‘River Common’ documentary recognizes unknown history

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First Posted: 2/18/2014

In Scott Spinucci’s film “America’s First Park: River Common,” many historic battles that occurred on the site of the Wilkes-Barre park, located along the eastern bank of the Susquehanna River, are detailed, but the sometimes public fight to complete the documentary itself may be almost as epic.

A graduate of Marywood and Slippery Rock Universities, Spinucci studied media, communications, and advertising before working for Time Warner, which included projects with HBO, People Magazine, and Warner Music Group. He formed his own company, AppleCart Cinema, in 2005, and by the following year, he started working on a promotional video for Luzerne County to help receive funding for the renovation of the River Common.

“I thought that this would be the spark that turned Wilkes-Barre around and would be the key to downtown renaissance. That was something I’ve always been trying to do in one group or another,” Spinucci said, including in Wilkes-Barre Tomorrow.

“I did the project for about a quarter of what it should have cost, and they ended up raising about $5.2 million because of that; it helped out a lot. In the end, actually, the project was Wilkes-Barre-ized. The River Common Project has never been completed.”

His initial video took years to finish due to consistent “political pressure,” including “misdirection” from the county’s Flood Protection Authority, coupled with “completely inaccurate” negative press, according to Spinucci, but after investing so much time and research into the movie, he decided to expand it into an hour-long program made for television.

“(The Flood Protection Authority) made a big deal about my project when they were trying to deflect the real issues, which were the fact that the project was over budget by millions of dollars and it was late by over a year, and so my film was late by over a year, but I was held accountable for my film being late while they were not held accountable for the project being late. It was really a ridiculous situation for me to be in, but I overcame it,” he explained.

“Really every minute of it was a challenge. The first project was ‘Mission: Impossible I,’ and then this project was ‘Mission: Impossible II,’ as I call it. Every step of the way was a challenge, but certainly the editing part was the most challenging.

“They say you shouldn’t really do a documentary that you’re not passionate about because passion for the subject matter is the only thing that will keep you going. Even if I was paid well for it, which I wasn’t, I may have given up on it a long time ago if it was just for the money.”

In fact, the 44-year-old Wilkes-Barre resident said the rest of the film was self-funded as he worked other jobs, devoting “countless” hours and “thousands of dollars” to it, even living on the futon in his office for eight months as funds ran low.

“When I first started the project, I was worried that there wasn’t enough of a story. It turns out that there’s so much more to tell. I have over 170 hours of footage at least and just terabits and terabits of video,” Spinucci noted.

“It’s like being a sculptor. Sculptors say that if you keep chiseling away, the sculpture reveals itself, sort of, and that’s what happened. The more I kept digging in the research, the more information became available and the more I thought it was worthy of a film.

“The truth reveals itself, and in this case, it did all the way along.”

The truth, he discovered, was that the River Common is actually America’s first park, a claim made by at least four other cities, particularly the Boston Common, but he believes his film proves otherwise.

“That was thrilling to find that out. I of course didn’t set out thinking that we had America’s first park,” Spinucci enthused. “The truth is that parks in America didn’t start happening until the mid-1800s and then they started to catch fire, I guess you could say, in the late 1800s.

“Our park was laid out as a park as part of the original town plan in 1769. … Not only do I think we predate Boston Common by at least 30 years, it’s completely inarguable that we have America’s first park. That’s proven in legislation.”

Narrated by actor Wilbur Fitzgerald, who recently appeared in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” the film focuses on the largely forgotten history behind the River Common. Fort Wyoming was located on the River Common until it was burned down after the Battle of Wyoming during the Revolutionary War, and subsequent wars held there between Pennsylvania and Connecticut influenced the Founding Fathers to form the Constitutional Convention and the writing of the Constitution. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were all involved in decisions that affected the area, and more recently, Bill Clinton played a role in securing funds for a new levee system. Some of these early events are even brought to life with the help of historical reenactors.

“It’s fact after fact. I think people enjoy it and that’s what they want to take away from a documentary, those facts that you can repeat at a cocktail party and sound smart,” he pointed out with a laugh.

“When you hear all of the different facts that are in there, this is stuff that’s never been talked about before, at least not for a couple hundred years.”

Now available streaming online at rivercommondocumentary.com and on DVD, “America’s First Park: River Common” is completed, but Spinucci said he will continue to work on a feature film version using footage left on the cutting room floor and on possible spinoffs in the future. He will also release the film’s soundtrack, which includes music from local artists like Bret Alexander of The Badlees, who co-wrote the main theme with Spinucci, and George Wesley.

Despite all the negativity that went into the production, Spinucci is positive about the film’s message and what he hopes it will lead to, asking President Barack Obama to name the River Common a national monument.

“I continue to fight for it. Hopefully people will help. I need people to write a letter or say, ‘Hey, why aren’t we doing this? Why are we not calling ourselves Wilkes-Barre, home of America’s first park,’ or whatever. We need people to put pressure on these folks that are elected that this is important, because it is,” he insisted.

“I will debate anyone in this country we have America’s first park. It’s very important that we capitalize on this. I’ve been saying this for about five years now, but hopefully the film will wake people up to it and we’ll start getting people excited about it.”

He plans to hold public screenings of the documentary throughout the year to drive this point home and take the focus away from all the county’s scandals to “garner positive national attention.”

“You’d be surprised at how many people don’t know that the River Common is even there because we haven’t properly promoted it, used it. It’s a controversial issue that’s going to start to heat up this year.”