By Brian Powell
Nick Spark remembers well the showing of his second documentary film, “The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club,” in his hometown of Tucson. His high-school classmate, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was in attendance to watch the film about a pioneering woman aviator and rival of Amelia Earhart.
Less than five months later, Giffords was shot in a Tucson shopping-center parking lot while hosting a “Meet Your Congresswoman” constituent event.
“The day that happened, I said, I don’t know what my next film project is going to be, but it has to be a very powerful, uplifting, dynamic film that has positive themes,” Spark says.
Spark—a Class of 1988 Flinn Scholar, University of Arizona graduate, and documentary filmmaker living in Los Angeles—delivered on his promise.
“Right Footed” has become an international success and is in the midst of being shown in 83 countries around the world. The film tells the story of Jessica Cox of Tucson, who was born without arms yet has learned to fly an airplane using her feet. After learning about her life, Spark became convinced early on that telling this story could affect people in a positive way.
“And (Cox) saw in me someone truly passionate about telling that kind of story and someone who would champion her not just because she performed an amazing feat by flying with her feet, but would also see her as a mentor for children and someone working tirelessly for disability rights,” Spark says.
The 2015 film has been shown in more than 50 film festivals around the world, including winning the Mirabile Dictu International Catholic Film Festival in Vatican City. Spark plans to show the film in the Philippines later this year as part of the Department of State’s American Film Showcase.
The documentary—which took two years to film in the United States, the Philippines, and Ethiopia and a year to edit— has been picked up by National Geographic and will air on its Fuse cable channel in the United States beginning as early as May. The film is currently airing in Italy, Brazil, the Philippines, and Turkey as part of a three-year rotation to reach all 83 countries. In addition, the 82-minute film is currently available on Amazon and iTunes.
“It is fundamentally important to show this film in the developing world,” he says. “There are so many places where if you are born with a disability you can never have a job and will be discriminated against at every turn. I hope the film has a very broad impact for many, many years.”
A Filmmaking Career
When Spark entered UA as a creative-writing major, he already had his sights set on a filmmaking career. A grant from UA enabled him to make a short documentary, “Just Puttering Around,” about Tucson folk artist William Holzman, who was 89 years old when the film was completed in 1992. Later that year, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded him a 1992 student Emmy Award.
Following his graduation from UA, Spark earned a master’s degree in film production from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he studied producing, sound design, cinematography, editing, and script writing.
Despite his love of documentaries, Spark realized he needed to make some money. He was an assistant editor on the television show “Dawson’s Creek” during its first season, and later a first assistant editor on the 2000 Arnold Schwarzenegger action thriller, “The 6th Day.”
Spark remembers the frantic, overwhelming production schedule and the exhaustion he felt.
“At the end of the process I wanted to get back to what I was passionate about, which is making my own films,” Spark says.
“Regulus,” a documentary released in 2002, was a historical Cold War film about the first submarine equipped with nuclear missiles. The historical theme continued with the 2009 film, “The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club,” written and produced by Spark, which still airs on public television and won a Los Angeles Area Emmy for arts and culture/history. Kathy Bates narrated the voice of Barnes in the film, which included interviews with famous pilots including Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier, and Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon.
Spark has also written a book, “A History of Murphy’s Law” about the history and meaning of the famous saying.
When not writing, filming, editing, or promoting one of his own documentaries, Spark and a business partner run a stock-footage business, Periscope Film. His company scans historical film using a high-end digital machine and makes it available for filmmakers around the world.
The Flinn Scholarship
The soon-to-be-announced Class of 2017 Flinn Scholars will be the 32nd class since the program’s inception. The merit-based Flinn Scholarship covers the cost of tuition, fees, room and board and at least two study-abroad experiences at an Arizona public university. The overall financial package today is valued at more than $115,000.
Yet when Spark accepted the Flinn Scholarship in 1988, it was a new program without the proven track record it has today. In fact, the first class of Scholars had yet to graduate from Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, or the University of Arizona.
As a high-school senior, Spark knew he wanted to get a master’s degree at USC—recognized as a premier film school—and he didn’t see how that was going to be possible financially if he also had to pay for an undergraduate education. By accepting the Flinn Scholarship, he could save his money to attend graduate school.
And after visiting the Flinn Foundation and interviewing for the scholarship, he says he was blown away and eagerly accepted the offer.
“Immediately I had friends and people who were working on the same level as I was …. and being part of that group was fantastic,” Spark says. “The overseas travel, insisting that we live on campus, and being part of the Scholars group fostered community and expanded my horizons.”
Twenty-five years after graduating from UA, Spark remains in contact with several Flinn Scholars, including a few that are in close proximity to him in Los Angeles.
“I wish I was able to see more of the Scholars and stay in touch with more of them,” Spark says. “Getting to meet all these people and being a Flinn Scholar remains among the greatest four years of my life.”