On a hot, humid day in 2005, skateboarder Danny Way stood at the bottom of the Great Wall of China. The plan was to jump the Wall crouched on a small plank — otherwise known as a skateboard. Way's ankle was fractured, an injury that hadn't healed. No one had ever jumped the Great Wall without motorized help. He was scared.
It's this story that wraps around Waiting for Lighting, a documentary about the skater, which opens in Los Angeles this week.
The film is full of skate and surf genre requisites. The boldface names. The over-the-top interviews. The adrenaline-rush quotes. The simplest moments framed so big.
What lifts the flick from the genre's hubris is the man at its center.
Danny Way, who lives in Encinitas, just north of San Diego, is the most authentic man on the screen. He's the charismatic core whose interview sequences resonate with tranquil confidence.
Way's personal life is a brutal, psychic ride that's more battering than anything he's done on a board, but the skater himself eschews drama. He does, but he doesn't hype.
Way's reputation in the skate world is rooted in his unique combination of the brashness of vert skating (launching into the sky from pools and ramps) and the vision of street skating (using ordinary cityscape for technical tricks). Over the years his creativity at marrying the two and pushing their collective possibilities has led to eye-popping media candy.
He drops from a helicopter into a skate ramp. He invents the MegaRamp, the size of which gives more speed, time in the air and distance from the ground — the skate world's answer to big-wave surfing. He takes on the Great Wall.
But Way, who works to progress the sport in many out-of-the-spotlight ways, is bothered by the stuntman label.
“It's not about going out and being an Evel Knievel–type guy,” he says. What inspires him is a taste for “the obscure” — the lure of the imagination.
Like any artist, Way sees connections that the rest of us can't. Take that moment he stepped out of a hovering copter with a skateboard in his hands. Way had already broken a world record for “highest air” — a sequence the chopper fluttered overhead to record — when, looking up at the helicopter, he saw it as a tool for something else.
“Things like that happen. I'll just see something, I'll go, 'You could actually make that, from point A to point B,' ” he says.
But for every jump he's executed, so many drop away. Ideas he's plotted meticulously with his team but had to abandon because of logistics or costs. Get into a conversation with him and he's like any creative, excited to talk about each of his sparks.
His record of wins at the X Games is enviable, but “I have more a battle within myself than amongst the other guys that I'm competing with,” he says. “For me, it's not about winning more so than pushing myself beyond a place I've never gone before.”
Though the film includes footage of a fall Way took during a practice run at the Great Wall — a flying car wreck minus the car — a previous slam on an X Games ramp is more harrowing because it is more intimate. Helped to his feet afterward, Way's a bewildered animal.
“I was so dazed from it all,” he says, before he goes to work piecing together what would have gone through his mind: concern over an old spinal injury, doubts that he could continue, fatigue, failure, pain … and the doctor who told him game over, don't continue.
But after his fall at the X Games, he walked out for another run and freed himself from all that noise in his head. “I've always struggled with 'what ifs,' the 'what ifs' in a scenario, especially with my skateboarding,” Way says. “It's harder to live with the 'what ifs' than to get that equation out of the picture.”
Way's life story is drenched in a different kind of “what ifs” — the people he's lost along the way.
Before he was a year old, his biological father was dead. As a child, his mom disappeared for days on binges. He lost his stepfather — who introduced him to the awe of adventure — through divorce and then, again, through death. Mike Ternasky, the industry visionary who mentored Way, died at 28.
Way survived them through skateboarding. Then, in 1994, he broke his neck surfing — and skateboarding, too, seemed like it was gone. “There was a period of time when I couldn't lift a milk carton out of the refrigerator,” he says. For a year and a half, no one could help him.
He credits Paul Chek, a holistic practitioner, for giving him the tools to rebuild, a recovery that eventually found him in front of the Great Wall of China.
The fractured ankle Way stood on was shot with Lidocaine that day. It felt like a numb club. Before the jump he'd have to look down to make sure his foot was where it was supposed to be on his board. But, first, he'd have to use it to climb 10 flights of stairs. He'd be exhausted by the time he reached the top. Way normally puts elevators into his MegaRamps, but he was unable to bring one here.
Dragonflies were swarming. They'd pelt his face as he sailed down through the air. They could get into an eye.
Action-sports films like Waiting for Lightning often jack up their subjects' failure and success — sometimes for valid reasons, sometimes not.
But Way's experience shows why grounding the accomplishments of great skaters or surfers in the reality the rest of us inhabit makes them bigger, not smaller.
“I have an issue with heights,” he says.
Ten flights above the Great Wall of China, the scaffolding next to the ramp swayed. “I cannot wait to get this over,” Way thought to himself.
And then he rolled into the jump.