“It’s strange I’m initiating a conversation with someone I’ll never have a real conversation with,” Steve Gleason confesses to his cousin Brandon, not long after witnessing the majesty of Denali National Park in Alaska during a scene in “Gleason.” After ascending to North America’s highest point, Gleason, confined to a wheelchair and robbed of his physical autonomy by ALS, the debilitating neurodegenerative disease wherein the mind remains untouched by motor functions fail, once again comes back to earth when thinking about the impending birth of his son Rivers, for whom he’s picked up a camcorder to impart the lessons he believes he won’t be able to pass along in person.
While Gleason the man is bound by gravity, the film in his name is never anything less than soaring. A transcendent portrait of the former safety for the New Orleans Saints whose battle with ALS has inspired even more than his glory on the football field, once carrying the entire city on his back when he blocked a punt in the Saints’ first game following Hurricane Katrina, “Gleason” shows the strength of Gleason and his wife Michel Varisco as they deal with the daily grind of living with the disease, raising a child and starting a foundation (Team Gleason) to give others the same Bucket List adventures that he’s able to enjoy.
In allowing themselves to be filmed so intimately, the couple also affords audiences with an experience to cherish, as unexpectedly rousing as it is moving to see Gleason fight well past the two- to five-year life expectancy for those afflicted with ALS and hardly letting his immobility get in the way of criss-crossing the country in support of Team Gleason. Still, it shouldn’t be all that surprising to learn that this is the case when the film comes from Clay Tweel, who has an exceptional knack for making nonfiction crowdpleasers such as “Print the Legend” and “Magic Camp,” and a unique insight into Gleason’s story as the son of Ron Tweel, the longtime attorney and friend of the late Muhammad Ali.
What may come as a revelation is that Tweel didn’t participate in the majority of filming of “Gleason,” which quickly grew beyond its roots as a video diary for Rivers into a full-fledged documentary with filming initiated by the filmmaker Sean Pamphilon in 2011, and carried out by two cameramen he hired — David Lee and Ty Minton-Small, who kept filming after Pamphilon’s relationship deteriorated with Gleason when footage he captured was used as evidence against the Saints during the Bountygate scandal. Yet as he did after inheriting countless hard drives on his previous film, “Finders Keepers,” Tweel shaped the 1300 hours-plus of footage of Steven, Michel and Rivers into a mosaic-like celebration of life, both specific to his subjects and in general, simultaneously conveying the enormity of what the family goes through while splicing it in such a way that it bursts off the screen as if it were confetti, the shards of daily life becoming so vivid and bright when seen together. Shortly before the film is released in theaters, Tweel spoke about getting involved in such a personal project for the family, the theme of fatherhood that gave the film its structure, and putting together the big sonically-enhanced moments that take his films to another level.
What became more evident the second time I saw this was how strong the theme of fatherhood is, becoming essentially a connective tissue for the film. Did you actually know immediately that would be the spine?
When I first came on the project, I thought that it was going to be about a guy who finds his purpose through a set of tragic circumstances and that they’re going to be starting the Team Gleason foundation. Certainly, it was going to have a strong fatherhood element because the video journals were something that were going to be a part of it, but really being able to see that there was going to be a intergenerational story of fatherhood — that soundbite in the movie where Steve’s dad is talking about the idea of generational sin, and that you pass things on to the next generation — was a little bit of a eureka moment. Steve doing this for his son is reflective of compensating for any flaws that he feels like his own father might have had, which I think is very relatable and perhaps goes beyond even fathers and sons [to] just a parent and child relationship, so I thought that was a good thing to have as the spine of the movie.
You always make sure to have strong character detail, but was this any different when the subject was someone’s life?
Not necessarily. What I strive to do in all my movies is get to the core of why people do what they do. I’m a big subscriber to Werner Herzog’s The Ecstatic Truth, so in unearthing [those motivations] through somebody’s journey and narrative, [you find] these larger themes that can reverberate with audiences in a more global fashion. That’s really what I’m trying to do, whether it’s teenage magicians or 3D printing entrepreneurs or a football player with ALS. It doesn’t necessarily matter what that initial log line is. You’re constantly trying to subvert that and find something deeper.
Those opening few minutes before the title comes up are also really impressive since it encapsulates so much of his life before, including his playing career. How did the decision come about to condense that much into that opening?
We didn’t want to necessarily have this movie be about football or in large respects really about ALS, per se. Again, we wanted to find those deeper themes, so it really became about what’s the economic and efficient way to provide context for who Steve is? You want to understand that he is important in his community because he had this play that made him a local hero and you certainly want to know that he was a determined free spirit on the football field, [which] pays off in the sense that it makes the diagnosis of his disease even more tragic. There was so much [footage], we had to pick our spots.
Since the bulk of the footage had already been shot before you came on, did it allow you to be more objective about your editing?
Yes, I’ve done the opposite as well, where I’ve been around for every stitch of shooting and then had to piece that together, but this one was certainly different than any other movie. There was a mound of footage that is probably as many hours as my previous three docs combined and it was very important, I think, to have an outside perspective like myself who could adhere to a strict filtration system to whittle 1,300 hours down into 110 minutes and find a narrative. It was a different exercise certainly than a lot of other documentaries, and certainly a challenge, but a fun one.
[David Lee and Ty Minton-Small, the cinematographers who also served as lead assistant editors] were crucial, because they were around for so much of the filming that it’s embedded in their brains. I was able to go to Ty or David and say, “Hey, I need a shot of some example of Steve’s motor skills deteriorating,” and they’re like, “Oh, yes, I remember in 2012 when he had trouble picking up that coffee cup.” They have such great recall and because they lived it and breathed it for so long, it was vital to have them around to help get the movie done in a very timely and efficient manner. We really put the money together in about ten months, so it was an aggressive schedule and we couldn’t have done it without them.
