Throwback Thursday: Doing it the Spark Way!

by SparkMedia
October 1, 2015  |  Awards,Documentaries,Partners of the Heart

All this talk of NEH50 has gotten us thinking. As you know, the National Endowment for the Humanities recently selected Partners of the Heart as one of its best projects over its five decade history. This honor came as a complete surprise, and we were humbled to have been selected.

This exciting news still conjurers up old memories of that exciting production. And so as a bit of a treat, this Throwback Thursday, we wanted to resurrect our Behind-the-Scenes document, which was part of our PR packaging at the time. We hope you enjoy Doing It the Spark Way!


Doing It The Spark Way, Or “We Run This Ship On Hawaiian Time, Baby” 

Behind the Scenes of Partners of the Heart 


Ha•wai•ian Time (ha-wä’yen tīm) Sequence of time that is laid back and relaxed; time constraints without a definitive constraint; i.e. you get there when you get there.


How can one condense the events of eight years into the span of a few pages? The obvious answer is that you can’t. The story behind Partners of the Heart is a fascinating adventure in itself, a roller coaster ride that began when director Andrea Kalin read a simple article in the Washingtonian magazine and put together the team to create the documentary you will soon see. And like any roller coaster, the highs were high, and the lows were low, and the air was full of people screaming, crying, and laughing. Here then is a smattering of the highs and lows on Partners

Partners of the Heart required several major production shoots. The first took place in Vivien Thomas’ childhood home, Nashville. Associate Producer Monte Achenbach made several trips to the southern city to scout locations and find interview subjects. One such potential interviewee was cardiac surgeon Dr. William Stoney of the St.Thomas Hospital. Dr. Stoney is a sort of unofficial historian of cardiac surgery, having interviewed dozens of cardiac pioneers. During the meeting, Achenbach made the mistake of asking how an operating room might look as a backdrop for an interview. Dr. Stoney, obligingly, brought him to an OR…during an operation. Stoney shoved the anesthesiologist out of the way so he and Achenbach could stand at the patient’s head and get a clear view of the open chest. A valuable lesson was learned here: most operations are not the frantic jump cut, action-packed bonanzas seen on TV. Rather, they are calm, professional, and sometimes even nonchalant. The surgeon, whose eyes never left the patient, spent the entire operation asking Achenbach about Partners. Achenbach stammered and nervously mumbled his replies, his horrified eyes locked to patient’s chest. Dr. Stoney, who had had a similar operation, stoically watched the procedure, “Sometimes I look at what they’re doing to the body and I say to myself-shit.”

Photographic and archival research for Partners provided its own challenges. Over four years, they toiled through boxes and basements that resembled medieval torture chambers looking for relevant footage and photos. One such item was the film of Dr. Alfred Blalock’s 60th Birthday celebration at the Southern Hotel, an event to which Vivien Thomas was not invited, but we’re pretty sure he went to anyway. For Partners, locating the 60th Birthday film became the search for the Lost Ark. After months of archeological digs through Hopkins’ film archives, Spark’s team finally located the movie-only to discover that the reel contained something else-Johns Hopkins’ 75th Anniversary (which does make an appearance in the final film). The search for the 60th Birthday took on epic proportions, as Spark Media turned into a production company version of Captain Ahab and ruthlessly cut a swath through archives and personal sources across the country. Dr. David Sabiston, a protégé of Blalock’s, may or may not have had the film, though in the end his wife informed us that no one had the film because it never existed. There had been no cameras at the 60th Birthday celebration. The wild goose chase was over…for a while. Recently, there have been murmurings in the dark that the film does exist, and maybe someday the quest will begin again.

When the Blue Baby operation became public in May 1945, the story exploded. Newspapers were full to the brim of articles about these poor children. For four months, Spark researcher James Mirabello scoured the Library of Congress for these headlines. The problem was that the LOC had no index for older papers, which meant in some cases, Mirabello had to look at every page of every issue of various newspapers in the mid-forties. He came across some interesting headlines, such as “Scots Using Bagpipes As Terror Weapons Against Germans.” It didn’t take long to find the blue baby articles-this was a huge phenomenon and stories were everywhere, some useful, such as “West Virginia Mother Hitchhikes Blue Baby Here For Aid,” and some were not so useful, such as “Blue Baby Case Laid to Colored Crayon Diet.” After working at the LOC for three months, one begins to recognize the regular patrons. The most intriguing regular was an elderly chap who resembled David Niven, but sounded like Bela Legosi; he was a wonderfully nice man. On the other hand, there was the trio of young stud Eastern Europeans who became the bane of Mirabello’s existence. At the time, there was only one really good microfilm machine in the LOC and the Eastern Europeans were always there. When they had to leave for lunch, one of the three would always stay with the machine, keeping watch, protecting their territory. It would not have been a surprise if the Librarians had come in one morning to see a Czech flag staked into the top of the microfilm monitor. Occasionally, though, Mirabello would get to the machine first. Then the entire day would be spent nervously looking over his shoulder at three grumbling, glaring, dispossessed vultures who were waiting to pounce the second a lunch or bathroom break was needed. Those were…uncomfortable days.

The Recreations Shoot in August 2001 was perhaps the most involved, trying event in the Partners production schedule. Hollywood director Bill Duke came on board to help direct the Recreation sequences, and Andrea Kalin gathered a large team of professionals and friends, the latter to save money (The Spark Way!). The crew worked grueling 13-hour days in insufferable heat. Kalin and Associate Producer Skip Coblyn were not sleeping or eating, and were being force fed strange Vitamin E drinks to keep them working, which wouldn’t have been too bad except the drinks tasted like melted G.I.Joe toys. Part of the shoot took place in a long abandoned operating theater and morgue. The sets built were brilliant and accurate, but they stood right next to a crumbling wall or a friendly blob of asbestos. And let’s not forget that the place was haunted. The Recreations Shoot started out with a problem. The actor cast in the crucial role of Vivien Thomas showed up on set looking…well, twelve. He was a talented actor, but looked too young for the part. Try as they might, the makeup could not age him. In a frenzy, Kalin had to ask herself, “To film or not to film.” Meanwhile, everyone should know that David Bowie is not the Man Who Fell to Earth; Chris Haley is. Haley was an extra who just miraculously wandered into the room where Kalin was giving her soliloquy, and the second she saw him, she knew “That’s our Vivien!” Indeed, Haley closely resembled Vivien Thomas, and literally saved the whole production by his wandering around.

Spark Media is a small company that dreams big. Combine the lack of labor resources with the inevitable funding issues, as well as the planning required for no less than three major production shoots and half a dozen minor ones, and one can understand why Partners of the Heart took four years to complete instead of the expected two. There was also a commitment to making this film as excellent as it could be. To the Spark team, quality is more important than absolute promptness. It’ll get done when it gets done, because we run this ship on Hawaiian Time, baby, and rest assured that when it does get done, it’ll be really, really good. We certainly feel the final film of Partners of the Heart has been worth the wait.