double threat

“I was an older soul growing up,” says Martin Spitznagel. Indeed. As a preteen, Spitznagel, a 2000 Mt. Lebanon High School graduate, fell in love with a genre of music popular in the 1910s and a movie made five years before he was born. But those two passions have stuck with him.

Spitznagel, who moved to Fruithurst Drive when he was 10, vividly remembers walking into a seventh grade music class and hearing a classmate playing Silver Ridge Rag on a piano. “Some people talk about being hit by cupid’s arrow, well I was hit by ragtime’s arrow,” he says.

Spitznagel began “consuming every syncopated thing I could get my hands on” and teaching himself to play the piano. At the time, he’d had only a few months of piano lessons and admits he was a terrible student. “I never practiced,” he says.

Two years later, at age 14, he heard about Calliope Media’s nationwide “Crazy for Ragtime” competition promoting a new software that allowed “composers” to create new music from strands of old ragtime songs. Grand prize was a new piano. Spitznagel spent months composing 10 songs.

He won the competition.

Jessica and Martin Spitznagel outside the Hollywood theater for the premiere of Star Wars: Hunt for the Holocron.

Even at school Spitznagel was working on his skills. “Mt. Lebanon was a great school to go to,” he says. “The music program was very robust, and I had access to the [high school’s] practice rooms.” He spent most of his lunch periods and study halls in those rooms.

The constant practice (he calls his mom, Marie Sonnet—who still lives on Fruithurst Drive—a saint for putting up with all the “plunking”) paid off. In 2007 and 2011, Spitznagel won the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing New Rag Contest and the 2010 Scott Joplin Foundation New Rag Contest. In addition, he has performed in dozens of ragtime and jazz festivals across the United States and just releaseed his third CD, Three’s a Crowd, a mix of early 20th century music—from ragtime and boogie woogie to jazz. All three CDs are available at iTunes, and Spitznagel’s website, Max “Mr. Ragtime” Morath called his first CD, Tricky Fingers, “simply a stunning piece of work.”

Rivermont Records, a Pittsburgh label specializing in ragtime and jazz, released all three CDs, and Spitznagel found a kindred spirit in the label’s founder, pianist and musicologist Bryan Wright. In 2009, while in Pittsburgh for a concert with Wright, Spitznagel filmed the rehearsal of their big finish—a ragtime arrangement of John Williams’s Cantina Band from Star Wars. Spitznagel uploaded the video to YouTube; it’s been viewed more than 1,190,000 (and counting) times.

The video is connecting a new generation to ragtime—a young man from Romania even emailed him for the sheet music.

That video is the perfect segue into Spitznagel’s other hobby—filmmaking.

After high school, Spitznagel attended Full Sail University in Florida where he produced a number of short comedies on his way to earning an associate’s degree in film. After college, he decided to make a longtime dream a reality—writing and directing an homage to his favorite movie: Star Wars.  Spitznagel first saw the George Lucas classic when he was 12 years old—17 years after the movie was first released. Although he saw it on TV (he wouldn’t see it on the big screen until 1997), his gut reaction was that he just had to make a movie like it. “This was not a logical response,” he readily admits. “Especially seeing how doing so would take a huge team of people, resources and money…. None of which I had.”

Cast and crew of Star Wars: Hunt for the Holocron

After college, he wrote a script while working odd jobs; by the end of the year he was ready to begin filming. His brother Mark, who had graduated from Mt. Lebanon in 2002 and was attending Point Park University, recruited some actors, while Spitznagel called in old high school and college friends—all Star Wars lovers—for other roles and jobs. (As an aside, Mark is now an actor living in New York City with credits that include The Good Wife, One Life to Live and Men in Black 3. He also plays banjo in the bluegrass band The Rusty Guns.)

Mark Spitznagel at the premiere.

Mt. Lebanon High School grads who worked on the movie are: Luke Clavey, class of 2000, art director/visual effects artist; Daniel Clavey, 2002, actor; Jennifer Platts Moreau, 2003, actress; Margaret Yang, 2001, assistant director/lead visual effects, and Mathew Calland, 2000, story supervisor.

With parents stepping up as executive producers, filming started in 2003 in and around Pittsburgh—exteriors in Raccoon Creek State Park and interiors at Pittsburgh Filmmakers facilities on Melwood Avenue. Additional footage would later be filmed in Houston, Texas, and Washington, D.C.

“I thought it would take a year,” Spitznagel says of the film. In the end the 30-minute movie, which cost $20,000, took 10 years. In addition to writing the script and directing, Spitznagel acted in, edited, created visual effects and finished the score that Adam Rainis, an Illinois composer, started but couldn’t finish for personal reasons.

There were a number of factors that attributed to the long production time. One was that Spitznagel was doing it as a hobby, working on it primarily at night and on weekends. Life and real jobs took priority. In 2007, Spitznangel and his wife, Jessica Rutter—who fell for him when he took over pig dissecting duties in a twelfth grade biology class—moved to Virginia where Spitznagel works in graphic design and Rutter is a second grade teacher. Another major hiccup occurred in 2008 when Spitznagel’s computer overheated and he lost 100 hours of work. “When they say to back up your hard drive, they’re not kidding,” he says. “It was an unbelievably devastating blow.” Fortunately he had all the original VHS tapes—38 hours of footage—which had to be reloaded onto the computer in real time.

But last year, his very patient friends had had enough. As a 30th birthday present, they rented the Hollywood Theater in Dormont for the movie’s premiere.

Spitznagel panicked and begged for just a few more months to fine tune and redub the movie.

In April, Star Wars: Hunt for the Holocron premiered at the Hollywood Theater.

Rolling out the red carpet at the movie premiere.

“I was terrified,” he says. But the day was a huge success, red carpet and all.

For the immediate future, Spitznagel has a new and very time-consuming project on the horizon—he and his wife are expecting their first child in February.
But don’t count him out.

“I’ve been accused of having too many hobbies,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s a good day when I make something.”

 Martin’s website