How do you make a movie about an art collective that even the most prolific critics struggle to describe? That’s the latest challenge for award-winning documentary filmmaker Jilann Spitzmiller ’89, who will speak at the Hopkins Center for the Arts on Sunday, August 5, after a special screening of her new project, Meow Wolf: Origin Story.
The film, produced by Hanover native Alexandra Renzo, traces the journey of an eclectic group of creators that began their collective in a basement and have now attained international acclaim and the financial backing of Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin. Their massive new immersive Santa Fe art complex straddles the line between amusement park and art exhibit, and similar installations are in the works in Denver and Las Vegas. The collective’s success, however, has challenged its scrappy ethos – a conflict Spitzmiller explores in her film.
To Spitzmiller, the Meow Wolf story is a natural fit within her broader body of work, which she explains tends to focus around the idea that “community and creative engagement are essential to our lives and well-being.”
Her previous works, which include Shakespeare Behind Bars, Still Dreaming, and Homeland, have received extensive recognition, including a Grand Jury Prize for Shakespeare at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005.
Despite this success, filmmaking wasn’t always the plan for Spitzmiller — in fact, before Dartmouth she’d never even considered it.
“That’s the beauty of the liberal arts education — I was given the chance to fall into something that then completely stole my heart,” she says. “I arrived at Dartmouth thinking I’d study French and go into international business. I did end up doing a lot of French and FSP in Toulouse, and in that roundabout way, I found film. I took a French Films of the 70s class and was completely bowled over by those psychological dramas. I signed up for Filmmaking 1, and that was it!”
Spitzmiller didn’t just fall in love with film at Dartmouth — it was also where she met her husband and creative partner, Hank Rogerson ’89, and where they embarked on their first shared project.
“Senior spring, my roommates were really suspicious of my constant absence. I was making a year-long video diary of our class with two other classmates — Hank and Lara Porzak [’89]. We were in the editing room all the time, racing to finish the film for the end of school screening. Once my roommates saw the video, they finally understood where I had been!”
After leaving Dartmouth, Spitzmiller started her documentary career based on a connection made while volunteering on a shoot at the College, and eventually worked her way up to creating her own films. Aspiring filmmakers, take note – Spitzmiller’s path was paved with years of dedicated effort.
“I set really high standards for myself, and am constantly striving to get better, even after 30 years. That means putting in really long hours and sometimes being married to your work, which makes it really convenient when you’re actually married to your film partner!”
Eager to hear more from Spitzmiller? Tickets are still available for her August 5 screening of Meow Wolf, which will be followed by a discussion with the filmmakers.