L.A. Premiere of ALS Documentary 'Gleason' Struck With Heavy Emotions as Event Coincides With Attack in France

Todd Williamson/Getty Images for Amazon Studios

"No matter how hard things get, maintain some sense of hope. That's the only thing that will get us through," says the documentary's director Clay Tweel.

Clay Tweel's inspirational and heart-wrenching documentary Gleason had its L.A. bow Thursday night, marking the latest in a handful of 2016 screenings, following the world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

But the West Coast one — held at L.A. Live courtesy of Amazon Studios, Open Road and JPMorgan Chase & Co. — had the unfortunate timing of coinciding with a terrorist tragedy in Nice, France, where hundreds of people were injured and at least 80 were killed when a truck rammed through a crowded promenade of revelers celebrating Bastille Day.

The mood could easily (and understandably) be described as heavy, but then again, so is the doc's subject matter. It centers on onetime NFL star Steve Gleason — a talented safety for the New Orleans Saints best known for his blocked punt during a game in 2006 when the team returned to its home stadium after Hurricane Katrina — who uses his ALS diagnosis as inspiration to leave video messages to his only son while he still has the ability. That, and to stare down the disease's uniquely crippling challenges in an effort to find a cure.

That story and the current landscape of violence and tragedy across the globe presents the distributor with a tough task: How do you get ticket buyers to take a seat when the film hits theaters on July 29 when many are in search of entertainment as an escape from the harsh realities of life? Easy, replied Tweel. 

"The world is filled with such chaos that seeing a football player stricken with this disease is its own form of chaos. But I think that what we want to hammer home is that the power and resilience of the human spirit triumphs over all," he told The Hollywood Reporter on the JPMorgan Chase-approved blue carpet. "Whether you are talking about Steve Gleason trying to find a way to survive in this disease and all the challenges that pop up on a daily basis, or whether you're talking about someone who survived the Bataclan attack [in Paris in November 2015] and had to figure out a way to fake like they were dead in order to survive, life will find a way."

Just like iconic Hollywood publicist Nanci Ryder has found hers. The BWR Public Relations co-founder was diagnosed with ALS in 2014 and has since turned her attention toward finding a cure by relying on an A-list roster of members of her support group called "Team Nanci," some of whom showed up to the Gleason premiere on Thursday night.

Ryder hosted the screening along with longtime friend and onetime client Courteney Cox. Though she's lost the ability to speak, Ryder smiled brightly, greeting friends and often writing on her digital notepad to communicate with guests. Other hosts included Nick Cannon and Maria Bello, in addition to bold-faced name attendees like Matthew McConaughey, Mark and Jay Duplass, and Jessica Simpson.

Courtney B. Vance, who received an Emmy nomination earlier in the day for his work as Johnnie Cochran in FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, also turned up, though his reason, like Ryder's, was personal. Vance's mother was diagnosed with ALS three years ago, and he tells THR it's a family disease. "Anyone who is dealing with ALS, their whole family is dealing with it," he said.

Speaking of family, Gleason's wife, Michel, also attended the premiere, posing with her husband, some of his former Saints teammates as well as Ryder and Cox. Michel told THR that the support, especially from Hollywood, has been "overwhelming." As for where she draws her strength in the face of ALS as it has stolen her husband's ability to walk and talk, Michel says she's not quite sure. "You have to have it, so you get it somewhere," she said. "Probably from him. His determination to live is unbelievable."

There's no doubt that Gleason's is an inspiring story, one that has changed the lives of those who have watched the film and those who helped make it. "It's really hammered home to me that perspective is key," said Tweel, who inherited 1,300 hours of footage shot by the Gleasons to make the film. "Always try to keep your eye on doing what you love with the people you love. No matter how hard things get, maintain some sense of hope. That's the only thing that will get us through."  

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