Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Emmy™Award-Winning Documentary Film

"Broadcast" version now airing on most public television stations.

"Uncensored" version now on DVD and in film festivals.

Synopsis: A charismatic figure featured in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff, Florence "Pancho" Barnes was one of the most important women in 20th Century aviation. A tough and fearless aviatrix, Pancho was a rival of Amelia Earhart's who made a name for herself as Hollywood's first female stunt pilot. Just before WWII she opened a ranch near Edwards Air Force Base that became a famous -- some would say notorious -- hangout for test pilots and movie stars. Known as the "Happy Bottom Riding Club", it became the epicenter of the aviation world during the early jet age. Chuck Yeager celebrated breaking the sound barrier there in 1947, and Howard Hughes and Jimmy Doolittle caroused in the bar. The Club's destruction by fire in 1953 is seen by many to mark the end of a Golden Era in post-WWII aviation. In the same fashion Pancho herself has become something of a legend, a fascinating yet enigmatic icon whose swagger is often celebrated, but whose story has been largely unknown. Until now.

A documentary film produced and written by Nick Spark and directed by Amanda Pope. Featuring interviews with test pilots Bob Cardenas, Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and biographers Barbara Schultz and Lauren Kessler. Narrated by Tom Skerritt with Kathy Bates as the voice of Pancho Barnes.

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Women in Aviation
"Read Nick Spark's article about Pancho
from Women in Aviation magazine (.pdf)"
04 June 2008

Burning Down the House...Almost!

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As you’ll read in future editions of the Production Journal, making a documentary film does not necessarily just mean shooting interviews and sifting through archival materials. Every now and then, we get to do something a bit different! That was the case when, recently, we got together with director of photography Clay Westervelt for a special “shoot.”

Some back story on this. During a screening of our “rough cut” of the film a few months ago, Clay had made an interesting, and highly creative, suggestion. In Clay’s mind, the segment of the film recounting the fire at Pancho’s ranch (see 1-16-08 production journal) and its aftermath wasn’t dramatic enough. His suggestion? Shoot something that would evoke that terrible day, and give a sense of what was actually lost in the fire.

Sounds like a great idea. But just how do you do it — when you have no money to spend on building sets and doing a re-enactment? Simple, said Clay: burn some photos of Pancho and the Happy Bottom Riding Club, and shoot them with a video camera in slow motion!

Ahhh, the miracles of the modern world. We quickly made a bunch of photo dupes at the local Costco, bought a small welding torch at Home Depot, picked up some used picture frames at Goodwill, and proceeded to burn through a stack of 8x10s. For effect, we mounted some of the frames on a weathered picnic table turned on its side. With its bare wood surface, it looked just like the wall of the Happy Bottom Riding Club!

Oh, and did I mention, I brought a fire extinguisher, just in case? That turned out to be one of my slickest moves as producer, since during the shoot we did have a little, uh, incident. Thanks to some quick reflexes, the damage was limited… (Hey Clay, sorry about your picnic table!)

Clay’s shots were exactly what the doctor ordered — stunning, emotional images that get across the intensity of the fire on a visceral level. Plus, we had a lot of fun, and no one got hurt.

Want to see the results? Well stay tuned, they are featured in our film in a couple of places.

By the way, special thanks to Markus Lodewyk who helped with the shoot, and provided the photos.

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The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club ©2008-2010 Nick Spark Productions, LLC.