Even though you met with them before signing onto the project, was the nature of this such that you really met them through the footage or were you in constant contact throughout?
I kept in touch with them throughout, and still do, which was very important because the footage is so intimate and raw — and they’re so vulnerable — that as a filmmaker, [I needed] to have the responsibility to tell a story which wasn’t going to breaking their trust or exploiting them in any way. There had to be constant dialogue to help find that line so no one was going to be uncomfortable, but it would tell the truth of the moment. We had to collaborate closely throughout the whole process.
There’s a brutally honest conversation in the film where Michel and Steve are going to sleep and Steve asks what he can do to be a better husband to Michel’s great frustration with herself. Since that seems outside the purview of any film Steve would make for his son, was a camera actually set up in their bedroom?
Yes, one of the things that Steve had told Ty and David was that they would film the nighttime routines a lot, because it was important to show all of the things that it took to get somebody ready for bed. [During] that particular nighttime routine, it just so happened that this argument started to coalesce between Steve and Michel. It’s a tough scene for them, but I think actually it’s one of Michel’s favorite scenes because it is representative of a lot of the challenges that they had to face in communicating [with each other] and the emotional ride of the dynamics of their relationship. The silence says a lot in that scene — it allows the audience to project things on both sides of that conversation.
You mention routine and despite the copious amounts of footage, it seems like it must’ve been challenging to not repeat yourself when showing Steve’s daily life. How did you get around it?
One of the restrictions we put on ourselves was to adhere to a pretty strict chronology, because it is a degenerative disease, so we wanted to have the audience go on that journey of losing these motor skills with Steve and how the family handles it. Because of that, we had to think about not being redundant — if we have a nighttime routine in 2014, we really can’t have it in 2012 either, even though it’s changed. And there was a nighttime routine in 2012 that’s interesting as well, but it’s redundant, so it gets the ax. It’s inevitable [since] there’s 1,300 hours, but we thought about [how] to not overlap in plot points or in aesthetics, like where we are and what is said, in the edit room.
You also have a great ability to build these music-based montages. Do those become a big part of the structure, realizing what you can condense?
They come pretty organically. For “Gleason,” there’s a couple montages when we wanted to express an idea, but also show a passing of time. One of my favorites is watching Rivers grow up, which is about an eight-month [span of time] where you’re just seeing this little kid have fun moments with his parents, and even though Steve is progressing, this little child is becoming his own person. It’s an instinctual thing about where in the ride of the story are we wanting to lead the audience right now — if we’ve had a lot of sad moments, [I think] maybe we need something a little more lighthearted, or just calibrating that.
I do compile massive amounts of music that go through my head when thinking about a story before we even start editing. I met with our composers, Dan Romer and [Saul Simon] MacWilliams, and I was like, “Okay, Steve loves Pearl Jam, but Lord Huron and The Head and the Heart are also [some] of his favorite groups,” and we started to just branch out from there and think about other music that might be in that world sonically. In the course of listening to those songs just on your way to to the edit room, sometimes things stick out and it just will strike you, “Oh, that would be a great song for this little kid growing up.” And you get a little bit of a break with these montages to be a little more artistic and grab images from all over. That’s the fun of documentary. You’re piecing a story together from real life,
How did Dan Romer come onboard? I know he’s probably hard to get.
He is. Dan worked on “Finder’s Keepers” with Osei [Essed] on that one, and then I had told him that this project was in the works, and Dan and I live five minutes from each other and developed a friendship, so I asked him if we wanted to do it, and he was game. He and Saul [Simon MacWilliams] created so much music for the film. They gave me more than I needed and I love their music, because it’s all played live. There’s really not too much that’s synth, so that texture just adds a lot of authenticity and integrity. There’s something to their music that fits with an air of genuine emotion that I feel like is part and parcel to who Steve and Michel are.
That said, was it difficult not to lionize Steve and Michel? They’re certainly deserving of being called heroes, but I suspect they wouldn’t want to be seen that way.
Yes, certainly. If it was just a straight up hero piece, it wouldn’t be as impactful. For Steve and Michel, they’re both so articulate that while they’re in the moment and experiencing these things, they can clearly talk about it and some of those things they talk about are some of their flaws and their fears. Giving that 360 degree view of their characters is what helps the movie feel as intimate as it is.
Besides the moment between Steve and his father about “generational sin,” were there others that may have shifted the direction of what this could be in your mind?
There’s a couple. The scene where Michel is taking care of Rivers and putting him in “time out” while Steve is breaking down and having that very emotional moment about how hard it is for him in his daily life was a real window into just the daily struggles that they have, and certainly in Michel’s case, having to raise and care for two people at the same time. I also really loved that scene where Steve is talking to his cousin, [who’s] eating that block of cheese [in the first part of the film], about how you can’t have a real conversation with somebody until they’re four years old. Right before Rivers’ fourth birthday, Steve sends me this video that he recorded of himself and Rivers in the car having that conversation, and I [thought], “Oh, this is beautiful.” It is a payoff to that moment of what [Steve] wanted so long ago before he had even been stricken by the disease. He’s now getting to still have that, and it was great [to think], “Okay, this story can have that shining light at the end that we all wanted it to have when we started.”
“Gleason” opens on July 29 in limited release. A full list of theaters and dates is here.