Greenwich International Film Festival 2020

Portrait by Kyle Norton

 

WILL POWER

HE MAY HAVE CALLED SUPERMAN “DAD,” BUT WILL REEVE IS A CRUSADER IN HIS OWN RIGHT. GET TO KNOW THE RECIPIENT OF THE GREENWICH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL’S #MAKEANIMPACT AWARD, WHO WITH GRIT AND GRATITUDE HAS PROPELLED HIMSELF ON A PATH THAT WOULD MAKE HIS PARENTS PROUD

It’s a rare thing

when you encounter someone who effortlessly embodies their name, to the point where lines blur between word and person. It makes you wonder whether Dana and Christopher Reeve knew long before their son, Will, entered the world on June 7, 1992 what a force he would become … and what a force he would continue to be long after they left it.

Losing your parents within seventeen months of each other—your father at age twelve and mother at age thirteen—is a tragedy that could break even the strongest of young people. For Will, it was an obstacle he faced with forward momentum and purpose. After attending Brunswick School and Middlebury College, Will forged a career in television journalism (you’ve probably seen his friendly face on ESPN and more recently ABC’s Good Morning America) while continuing his parents’ legacy as a board member of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. Created in 1999, four years after the equestrian accident that left Christopher quadriplegic, it funds research and support for those with spinal cord injuries and paralysis.

On Sunday, May 3, GIFF will honor Will’s work with the Reeve Foundation with its #MakeanImpact Award at the Adversity as a Catalyst for Change panel taking place at Greenwich Academy. This recognition is an outgrowth of Will’s philanthropic roots, planted deep and early in the form of community service. “Every major influence in my life—my family, Brunswick, Middlebury, Disney—has emphasized community service as part of a full and fulfilling life,” Will says. “As my mom always said, you have to give more than you take. I have been so outrageously fortunate in every facet of my life; it is only right that I try to give back where and when I can be useful.”

We chatted with Will about his charitable work, his inner circle and the advice he has for young people wanting to follow in his formidable footsteps.

GM: Your parents, Dana and Christopher Reeve, were known not only as celebrities but as “activist leaders” in the sphere of spinal cord injuries and paralysis. What made them leaders in your eyes?
I’ve had the great honor and privilege of seeing my parents through two lenses, which overlap in certain ways. I see them primarily as Mom and Dad, the people who loved me unconditionally and charted the path for my life through encouragement and by example. They taught me that giving oneself to a greater cause is a calling and a responsibility to be taken seriously. Of course, the most central cause in our lives was—and remains—spinal cord injury and paralysis.

They helped establish the Reeve Foundation, the mission of which is to find cures for spinal cord injury while providing care for individuals and families impacted by paralysis. I, along with my brother, Matthew, sister, Alexandra, and a whole bunch of full-time staff and board members, have gladly tried to uphold their legacy in that arena. That’s where the lenses overlap: the world at large has seen my parents as larger than life figures representative of many of the best human qualities, and that’s a legacy I try to maintain as well. Everything I am, I am because of the way my parents raised me.

GM: You have spoken fondly about learning to ride a bike from your father, just by trusting in the directions he gave you from his wheelchair such as, “Don’t wobble the handlebars, Will! Look straight ahead!” How do you apply what he taught you to navigate life as an adult?
I try to live my life according to the values my parents instilled in me. In that way, I’m no different from anyone else. I wish I could call or visit my mom and dad to bounce ideas off of them, get advice, and everything else, but of course I can’t, so I settle for knowing that my parents gave me the very best head start—and foundation—that anyone could hope for, and it’s up to me to build on that. Luckily for me, I am my parents’ son, so I know that if I do nothing more than live up to their standard, I’ll be okay. Of course, I often fail at this, but we as humans fail all the time, whether our parents are around or not.

GM: The world recently lost a hero in Kobe Bryant, not unlike the hero your father represented as Superman. If you could give one piece of advice to Kobe Bryant’s daughters as they grow up, what would it be?
Remember everything you can about the time you shared. Write down the memories, share them with others, replay them in your mind at every opportunity. Keep your father alive in yourself and in others, and seek to spend time with those who embody the same attributes that your dad did.

