“Hi, I’m Blake” is a documentary that started filming in 2014 and follows a gymnast named Blake Hyland whose life, family, and community was forever changed by a tragic accident. Blake suffered a traumatic brain injury that changed who he was but did not stop his determination to recover while his family wrestles to restore him to his former self.
Director Jon Michael Simpson is a friend of the family which helped him craft this intimate view into the hardships and successes that families face when life suddenly turns on its head and rehabilitation becomes everyday life. Despite the sad background of the subject matter, this documentary is full of humor, joy, and inspiration for those looking for courage in trials of their own.
Recently director Jon Michael Simpson discussed this documentary via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get interested in movies and why did you gravitate towards directing?
Jon Michael Simpson (JMS): As a kid, I remember stumbling on my family’s home video collection for the first time and was amazed by all the moments I’d never seen. I watched them over and over (near obsessively) memorizing all the details I could from them, telling my brothers and sisters about hilarious moments they had to see, and marking my favorites. I was drawn in with wonder at how these simple and profound moments could live on and be rewatched forever. We started watching these as a family over the holidays and it was magic sharing experiences that made us laugh, cry and rediscover the incredible mustache my dad used to have. I always loved watching films and would beg my parents to let me stay up late watching them. I also loved being able to make my family and friends laugh and as a general seeker of attention went on to begin acting as a child through high school. I was immediately hooked by the experience of creating with a team. In college, I studied film at the University of Texas in Austin to learn how you craft a story from the other side of the camera and to continue performing. I remember the experience of creating my first short. I spent hours writing, editing, and crafting it – it was not really any good of course – but the feeling that something you wrote could become this living/breathing “thing” was amazing to me. I’ve been fortunate to be able to continue telling stories and hope to continue doing so for a long time.
MM: Why do documentaries appeal to you?
JMS: From the perspective of making them – one of my favorite places to be is sitting down with someone for an interview. Something happens where after the initial questions go by it becomes incredibly relaxed and whether you’ve known the subject for a day or months it always feels like I’m talking with a close friend. As we go back and forth many times you can see a subject learn something about their situation or life that hadn’t occurred to them before. It’s hard in the fast pace of life to slow down and reflect on ourselves or our current situation and I think documentaries – both watching and creating them – create space for that. They are fascinating and entertaining. The people on camera are fully in character, there are no costumes to be put on or effects to rig – it all happens in real-time and makes for an incredible cinematic experience. I always walk away from a powerful documentary being either moved or challenged to take more time to think about an important issue or reflect on my own life which is why I think I love them.
MM: You know Blake’s family, so how did that inside knowledge help you develop this film?
JMS: I first met Blake and the Hylands in Grapevine, Texas where we shared a fence for years. You could not ask for more kind neighbors. The Hylands were the neighbors whose yard I was not afraid to kick a ball into, the neighbors who had a spare key to our house, and the neighbors who became family. Having that shared trust made filming intimate moments with the family seamless. We had multiple conversations where I would remind them “We have to be able to be around for both the good and the bad, the big and the small moments so that an audience can connect with the reality of what’s going on in y’alls life.” The Hylands were totally on board and while it was challenging at times you see in the film how vulnerable they are willing to be with the many moments of their lives and in their interviews. It was very courageous of them. It was also fun to do together.
Our shared history meant I was able to live with the Hyland’s comfortably while filming for days at a time to be able to film from when they woke up to when they went to bed (which they didn’t always love at first). I knew we would have a better shot of being able to capture moments like tougher conversations at dinner to sweeter moments dancing in the living room with this approach. This also allowed for the audience to see the practical, small, daily obstacles Blake was navigating in his life – like stepping off a curb, picking up a pencil, bending down to grab something without falling. Anytime there was a landmark moment happening or something we had a hunch could turn into a moment the Hyland’s welcomed myself and the crew eagerly and it was gracious of them to do and the fruit of this I feel shows in the film.
MM: What was it like to film this over such an extended period of time?
JMS: Exhilarating, frustrating, the hardest and also the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life. There we so…so many times I wasn’t sure where this story would go or what to do next. It truly was a film that needed a day, a week, a year at a time to fully form. With the reality of brain injury being a lifelong recovery for those it impacts – we constantly wondered “where do you draw the line for a “finish”…when do we get there? I learned more about filmmaking, storytelling and life from making this film than I have from anything else I’ve done and I’ll carry it with me always. I’m grateful for being able to be a part of telling the Hyland’s story, for the community that came around them and the film to help this become possible and that it is getting to release in such a wide way.
MM: What is your favorite thing about this film?
