Gleason

The new documentary Gleason tells the story of ex-NFL Star Steve Gleason and his life after he was diagnosed with ALS. ScreenPicks sat down with Producer Scott Fujita to talk about the film that began as a brainstorm and ended up as one of the most important movies of the year.

How did the idea for the film originate and what was your role as producer in the film?

As a producer, it’s something I had no experience in, and I’m probably the least qualified person to be, (laughs) but we came up with the idea over backyard bar-b-ques and it sort of grew organically from there. Steve had been documenting everything for quite some time, and I was there when he first started feeling some of the symptoms, when he didn’t know he had ALS yet, he kind of turned the camera on himself because he sensed that there might be something big happening. He got diagnosed months later, his wife became pregnant and so he said I’m going to document what’s happening for my unborn child. All along he had this idea, almost like a premonition and it’s pretty fascinating that he needed to share this story. My partner Kimi (Culp), who worked for the Oprah Network and they (the family) said why don’t you guys see if you can make a movie out of this. We started interviewing a bunch of directors, put together a team and that was kind of where it hatched. It was heartfelt passion from everyone involved and all of the partners we’ve aligned with and then here we are.

A lot of documentaries feel “detached”. That is not at all what I got from watching this film.

Yeah. It’s a deeply emotional, personal story. I’ve used the “labor of love” term so many times, and yeah its clichéd, but it is the truth. Even the gigantic corporations like Microsoft and Amazon they’ve all fallen in love with it and they’ve become part of the family. I think they take pride in helping share the story which is awesome.

What was the hardest part of doing this project? Was it the amount of footage? Was it the personal involvement?

Seeing one of my best friends lives unfold on-screen and some serious vulnerabilities unfold as well, everybody coming to terms with that. There’s great strength and courage as well being willing to be that vulnerable in front of so many people. And yeah, it was hard to distil all of the footage (literally hundreds of hours) down to 110 minutes and what he (the director, Clay Tweel) thinks is the most important story to tell. I think the director did an awesome job of telling a story that first of all hasn’t been told before; raw and honest and in your face, but also adding enough levity where you’re going to cry your eyes out and laugh your ass off.

What about the other people involved?

Two of the young filmmakers involved, David Lee and Ty Minton-Small lived with them (the Gleason’s) in New Orleans and not only helped with the care giving activities but had the cameras rolling all the time. They were entrenched in the eye of the storm as part of the family. So it’s not like going in after the fact and trying to piece it together, these guys were in the fire living and breathing it. So having that and working with accomplished film makers has really been a proud thing for all of us.

What’s the next step for the film?

Monday is the New York Premiere, Wednesday is the San Francisco premiere. The 28th is our Seattle premiere with Pearl Jam. The 29th has it opening in New York, L.A. New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle. We all feel fortunate that Amazon and Open Road, Amazon acquired the film after Sundance and partnered with Open Road to distribute theatrically, that we have these partners who want to put an independent documentary film like this in theaters around the country. To have an “art house” film like this play in the mid-west, films like this don’t usually play in those markets.

A lot of times these things fall by the wayside and are only mentioned come Oscar time. The fact that you’re widely distributing it is insane.

It’s a lot of work but to me one of the most rewarding parts of this is seeing people’s authentic responses to it from all over.

What do you hope people take from Gleason?

Steve’s wife Michelle said it best. People always ask her “What do you want people to feel when they walk away from this movie?” And she says “I hope people get what they need from this movie. It’s not up to me to decide what they take from it, I hope they just get what they need.”

Scott Fujita played alongside Steve Gleason as a member of the New Orleans Saints in the NFL. Gleason opens in select theaters on July 29th.