GM: Your mother Dana received the “Mother of the Year” award from the American Cancer Society in 2005, a year before she passed away from lung cancer. What is your favorite memory of her? She loved to sing, and video footage reveals you inherited her gift in your knack for musicals.
“Knack for musicals” meaning I was in school plays in middle and high school. That’s about where it ends, unfortunately. I left my singing voice behind in adolescence. And I never had the acting ability to begin with. I can’t pick just one memory—that’s unfair to all the other memories. I remember my mom completely—the kind, compassionate, intelligent, decisive, radiant, silly, determined, courageous, bold, stunning person that she was and will always be to me.

GM: How was your character shaped by your half-siblings Alexandra and Matthew and your adoptive family, the Puccis, who were your neighbors growing up in Bedford?
Make no mistake: Matthew and Al are my brother and sister. We always say, “there’s no ‘half.’” We may not have the same mother, but we were raised with the same values and have had many of the same life experiences, and we’ve had them together. They have always been integral supporters and confidants and are among the first people I turn to in any time of need—or triumph.

The Puccis saved my life. Before I moved in with them after my mom died, they were already my second family. Their son Michael was already my best friend, their daughter Nicole was already my watchful extra older sister. My mom left me in their care because she knew that they—more than anyone else—would raise me in the way that she and my dad would have raised me. The Puccis are the very best and most fortunate thing to have happened to me in my life, and they are my family in every conceivable way.

GM: You were Brunswick School class of ’10. What was your favorite class? Teacher? Your hardest, pull-my-hair-out class?
My favorite class was anything in the English department. In Mr. Burdett’s English class—and advisory, and hockey team, and chats in the cafeteria or in the halls—we talked a lot about “Education with a capital E,” meaning what you learn about life that isn’t found in any book or course. Brunswick gave me my Education. I learned how to be a better friend, citizen and student at Brunswick, and I’ll never be able to fully repay the debt I owe that special place for all it did for me. As for my favorite teacher, there are too many to name, but I had special bonds with Doug Burdett, Brendan Gilsenan and headmaster Tom Philip. The hardest class? Math. Any kind.

GM: Rumor has it you’re always the butt of the joke with your buddies. Care to share a few of them from Brunswick or Middlebury?
I definitely am the butt of the joke with my friends, which is exactly how I like it. My friends from Brunswick and Middlebury are some of the most important people in my life; and many of them have become friends with each other without my input, which makes me happier than just about anything. I keep my inner circle relatively small on purpose—so you’re not getting to hear any inside jokes, sorry!—and I cherish those relationships. I’m never happier than I am when surrounded by my closest family and friends. I try to make that happen as much as possible; if the whole group is making fun of me the whole time, bring it.

GM: Let’s talk about “The Ride for Paralysis” with Brunswick alum Janne Kouri ’93 that you were part of and reported on for Good Morning America.
Robin Roberts and GMA have chronicled Janne’s journey for years now, since right after the accident that left him paralyzed years ago. I was honored when Robin asked me to pick up the baton, as it were, and cover the final leg of Janne’s power-wheelchair ride from California to Washington, D.C. I joined him for the final forty-ish miles—him in his power chair, me on a road bike—and my incomparable producer Brian O’Keefe helped me turn that day into a powerful story that helped celebrate Janne’s spirit of resilience and indomitability.

GM: How did you translate your love of sports and journalism into a four-year commentator gig at ESPN?
Growing up, I wanted to be a professional athlete of some kind. After realizing that I didn’t have the requisite abilities, I pivoted to dreaming about the next best thing to playing sports professionally: talking about them. I watched ESPN constantly as a kid and decided that I wanted to be one of the anchors I idolized. Then, my parents died, and so much of my life became a day-to-day, one foot in front of the other experience that I didn’t really bother to think long term about what I wanted to be when I grew up. But, I always loved writing and storytelling, so when the opportunity came in college to intern at ABC News, I jumped at it—that’s where I fell in love with TV and fully committed myself to making a living out of doing it.

GM: What did you do as an intern that helped you land the job?
I made sure to learn as much as I possibly could during my two summers at ABC; I obsessively researched the organizational structure at the company, so I could pinpoint who exactly would be best able to guide me to where I wanted to go. It was quickly apparent that a woman named Barbara Fedida, then and now the head of ABC News’ talent department, was the person who made on-air careers. So I made sure to meet her, just to let her know I existed, and we stayed in touch.

