Clay Tweel has a reputation for exploring the lives of quirky and often marginalized people. Take, for example his 2015 film Finders Keepers–a documentary about two men fighting over a mummified leg found inside a grill (the leg was previously attached to one of the men).
His latest project, Gleason, might seem at first to be about a depressing and tragic circumstance, as he follows former NFL player Steve Gleason in his battle against ALS. But what Tweel has made is a moving and uplifting look into the lives of an unconventional family whose humor and can-do attitude carries them through debilitating illness. Tweel says Gleason himself was always a stand-out, fascinating character, regardless of how he handles ALS.
“Scott Fujita is a producer on the movie, and a long time teammate of Steve’s,” Tweel says. “There’s a very famous story he tells. The first day of practice he shows up and Steve Gleason is in the middle of the football field doing yoga by himself, and everyone else is in the weight room. He’s like, ‘Who the hell is that guy?’ And they’re like, ‘That’s Steve Gleason. He marches to the beat of his own drum.’”
Tweel’s film–a testament to the Gleason family’s indomitable spirit–was recently shortlisted by the Academy.
Congrats on making the Oscar shortlist.
Thank you. It’s really been great, just because as anybody who makes content or a piece of art, you want eyeballs on it, you want people to see it and be affected by it. I think really that’s been the biggest reward, is seeing how moved people have been by the story.
How did you come to be on the project in the beginning?
I came in a few years after it had already started. Steve and Michel [Gleason’s wife Michel Varisco] were filming themselves when he first got diagnosed with ALS back in 2011. Then they had some other cinematographers who came on, David Lee and Ty [Minton-Small]. They were filming, and eventually sort of became part of the family, and were really helping to care take of Steve, filming their lives, in that sort of day-to-day grind of what they were going through. When I came on, there was about 1,200 hours of footage at that point. That was in early 2014, and so we continued to film and document their lives, but also had to start the mountainous task of putting the movie together and trying to find the story in what had been shot and what was to be curated for the rest of the process. It was incredibly powerful footage to watch, and incredibly powerful to get to know Steve and Michel.
Approaching a project where there are that many hours of existing footage has to be both a blessing and a curse in a way?
I mean, look. I have an editorial background, so I wasn’t flipping out, I was certainly excited by the possibilities. There is something to the paralysis of choice, you know. When you have too many options and you don’t know what to do. I think what really helped us was being able to hone in on what the core themes of the story were pretty quickly. The father and son element, the intergenerational story of fatherhood and parenting, and then being able to, as we were going through the footage, find the story of Michel and the caretaker side.
There was lots of amazing stuff that hit the cutting room floor, as always in every movie, but we had an embarrassment of riches, to be able to fill in these story arcs and the progression that Steve and Michel and the family were going through.
How did you and Ty and David stay sane while you were editing?
In order to keep things as even-keeled as possible we watched a lot of comedies during lunch. We watched all of Eastbound & Down. And we watched all of Nathan For You.
You’ve previously spoken about using Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ as a framework. When did that come to you as the right structure for this story?
You know what, I apply the ‘Hero’s Journey’ in some way shape or form to every movie that I’ve done. I think that’s honestly because it allows for a more complex and layered experience for the viewer. You’re going to peel back the layers of the sort of more universal story that’s underneath it. That’s what I’m trying to get to in all these films.
The scene where Steve decides he’s going to try to run with the faith healer, and he falls? That was the hardest to watch. What was the hardest part for you?
I’ll say as a side note, that’s the first piece of footage that I watched. I flew down to New Orleans to talk to the family before I started working on the film officially, and I met Steve, and he just he said, “Hey dude, watch this.” He typed it out on his little, you know, on his screen, and had me read it. He said “Hey, watch this.” And he pulled up the clip of the faith healer. It was unbelievable. He might have a bit of a sick sense of humor, or just wanted to shock me. I’m not sure. But I think that one of the hardest things for me was watching the toll that it took on Michel and on the caretaker side. I had sort of mentally prepared myself, and sort of girded myself emotionally for watching Steve and seeing this football player lose his physicality and something he defined himself by, and having that go away. Really, watching the joy and light fade from Michel, that was very hard for me to watch, but I think she started to get it back towards the end. I really felt like it was true to the story to have her be like, “You know what? Life is tough, but we’re going to soldier on.” That ‘up’ ending that the movie does, I feel like was born out of seeing them do pretty well, actually. All things considered.
How would you say being around them and their attitude to life has changed you?
I hope the audience takes away some of the same things that I got while working on it, which was just a sense of perspective. And really to see Steve and Michel as this example of how resilient the human spirit can be. I think everyone is going to face tragedies of some kind in their life, but to have them in the back of your mind, that they’re going to keep fighting anyway, it can make your challenges sit in a different context. I’ve come away from making the movie with a renewed purpose to always be finding light in things, the same way that they do.