Kirill Mikhanovsky's Sundance film "Give Me Liberty" is an anxiety-inducing chaos trip that delves straight into the heart of America.
America's marginalized citizens are the stars of Kirill Mikhanovsky's roving, chaotic Sundance premiere Give Me Liberty, which fashions humanistic dark comedy out of their impossible circumstances. Driving a government-subsidized ride-share service for the disabled, Vic, the film's Russian immigrant protagonist, touches nearly all of Milwaukee's underserved communities: low-income African Americans, handicapped folks, elderly immigrants who can't speak English, and still other forgotten citizens of America's heartland. The film feels like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, in which the stakes are your livelihood, and the moles are real human beings who are making incessant demands on you, and whose wellbeing you are charged with protecting. Making all of his scheduled pick-ups and drop-offs in time is a tall order for young Vic, who also must navigate the kind of family obligations that will look familiar to many first-generation immigrants.
No Film School sat down with Mikhanovsky to discuss everything under the sun (including the sun itself, which wouldn't get out of his damn way on set), including how he harnessed the energy of his insane production to create his free-wheeling film, which film school is the best-kept secret in America, why he was bullish about shooting in Milwaukee despite the fact that it made financing the film that much harder, and more. Mikhanovsky's experiences are a true crash-course in indie filmmaking.
No Film School: From the looks of it, this film must have been a really thrilling production. Also, I'm sure, quite difficult to pull off.
Mikhanovsky: Thank you, thank you. Yes, it's been a journey. Well, every movie is a journey, but this one was a trip—a one-of-a-kind experience. It's something I would never impose upon myself purposefully, but the way it unfolded... that's life, with all its free falls and ups and downs and dramas and comedies. It was a blessing to have this kind of experience, even though it doesn't always feel like that in the moment, and instead, you feel like you were hit by a truck and you can't get up. But in the end, it's all good.
We feel blessed, truly, to have a movie completed. We feel blessed to have a movie that captures the energy of its production. We're blessed with partners, we're blessed with the reception at Sundance, with John Cooper's [Sundance programmer] reaction. We are blessed with CAA and their passion for it. We appreciate and are humbled by this. But we're also warriors who needed to survive and to fight. We're fighting!
"We thought we would fail every scene...It was just one challenge after another, let me tell you. It was just so challenging all the time that it just stopped being a challenge. It was just like normal."
NFS: Tell me a bit about the beginning of this fight. It started when you, yourself, were driving one of these vans for disabled folks in Milwaukee, right?
Mikhanovsky: It was one of the jobs I had in the '90s when I was attending a local college with the ultimate goal of going to law school. I needed a job, and fast. So I enlisted, and after a short course on how to handle people with disabilities and how to drive, I got licensed and I drove. It was the hardest job I ever had. At the time, I didn't have a cell phone and I didn't know Milwaukee very well, so I would get constantly lost. I was a liability to the company. I would get into accidents. I was a very hard-working, very conscientious screw-up. The owner of the company was very generous with me and he didn't fire me. I would get in all kinds of trouble all the time, inadvertently, but I tried so hard.
I will never forget the instance when I had five people with disabilities in the van in the middle of the night at 2 o'clock in the morning driving them home, getting completely lost in this heavy snowfall. The dispatcher would be gone by then. I couldn't get in touch with anyone. I just had a map with tiny little letters that I could hardly read. I felt guilty that I was screwing up their lives when I'm supposed to be helping them. I climbed up to a signpost to wipe the snow off the sign to see where I was, and then I lost the keys in the snow. It was one thing after another like that, almost every day.
I discovered America through the city of Milwaukee. It is one of the most, if not the most, segregated cities in America—I realized there are all these different parts with their own populations and they don't interact. I would never come across these people because I live in the part of town where Russians live. So that was a very meaningful experience. I wanted to make a movie about it, but I couldn't at the time, of course.
All those impressions and incidents are the starting point for a work of fiction. This is by no means autobiographical, but it's a deeply personal film in the sense of how much I'm invested in every character. It a part of my DNA and I am a part of the DNA of the movie.
NFS: How did you go from studying to be a lawyer to becoming a filmmaker and making this debut?