In addition to Barbara, I tried to make meaningful relationships with everyone I could at ABC; one of those relationships led to me getting a meeting with some ESPN executives. The first ESPN meeting went well enough to get me a second meeting, which led to a third, which led to complete radio silence on their end and sheer panic and despair on mine, which then turned into an on-air job offer. I didn’t have any real on-air experience, but ESPN was willing to take a chance because I had sent them every piece of writing of mine that I could find, and made sure they saw the reel I had put together while interning at ABC. ESPN took a massive chance on me, and I’ll forever be grateful for that.

GM: What advice would you give to people trying to break into TV?
Meet everyone you can. Help them in any way possible, big or small; they will help you later, but you help them first. Say “yes” to everything; it will at times be hard and frustrating and demoralizing and everything else, but grinding through the not-fun stuff is a rite of passage and it will quickly endear you to the decision makers and establish your reputation as reliable, which is probably the best trait to have in this business. Above all, be kind—there is a difference between nice and kind—be kind, be pleasant to work with and don’t engage in the inevitable office/industry gossip. If a group is talking about someone in front of you, they’re talking about you when you’re not there—so make sure nobody has any reason to have negative ammo against you.

GM: What was your first big “get,” where you were pinching yourself thinking, “Yes, I did it!”
There was a moment early in my time at ESPN where I was guest anchoring SportsCenter and I had a second during a commercial break to look around the studio and realize, “Wow. I am living inside of my childhood dream, and I get to decide what happens next.” I was really living out the thing that I had always wanted to do, and it felt right. It was special, and I’ll never forget it.

GM: Ever had any on-air Ron Burgundy moments?
I thankfully haven’t suffered anything too embarrassing—yet— but there are more unplanned and unexpected moments than there might seem. Some that come to mind are the teleprompter going black midsentence, my earpiece cutting out right as an anchor has been cueing me up to speak, and satellite connections going out mid-interview. It’s all live, so you just have to roll with it and hope you can make a good moment out of it. At the end of the day, it’s just TV…it’s not that serious.

GM: What sports figure or celebrity has blown you away during an interview?
Maybe I’m succumbing to recency bias, but I spent the day at Disney World with Patrick Mahomes the day after he won Super Bowl MVP, and I was shocked at how calm and accommodating he was. The guy was operating on basically no sleep, all adrenaline after winning the Super Bowl, being pulled in a million different directions, and he just cruised through everything like it was just another day, gave us everything we needed for our GMA shoot and was exceedingly enjoyable to be around.

GM: In honor of GIFF, what is your favorite movie?
I envy anybody who has one favorite movie. There are so many; it’s impossible for me to choose. But if I absolutely had to pick, I’d go with The Shawshank Redemption. The movie I’ve probably seen the most times is The Lion King; I always loved it as a kid, and now as an uncle I love getting to pass that and others down to my nieces and nephews. I’m also always quoting movie lines—usually Will Ferrell comedies—with my friends. My favorite movie in the past year has to be Little Women.

To get a glimpse into Will’s day-to-day life in the news world, visit greenwichmag.com


 

FINDING HER VOICE

Imagine having your mouth taped shut by a toxic patriarchy built on shaming its underlings into silence. It’s a dark reality that GRETCHEN CARLSON, GIFF’s Community Changemaker knows intimately, and one she is fighting to change

Gretchen Carlson is a winner, and not the kind of winner who lands in first place by accident. With Midwestern, grit-your-teeth dedication, Carlson was a violin prodigy who performed as a soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra at age thirteen, was high school valedictorian, graduated with honors from Stanford, studied at Oxford and was the first classical violinist to be crowned Miss America in 1989. “I feel so blessed that I had this idyllic upbringing in a small town in Minnesota where I learned all of these Protestant work ethic values, sort of put-your-nose-to-the-grindstone, and I also had wonderful examples in my family,” says the journalist, author and empowerment advocate from the Greenwich home she shares with her sports-agent husband Casey Close and two teenage children. “I had a mother who told me every single day that you can be whatever you want to be. I saw mountains in front of me and was like, ‘Well, I can get to the top of those because my mom says I can.’”

