Jon Michael Simpson was a sophomore film student at the University of Texas with Hollywood dreams. He never dreamed his debut project would instead bring him back home.
Simpson’s documentary Hi, I’m Blake chronicles the arduous and somewhat miraculous recovery of Grapevine teenager Blake Hyland from a traumatic brain injury suffered during a gymnastics accident in 2014.
“He was doing a new move and was supposed to spin into this foam pit,” Simpson recalled. “But his head hit concrete with the force of a 60 mph car crash. It was as bad as you’d think.”
The Hylands were living in Waco at the time, in part to help Blake pursue his aspirations as an elite gymnast. Simpson — a former Grapevine neighbor who has known the family since he was a child — was attending school about 100 miles south in Austin, where he heard the horrific news. After five seizures, Blake had been placed into a medically induced coma.
“He was given a 50-50 chance to survive the initial night. Then he was going to be in a vegetative state, and not be able to walk and talk,” Simpson said. “He made some crazy strides in his recovery.”
Two months after the incident, Simpson had enough footage for an intimate two-minute documentary, which he submitted to a national competition sponsored by Participant Media, looking to highlight stories about overcoming the odds. He won, but knew the story wasn’t finished.
“Making this film was kind of like my master’s,” Simpson said. “They were completely open and vulnerable in their interviews.”
Simpson kept filming, at first for a year, then for more. He paid for it through donations. It wasn’t until six years after the accident, in early 2020, that he decided to wrap.
“It’s way bigger than I ever imagined. I never saw myself becoming a documentary filmmaker, but it felt like one of those things I had to do,” Simpson said. “He’s an amazing kid. He has this contentment and joy that so many of us are looking for. Blake is such a charismatic person and someone who people are drawn to.”
The feature-length version of the documentary screened at a handful of small festivals, eventually catching the eye of Waco-based media moguls Chip and Joanna Gaines. They wanted a pared-down version to launch a new series of inspiring true stories called “Hi, I’m” on their upstart Magnolia Network.
Meanwhile, the full film was picked up for a brief theatrical run in selected markets last fall, with its local debut held last Sunday at SMU’s Hughes-Trigg Student Center.
The free screening raised money to benefit Ronald McDonald House of Dallas, which housed the Hyland family during much of Blake’s recovery and is a key location in the film. Simpson participated in a post-screening Q&A session along with the Hylands, including Blake.
Through its wide-ranging emotions, Simpson hopes the film will generate awareness for traumatic brain injuries, which some health professionals have labeled a “silent epidemic.”
“We think this is going to be helpful for people who are in recovery, or anyone who is at any level of adversity,” he said. “The film acts as a powerful emotional story, but also an educational tool.”