I am 31 years old. Born in 1981 I started skateboarding in 1994 at the age of 13. Now I don’t mean to be on some “back in my day,” type daddy-o shit, but back then it really was different. In 1994 skateboarding was nowhere near as widely accepted, especially in a place like South Florida where cultural deviance in general is frowned upon and no one is holding back from letting you know that. To become a skateboarder in that time was to willingly make yourself an outcast. But we did it with a higher sense of belonging in mind because as we swore off the bonds of normative culture, and cast ourselves out into the ether we simultaneously swore our allegiance to something much higher. The brotherhood (and sisterhood) of skateboarding is a fascinating thing not unlike gangs, or hip hop which creates belonging for those who do not belong otherwise. Beyond the sport which brings us together we find common ground in music, art, food, resourcefulness, resistance, and countless other facets which form the basis for identity, and existence.
This altered sense of belonging, identity, and existence comes to define many of the people who align themselves with skateboarding. I know in my case even though I haven’t really been skating much for the past 6 years, the person who skateboarding made me into has not changed. And I think that is perhaps the persistent secret of skateboarding, that it truly changes you when you commit yourself to it, and it changes you in the most beautiful ways. Skateboarding gives people a means by which to realize themselves and change who they can be. There is perhaps no more prominent example of this than Danny Way.
Unlike Tony Hawk whose status is afforded him in large part because he is one of the founders of modern skateboarding, Danny Way’s status is on account of his ability to push the sport further than anyone could imagine. Danny is a person who first changed himself through skateboarding in order to overcome a difficult childhood, and then that changed man emerged to change the world around him. Danny Way’s commitment to the brotherhood of skateboarding is the focus of the film Waiting For Lightning by Jacob Rosenberg. Jacob and I spoke for a little bit about the film, being a grown up skateboarder, what makes Danny’s story so compelling, and why we as Americans are so lucky to have him in these times. I hope that this conversation will at the least remind you how powerful it can be to have a board beneath your feet, your homies at your sides, and an endless expanse of concrete ahead of you.
Zachg: For people that don’t know, and I don’t really know so well either, just give a synopsis of who you are and what you’re doing right now.
Jacob Rosenberg: Sure, my name is Jacob Rosenberg and I am the director of the documentary film Waiting For Lighting. It was just released and it’s still out now on iTunes and OnDemand. It is a documentary film about the skateboarder Danny Way.
ZG: And it’s playing in some theatres also?
JR: Yeah, still in theatres. We’re also doing a thing called Gathr where you can actually request it to be screened in a town. If you get enough people they can put together a local screening for you. I think it’s still at the Harkin’s Valley Cinema in Phoenix, and I think it’s still in New Haven Connecticut.
ZG: And I know I saw it in San Francisco, so I was excited to catch it in the theatre.
JR: That’s cool yeah, it was a hometown thing to get it up on the screen in San Francisco.
ZG: Oh, you’re from San Francisco?
JR: I’m from Palo Alto originally.
ZG: So how would you describe the gist of the movie?
JR: I think the film is really a heartfelt inspiring story of Danny Way’s pursuit of excellence in skateboarding despite the numerous personal and professional obstacles that he has faced. The film centers around his attempt to jump the Great Wall Of China and it aims to contextualize that jump, and the shape of his career that led to that jump. It provides more meaning to who he is, and what his actions on his skateboard represent.
ZG: That’s pretty much what I walked away from it with. I started skateboarding in 1994 before it became accepted mainstream, when you were actively participating in a counter-culture and deciding to be a part of it. The lifestyle that came with it was always one of the things that I really latched onto. In South Florida we were very secluded culturally. I didn’t have a lot of options for identities to choose, and skateboarding is something that was really robust for me.
JR: I think skateboarding has consistently offered a home for people like yourself. You may not have felt like a quote unquote outcast, but you always felt like you didn’t have the right group of people who were interested in the right kinds of things. There’s so many fascinating components to skateboarding from the music that most skaters are exposed to and discovering bands, and being involved in clothing trends way before they become mainstream, so you really feel like you’re part of something special that people don’t know about.
