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Capturing Tim Don's comeback on camera

Emmy-award-winning filmmaker Andrew Hinton likes to focus on the positives. As director of The Man with the Halo, the story of Ironman triathlete Tim Don’s recovery from a broken neck, he was not short of material. Why making the inspirational film was an inspiring experience.

Q&A with Andrew Hinton


Where did you start when you set out to make The Man with the Halo?   

Andrew Hinton: I met up with Tim and Franko, his manager, in a coffee shop in Boulder, Colorado, (US) where Tim lives. We talked through how the recovery was expected to progress and how the filmmaking would work and we all decided to go for it. Just a couple of hours after meeting Tim I was shooting him in the gym. 


How often were you with Tim for the filming? 

AH: I live in Portland, Oregon, (US) which is about a two-hour flight away from Colorado, so I couldn't just pop round to Tim’s house if something exciting happened.


I would go down to Boulder every month or so and get a concentrated hit of filming over four or five days. We planned by looking at the different milestones throughout the recovery.  I had to fit in with Tim’s schedule of course. His first priority is being the best in the world again, not making a film, which I understand. 


I also didn't want to intrude. It was a difficult time for Tim’s family. All of a sudden he needed looking after. At one point his wife Kelly was doing pretty much everything for him. He's a very active father who’s usually very involved in taking care of the two kids, so that was difficult for them. 

Tim seems to have been optimistic throughout his recovery. Was it difficult to convey the gravity of his situation while also ensuring the film told a positive story? 

AH:It was, actually, because Tim’s so relentlessly positive. I would say he's very British in the sense that he was trying to downplay everything. So as much as it was a very, very serious injury and potentially even career-threatening, he was always trying to stay focused, stay positive and keep moving forward.


There were very few moments where I observed that he was reflecting negatively on what had happened. I think once the halo came off and he realized how much work there was to do and how far he was from peak fitness, that was a challenging time for him. 


Through it all I was amazed by his determination and his single-mindedness, though this meant I had to rely on others to get across the severity of his situation. That’s why his manager Franko and his coach Julie are in the film as much as they are, because they're able to reflect on the injury in a way that Tim either wasn't or wouldn't. I think if he thought to himself that his career might be over, that would be too heavy. He was so determined to fight his way through, he couldn't dwell on that.


There's no question in Tim’s mind that he's going to get back to the Ironman world championships in Kona. And if he can compete in Kona he's not going there to make up the numbers. He wants to try and get on the podium. And I wouldn’t bet against him. 


Was there anything that surprised or shocked you during the filming? 

AH: When Tim was going to the gym in the halo he was exercising so much that the screws in his head that hold the halo in place came loose. He kept having to go in and get them tightened up again, which was pretty gruesome. And while I was there, one of them became so loose that he had to have it taken out and get a new screw inserted into his skull. When the whole screw comes out it leaves what looks like a bullet hole. I hadn’t expected that. It was pretty intense. 


What was it like capturing Tim’s return to racing at the Boston Marathon?

AH: When I first started shooting there were vague discussions about when Tim would be able to race again. At that point, with Tim in the halo, it seemed very premature to even be thinking about that stuff. When they first mentioned the Boston Marathon, I took it with a huge grain of salt. 


For Tim to be able to run the marathon and to run it in the way that he did was extraordinary. The weather on the day of the marathon was shocking – freezing cold and pouring with rain. I've never been so cold and wet while I filmed in my life. 


After Tim crossed the finish line his teeth didn’t stop chattering until he’d had a hot shower and spent twenty minutes under several layers back in his hotel bed. But he did it. In 2:49:42. It’s incredible.  

Is there a message that you hope people take away from the film? 

AH: In that first meeting that I had with Tim and Franko, we discussed that we wanted this story to resonate with anyone who's faced adversity in their life. Whether that's losing someone you love or losing the chance to win a world title, there are experiences that we have as human beings where we can either get knocked down and stay down or we can get up again and come back fighting. I think there's a lot that people can draw from that. 


At the very least, I hope people can come away from the film and say, ‘Well, what's my excuse for not running?’ There are very few people who are going to have as good an excuse as Tim did when he had the halo on. After starting to work with Tim I’ve been asking myself what my excuse is, and I don’t have one. So I’ve started running again and joined a gym. I’m not going to be signing up for Ironman events anytime soon, but I can now run 5k in 25 minutes. And that’s a good start. 


Emmy Award winner Andrew Hinton is the director of The Man with the Halo. See the full film at Photo credits: Franko Vatterott.