It was the Spring of 2013, my Sophomore year of college, and I’d decided that I wanted to make a film at least vaguely about parkour for my final documentary assignment. Danny seemed like a good candidate as a subject: Interesting story, amazing athlete, and he lived in a warm climate that required I get out of New York. I messaged him on facebook, and his mom said she wouldn’t mind me sleeping on the couch for a while, so I bought a roundtrip bus ticket and packed my bags. It all seemed like an excellent plan.
Roughly twenty-eight stiff and restless hours later I clambered off the Chinatown death trap and pulled my film equipment from the bus’s underbelly. I’ve always loved the feeling of arriving in a warm climate after having left some miserably frosty place. The buzz and life of Summer; the smell of flowers a hundred times as vibrant to winters deprived senses. On this occasion, the romance quickly dissipated as my body became coated in a thin layer of sweat. Albeit, my disillusionment may have been heightened by having to carry a backpack, tripod, camera bag and flex fill over a mile to a connecting bus line. I stupidly hadn’t coordinated being picked up by Danny at all.
In fact, he hadn’t even responded to my last attempt to confirm that I was coming. My phone had also died on the bus ride. And I’d only ever met Danny once, and in passing, at a community Jam in New York a few years back. So I was a little worried that this was going to be a bust. But seeing as I was already in Tampa with my equipment and that I had an address, I made my way there regardless.
The Tampa public transportation system isn’t anything to get excited about, and after a short bus excursion that landed me in a weirdly desolate parking lot, and then another long sweaty walk, I arrived outside an unassuming apartment complex. It was getting late and cool and the light was reaching that incredibly sweet watercolor-like lushness. I made my way up the exposed concrete staircase and down a red-brick-tiled hallway until I reached the numbered door matching the address I’d written on a slip of receipt paper. I knocked.
I knocked again.
I definitely should’ve planned a little better.
I headed back toward the staircase to find a place in the grass outside where I could comfortably wait, hoping that Danny wasn’t out of town, and at that moment a figure emerged from the stairwell. We stood in silence for a moment and stared at one another.
“Milo?” he asked.
“That’s me,” I replied.
Danny was a surprisingly small guy, and at first glance, you wouldn’t necessarily realize what a powerful athlete he was. But after a few days it became abundantly clear how hard he worked to maintain and perfect the instrument that was his body. Every morning he’d wake up and prepare an enormous smoothie packed full of fresh berries, protein powder, and other herbal supplements. He had a sheet on his wall with his workout routine listed and scheduled. He was rigorously self-disciplined and it showed. But he was also an adventurous, talkative, fun-loving goofball, and for the first few days we spent together, I hardly filmed anything at all.
He introduced me to his best friend, with whom we climbed a building, went on a late night fixie ride through a multi-story parking complex, and summited a bridge overlooking downtown Tampa. Danny would get excited, like a little kid, and drag me around town showing me some jump or challenge that he planned to eventually do. And occasionally I did a little training myself. And it was during those accolades, not our sit down interviews, that I really got to know Danny. And he was a fun dude.
And I gladly welcomed the distraction; this was a hard moment in my own life. Only a few months earlier my parents had separated, and I’d found myself commuting between them, neither of them having a place for me to stay. I was sleeping on the couch in my own childhood home, in the hallway at my dad’s new apartment and occasionally on the floor of my friend’s dorm. And on top of that, the girl I’d been seeing had told me, on my own birthday, that she was sleeping with someone else, and I’d gotten a nasty sunburn on my first day in Tampa.
And so, maybe that’s why I was inexorably drawn to Danny’s story. Maybe that’s why he felt so comfortable and willing to share it with me. A sense of a kindred spirit. A wordless understanding. And the difference in our athletic abilities never once seemed to create a barrier. I came to Tampa with the intent to make a film about parkour, but discovered so much more. And when we finally sat down to do our first interview, Danny opened up to me effortlessly and willingly. I was so surprised and inspired by his vulnerability. I think he knew I’d do his story justice.
We both cried. During both interviews. I was moved by how much he loved his parents. How he forgave the misdoings of his father and respected the fearlessness of his mother. How he’d allowed those painful experiences to alter his identity, and yet wasn’t in the least bit a cynic.
It’s an incredible thing to work on a project like this. Yes, I was the filmmaker, the auteur and the architect of something. I had to be ruthlessly manipulative; asking the right questions in search of the soundbites I believed would most adequately tell the story. But I was also a participant in those moments we shared while the camera was rolling, and in all the moments leading up to it. It was Danny’s story, but it was his story as told to me, and as I heard it. And so it became my story too.
In the end, I think the film we made was second to the experience of making it.
And it truly was something beautiful.