ZG: Totally. And Danny Way to me was always an avatar in that sense. But not one that I necessarily identified with at a personal emotional level the way I did with some other skaters. And that was just by virtue of the fact that I never skated a vert ramp, and there was nothing like that where we lived. At that time Danny Way was known for skating vert, but he always stood out. There was always something about him that made it clear that he commands a lot of respect, and he’s clearly incredibly talented. And when I would see him doing the more ridiculous stunts that came later in his career, it was clear that there was something going on where he was taking it to a place where it’s a matter of life and death. You could die doing this stuff.
JR: I think Danny has always felt that the maximum commitment to skateboarding physically is what was required. And I think that he is such a firm believer in “don’t half step.” If you’re gonna do it, do it. If you’re gonna go, go all the way. And that’s a very unique mindset, because most people no matter what profession or sport they go as hard as they can, and certainly there are professional athletes—like football players—in other sports that are fully committed. But then there’s that even crispier cream of the crop like Danny that would lay everything down on the field and give everything every game. And I think Danny feels comfortable with himself if he’s fully committed. I think in a certain way that those of us who try to commit as much as we can we really fall in love with those people who have that full commitment to something that we really care about. And then that just increases their shine when you see them doing those things, and taking those huge risks. I think through the film we really understand the childhood that Danny had, we really understand where the shaping of that man came from. And so when you see him taking these risks it’s not surprising. If you just walked in and saw him building this big ramp at the Great Wall Of China you’d be like, “This is crazy!” It is crazy. Even after you see his life building up to then. But the point of the film is to show that life, and show what happened to him, and to begin to show the molding of where that commitment to excellence came from. And then for any of us who understand perfectionism or having high self-expectations you also understand there is a little bit of an innate desire of standing on the edge of the cliff and you feel compelled to jump off, there is that thing, there’s always that pull…
ZG: Right, I feel like that was another element of the movie that really came through pretty incredibly. I was familiar with Danny Way before, but not in the way that you depicted him, to where he is absolutely willing to objectify his body to the point of destruction, to say that my identity is not my physical form. I suppose you would have to bracket the fact the physical form allows the act of skateboarding to happen. He’s saying my identity becomes the drive, becomes the commitment. Like the shot of him where he hits the ramp in China coming up too short, and he bucks over, flipping and he looks like a rag doll. You’ve gotta imagine he’s experiencing that, and to him it’s not happening in the same way. He’s prepared for this, he has the mechanisms to cope with it. For him this is like if you go to work and you’re flipping burgers like, “Oh shit, the cheese is running down the side of the burger! What do I do?” It was incredible to see the lengths that he goes to to realize his identity, and the way he says that his body is not a factor in the equation.
JR: I think that’s one of the most rewarding things that has come from making the film. Having people from all walks of life see that commitment and being totally inspired and absolutely understanding who Danny is. And I think there’s so much nuance to his expertise in skateboarding, or the expertise of his physicality. When he broke his neck he had to literally rebuild himself from scratch and since that time he has been so committed to his body and being in shape all the time that he’s just very very in tune and aware. And if you look at that horrific crash in China he actually has explained to me the fact that he knew the he needed to flip. Because he knew that if he just compressed his body would absorb all of it and it would break him. So he knew he needed to throw himself. The same thing happened in the X-Games. He knew he needed to flip out of that so he didn’t try to counter measure any of it. He let himself go with it. And that type of awareness is so extraordinary, to be in the middle of an accident and understand what you need to do with your body to minimize the damage but it still had maximum damage.
ZG: Right, it coulda been a lot worse. People like him live in the future. He says, “Ok the standard today in 2012 is this, this, and that, but I’m gonna do THIS.” And in 15 years perhaps the standards of skateboarding will be the standards that Danny way set forth.
JR: I think that’s totally totally accurate. And I think the easiest, and clearest place to see that is—I think Danny gets credit for it, I don’t think he gets enough credit—you look at the X-Games mega ramp this past year there were 3 competitors that were under the age of 14 I believe, or 15…
ZG: Ohhhh, maaaan!