Mikhanovsky: I began watching films insatiably when I was 12. I would skip school to go to see movies. I was possessed, completely and utterly. I would watch four, five, six movies a day. By the time I was driving the van, I had already watched hundreds of films and I knew every director and every editor by name. I was like this encyclopedia of [Hollywood]. I had met someone at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, UWM Film School—which is considered to be the best-kept secret in America, by the way. It's a wonderful film school. While I was there, I struck up this friendship with a Japanese student who was in love with film as much as I was, although I was not a student of film. Before I knew it I was doing acting work in his small student film and writing dialogue for his movies. He came up to me right around the time I was driving the van and said, "Hey, do you have a story? I have some money. Let's make a short film." I actually had a story in mind. I sat down and in three days I had 28 pages. That was my first short film that got me into NYU Film Grad School.
"Call me impractical, call me stupid, call me pee-wee idealist—I don't care. There's nothing else that can capture the essence of time so magically as a piece of celluloid."
NFS: Amazing! When you went to grad school, what was it that enriched your knowledge or education of film that you didn't already know from watching so many movies?
Mikhanovsky: Looking back, I'm very grateful for the fact that I was selected to the NYU Grad Film School. It was truly a privilege and an honor. I'm critical of myself, though, and I don't think I benefited as much as I should have or could have from being there. I should have used my time more rigorously towards educating myself. I think I really learned how to make a movie from making my first feature film.
But the most important thing that happened to me at NYU was meeting my mentor and friend, Boris Furman, a legendary professor and brilliant filmmaker. He's a genius of screenwriting, in my opinion. He's also a mentor to Deborah Granik, Cary Fukunaga, and the like. A whole slew of brilliant filmmakers working today all over the world were educated by him. I don't believe filmmaking is teachable, really. I don't believe directing is teachable, but Boris knows how to do it. I don't understand how he does it. It's quite incredible. So that was the greatest gift: meeting him and listening to him, learning from him. Every time I speak on the phone with him, or in person, I learn from him. And he's over my right shoulder no matter what I do. He taught I had to walk my own way and make my own mistakes.
When I was at NYU, we shot on film. Now, they don't. Call me impractical, call me stupid, call me pee-wee idealist—I don't care. There's nothing else that can capture the essence of time so magically as a piece of celluloid.
NFS: So, when you decided it was time to make a film based on these experiences that you had in Milwaukee, what were your first steps to getting it off the ground?
Mikhanovsky: We began with the script. Alice Austen [co-writer and producer] and I sat down and shook hands about making a movie here in Milwaukee. So the very first step was the script. Then we needed to finance it, and we clearly didn't have the muscle to do that ourselves. We needed a financing entity. We also knew that we wanted to produce it ourselves in conjunction with someone else, together in a collaboration. It was very important for us to control the film creatively. From the get-go, the keyword for how we described what we wanted the film to be was authenticity—to make it as authentic as possible.
Mikhanovsky: I had previously worked on my first film with non-actors in a small fisherman's village in Brazil. I had a blast. It was an amazing experience, very gratifying, and I wanted to apply that same model here. We really wanted to populate the film with real people from real walks of life and their experiences. For each character, we wanted to find the right person in real life to play the role. We knew it wouldn't be easy, but this is what we set out to do.
So in order for it to be authentic, we knew wanted to make it in Milwaukee and nowhere else. Not Detroit, not St. Louis, not Chicago. Milwaukee was a character. We stuck to our guns, almost to a fault. I'll tell you a little bit later why. We also wanted to work with local people. 95% of the cast is from Milwaukee and this is their very first experience being in front of a camera.
"It was very important for us to control the film creatively. From the get-go, the keyword for how we described what we wanted the film to be was authenticity."
So the next step was to show the script to our peers. Then, after workshopping it, we took the script to producers all over the U.S. and in Europe. Each meeting was like a speed-dating sort of thing. At film festivals, we would do 65 pitches in three days. It's very useful to be able to distill your ideas into effective statements that grab people's attention. That was a great learning experience.
However, two years into the project, things just were not moving as fast as we wanted them to move. People had no idea where Milwaukee was. People didn't want to invest in Milwaukee. People wanted to take the movie somewhere else—another state, another city, where there were tax incentives or whatnot. In Milwaukee, there wasn't any substantial film financing. It's much easier to have meetings in Moscow, New York, Los Angeles—places where there are communities of filmmakers and finances abound. Here in Milwaukee, it was not easy to find financing.
