Gleason’s video diaries into the full story that’s now on the shortlist for Oscar nomination.

In Tweel’s words, that journey took many different forms.

The unique dynamic between Tweel and Gleason’s family led to a filmmaker-subject relationship different from those of most other documentaries. Taking on the stories of others is a central task to a documentarian’s work, but Tweel explains how this particular film brought with it a fresh set of responsibilities.

One of the ways Tweel helped to forge that trust also served a filmmaking purpose. Shaping the film’s overarching narrative meant shooting additional conversations with Varisco and others. For Tweel, incorporating these interviews helped give a balance between the immediate, unfolding developments of Gleason’s treatment and the perspective of those reflecting on how they lived through them.

But beyond selecting the clips that would most clearly illuminate the family’s struggles and triumphs, Tweel had to manage those ups and downs in film form. Gleason’s story illustrates  the day-to-day challenges someone faces with ALS, but there are unmistakable moments of joy at each breakthrough.

The result is a film that manages to compress years’ worth of heartache, optimism, and understanding into a story that’s been shared far beyond a household or even a city. And it all came from a true team effort.

This year’s Awards Spotlight series is produced with help from our partners at Movies On Demand, who shot and produced the video interviews, and from Hollywood Proper, who provided location services for our Los Angeles shoots.

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