Remembering Luke: The Abbate Family’s Journey Into The 5th Quarter

By gmc
Posted: Tue, 11/08/2011 - 16:05

Luke Abbate

It’s a story that would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. A family loses a beloved child in a senseless accident. Their intense grief first drives them apart, then brings them back together and eventually inspires an entire community.

“I knew the bones of the story were very dramatic and tragic, as well as extremely inspirational,” says Rick Bieber, who wrote, directed and produced  The 5th Quarter. “This family, the team, the school and the community all came together in response to the death of a 15-year-old boy. That ended up driving them to exceed their own expectations and turn a tragic loss into a triumphant football season.”

Bieber was introduced to the Abbate family of Marietta, Georgia, at the end of Wake Forest University’s 2006 Cinderella football season, spending several days with them in Miami right before the team’s Orange Bowl appearance. At that first meeting, Bieber and the Abbates discussed what it would be like to expose so intimate and tragic a story in a feature film that millions of people
would have an opportunity to see.

Don’t miss the gmc World Premiere movie, The 5th Quarter, Sunday, November 13th at 7 and 9 pm. Click here to get the FREE movie discussion guide.

The close-knit Abbate family, parents Steven and Maryanne, sons Jon and Adam, and daughter Rachel, considered Bieber’s idea of making their story into a feature film the way they do everything—as a family. They were unanimous in their conviction that Luke’s story was one that needed to be told.

“Rick saw it as a great, inspirational story that would reach many people and touch many lives,” says Steven Abbate. “We thought it could be a good way to honor Luke and his memory. But we chose to tell the story of not just the tragedy, but also the incredible inspiration Luke gave to his brother Jon, and that Jon in turn gave his team.

“We also hope that it will remind people that a single irresponsible act can shatter so many lives,” he adds. “If this movie changes the way one teenager drives, it’s worth everything it took to get it made.”

Their biggest concern was making sure that the story was told exactly as it happened. “Making this film meant taking the hardest thing that ever happened to me and putting my private feelings about it into a public forum,” says Maryanne. “It was scary. I’m very protective of our family. I worried about our surviving children and about Luke, who isn’t here to defend himself. This is something I hold so close to my heart. I wanted it to be as true to life as possible.” 

Bieber traveled to the Abbate’s home to tape many hours of intimate interviews with the family. “I didn’t want just the information they could give me,” he says. “I wanted the inflection of their voices, their real emotions and the way they interacted as a family. All of that was very fresh in my mind as I wrote the script.”

Sharing their story with a relative stranger was a daunting process for the Abbates. It would be just the first of many difficult steps during the filmmaking process, but the family felt an almost instant connection with Bieber. “The chemistry was immediate,” says Steven. “We trusted him to tell the real story from the very first day. We bared our souls to him so he could create this script, and he listened well to everything we told him. He never disappointed us.”

After that visit, the Abbates and Bieber continued their conversation in hundreds of hours of phone calls before scheduling a second meeting in Georgia a few months later. “They were remarkably open and generous,” says the director.

“As a parent, it’s impossible not to relate to what they went through. It is our worst nightmare. And they held nothing back, not even the most intimate and specific details of Luke’s accident or the emotional fallout the family suffered. It affected Maryanne and Steven’s relationship, as well as their relationship with their other children.

“My goal when writing this script was to not over dramatize or editorialize,” continues Bieber. “It was to convey what actually happened. The events of their story are so dramatic. The fact that it’s true makes it even more powerful. A lot of the dialogue in the script is based on the words they used with me in our conversations.”

The Abbates were so honest, in fact, that Bieber held off showing them the script until he was sure they were ready to see it.

“I was concerned about how they would respond to it,” he says. “What makes good drama is real characters who have both strengths and weaknesses. I tried to portray everyone in a very realistic way, so they aren’t always shown in the most perfect light. But I was amazed at how well they received it. They really felt the script maintained the integrity of their story.”

Reading the script for the first time was an emotionally wrenching experience for the Abbates as they were forced to relive the most painful moments of their lives. Maryanne wept as she turned the pages. “I still can’t read the script and not cry,” she says. “It’s hard to see your life in front of you like that. No parent should have to live through that. And yet, it also reminded us of the 2006 football season, which was a real gift for us because it was something to look forward to. Reliving that part of it was joyful.

“Rick did an excellent job of taking our words and transforming them into  a movie,” she adds. “We couldn’t have been more pleased. He was very respectful, which was the most important thing to me.”

The crucial factor for everyone involved in the film is that Luke’s memory lives on in The 5th Quarter. “It was an unbearably tragic event,” says Jon Abbate. “It was something that never should have happened. Perhaps it will teach teenagers that driving is dangerous. It’s a lot of responsibility when you have other people in your car and I hope that we get that point across.”

“Any parent who loses a child worries their child will be forgotten,” says Maryanne. “I would take Luke back in a heartbeat, but that’s not going to happen. So I feel really blessed that at least he’s going to be remembered through this film.”

The story has already touched people who never met Luke Abbate when he was alive. “It amazes me how people remember our story,” says Steven. “I was in Denver recently talking to a co-worker about being in Winston-Salem for the production. A gentleman who was nearby overheard me and asked if I was Jon and Luke Abbate’s dad. I was hundreds of miles from where I live. This story made an impact across the country. We can only imagine the kind of influence it will have once the movie is in theaters.

“Luke will always be a part of our lives,” Steven adds. “He and Jon inspire me every day, and so do my other kids, Adam and Rachel. When a tragedy like this hits, you realize how much your family means to you. It’s an inspiring story to us, and I hope it will be to others as well.”

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