Spark on HBO: Interview with Juan Martinez Vera

Juan Martinez Vera’s Sloan-supported, nineteen-minute film SPARK will debut on HBO on June 1 of 2017. Based on a true events, SPARK is about a group of students who use a mesh network, in this case a messaging system which functions offline, to communicate with each other in Venezuela during national protests. Vera modeled the messaging app, called Spark in the film, off of FireChat. FireChat’s CEO and co-founder, Micha Benoleil, is one of the film’s producers. Sloan Science & Film spoke over Skype with Vera and his producer Diego Nájera before the film’s premiere.

Science & Film: Juan, how did you come to this story?

Juan Martinez Vera: I watch the news all the time, and in 2014 I was watching what was happening in Venezuela; there were conflicts going on around the world at the same time: the protests in Venezuela, the refugee crisis in Syria, and the Ukraine uprising. I discovered how people were using social media to connect and give each other hope. That was the heart of the story: how social media and these new technologies are changing the way people organize and create social movements around the world. So that was the initial thought. I started doing research about Venezuela, Syria, and Ukraine. Once I presented the project to Diego and Tim Hautekiet, who produced the film, he suggested concentrating on one story because the budget we had from the Sloan Foundation was just enough to create one of those worlds. I chose Venezuela because it is closest to my own background and I have read more about it. The media censorship in Venezuela is extreme.

For me, social media was always a solution and a source of hope in the story. The story is dark because it is about a kid in denial about his dad’s disappearance and possibly death. When I introduced social media I wanted it to become the salvation.

S&F: Did you film on location?

JV: No, but we did hire somebody to shoot drone footage of Venezuela.

Diego Nájera: SPARK uses archive footage of the protests in Venezuela that happened during 2014.

S&F: You got the Sloan grant through the University of Southern California. Were you working with a science advisor on the script?

JV: I reached out to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism because there is a professor there interested in social movements named Manuel Castells. When I met with him, he suggested talking with Geoffrey Cowan as well because Cowan’s background is more focused in technology. I approached Geoffrey and he read and loved the story. We met on a monthly basis and he gave me notes about how realistically the technology was being portrayed. This was before the CEO of FireChat got involved. The first drafts of SPARK were more about social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Then, I discovered FireChat. I started talking to the CEO and he liked the story. Coincidentally, in the process of writing and making SPARK, FireChat has become more and more popular in Venezuela.

S&F: Has the current situation in Venezuela changed how you view the story?

DN: We began working on SPARK in 2014 and developed it for eight months. We shot in summer of 2015, so the short film has taken a while to get to theaters and festivals. Since then, the technology and the power that social media has in Venezuela–as well as the humanitarian and social crisis–has escalated. The last seven weeks have been awful. People are getting killed in the streets and protests are going on every day.

S&F: How did HBO find the film?

DN: We have been very close with the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP). Benjamin Lopez, who is the head, showcased SPARK last year at the media summit which was sponsored by HBO. HBO liked the film and wanted to distribute it.

S&F: Would you consider making it into a feature?

JV: There has been talk about making SPARK a feature. I have been working with another person to develop a pitch. My dream would be to make a feature version of the first draft where there was the Syrian story, Ukrainian story, and Venezuelan story. I miss the global aspect of it. So far, the interest has been in making just the Venezuelan feature.

SPARK is written and directed by Juan Martinez Vera, and produced by Diego Nájera along with Tim Hautekiet and Micha Benoliel. It stars Gabriel Tarantini, Carlos Montilla, and Ileanna Simancas. Vera received a production grant to make SPARK from the University of Southern California’s Sloan program. Vera received an award for Best Student Filmmaker in 2016 from the Director's Guild of America. SPARK will premiere on HBO on June 1 at 9:45pm EST, and be available thereafter on HBO GO.