Things being what they are, it’s a pleasure and relief to watch a comedy and we’ve got a dandy opening this Friday, August 30 at the Monica Film Center, Playhouse and Town Center, the Milwaukee(!)-set Give Me Liberty. The brightest critics, people normally quite hesitant with their praise, absolutely sat up in their seats when they watched this movie. Look:
Andrew Lapin, NPR: “There are precious few victories to be found in Give Me Liberty, and yet the film feels victorious all the same.”Vikram Murthi, AV Club: “Give Me Liberty functions as one of the most resonant portrayals of allyship, achieved through actual deeds instead of empty gestures.”
Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com: “The debut of a fresh vision of the all-American crowd-pleaser.”
Eric Kohn, indieWire: “It’s thrilling to watch a filmmaker work overtime to explore what it means to get lost in the moment, lose track of the bigger picture, and then discover it all over again.”
Peter Debruge, Variety: “This warm, fiercely independent comedy-drama eschews anything resembling formula in favor of a boisterous and freewheeling joyride drawn from Mikhanovsky’s own experience as the driver of a wheelchair-accessible transport vehicle.”
Give Me Liberty follows medical transport driver Vic, who risks his job to shuttle a group of rowdy seniors and a Russian boxer to a funeral, dragging clients like Tracy, a vibrant young woman with ALS, along for the ride. He’s late, but it’s not his fault. Roads are closed for a protest. The new route uproots his scheduled clients and as the day goes from hectic to off-the-rails, their collective ride becomes a hilarious, compassionate and intersectional portrait of American dreams and disenchantment.
Q: Even though you do have some professional actors in the mix, you also cast many non-professionals. Where and how did you find all of this incredible talent?
A: “What’s very important, in the very beginning of this process—I don’t remember how it came about exactly—we knew we wanted very much to work with non-actors. On my first feature film [Sonhos de Peixe], I worked with non-actors in a small Brazilian fisherman’s village, and I knew from the very beginning that I would be writing that film for the people from that place. For me, it was a very successful experience. I really enjoyed working with them.
“With the kind of story we wanted to tell [with Give Me Liberty], we knew that we would benefit from having non-actors. Because the central character was a driver in Milwaukee who would be driving around a number of people with disabilities or people from just different walks of life, we just didn’t imagine at the time how we would gather the right professional talent from all over the nation, given our resources and given our task. So that was decided from the outset. It’s probably easier to write characters than to find them sometimes, so we were very excited at the end of the writing process. But when we looked at the characters, we understood that we had quite a task before us, because we needed to find extremely gifted people to portray these characters. Where we were going to look for them? We really didn’t know where to begin! In Milwaukee, we had obviously limited resources. Really, it was quite a daunting task.”
Alice is a successful playwright affiliated with the Goodman Theatre and Steppenwolf. She got in touch with someone in Chicago who referred us to an agency in Los Angeles, and almost instantly we found Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, who ended up portraying Tracy. We were absolutely blessed with her. That’s how that came about. Lolo portrays a character with a disability, and she does have a disability. We wanted to work with people who were not playing people with disabilities. We wanted to work with people who actually have disabilities, because we wanted to honor that side of life in this project in a way that was authentic. We felt very strongly about that.
For Victor, the main character, we had an eight month long odyssey. A couple of years ago, we had a
number of partners that were not a good fit for the project at the time, and someone proposed we try this one actor who almost looks like a real guy, like a non-actor walking in from the street, but he couldn’t do it, and then one thing led to another and before we knew it we were interviewing every living English-speaking actor on the planet between the ages of 18 and 30. I mean, we went through the whole cast of Dunkirk, it was insane! Then we looked around and thought to ourselves, “How did we get here? Didn’t we plan to work with a non-actor?” And luckily, luckily—we went so far as to propose the role to a couple of people, actors with faces and names—but luckily, thank God, for some reason things were turned down. They didn’t happen because, I don’t know, they were changing agencies or on the verge of “breaking out” and their agents advised them against doing a small movie in Milwaukee, etc. We just got lucky, my God, it’s just like the hand of God.
