Born without arms as the result of a severe birth defect, Jessica Cox never allowed herself to believe that she couldn’t accomplish her dreams. An expert martial artist, college graduate and motivational speaker, Jessica is also the world’s only armless airplane pilot, a mentor and an advocate for people with disabilities. Directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Nick Spark, Right Footed chronicles Jessica’s amazing story of overcoming adversity and follows her over a period of two years as she becomes a mentor for children with disabilities and their families, and a disability rights advocate working in the U.S. and abroad. Right Footed is a 2015 Heartland Film Festival Official Selection, Documentary Feature.
We spoke with Director/Producer Nick Spark about his film:
HF: What is your film about, and how did the project come to be?
NS: Right Footed is a documentary about Jessica Cox, who was born without arm. Jessica managed to overcome the many challenges this birth defect presented, eventually becoming fully independent, learning to type with her toes, drive a car with her feet, and most amazingly she learned to fly an airplane with her feet. That achievement brought her a lot of attention and allowed her to dream about doing even more impactful work. The film follows Jessica over the course of two years as she becomes a mentor for children with disabilities and their families, and a disability rights advocate working for change in the USA and abroad.
HF: What was your role in the production?
NS: I directed and produced the film, and of course I also did a lot of the fundraising, social media, outreach, and everything else that comes along with making an independent documentary of this type. For me this film represented a three year journey, and sometimes an uncomfortable one. But when you’re making a film about someone who has defied the odds, and never gives up, it makes it a bit easier to keep going and believe that eventually you’ll succeed.
HF: Why did you submit to the Heartland Film Festival? Have you been to the Festival before?
NS: Heartland is a festival I’ve read about for years, and always wanted to attend. In fact in June of 2014, I made Heartland the very first place I submitted “Right Footed”. At that time I did not recognize how much work was ahead, because the film was not really finished and needed a lot of shaping. Needless to say we did not get in. I circled back once we had done another six months of editing, and was so gratified to get in. I can’t even explain how much it hit me to get that email, because in my mind Heartland is one of the great festivals and — just to be in that mix is an achievement.
HF: This year’s tagline is “Movies That Stay with You” – what lasting effect will your film have on moviegoers?
NS: My goal all along in the making of Right Footed was to inspire viewers. So many of the limitations we place upon ourselves are simply imaginary, and our explanations as to why we cannot do things are simply excuses. When people see how Jessica Cox learned to fly despite having no arms — they can’t help but be affected. It’s touching to me to hear people come out of a screening saying, “I’m not going to complain about X” because of what they’ve just witnessed. Beyond that I believe the film can affect attitudes about how people with disabilities are perceived, and how they perceive themselves. Jessica’s story demonstrates that access to opportunity, especially educational opportunity, can mean success for anyone and everyone no matter what limitations we perceive them to have.
HF: What has inspired you to become a filmmaker?
NS: I’ve always been a good storyteller, and an avid photographer, and I combined my two passions when I became a filmmaker. As a child I was fortunate to see a great many non-fiction films through a film series at our local university — that made me a fan — and years later my father was profiled in a documentary about physicians. I met the film crew and saw how they worked, and I just knew that I had to become a non-fiction filmmaker. I’m always surprised and excited by film’s ability to inspire and educate, and reveal truths about ourselves, but more than that to expose people to stories that they’ve never heard of before — gives me a thrill.
HF: What is something that you know about filmmaking now, but you weren’t told when you started your career?
NS: When I chose this as a career, I had no idea how hard it is to make a feature length documentary film. Not just the production or the editing, but the fundraising and outreach, and the distribution — it’s an immense job and the timeline is measured in years not months. Being ignorant of the effort that it takes, can be a blessing because otherwise I think I would never have made my first film. The good news is that I never had any illusions about what makes a film work — I’ve always had a good sense of story. So many people start working on a film and get deep into it before realizing that the most fundamental part of what makes a film work, drama and story structure, are not well developed.
HF: What are some of your favorite movies? What’s your favorite worst movie (you know it’s bad, but still love it)?
NS: The films that stay with me from my childhood are all the original Errol Morris films — including “Vernon, Florida”, “Gates of Heaven” and “The Thin Blue Line”. I loved the deceptively simple stories told in these very creative and quirkily different films, that open into much larger and serious meditations about life as you watch them. I also love and have a huge collection of original 16mm movies made by the U.S. Government during WWII – instructional films, propaganda films and documentary films including John Huston’s “Let There Be Light” and Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight.” These films are very vital and full of incredible drama because the destiny of the world was at stake in WWII, and Hollywood and films had an important role to play. As far as favorite worst movies are concerned, I am sure I have some that others consider truly bad, but in my book there’s almost always something redeeming about even the worst film. I don’t often walk out of movies because I always find something to pay attention to – acting, editing, score, writing, direction, cinematography, sound design — are all full of interesting choices and decisions if you pay attention.
HF: How many film festivals has your film been a part of? What do you like the most about the festival experience?
NS: Right Footed is slated to be in 25 film festivals through November. So far Jessica Cox or I have attended four. It’s been an amazing experience for us, because aside from seeing the film have an impact on festival goers, we’ve been privileged to have attendees who have disabilities, or who are bringing their children with disability to see the film (and sometimes to meet Jessica). Last week a little boy who was born with only one hand came to see the film with his family, and it was so touching to see how excited he was after watching the film. I really do think it had an impact on his whole sense of himself. That’s the reason I made the movie.
HF: Heartland Film Festival moviegoers love filmmaker Q&As. Let’s say a Festival attendee wants to earn some brownie points—what is a question that you’d love to answer, but haven’t yet been asked?
NS: So far when I’ve shown the film, most of the Q&A attention is directed — as it should be — towards Jessica Cox. Her life is far more interesting than mine and her story as presented in the film, really grabs audiences and gives them a connection to her. Possibly a bit lost in the shuffle is the story of how the film was made, and how hard it was to make. I originally set out to make a short, and I ended up following Jessica for two years across four states and the District of Columbia, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. The story was never clear cut and our journey forward never simple, but in the end we did end up with a complete, and I think very moving, story.
See Right Footed at the 2015 Heartland Film Festival
- AMC Castleton Square 14– Sunday, Oct. 18 – 4:45 p.m.
- AMC Showplace Traders Point 12 – Tuesday, Oct. 20 – 2:30 p.m.
- AMC Castleton Square 14 – Wednesday, Oct. 21 – 12:45 p.m.
- AMC Castleton Square 14 – Saturday, Oct. 24 – 6 p.m.