JR: Imagine 10 years ago when people saw the first mega ramp everyone was like, “Oh my god only one person can do this!” That was Danny. And Jeremy McGrath has that great quote in the film where he says if you wanna do something that’s never been done before you have to be the only person who believes it’s possible to do it. Danny is that person who believes those things are possible. You look at kids landing 900s, 1080s…you look at kids landing tricks that have never been done before and that’s because the ramp exists at such a size where the kids can do those types of airs. And I think that speaks to Danny’s expertise, and that gift he has in his brain with how he sees skateboarding.
ZG: Right, and it’s always been the case with skateboarding too. You have these pinnacles that shine forth in certain eras and they set the standards for what then becomes normal for kids who are ten years younger who see that. It’s like a giant leap frog. The most interesting thing about this movie perhaps, or rather the most widely applicable thing is that Danny has transcended the realm of skateboarding. He has risen to standard pop acclaim. If you know nothing about skateboarding, if you’ve never even seen a skateboard in your life, you could watch the movie and you would still walk away having experienced the full extent of what’s going on.
JR: Well I think that was our goal, and that was certainly my goal. To make a film that articulated something really special and really unique about skateboarding to a broader audience. I grew up a skateboarder and there’s a part of me that really wants to honor—and make sure I make a movie for—all the skate nerds out there that has all these things in there for us to get off on, but at the end of the day that doesn’t really move the bar forward for movies that have skateboarding in them. And I really wanted to make sure that this film was different and I think maybe it is different because it’s so emotional, and it’s so narrative. It’s not just a classical re-telling of his life story. It’s actually a really fast-moving train that has tension, heightened experiences, and excitement, and inspiration. All those things that I definitely want to experience in a regular movie. So, the trick is to sneak skateboarding into that story but to have this bigger story where people that don’t know anything about skateboarding can see it and immediately they understand, “Wow this is an incredible thing for this kid. He probably would have been dead if he didn’t have this in his life.” Which is true.
ZG: Right, It totally came through. It’s great to see that. I can’t think of a film that came before this that does what your film has done. And it’s good to see that happening now. It’s something that had to happen for skateboarding.
JR: It’s necessary. It’s necessary to educate bigger culture about the values of subculture, because they tend to under-value subculture. To be honest, I think skateboarding is still wildly under-valued. I still think there’s gonna be some people who will push the film away because they’ll say “Oh it’s just skateboarding. I don’t really understand it. I don’t get it.” But for anyone who has seen it, it’s this overwhelming sensation of, “Oh my god! What an amazing thing!” It’s just so fascinating. I guess that’s the positives and negatives of skate culture. It really pushes everyone away because they don’t wanna be identified or defined on mainstream society’s terms. And that’s what makes skateboarding special, but that’s also what keeps it very insular, and keeps it out of the mainstream. Which is what skateboarding wants. At a certain point you can’t fight it, all you can do is push on the things that you really believe in, and I think this is a man that I’ve known for a long time, and I think a story that was so necessary to tell in the way that we’ve told it so that his actions can be celebrated and inspire people who don’t skateboard. And then for skaters to feel a deeper connection. The feedback we’ve gotten from skaters is, “Oh my god! I had no idea! I thought I knew Danny Way and I really didn’t.” I think that’s so satisfying because you’re really educating people about who he is.
ZG: Right, it’s functioning at so many levels. And I think at a really important level, we’re at a time in this country, and I guess in this world, in this society, where everything from the past is flying out the window. We don’t know how to ground ourselves and what to do because our entire means of existence have really shifted pretty dramatically away from the institutions and systems which govern our existence. Be they actual government, or moreso laws of nature. We’re in a time where we really need the myths, the new archetypes. And I think, as a nation for the United States to have Danny Way as a citizen of this country, and to be able to see this story is something that is very powerful for people in these times when we’re looking everywhere for someone like Danny to show us what to do, to show us how to exist in this realm.