At twenty-three, Carlson launched her television career as a political reporter and went on to become an award-winning correspondent at CBS before landing at the No. 1 rated cable morning news show in 2005 as cohost of Fox and Friends, where she spent seven years before hosting her own show, The Real Story. It was the kind of brand-building opportunity most television journalists only dream of. But behind closed doors, it was a nightmare that anyone who has seen Bombshell or The Loudest Voice, both based on Carlson’s story, can only imagine. Both give a glimpse inside the Fox News machine, its sexual harassment victims and the all-powerful perpetrator it conspired to protect. In this toxic environment, Carlson had a choice: she could walk away quietly or seek justice. She did both. Putting her journalist skills to use, she collected taped evidence for a year prior to her dismissal, which she used to sue Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes for sexual harassment on July 6, 2016. Within two weeks, after an outside investigation was conducted and more employees came forward with stories of assault, Fox fired Ailes. On September 6, Carlson settled her case to the tune of a reported $20 million and a rare public apology. Ironically, because of the nondisclosure agreement she signed with Fox, the tallest mountain Gretchen climbed and conquered is one she is barred from discussing. “If I ever get out of my NDA, I’ll have a really big story to tell; but in the meantime I’m doing all of this work so every other woman doesn’t have to be silenced,” she says.

Her work certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed. Named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World,” Carlson has become a globally recognized advocate for female empowerment, with her TED Talk on the subject garnering almost 2 million views. Her books, Getting Real and Be Fierce, are New York Times best-sellers, with proceeds from the latter going to Carlson’s Gift of Courage Fund, which supports organizations empowering women and young girls. As host and executive producer of A+E and Lifetime Network documentaries such as Breaking The Silence and an upcoming interview series with Blumhouse Television discussing topical, provocative subject matter, including #MeToo and the movement’s evolution, she is on a mission to tell the everywoman’s story.

“This is not just happening to Hollywood actresses. It’s the McDonald’s worker, it’s the nursing home attendant, the firefighter,” she says. “Listen, nobody was doing these projects three-and-a-half years ago. Nobody in the media, nobody in the movie world. As a journalist I can say they would’ve laughed at me if I’d pitched stories on sexual harassment. Now, look at the progress. That, in and of itself, is a victory.”

Gretchen isn’t just making change on screen—she’s fighting to change legislation. In December 2019, she founded the organization Lift Our Voices with two former Fox News colleagues to end the practice of nondisclosure agreements, confidentiality provisions and forced arbitration clauses in employee contracts for issues of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

“The way the system has continued to protect predators is to silence women, handcuff and muzzle them,” she says. “No one expects to get in a work dispute, but when you do, it’s a dark day when you find out you signed an arbitration clause, which means you can’t go to court. Had my lawyers not found a way to be strategic and make my case public, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today and there would be no movement, ostensibly.”

Arbitration clauses and NDAs, Carlson says, are why so many harassment cases have been kept quiet, why women who report harassment to HR are often given a black mark and booted out with no references and no power to disclose the truth, and why 99 percent of the women who’ve reached out to her can’t work in their chosen profession ever again.

“I had friends tell me after my case that the reason they left Wall Street was not because they wanted to spend more time with their kids, but because they were harassed and went into arbitration. Even I didn’t know it. The world doesn’t find out, and in many cases, the perpetrator gets to stay on the job so the system perpetuates itself in secret,” she says. “I have a bipartisan bill called the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act in in the House and the Senate and am optimistic about that. If I can pass this, it will be a huge, huge success in this fight.”

For her commitment to women’s empowerment, Carlson is being honored at the Greenwich International Film Festival Changemaker Gala on April 30 at l’escale.

“I love the title of the award, Changemaker, because it’s pretty much what I’ve been doing for the last three-and-a-half years,” says Carlson, who looks forward to including her family in the festivities. “I travel a lot and have been receiving awards in all different places, but usually my kids can’t come. That’s important for me, for them to see not only the female-inspired films, but to see their mom in that particular position,” she says. “I’m really appreciative that GIFF is honoring me for my work, mainly on behalf of women, but men are a part of this equation as well. It shouldn’t just fall on the shoulders of women to solve these issues. We have a lot of great men in our community who are on board, so that means a lot.”

When asked to reflect on the remarkable ground-shift that has taken place since filing her case in 2016, she has to pinch herself.

“I had no way of knowing how this was all going to unfold. The idea that it helped to ignite a cultural revolution is surreal, and at the same time, I have so much gratitude toward all the other women who’ve reached out to me and had to go through this and be silent,” she says. “That’s what I’m trying to fix by breaking through the barriers. I want to give a voice to the voiceless.”

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