And so, eight months into the search, that’s when we had the chance of turning to Jen Venditti for help, who did a five-week search in the streets of New York. Jen ran into a young man in this baker’s shop in Brooklyn, who turned out to be quite interesting, and we met with him. He’d never had any training, but he ended up doing this role [Chris Galust]. We planned originally to give him two months to break in and drive the van and just live with some grandpa in Milwaukee and become this person. We ended up having only ten days [of prep] with him. The experience was quite brutal for him, because not only did we throw this little kid in the water, we expected him to swim faster than anyone else.
Each role is more complex than the other. But the role of Dima? He’s basically a fighter with a one-million-dollar smile, who walks into the room and just charms everyone. He has the physique of a boxer, boxer charisma, all the qualities of a person who would charm every member of the audience within five minutes. And being from a Russian, or Soviet, background. We just didn’t know where to turn.
All of a sudden, we were receiving headshots of metrosexuals from New York who just wanted to look tough with a three-day stubble but nothing else to show for themselves other than clearly going to the gym every day and mixing it with yoga. We realized we were never going to find this person. It was just impossible!
Until one day, a friend of ours, a casting director from Moscow, showed us this guy [Max Stoianov]. We saw his photo, we saw this smile, and before we even saw his videos we knew he was the guy. Incredible. His story is absolutely unbelievable. He is perfect. He possesses this animal charisma that translates into any culture, at least known to me. He is formidable physically. He is capable of working non-stop. I mean, it was a gift. It was basically love at first sight. I don’t want to just say we were lucky, but, yes, we were, because I don’t treat luck lightly. I think luck is a very particular energy that accompanies one. And in that sense, yes, of course, we were blessed, and that was another sign that the project was on the right track. And we really treasure it. We respect it. We understand that it’s a blessing and we’re trying to honor it with hard work.
Q: It’s so refreshing to see a movie set in an American city that isn’t Atlanta or Louisiana, or whichever state is currently offering the best tax incentives. In your four-year journey to get the movie made, was there ever a point in which forces were trying to talk you out of shooting in Milwaukee?
A: We stuck to our guns. We stuck to Milwaukee to a fault. Basically, it was inspired by Milwaukee—the
original stories and the place—so we really believed in making it in Milwaukee and only there.
Sometime later, about two-and-a-half years later, after many attempts to make it happen there, we
began to feel rather foolish [KM laughs] because Milwaukee wasn’t that keen on supporting us either
—that is to say there was no funding really available, there were no philanthropists, no funds supporting
cinema, no tax incentives. It was not easy. And people outside of Milwaukee couldn’t wrap their heads round Milwaukee either. Not a lot of people were excited at the thought of Milwaukee. But it is an interesting city in many respects. It’s the backbone of America. It’s a historical American city. It’s a segregated city with a lot of ethnic history that retains its authenticity in 2018, which can’t be said for a lot of cities in America. It has its own character, its own mood. Its seasonal changes. Everything is inspiring!
I believe Alice’s ancestor was the third white man in Milwaukee. I have my grandfather buried there, and one of my family members was born there, so it became an important town in my life. There’s a quiet beauty to it, which is not as obvious as, say, New York, for instance. Also, it just so happened that my family settled there at some point in the ‘90s. My first short film was made there—the one that took me on the road all over the world to make other films.
Would it be possible to make this film somewhere else? Yeah, absolutely. It would be another film. We really believed that by taking this particular film— inspired by my experiences in the city and written for Milwaukee by us together— anywhere else would have betrayed the spirit of the material. But what we have today is nothing short of destiny. We need to be practical, but we also cannot negate the spiritual side of this profession. We respect it a lot. We understand that things like inspiration, the metaphysical tissue of the matter, they’re important! In my opinion, based on my experience in this profession, to deny it, to not acknowledge that, would be foolish.