JR: I love hearing you say that about Danny as an American. Through the process of making the film I’ve had some rather heady conversations with some of my friends, my writer friend Anthony Johnson, and my skateboarder friend Rodney Mullen. One of the conversations I had with Rodney centered around a really weird epiphany that came to me which is skateboarding embodies America more than any other culture or sub-culture that I can think of. It’s wildly self-critical, it’s wildly independent, it has all these eclectic voices, and people, it welcomes every walk of life. To me there is this fascinating component to skateboarding that really applies to the values set forth in the founding of the country. And I hate to be having a super heady conversation like that publicly…
ZG: NO! It’s not too heady. It’s realistic! Those are the times we’re living in. We need to be having these conversations we need to be acknowledging this kind of stuff. It used to be that the systems and institutions in place be they cultural by virtue of their own rise, or be they government by virtue of construction, those were enough to guide society and keep everything in check. But at a deeper level we’re slipping beyond the controls of society. We’re slipping into a place where our nation has been running on autopilot for a dangerous amount of time considering what has been going on, and we really need to wake up to this. It’s refreshing to know that you’re pursuing it like this, and to hear you talk about it like that.
JR: I think that if people are gonna be inspired by other people’s actions, and sense of purpose, I think that Danny’s sense of purpose is wildly inspirational and a great point of reference. Ever since Danny came back into my life and we started talking and started working on the project I tend to have a higher self-expectation. I look at certain situations, and I go, “What would Danny do?” My company was involved in another film where we worked with active US Navy Seals. It was a similar thing. You get around these guys who really keep it simple, really keep it to the point, are wildly committed to their family, are wildly committed to their country, and you look at yourself like, “How am I toeing the line? How am I being a better person? How am I being a better family man?” I think in telling Danny’s story, specifically showing his actions on his skateboard, and that commitment to excellence, and that commitment to honoring the men in his life who helped shape who he is, is wildly important. I believe soundly in mentorship, and I believe in believing in kids and empowering them. At my office I hire lots of young kids in school at local colleges, put them through the internship process and then hopefully they’re ready to work when it’s done. But I think you gotta empower people when they’re young, you gotta help them believe in themselves, you gotta let them fall on their faces, and they have to learn how to get up. And I think Danny will show you time, and time again that you can get up, and when you do get up you can do better than what knocked you down.
ZG: And you can get up from things that people were first saying couldn’t even be done.
JR: (laughs) Yes, exactly.
ZG: And in that sense skateboarding really does represent all the things that Americans value and all the things that young people need. Myself, I certainly don’t skateboard on a regular basis anymore, but there is no endeavor in my life that is not informed by something that I first learned, first came to understand, or first experienced through skateboarding.
JR: Same here, absolutely. I may not be on my board a lot because I tend to get hurt everytime I get on my board, but I am absolutely a skater. That’s who I am. It’s at my core. Anyone who’s been a part of that, they know that feeling.
ZG: And I think, honestly, in these changing times, the differences that we’re seeing in terms of existence and identity, I think skateboarding just makes sense. It teaches you physical commitment, it teaches you what it means to be willing to put your body on the line and get hurt for something and make a sacrifice, it teaches you friendship you have camaraderie with this group of people, it teaches you how to look at natural structures in different ways, it teaches you how to be creative and build things, woodworking, physics. And then you get into the creative stuff, it teaches you branding, it teaches you about music, design, writing…
JR: Look at DIY magazines, stickers, everything. Skateboarding, for better or for worse, is a really highly underappreciated sub-culture in which a very rich culture thrives. What you’re getting at, and what you’re talking about, that’s the passion inside of me that wanted to make sure that this story was told in an elevated fashion that could connect with people who didn’t know skateboarding. Some of the coolest things I’ve seen is on twitter and instagram, parents posting that they saw the movie with their kids. Some woman built a cardboard mega ramp in her living room with her kids after they watched the movie. To know that the films is out there, and Danny’s story is touching people in that way, and people are being vocal about it is all that we can ask for.
ZG: Congratulations to you guys, because it certainly is an amazing film. I don’t doubt that it will at some point prove to be a cultural hallmark. If not only for skateboarding, then for a whole generation of people who are coming to define the future of this nation.
JR: All we can ask is that people watch it and engage in a social conversation about it. It’s been an overwhelming response so far, and it’s always exciting when different people form different sub-cultures and groups begin to love it and champion it. That’s exactly why we made it—to make an entertaining and educational film about this guy and what he’s done to change the sport.- Zachg