They wanted to make a world-class film in Milwaukee. And they did.
The film opens in a smoke-filled room. Medical transport driver Vic (Chris Galust) is listening to an elderly man (James Watson) talk around a lit cigarette. “When good things happen,” Watson says, “you’ve got to grab it with all you got, and try to keep it the best way you can.”
The line neatly encapsulates Give Me Liberty itself, a film that wouldn’t have been made if its creators – Kirill Mikhanovsky and Alice Austen – hadn’t done exactly that.
Mikhanovsky moved from Moscow to Milwaukee shortly after the fall of the USSR, when he was 18. And though his work as a filmmaker took him around the world, he kept returning to his adopted hometown between projects. During one extended stay, he attended a reading of one of Austen’s plays and decided that he wanted to make a movie with her.
Austen wasn’t initially sure she wanted to collaborate. A Harvard-educated human rights lawyer, novelist and playwright, she had more than enough work already. “But we met for coffee, and it became very clear that we shared a similar vision about the world and about filmmaking,” she remembers.
At first they were set on making a big-budget sci-fi thriller. “But nobody was putting money into it,” Austen admits.
So they shelved the script and began writing another one, a story inspired by a nine-month stint Mikhanovsky spent as a medical transport driver in Milwaukee. “At the time I didn’t realize that it would be one of the most transformative experiences of my personal and professional life,” he says. “It filled me up with experiences.”
Mikhanovsky shared those experiences with Austen, and together they finished a screenplay for Give Me Liberty.
Their problems were only beginning, though. Some investors told them they wanted to produce the film, only to back out after production had begun. Others questioned their decision to shoot in Wisconsin, with non-professional actors.
“We were committed to making this film in Milwaukee with Milwaukeeans,” Mikhanovsky says, explaining that he wanted the film to feel authentic, and that they didn’t want to cast able-bodied actors to play people with disabilities.
Ultimately, they made do with what they got. Mikhanovsky directed the film himself, for a fourth of what he’d initially budgeted. Austen took on the role of producer, leveraging her law degree to make deals and oversee production details.
“All of our energy was dedicated to getting the show on the road – there was none left for imagining future success,” Mikhanovsky says.
But they did get the show on the road. And it did become a success. It went from Sundance to Cannes to other acclaimed festivals. Along the way, it received a rave review from a New York Times film critic and four Independent Spirit Award nominations.
“We stood by our choices all the way through,” Mikhanovsky says. “We did it our way.” And he and Austen have a chance to keep doing things their way, because investors are suddenly interested in that sci-fi thriller they shelved all those years ago.
Give Me Liberty was shot entirely in and around Milwaukee.
Can you identify the Cream City locales in these productions stills?
Photos courtesy of Music Box Films
According to its distributor, Music Box Films, Give Me Liberty will be available on Video On Demand on Jan. 14 and on DVD Jan. 28.
A. West Vliet Street
B. Outside Ma Fischer’s on North Farwell Avenue
C. I-94 entering the Marquette Interchange
This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.
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