Signing on to narrate Man in Red Bandana, a poignant new documentary about a young hero who lost his life while saving others on 9/11, turned out to be a case of six degrees of separation for Gwyneth Paltrow.
The Oscar-winning actress had never heard of Welles Remy Crowther when she said yes to narrating the film, which premieres Friday, about the 24-year-old equities trader who helped people escape from the World Trade Center’s burning south tower before it collapsed, Matthew Weiss, the film’s first-time writer-director, tells PEOPLE.
Weiss says he was “tickled pink” when Paltrow agreed to narrate after reading the script about Welles, whose family learned about his heroic acts months after he died, all because of the red kerchief he always carried that he wore over his nose and mouth while leading people to safety that fateful day.
But before proceeding any further, Weiss wanted to run the news by Welles’ parents, Jefferson and Alison Crowther.
“I wanted them to be happy with everything because this is a tribute to their son,” says Weiss, a New York City attorney ticket attorney who was inspired to become a filmmaker after hearing the Nyack, New York, native’s story in 2006.
To Weiss’s great surprise, not only did Jefferson say he loved the idea of Paltrow narrating the film, he told him that his brother and Welles’ uncle, John Crowther, was friends with her late father, director and producer, Bruce Paltrow, when he was just starting out – and before meeting him, dated her mother, actress Blythe Danner, says Weiss.
“He said his brother and Bruce Paltrow were in the theater together and did plays together, went drinking together and cashed their unemployment checks together,” says Weiss. “Unbelievable…”
The best part of the story, he says, came when Weiss called John, who told him he is the one who introduced Paltrow’s parents to each other.
“He went one day to see Bruce, who was doing an Off-Broadway show, and looked at the actresses that were auditioning in that coming week and on the list was Blythe Danner.”
John returned a few days later when he knew Danner would be there and introduced her to Bruce. “So Welles’s uncle introduced Paltrow’s parents to her,” says Weiss. “It’s unbelievable.”
When Weiss surprised Paltrow with decades-old photographs of her parents that he got from John to thank her for narrating, he says she was touched.
“She was very excited to see an old photo of her dad that she had never seen before,” says Weiss about Paltrow, who was very close to her father.
“She had a little tear in her eye,” he says.
Six Years in the Making
Weiss had never heard about Welles’ incredible story until he had lunch with Jefferson, his banker, in 2006. But he was so moved by what Jefferson told him about his son that after years of thinking about Welles’ story, in 2011, that he decided to stop working full-time as a traffic ticket attorney and become a documentary film maker.
“I couldn’t believe that a piece of fabric – a bandana — could not only change the perspective of a family who lost an amazing kid, but also create a legacy,” says Weiss, who still oversees the business but lets others tackle day-to-day responsibilities.
For eight months after the terrorist attack, the Crowthers had no idea how their son had spent his final moments until they read a story in The New York Times about a man in a red bandana who saved people that day. They were able to confirm later on that the man was Welles, who always carried a red bandana in his back pocket just like his father, who gave him his first one as a boy.
Weiss says the aim of the film was to retrace Welles’ steps that morning to show just how courageous the former firefighter was in his final moments.
He also showcases the myriad people across the country who were inspired by him and have honored his legacy with murals, artwork and other things.
The film, which features an original song performed by Lyle Lovett, has an ending that is more than memorable, says Weiss.
“At the end, we reveal a secret about Welles,” he says. “It’s just incredible. Perfect. When we screened it, I heard people literally say, ‘Wow.’ And it’s all true!”
Whoever sees the film “will have their hearts broken but then they will get inspired and leave feeling better than when they started this journey with us,” he says.
He says he wanted to tell a story “that would inspire and uplift people and get people to become better people.”
Man in Red Bandana premieres nationwide on Sept. 8 and on VOD on iTunes and Amazon.