Milwaukee’s movie: UWM alum’s ‘Give Me Liberty’ intimately tied to city

Kirill Mikhanovsky and Alice Austen have written a critically acclaimed love letter to Milwaukee. And the city has shown them some love in return.

The pair are co-writers of “Give Me Liberty,” an independent film that took both Sundance and Cannes by storm. The film follows 24 hours in the life of Vic, a medical transport driver who is supposed to be driving his client Tracy, a woman with ALS, to her job. Instead, he finds himself dodging roads blocked by street protests and playing chauffeur to his grandfather’s friends, a troop of Russian émigrés stranded on their way to a funeral.

Mikhanovsky, who also directed the film, graduated from UWM in 1998 with a triple major in Russian, linguistics and film. Austen, a Chicago playwright, has UWM connections too: She worked as an adjunct professor in the theater department last year. The two began collaborating after Mikhanovsky attended a reading of one of Austen’s plays and was impressed by her skill.

The cast of “Give Me Liberty,” some first-time actors, comes almost entirely from Milwaukee.

Five years ago, they began writing the script for “Give Me Liberty.”

“We would literally take turns with the draft. We would pull the computer back and forth,” Austen said. “We started off with this idea of a film we could make where contemporary Milwaukee could be a character.”

Mikhanovsky hopes that it will put the city on the filmmaking map. Wisconsin gives no tax incentives to filmmakers, which makes it tough to shoot anything in the state, let alone a small feature film. If “Give Me Liberty” does well at the box office, it might begin to convince the movie industry that Milwaukee is a viable filming locale.

“We wanted this film to be a catalyst for the budding, developing film industry in this city. We want more films to be made here,” Mikhanovsky said.

So, Mikhanovsky and Austen need people to buy tickets, especially in Milwaukee. And they have: Numerous screenings have sold out at the Oriental Theatre, where the film has had an extended run since opening Aug. 21. Showtimes are scheduled at the Oriental and Times Cinema at least through Sept. 19, and the film screened at several Marcus theaters.

100% made in Milwaukee

There is nothing Hollywood about “Give Me Liberty.” Despite several setbacks, the film was made entirely in Wisconsin.

“We cast it, with four exceptions, entirely with people from Milwaukee. It was filmed in Milwaukee,” Austen said. “We hired locally. Many of our crew went to UWM’s film school. It was great to be on the forefront of that.”

The filmmakers also formed partnerships with local organizations, including the Wisconsin African American Women’s Center, which allowed the crew to hold auditions in their building and use it as a base of operations during filming. They also paired with Milwaukee’s Eisenhower Center, which provides vocational training, education and jobs for people with disabilities.

“(Eisenhower) embraced the idea of making a film with some of the clients at the center. It was incredible,” Mikhanovsky said.

One of the clients sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” during filming. Springsteen watched the film, was impressed with it and with the performance of the song by a young man with disability, and gave the filmmakers his blessing to use it in the film.

But Milwaukee offers far more than its partnerships, valuable as they are. It’s a Rust Belt city undergoing a reinvention, and the two screenwriters wanted to capture the zeitgeist.

“Milwaukee is an incredible city. It’s the backbone of America, and it feels very authentic,” Mikhanovsky said. “It’s incredibly diverse; it’s incredibly cinematic. It was a natural decision to want to make something written for the character of this city.”

Critical acclaim

The world seems to agree: The critics love it.

“Give Me Liberty” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received a glowing review from Manohla Dargis, a film critic for the New York Times who is “one of the most revered and feared in equal measure,” according to Mikhanovsky. Then the film showed at Cannes, which is almost unprecedented; the world’s premier film festival, held in France, does not show films that have already been screened at other festivals. “Give Me Liberty” marks just the fourth exception in 20 years.

Mikhanovsky reported that “Give Me Liberty” received a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes, outstripping applause for “Rocketman” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

The Los Angeles Times called it a “brilliant madcap farce on wheels, a heady and rambunctious state-of-the-union address (that) may be one of the bigger movies you’ll see this year.”

The film has been acquired for distribution in more than 30 countries. It’s showing on 128 screens in France and 100 in Russia. “Give Me Liberty” is playing in select cities in the United States, distributed by Music Box Films in Chicago. It premiered in Milwaukee at a sold-out Oriental Theatre.

“This is the first narrative feature film that is 100% Milwaukee-made that is getting national distribution,” Mikhanovsky said.

“We’ve done the heavy lifting,” he added. “We don’t receive incentives from Milwaukee. Instead, we want Milwaukee to own this film, be proud of it, and come out and support its distribution by buying tickets and watching it. The way we see it, it’s a way of showing one loves Milwaukee. The world is looking at Milwaukee to see how commercially viable the film is. If it is, other theaters nationwide will want to program it too.”

A joy to watch

Milwaukeeans should be proud because it’s a good movie: Poignant without being sappy, humorous without being over-the-top. As the film progresses and Vic’s day spins further out of control, disparate groups begin to come together in the back of his medical transport van. It’s a film about the American dream, and how everyone, from women with ALS to Russian immigrants, are still reaching for it.

The performances are outstanding, the filmmakers promise. Mikhanovsky and Austen were especially struck by Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, a first-time actress who, like her character Tracy, has ALS.

“I want Lolo to win an Oscar. The scenes with Lolo and Chris (Galust, who plays Vic) really stand out,” said Austen. “There’s a beautiful story of how their characters bond. Both of the actors are so cinematic and powerful together. It’s really gratifying to see it come to life.”

Mikhanovsky and Austen poured a lot of their own experiences into the film as well, and it shows. Like Vic, Mikhanovsky is Russian and worked as a medical transport driver at one time, though the film is not biographical. Austen admits to including small scenes from her life as well: One moment between Tracy’s grandmother and Vic’s grandfather in the film grew out of a real-life wedding where Austen witnessed two elderly relatives sit down together.

“It was amazing – a moment between two people of the same generation who had seen the same big things and small things passing in their lives,” she said. “It’s not saccharine; it’s not politically correct … but it’s ultimately very optimistic.”

And that’s why everyone should see the film, Mikhanovsky added.

“If you want to have fun and support your community, look no further.”

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