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Jilann Spitzmiller and Hank Rogerson, filmmakers: STILL DREAMING

March 3, 2015
Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller take a break while shooting STILL DREAMING.  Photo by Genevieve Russell.

Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller take a break while shooting STILL DREAMING. Photo by Genevieve Russell.

1Q: Tell us a little about the origins of Still Dreaming, from concept to financing.

As documentary makers, we are really drawn to making ensemble pieces that are very character driven with a strong narrative that takes place over a period of time. We first began thinking about STILL DREAMING in late 2003, when a potential funder of our last film, SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS, suggested that Romeo and Juliet done in a nursing home would make an interesting film. We agreed, but we were busy with SBB, so we let the idea simmer for a few years. In 2009, we picked it back up and began researching theater being done in retirement homes. We contacted The Lillian Booth Actors Home in New Jersey, which is a retirement facility for people in entertainment and their family members. They had a Shakespeare club already, but were not doing full productions. The administration of the Home was very open to the idea of having the residents engage more fully by doing an entire play with an outside director. They were curious about how it would impact the residents’ quality of life. As for us, we fell in love with the residents that lived at The Home and their stories. Many of them have very rich histories of performing on Broadway and other very esteemed venues. They really lived in a golden age of entertainment and they readily share those stories.

Ultimately, we followed this ensemble doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the summer of 2011. A great element of the situation was that the troupe ended up being directed by two young co-directors in their 30’s – Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld of Fiasco Theater in NYC. It made for a very interesting situation, in that Ben and Noah really had no idea what they were stepping into in terms of the challenges of Aging that came up for the participants. Also for us, the dynamic of the two directors was great from a story point of view – instead of having to interview one director about what was going on, we could observe the two of them in dialogue with each other and learn a lot that way, which is usually more interesting than an interview.

The underlying theme of the film that really spoke to us was that Aging is something that we generally fear, both personally and as a society. We wanted to ask the questions: “How can Aging be a more positive experience and not just something that we dread? And can we still be creatively viable as we get into our 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Does creativity enhance the Aging process?”

2Q: Still Dreaming has done quite well at other film festivals. Will you be less nervous now at Cinequest? Does this process ever get any easier?

The film is still so new, but we’re gaining confidence by the day for sure. You can never really anticipate how an audience will receive a film. We just try to tell the best story we can and not worry about pleasing an audience, so that feels like high-stakes gamble sometimes. There’s so much on the line. You’ve put SO much of your heart, soul, spirit and likely, personal finances, into a film. So you want it to be embraced and loved just as you would your flesh and blood child! Success hopefully means the ability to make another film, and as an artist, that is always a very strong impulse – to keep creating. It’s been very gratifying to see audiences fall in love with the film and want to share it with others.

3Q: What was your best and/or worst experience while making Still Dreaming?

I think the best experience making the film was going to The Lillian Booth Actors Home every day and being with these amazing elders. Joan Stein would always play her piano for us – you could ask her to do anything and she would give you some background on it and play it from memory. Extraordinary for an 87 year old woman with Parkinsons and Scoliosis! Such an inspiration. In particular, one day she and Charlotte Fairchild were doing some songs in the middle of the day at the piano as they often do. They launched into “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Rodgers and Hammerstein from Carousel. The rehearsal that day had been particularly difficult and to hear them do this song, which is very challenging vocally, and to listen to its message just made my hair stand up on end. It was perfectly fitting – that even in the hard times there is hope. That was my favorite moment of my favorite day, and of course, it plays a great cathartic role in narrative of the film.

4Q: Festival audiences often have to make hard decisions about what to see, and the catalog descriptions sometimes run together. In your own words, why should people see your film?

This film has it all – humor, drama, heart. Great characters and a roller coaster of a narrative. And if you’re freaked out about aging, you should see this film! It will give you hope and a new way to think about your own aging process. If you have aging parents or grandparents, it will give you some ideas about how their quality of life could be better. We hope to really help people reframe the idea of Aging – to feel hopeful and proactive about it, not in denial and fear! And if you’re a Shakespeare lover, then you have to see this ensemble’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s awesome!

5Q: Time to pre-plan: You just won the Oscar for Still Dreaming. Give us your acceptance speech.

It’s a true honor to be given the gift of a story to share with the world. It is a privilege when real people let you into their lives and show you their struggles and vulnerabilities. We all learn from that and it knits us together in this crazy, often difficult life. We would very much like to thank all of the residents and staff of The Lillian Booth Actors Home for trusting us with their stories. We are forever grateful!

See STILL DREAMING at Cinequest!
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