COLUMBIA — The lights are down in the theater where True/False Film Festival-goers munch on fistfuls of popcorn, wiggling in their seats as they settle in before the main feature begins. The familiar red, white and black True/False logo beams on the screen, black circles pulsating hypnotically around its perimeter.
The logo gives way to a bright shot of Columbia skyline. Where the city meets the clouds, a quote onscreen reads, “Leap, and the net will appear.”
Cut to Nate Zabel, a guy in glasses clad in black. He stands by a stone wall, brow furrowed, eyes fixed on something in the distance. He takes off sprinting, bounding up a wall nearly twice his height. A moment later, he’s dashing across downtown roofs, hurdling obstacles and all but flying up the sides of walls. He soars off the side of a building, vanishing.
As the spectacle draws to a close, we see Zabel gazing up at the MU columns.
Suddenly, he’s standing on a column, silhouetted against the sun.
He leaps. The audience gasps.
Zabel soars through the air and sticks a precarious landing on top of the next column. The leap looks almost unreal — and maybe it is. As the audience murmurs, the scene cuts to a screen full of sponsor logos.
Directed by Columbia filmmaker Nathan Truesdell, with music composed by Jon Sheffield, this short film, called a “bumper,” was the fourth and final in a series that preceded True/False documentaries during last weekend’s festival. Every day, a different bumper aired, each featuring acrobatic feats more mind-boggling than the last.
“There were gasps, applause,” True/False co-director David Wilson said, “People really seemed to enjoy them.”
The bumpers left audiences in disbelief, and a hodgepodge of awestruck, skeptical and confused questions united in a common refrain: How the heck did they do that?
“There’ve been a lot of questions like, ‘How’d you do that?’” Truesdell said. “...If people are wondering and found some sort of magic in it, then it’s definitely doing its job.”
Truesdell said he didn’t want to spoil the fun or unravel the mystery by revealing whether some of the bumpers’ more outrageous feats — a handstand on top of the Tiger Hotel sign, a back flip performed atop a chimney at the new Ragtag CinemaCafé, a scene in which Zabel crawled across wires strung over a downtown intersection, and the now famous column leap — were, strictly speaking, real. But he did admit that, yes, there’s a little more going on than what meets the eye.
“Everything was real in one way or another,” Truesdell said. “Those guys are extremely athletic and talented at what they do. They really impressed us with some of the superhuman things that they did.”
For Zabel, a former MU swimmer, Dante Jones, an MU diver and David Boyko, also an MU diver — leaping, flipping and performing handstands surrounded by familiar downtown and MU campus scenery is second nature. Jones spent five years doing gymnastics. Zabel and Boyko participate in parkour and free running.
The sports are like a highly sophisticated version of running around like a hyperactive kid: Parkour involves navigating a path using outside objects to propel yourself forward, performing somersaults, jumps, climbs and crawls to reach a point with as little extra movement as possible. Its cousin, free running, is like a hybrid of parkour and break dancing, allowing for an artistic interpretation, injecting flips and extra flourishes for fun.
Zabel said it took good camera work to translate their real movement to film.
“Nate (Truesdell) had such a great sense of how to shoot video,” Zabel said. “He really made it so real, just more visceral than just a stationary camera.”
Truesdell said even his camera couldn’t capture everything.
“Some of the stuff they did I couldn’t even do justice to what it looked like in real life,” Truesdell said.
Most of the spectacular elements in the film were real. Truesdell said the gang spent several hours atop the Tiger Hotel, and Zabel said all jumps and leaps over high walls were absolutely authentic.
“You run straight at the wall and change your energy up the wall,” Zabel said. “If you’re doing good, you should be able to make it up a wall that’s twice your height. On a good day, I should be able to make it up 13 feet.”
Facts behind the fiction
Though most of the bumpers showcased authentic acts of athletic prowess, secrets lurk beneath the footage that graced the silver screen.
Boyko said the MU Swim and Dive coaches keep a close eye on the athletes and that as a team member, he wouldn’t do anything that could jeopardize his sport.
“They don’t want us to do anything where we’d hurt ourselves,” Boyko said. “I’m good at assessing the risk of what I’m doing.”
Zabel, referring to whether he’d do something as crazy as leaping from one column to another, acknowledged that an empty wallet makes him reconsider outrageous hijinks.
“It’s not that I’d be afraid to do those things,” he said. “I don’t have health insurance and I can’t afford getting injured. I can’t afford going to jail, either. It all boils down to money.”
Even if Zabel would be willing to climb the columns, Phil Shocklee, associate director of Campus Facilities at MU, said he’d have a tough time getting up there.
“We couldn’t let anyone up there because of liability issues ...the columns are the icon of the university, very old, very sacred,” Shocklee said. “We certainly wouldn’t want anything done damage to them, and we wouldn’t want anyone going up there and getting hurt.”
Shocklee said no one made any arrangements to bring the kind of heavy equipment that would be needed to get someone on top of the columns.
“We wouldn’t just let heavy equipment on the quad without necessary arrangements being made,” he said. “We just couldn’t let them up there because of liability. We wouldn’t want to do that in the first place.”
And Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said it’s pretty unlikely two other spectacles, the tightrope feats above a downtown intersection and the handstand atop the Tiger Hotel sign, happened — at least, not like they appeared on screen.
Boehm said that to string the wires up in the first place, you’d have to trespass on private property and he “doubted seriously one could get permission, because of liability.” If you had to break in, at least to some extent, to hang up the wires, you could even face a burglary charge, he said.
As for whether Zabel would have been arrested for tight-roping downtown: “The actual act of walking across an intersection on wires probably wouldn’t break any laws I can think of,” Boehm said. “We don’t have a law related to common sense.”
Boehm said he’d be surprised if no one called the police if they saw a guy hanging from wires midair or noticed someone doing a handstand on top of the Tiger Hotel’s sign. The police department received no such reports, he said.
People pondering the true and false of the True/False trailers can rally around one bit of evidence in particular. Truesdell said most of the shooting for the shorts was completed by November. But one of the bumpers, which concludes with Jones doing a back flip on one of the chimneys at the new Ragtag, doesn’t quite fit with the time frame. If you look closely, you’ll notice the windows have been installed at the theater. Those windows weren’t installed until 2008.
Zabel emphasized that any parts of the bumpers where a little deception might be involved were still rooted in reality.
“That was me,” he said. “It wasn’t animation. Everything that happened could possibly have happened. It can be done. It’s just dangerous.”
The quest among the stunt men and Truesdell, then, was to pursue the fine line between reality and imagination.
“We were looking for things that might be possible, but that people wouldn’t do because they’re too dangerous,” Zabel said.
Truesdell said the ambiguity fits right in with the spirit of True/False.
“There is a certain amount of movie magic,” he said. “Just like in all movies and all documentaries.”