By Victoria Kertz | NB Indy
Moviegoers may not expect a film involving a disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spine to inspire hope, but “Augie” certainly does.
The documentary in the Newport Beach Film Festival opening this week centers on Augie Nieto, the local fitness entrepreneur responsible for LifeCycle, and his fight with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Director James Keach will join Nieto, his wife Lynn, and producer Eric Carlson for a Q&A after the 3 p.m. screening of “Augie” on Thursday, April 27, at Island Cinemas in Fashion Island. An initial screening is set for Sunday, April 23 at 5:30 p.m.
ALS causes a patient to lose voluntary muscle control as well as the ability to speak and walk. About 30,000 Americans suffer from the condition. It received renewed attention in 2014 with “The Theory of Everything” film about the scientist Stephen Hawking, who also suffers from ALS, and the social media phenomenon Ice Bucket Challenge that raised over $220 million for research.
To say that Nieto is stubborn would be an understatement. Decades ago, the mogul was described by associates as “arrogant and mean,” but ALS has transformed him into a different kind of tough.
Powered by love of his wife Lynne, his children, and grandchildren, he faces each day with unexpected vigor and lots of jokes.
“Having a camera crew kept us on our toes. I think it was tougher on Lynne than on me, but then she wasn’t part of the shower scene!” Nieto said in an email.
“He’s got a wicked sense of humor,” said Keach, who spent 14 months on the film. Keach also directed “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” which followed the singer battle with Alzheimer’s disease on a farewell tour.
Nieto’s determination also captured the imagination of Laguna Beach filmmaker Rob Hedden, who in 2012 envisioned telling Nieto’s story in a dramatic live action film. “Getting financing proved to be very difficult because of the subject matter, then the Stephen Hawking film came out. I guess people figured that one movie about ALS was enough. When my option expired, my partner on it continued to pursue it and it eventually caught the eye of James Keach, who turned it into a documentary,” Hedden said.
As with the Campbell documentary, Keach weaves Nieto’s inescapable humor throughout the film, proving laughter might just be the best medicine.
Particularly memorable in this film is Nieto’s email list, familiar to all his friends and associates. The 300 lucky people on it receive jokes and images of a very adult nature. Is Keach one of the privileged? “Definitely!” he laughed.
Nieto communicates via text-to-voice technology that he controls with his toes, and is a frequent emailer. When he’s not sending naughty emails, he’s conducting business and serves as a director on multiple boards. Despite being in a wheelchair and on a ventilator, Nieto’s determination to beat ALS serves as a reminder to live life to its fullest.
“He’s so alive,” Keach remarked.
The Nietos live in Corona del Mar, which is portrayed beautifully in the film. It’s the perfect backdrop for an uplifting story, and a place that the Nieto family adores. Years ago, Nieto told his wife that he wanted to die in the house that he loved so much. “Now,” he says in the movie, “it’s where I want to live.”
For his part, Nieto enjoyed getting to know Keach and his crew and expects their film to make an impact on audiences. “I hope that people take away that no matter how things look – there’s hope,” he said
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