JMS: Blake is so charismatic, caring of others and outright funny that he is impossible to take your eyes off of. I love that the film is able to ebb from moments of laughter at seeing Blake tell a joke or not take himself too seriously to moments that can move you to tears as the family navigates the emotional roller coaster that is recovery. I love that this film can also accomplish so much on a bigger picture level as well. The Hyland’s story will inspire, serve as an educational tool for families experiencing rehabilitation, bring awareness around brain injury and encourage those going through trials of their own.
MM: How did you go about filming this movie and how long did it take to complete?
JMS: We began filming in 2014 two months after Blake had woken up from his coma and was already making huge strides in his recovery. At the time I was sophomore in film school at the University of Texas and there was a short film competition for the top 100 film schools in the country being put on by Participant Media. The short film won the national competition and I walked away from that experience feeling that there was more of Blake’s story to tell. Even at that point he had such a clear vision of where he wanted to be in his recovery and how he wanted to use it as a way to encourage others going through what he was going through. I was amazed. I called the Hyland’s later that year about the idea of continuing to follow Blake and their story of recovery and they were on board. None of us knew how long it would go on at the time or where it would all end. I went on to film with Blake and the Hyland’s for over six years of his recovery and we finally found an ending that aligned with Blake’s goals.
MM: What other films have you worked on and what are they about?
JMS: In between filming for “Hi I’m Blake” I would try to make money editing, directing, producing, acting anything I could do – at this time I was very much a poor post-film-school grad trying to find my way. As time went on, I began to focus on producing and performing in projects with people I loved and kept Hi I’m Blake as my directing baby to keep moving along. Eventually this all lead to producing and acting in 5 feature films and getting to be a part of Snapchat/NBC’s reboot of the V/H/S franchise. in 2019 Hi I’m Blake found itself on the doorstep of Chip and Joanna Gaines as they began their new venture “Magnolia Network” with Warner Brothers Discovery. I got one of the wildest calls of my career so far from the president of the network telling me that they loved Blake’s story, the documentary and that they hoped to create a documentary anthology series inspired by the film called the “HI I’m” series. A cut down tv-length version of Hi I’m Blake would kick off the series and they wanted me to direct another and possibly more. I was floored and of course said yes! Since then, I’ve gotten the chance to create two more episodes in the Hi I’m series – one called Hi I’m Sevy and another episode I’m really thrilled about, but don’t believe we can share about till later this year. Hi I’m Sevy follows the story of a 18-year old masterful artist named Sevy Eicher who lives in Houston and also has down syndrome. Sevy, her mother Lisa, and their family run the Sandal Gap Studios which helps other artists with disabilities find their craft and voice. I’m currently serving as the line producer for MRC/Fulwell 73’s Milli Vanilli Documentary and got to play Will in my friend Emily Hagin’s Shudder Original – “Sorry About the Demon.” This film follows a freshly heartbroken/sad boy Will as he moves out of his girlfriend’s place only to slowly find out his new home is in fact – very possessed. It’s a very earnest, funny and scary film that I’m thrilled to be a part of and will premiere on Shudder in January.
MM: What other subjects might you explore in future documentaries?
JMS: I would love to make a documentary that follows a story set in the background of dancing or the world of music. These are areas that have always been such a huge part of my life and require such an immense dedication from the people who aim to master crafts in them. Really the chance to follow someone pushing the limits in their respective field will always interest me. The military world and its history has also been fascinating to me since I was a kid. I think having a lot of family in my life that have served or are currently serving is a big part of that too.
MM: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your career so far?
JMS: I am very thankful to be at the place I am now and don’t want to rush any of it. Young Jon Michael would never in a million years would have thought “I’m going to make documentaries one day” – he really wanted to be on SNL or host Late Night (…and still does). But discovering documentary filmmaking has been such a joy and a huge surprise in my career. Working in film, and documentaries specifically, has given me the ability to travel, sit down with incredible people from a variety of backgrounds and become a student of their world. And it’s my job! I feel fortunate to be able to be a part of different projects and wear different hats and while sometimes it’s a lot to juggle – the surprises keep me excited and I’m curious what will come next.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
JMS: I would love to see Blake and the Hyland’s story reach as many people as possible – especially those families and communities that have experienced recovery and rehabilitation as a lifestyle. This film has an incredible chance to raise awareness around brain injury which medical experts call “The Silent Epidemic” – it’s not discussed in public spaces like it needs to be and I hope Hi I’m Blake can help support those voices. We are all dealing with struggles in our lives that at times can feel impossible and Blake and his family are a wildly inspiring example that there is strength to keep taking one more step. I believe what they have overcome are impossible odds and I hope audiences will enjoy and be moved by their story.