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  • Friday, Nov. 4, 2016
Director Clay Tweel Reflects On Lauded Documentary "Gleason"
Clay Tweel
Filmmaker looks to extend creative reach into spots, branded content via Community Films

Having been nominated for the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it made its world premiere, and then going on to win a Festival Favorite Audience Award at SXSW, Gleason continues to collect accolades, the latest of which include five nominations for the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association’s inaugural Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. The five nods tied with O.J.: Made in America and 13th for the highest tally at the Critics’ Choice competition.

Gleason received Critics’ Choice nominations for: Best Documentary Feature; Best Direction of a Documentary Feature for Clay Tweel; Best Song in a Documentary; and Best Sports Documentary--with the additional honor of Most Compelling Living Subject of a Documentary for Steve Gleason, a former NFL player who was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The documentary chronicles the profound impact ALS has had on him, his family, and how he and his wife Michel have struggled, persevered and somehow in the process have been able to help others stricken with ALS through the formation of a charitable foundation.

Just months after being diagnosed with ALS, Gleason learned that he was going to become a father. He was concerned that he might not be around to help raise his only child, his son, Rivers, who is now approaching five years old. While he was still able to speak, Gleason began making five-minute home videos for his son to see in later years; in them, Gleason talks about his various life experiences, offers fatherly advice, and tries to impart a sense of himself to--along with his deep love for--his son.

Adding to Gleason’s recordings were local filmmakers David Lee and Ty Minton-Small, a longtime friend from Gleason’s home town of Seattle, who became caregivers and filmmakers in residence quietly documenting life over the years in the Gleason household in New Orleans. They went on to enlist Tweel to write and direct what turned out to be the feature documentary Gleason

Tweel has an extensive documentary filmmaking pedigree. He made his directorial debut with the documentary Make Believe which centered on six youngsters battling to become the world’s best teen magician. Make Believe won the Grand Jury Prize at the L.A. Film Festival in 2010 and went on to gain exposure on Showtime. Tweel’s next film, Print the Legend (which he and Luis Lopez directed), premiered at SXSW and was awarded Special Jury Recognition for Storytelling and Editing. The film was bought by Netflix Originals and premiered in theaters and online in late 2014. His next film, Finders Keepers (which he and Bryan Carberry directed), premiered at Sundance 2015 to rave reviews and was bought by the Orchard. 

Tweel returned to Sundance this year with Gleason. Just days after the festival, Amazon Studios and Open Road Films purchased the U.S. rights to the documentary. Gleason opened nationwide in theaters this summer and recently became available as a DVD and for rental, with access on iTunes. Soon Gleason will be streamed on Amazon Prime. 

A month or so after Gleason debuted at Sundance, director Tweel joined the roster of Community Films for spots and branded content. Community co-produced Finders Keepers with noted filmmaker Seth Gordon, a director on the Community roster, serving as producer.

SHOOT connected with Tweel who discussed Gleason, the challenges it posed, and his decision to branch out into the ad arena via Community.

SHOOT: Provide some backstory on Gleason. How were you approached to become involved and what drew you to the project?

Tweel: I was at Sundance in January 2014 and a six-minute teaser trailer was sent to me. It was an amazing piece of video which showed simultaneously how heart warming and heart wrenching this story could be. The family was filming themselves. Ty and David had been filming as well. They had accumulated close to 1,200 hours of footage. They had caught some amazing moments over the years. 

I was immediately interested in Steve Gleason’s story. Three or four days after seeing the trailer, I hopped on a plane to New Orleans to look Steve and Michel in the eye and tell them how much I wanted to help tell their story. I felt I was meant for this. I love their story and wanted to be a part of it. 

I was attracted in part because my dad had been Muhammad Ali’s lawyer for the last 30 years. I had a window into what it’s like to be a sports hero beset with tragic illness. That weighed on my mind as I was thinking about Steve and Michel’s story.

SHOOT: You wore many hats for Gleason--director, editor, writer. Give us a handle on your contributions to the film and how you collaborated with others to bring it to fruition.

Tweel: I’ve edited all the documentaries I’ve directed. That’s where my background lies. So I was not scared off by the amount of footage put in front of me. I have a strong sense of organizational processes and what’s needed to whittle things down. My role was a combination of writing, editing and directing and I needed to juggle them all at once. What made that possible was being able to collaborate with people I’ve worked with before--including (producer) Seth Gordon, producer Mary Rohlich, who’s my wife, and co-editor Brian Palmer. It took us three and a half months to watch and organize all the footage, and then another four months to put the first cut together. We continued to shoot and I directed new material. I wanted to watch every stitch of what was originally shot over the years so we could identify the stronger points of the story. This in turn pointed us in the right direction. We saw the narrative and could see what holes were in that narrative. So it was a matter of going back and filling those holes on. The movie is mostly verite. You’re the proverbial fly on the wall, sitting in the room as Steve and Michel experience things. But in all that intimate footage, no one ever asked exactly what’s happening now and how do they feel about it. We had to curate the audience through those verite moments. We talked to Steve, Michel, her dad, caretaker Blair and used these little interviews as signposts to provide context for the audience. We kept that as minimal as possible but it was an important element as we continued to flow through Steve’s life, which included River’s fourth birthday last year just a few months before the Sundance premiere. 

SHOOT: What was the biggest creative challenge that Gleason posed to you as a filmmaker?

Tweel: One of the hardest things was to balance the tone of the film. We coined a term early on--”empathy exhaustion.” For the audience, we didn’t want to have the movie so sad and tragic that it was overwhelming. We couldn’t just highlight the loss brought on by the disease. That would leave the audience depressed in a way that they might not able to experience the back half of the movie. We had to be true to Steve and Michel. They are the kind of people who despite everything light up a room. They are funny, very gregarious people who use humor and grace to deal with tragedy. This lent to the film having an interesting juxtaposition--Steve’s decline against his son’s growth and development. We were framing every tragedy against a certain triumph. This runs the risk of making the film more dense but also makes it much more palatable.

SHOOT: There’s a moment where Steve eloquently describes that dichotomy. Just before he gets a statue in his honor, he jokes about shitting in his pants. He refers to that--being honored and soiling himself--as reflecting the “polarities, dichotomies and juxtapositions” in his own life.

Tweel: Yes, that moment sticks with me. It’s a profound moment of honest self-reflection. He’s a remarkable person.

SHOOT: What drew you to Community Films for commercials? And what’s the appeal of spot and branded content?

Tweel: I love Lizzie (Schwartz) and Carl (Swan). (Schwartz and Swan are partners/EPs of Community). I have worked with them in different capacities whether shooting or editing or helping out on projects over the years. They served in a more official capacity as producers on Finders Keepers, my last film prior to Gleason. When you find people you connect with creatively and aesthetically, you work with them. The longer I’ve been working, the more I cherish those connections.

I also am attracted to shorter format content. Not every story needs a 90-minute treatment. I’m a great believer in stories having a beginning, middle and an end. But all that can happen in 30 seconds or eight minutes or any time frame that’s right for the story. I like the trend of bigger brands and companies wanting to tell complete stories--putting substance over style. There are great examples such as Always’ “LikeAGirl.” We are seeing fully fleshed out ideas and more of a focus on characters in branded content, looking to connect with people on an emotional level. I’m interested in and drawn to that kind of work.