Q&A with Gleason director Clay Tweel

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Gleason tells the story of NFL player Steve Gleason's diagnosis of ALS, and the journey of his family: wife, Michel, and son, Rivers. Courtesy Cinetic Media Gleason tells the story of NFL player Steve Gleason’s diagnosis of ALS, and the journey of his family: wife, Michel, and son, Rivers. Courtesy Cinetic Media

Director of new documentary Gleason, Clay Tweel returned to his hometown of Charlottesville last week to debut his new film. Tweel, hailing from the Greenbrier neighborhood, currently lives in Los Angeles and has worked on two other major motion pictures, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) and Print the Legend (2014). Both films, like Gleason, are documentaries focused on unique subjects.

C-VILLE: Why did you become a director?

Tweel: For me, what I’ve come to realize is that, it sounds really cliche, but I do truly believe that everybody has a story. And for me, [directing] a lot of documentary films and working primarily in that space,  I love to try to get to the core of why people do what they do. The more that you can understand human nature in other people, I think it helps you connect to the rest of the world. That’s, as a director, what I like to try to achieve with my films and that just makes me want to do more. There’s lots of different types of people on this Earth and it’s about exploring all different types of people.

What made this story idea to stand out to you?

There are two personal things that connect me to the story. The moment that I saw some footage about Steve and his wife, Michel, it made me think of a couple things. One is, my oldest sister has MS, and neurological disorders are something I am now more aware of than in the past. Then my dad had been Muhammad Ali’s lawyer for the last 30 years. They are my personal heroes. I loved Muhammad and I love his wife, Lonnie. I saw very strong connections between what they went through with what Steve and Michel were going through. I wanted to be able to bring the experience I had in being around the Alis to telling Steve and Michel’s story.

What was it like to work with Steve Gleason and his family?

It’s certainly a harrowing experience to work on a film like this. You see, when you are around somebody who is trapped in their own body, it’s emotionally very taxing in a certain regard. But then you get to juxtapose that with what he was like. He was a physical specimen, he was in peak human condition and then to now see him where he is. It’s hard emotionally for everyone around him and for Steve himself. But on the flip side of that, I think that both Michel and Steve keep a very fun-loving, positive attitude, finding the silver linings to life. That allows them to be people that draw people in, they have this charm, they have this magnetism to them. Being around them can be difficult and thrilling at the same time.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while making this movie?

One of the biggest challenges was trying to figure out exactly what the narrative through line would be. There was so much footage—there was about 1,300 hours when all was said and done. It was filmed over five years, so that’s a lot to wrap your brain around, “How are you going to condense that into a two-hour movie?” Finding what those core themes and core ideas that you can hang the narrative on throughout the course of the film, that was one of the hardest things to find.

What message do you want this movie to convey to its audience?

I’d like for the movie to convey a sense of hope and a sense of triumph of the human spirit. I think that a lot of the human experience is a mixture of happiness and suffering and that you have to be able to deal with both the highs and lows. I think that these particular people, like I said, Steve and Michel have such an amazing outlook and have such an amazing sense of determination and resiliency that I hope people walk away feeling that despite whatever horrible tragedy is going to pop up in your life, that you are going to find a way through it.

How has Charlottesville impacted your career?

I’ve lived out in L.A. for the last 13 years now, and there’s a core group of about six or seven guys that I know from Charlottesville that all live out in L.A. I am very grateful for my core group of friends that I’ve grown up with and that I can still stay connected to out there. But also the arts education that I got growing up in this city was invaluable. Being able to have music classes, I was in the band at CHS and I loved that experience and arts and drawing classes throughout my childhood. I think that the arts community here in Charlottesville is super special and super important and I don’t think any of us would be out in L.A. if we didn’t have that.

What is your favorite part of Charlottesville?

I would be remiss not to say that I love the food here. I think for a smaller town it has amazing restaurants. My brother-in-law owns one, Maya, on Main Street, so I have to plug that—that is my favorite restaurant. In terms of areas of town, it’s hard not to love the area you grew up in. Just being able to walk by the Greenbrier creek, that’s the childhood that I grew up in, I love that neighborhood.

What is your order at Bodo’s?

I would get roast beef, cheddar and lettuce on a plain bagel and a cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese every time.

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