In 2005 Logan Smalley, a special education major at the University of Georgia-Athens, undertook a venture that would change his life, not to mention the lives of those who view his amazing film. Smalley rented a handicapped accessible RV, recruited ten talented and energetic friends, and took Darius Weems, a fifteen year old with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy—the number one genetic killer of children—on a 7,000 miles trip across the United States and back. The documentary film that was made of the trip, Darius Goes West: The Roll of His Life, has already garnered over 25 awards at film festivals over the US and has alerted America to the need for finding a cure for DMD and the necessity of making all public facilities handicap accessible.
I caught up with Smalley in Athens just before he left to return to Harvard. Logan Smalley is now 25, and I believe he is just beginning to make his mark on the world.
How did you get to know Darius Weems?
I met Darius at a summer camp for children with special needs in Athens, GA, called Project REACH back when I was 13. My mom made me volunteer there (just for one week), and I went kicking and screaming. But I ended up liking it (and the campers) so much that I stuck around all that summer and returned as a volunteer or counselor for seven summers after that.
What motivated you to undertake this project---renting an RV and taking Darius on a road trip to CA?
When I first started volunteering at the camp, I was actually a counselor for Darius's older brother, Mario (Darius was about 5 at the time and still mobile). Mario was closer to my age, and we became good friends. Mario also had DMD, and when he died (7 years ago), he asked me to look after Darius. I agreed, never dreaming that this promise would entail a 7,000-mile road trip and a documentary many years later.
The actual idea to travel to L.A. and try to get Darius's wheelchair customized on "Pimp My Ride" was one Darius and I both came up with together one day when I was at his house, and we were watching "Pimp My Ride." Both of us looked at each other and said, "Wouldn't that be cool?"
How long did the trip take and what were some of the highlights?
The trip lasted 3.5 weeks and was 7,000-plus miles. Every day was a highlight for Darius, who had never left the county he was born and raised in. But his favorite spots were the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas (where he won $60 when I gambled on his behalf). For me, my favorite parts were the send off and the homecoming. I never dreamed so many supporters would show up for these events and that was so cool.
How and when did you get the idea to do a documentary and what were some of the obstacles you encountered?
In the beginning, it was just going to be a trip for Darius. Then we realized the trip should have a purpose. It was Darius's idea to use the trip to raise awareness of his disease, Then, we thought it would be a great idea to film the trip so that we could tell even more people (through the film) about DMD, which is the number one genetic killer of children worldwide.
How was the venture funded?
We got a few grants, but mostly we raised the money selling hot dogs at Kroger, having a barbecue, and (the biggest fundraiser of all) selling credits in the movie for $10 and up. Variety magazine recently wrote that we have the longest credit roll in documentary history, and we're proud of that.
I understand you and your friend John Hadden attended the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. Did that trip inspire you in any way to want to make a film?
We did attend Cannes in 2004 as part of a study abroad program at the University of Georgia. And it did inspire me to want to make a film because while there, I saw a film called "Tarnation," and the director talked about how he made this amazing film for just a few hundred dollars. I left the theater wondering what story I had to share.
What were some of your memorable experiences from the film circuit you have been traveling this past year?
Our world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is particularly memorable because it's the only festival all 12 of us were able to attend, plus Martin Bashir from ABC's Nightline interviewed us there. That's also where we won our first award (Audience Choice), which was a shocker, but so thrilling. The Cleveland International Film Festival was memorable because we won two audience choice awards. One was the Greg Gund Memorial Standing Up Film Competition, which honors movies about social change, so it meant a lot to win that one. The red carpet atmosphere at AFI/Dallas was unforgettable, and meeting Robert DeNiro at Tribeca was awesome. But some of the best memories I have from the film festival circuit were in hotel rooms not theaters...because traveling with Darius is always memorable. (photo above shows Darius with Felicity Huffman)
Darius has been to California three times now, twice by plane (once as Tom Shadyac's guest at the premiere of "Evan Almighty" and once to appear on the Ellen Degeneres show!). He has been to NYC for screenings and festivals, where he did some freestyle rap battles with the locals in Times Square. Every time he goes to a festival, it is like reliving that incredible feeling of hitting the road for the first time in '05.
Tell me about your academic plans now that you are doing graduate work at Harvard? You have a degree in Special Education from the University of GA, is that correct?
That is correct. I have an undergraduate degree in special education, and I am currently pursuing a master's in degree in Technology, Innovation, and Education at Harvard University. I absolutely love what I'm studying—the ways in which technologies do and do NOT affect education--and I hope to merge my passions of film/video and education upon graduating.
How has this experience affected your life?
Just hanging around Darius for so long has given me what I believe to be a unique and authentic perspective on how to prioritize things. Darius comes from a tough neighborhood, has a tough history, and has one of the toughest diseases in this world. He will pass away at a young age, and he knows it. However, he has an overwhelmingly positive outlook on life, has showed us all how to deal with loss, and despite living under the poverty line, he has made the decision to donate every penny this film has made (nearly 1 million dollars to date and growing substantially with the DVD release) to research that will potentially save the next generation of children with DMD. Now THAT'S integrity! This whole experience has affected my life in that I know exactly who I want to be like when I grow up, and he is only eighteen!
The film Darius Goes West is now being used in the classroom ("Know About It" Program). How do you envision the impact of this film on young people?
Despite popular opinion, I do not believe that young people lack motivation. In fact, I think the up and coming millennia are the most talented (and motivated) generation in history. However, I do believe that youth often lack clear outlets for their motivation. Causes are often political and confusing, or they discourage a certain portion of the population. Darius Goes West, particularly the "Know About It" program, is a bit more pure. It targets middle/high school age students, has little to do with politics, and every cent goes directly to researching treatment for kids the same age as these students--plus it's fun! When kids watch our movie, they laugh, cry, and then they say, "How can I help?" The "Know About It" program gives clear options to answering that question, and in the process, students may learn, as we have, how incredible Darius' life is. Please encourage people to sign up for this program.
What are your plans for the future (other than finishing your graduate degree)? Do you plan to make any more films?
I would like to make another documentary at some point, and I have a few ideas. However, Darius Goes West will be my primary cause until this disease is affected. Much sooner than going into production for another documentary, I will be back in the editing room cutting up our 200+ hours of extra footage for hilarious DVD extras. These extras will be released over time on our website Darius Goes West. The reason for their timed release is to encourage a sense of community around Darius and our cause.
Thank you, Logan, for taking time out of your very busy schudule to share your story with Swampland readers. I am honored to be a part of spreading the word. Good luck and God speed.
--Penne J. Laubenthal