A wild documentary about an ever growing alternative art movement in the West. Written and directed by Jilann Spitzmiller and Morgan Capps answer some questions about their doc MeowWolf.
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Who are you and what do you do?
JS: I'm a true storyteller, who shoots, writes, directs and edits. I like to stay with a story for a long time, getting to know the characters deeply, being able to show the many complicated facets of their lives, situations, and personalities. I revel in finding emotional truth and transformation. I'm also a mom, and on a daily basis, I find it very challenging to live my own story truly and to facilitate the stories of others simultaneously. I feel like I'm continually stretching my boundaries.
How did you hear about Meow Wolf? And why did you decide to make a doc about it?
JS: I heard about Meow Wolf making The House of Eternal Return in November 2015, as they were in the early stages of the build out. I took my documentary class over to the Community Day that they had to help them clean up the parking lot and spruce up the face of the bowling alley several months before opening. I remember initially thinking, this is crazy, they are never gonna pull this off. Then as the day went on, I could see the dedication and drive of the Meow Wolf people involved. I got a little bit of the story, and I was just mesmerized with what they were doing. I visited the House about a month after it opened and was really amazed at the depth and breadth of the exhibit. It wasn't until a year later that I was brought on to help with the documentary. And I realized at that moment that my knowledge of Meow Wolf had until then just barely scratched the surface and that there were so many intriguing people and stories to get to know. I was so inspired, and with this story, I wanted to encourage others to see how they can make unexpected and powerful changes in their communities, even when it seems like they might be at a dead end.
How long did it take you to shoot and finish?
Morgan: There isn’t a simple answer to this question as the film charts a decade! I became involved with Meow Wolf in August of 2015 when I had moved to Santa Fe for a five-month contract not expecting to stick around. I knew absolutely no one when I arrived in Santa Fe and quickly heard murmurings about a group of people building a “psychedelic Disneyland” in town. I immediately started volunteering to find out what was going on and I wanted to make some friends. I started out volunteering and helped build stalactites for the caves. By September of 2015, I was started shooting behind the scenes of the build of the House of Eternal Return. It wasn’t until a year later (after the house opened) that the idea of actually turning this story into a film started to really take shape. By March of 2017, the team had come together (myself, Jilann, Alessandra, and Alexandra) and we went into another state of throwing everything we had into telling this story.
Any crazy stories to share while making the doc?
JS: Well, there were lots of working weekends and lots of late nights and some tequila thrown in there to help us get it over the line several times. I think the toughest part was finding all of the old archival footage and that was a process of just bugging the Meow Wolf folks for cell phone footage, old Hi8 movies, photos, etc. And we barely had enough to make the film. We had to substitute footage of one thing for another many time because we just didn't have coverage, such as for the opening night sequence of House of Eternal Return. It feels like opening night, but we had to scavenge footage from other times. Then at a festival showing recently, someone came up to us and said, "I have footage of the opening night of Meow Wolf - do you want it?" We shrieked. We'd love to have it, but the movie was long finished of course.
What were some of the challenges?
I think #4 answers that!
JS: Also, weaving so many characters and so many exhibits and ten years into 88 minutes, while trying to stay true to the struggle, the pathos, the complexities...
Do you have any favorite moments that made it into the film?
JS: I really love in Act 3 when Sean Di Ianni is walking through Caterpillar, their new manufacturing facility, touching base with all of the artists. You can see how much he cares, how much stress he's under, and what his fears are. It's just such a human moment, and we see with compassion how much of Meow Wolf's success is riding on his very responsible shoulders.
JS: I also have to say that any of the old videos that Emily and Benji always make me laugh and often helped me get through the very hard times when we couldn't see the light at the end of the edit tunnel.
What was the distribution process like?
JS: We kicked off distribution with a really fun time at SXSW, so that was great. It's an epic festival and to be a part of it with Meow Wolf was really fun. Then we've done other festivals and to see the film with small-town audiences is really gratifying. People get super inspired to fire up a DIY arts collective in their town or school, or just to pursue their own dream a little harder. Now we're opening across the entire country in over 600 theaters on November 29th, and for me, that is astounding. I've never done more than 35 theaters for a doc release. After that, we'll go to VOD, educational, broadcast, etc...We're basically doing a DIY hybrid release, guided by our excellent PMD, Mia Bruno.
What do you love about the documentary genre?
JS: Ahhh, so much! I love documentary because it humbles me every day, and constantly asks me to be better. Whether that's dealing with the latest gear and learning new technology, or pushing me deeper into my emotional capacity, or puzzling out a difficult story structure. This genre is heartless and full of heart at the same time. It's brutal and real, and true and deep and stranger than fiction could ever be.
What was it like directing the animation side of the doc?
Morgan: Working with Brad Wolfley to animate a number of scenes in the doc was an incredible gift. We knew we were going to want to work with animation, but given the maximal aesthetic of Meow Wolf we wanted to play with more simple line animations to allow for a contrast (break) from the hyper-stimulating colors, textures, and speed of the edit. These animation scenes sort of represent impressions of memories as they might be replayed in the minds of our subjects. Brad was an incredible collaborator and team member, super willing to try anything and scrap the pieces that didn't work. We also had the incredible gift of working with a number of other animation styles because we had the treasure trove of Meow Wolf generated content, so we were able to incorporate a lot of animation from the House of Eternal Return to help us visualize ‘the beast.' It was really interesting to see how all these different styles would come together and we are really excited about the result.
How much fun did you have creating this film?
JS: The fun in making this film was in the partnership I had with the other amazing women involved in the film. The process really pushed us all to our limits, and we had to lean on each other to get through it. We laughed daily, even if it was gallows humor sometimes. It's a strange thing that fun subject matter doesn't always translate to fun filmmaking experiences, but we made the best of a pressure cooker of a situation.
1. If you were stuck on an abandoned island what five items would you have with you?
JS: Paper, pen, candles, dark chocolate and red wine.
2. Do you prefer digital or 35mm film stock when creating films?
JS: I've actually never shot on 35mm - just 16mm. I prefer digital but would love to go back to experimenting with in-camera techniques and film from time to time.
3. If you could travel anywhere in time to document a story where would you go?
JS: I would like to be able to document Amelia Earhart's life and trajectory as a boundary-breaking pilot. I can imagine the real-life drama on so many fronts in her life.
4. If you could have a super power what would it be?
JS: To be able to expand time.