We began casting locally. Alice Austin and I would drive around and find places where we could do community casting. We'd go to the most segregated parts of town, with food deserts and a really homogenous population, and we wanted to cast there. We were received with open arms at the Wisconsin African American Women's Center, where this local activist, Josephine Hill, believed in our intentions and generously gave us space to use for free for community casting. So we began this casting process, and today we have an extensive database of people from all walks of life, all races and ages, who want to be in movies. You know, they have jobs or they go to school, but they're not actors, and they want to be in movies. We used this database to make the movie happen.
We needed to populate the frame with real people who don't fake it—who bring their baggage to the big screen.
NFS: And I'm sure that makes it a little more difficult for you as a director. How does that change your process, working with people who bring their own baggage to the screen?
Mikhanovsky: Yeah, you're right. It makes it hellish. You have all sorts of experiences. As exciting as non-actors can be, they are also unpredictable. They don't remember their lines. You can't give them any marks—forget about that. Some of them are not on time, which I'm okay with because I'm never on time. But people are just less disciplined because they're not taking it as seriously as actors do. Actors are trained to take it seriously. They can do 10 takes, they can do 20 takes—they really hunger for that. With non-actors, of course, it's a process.
On the very first day of shooting, there was one actress who basically made a scene for no particular reason. That was the very first thing she did. And I fired her. I couldn't stand that. But I didn't know how I would deal, because we needed to find a replacement. The actress was very upset, and Alice escorted her to the room where she needed to pick up her luggage. Then, she broke down, cried, and then I hugged her, and then she hugged me, and then she was back in the movie. It was insane.
"For each character, we wanted to find the right person in real life to play the role. We knew it wouldn't be easy, but this is what we set out to do."
Our main actor arrived only 10 days before the shoot. That was his first role—he was a non-actor with no experience or training. He was very self-conscious. I had one meeting with him and we sat down, he spent eight days driving the van for the medical transport company learning the ropes. Doing that was very important even though it took time.
Yes, you complicate your life enormously by working with non-actors. They need more time. You can make a chair be Hamlet; it just takes more time than asking a person to do that. And with our extremely limited resources, we had no time. But if you're tough enough—if you do not relent—you may be rewarded.
NFS: There were so many scenes in which there were so many people talking at once. The movie is made of chaos. Watching it made you feel how overwhelmed the main character. How did you cover these action-packed scenes?
Mikhanovsky: I'm not a huge fan of coverage. With this movie, I've taken the rules and broken them, no-holds-barred. How to shoot and how to edit; what to do and what not to do; and what is good take and what is bad take.
We had very little time to figure things out before shooting. Everybody felt like we were on the verge of collapse. We thought we would fail every scene simply because there was not enough time to capture the richness of what we had planned in terms of number of locations, number of characters, etc. So we just got them going and tried to capture it the best way that we could. My approach was every scene is like a problem, and we needed to find the key. We were guided by the energy of the scene because it was just sweeping us like a wave. Also, by very little time we had. We were running for our lives, essentially. We had so many restrictions, so many limitations.
Shooting inside the van was a little bit simpler because you can't choose too many directions to shoot in. And once the camera is locked in certain positions, it can't really move much. Also, the actors were locked in their positions.
We chose a 25mm lens for the purpose of a more dynamic approach. I would have never worked with this lens; I'm a huge fan of 50 or 35, and I wouldn't go wider, but suddenly that was the choice. I think we cared more about the energy in the frame than about the static approach. We needed to grab what we had.
Mikhanovsky: I was furious in every exterior because the sun was just beating us down. We hated the sun. Every damn day we needed the sun to be hidden, it was out. It was just the most obnoxious thing just staring down at me. We were shooting for the winter, and we wanted that feeling of cold. We needed that even natural light because we didn't have a lot of lights and we were under-crewed so we couldn't control it much. We wanted to use what nature had to offer to us. And what it had to offer to us is impossibly strong direct sunlight. It was insane.
And sound....We were so blessed with this wonderful professional named Jeremy Maza. He was wiring up to 12 people with planted mics. He was a genius. If we had someone else, we would have been done for.
"It was a war out there, and we needed to capture it as well as we could."
It was hard on everyone. It was a war out there, and we needed to capture it as well as we could. We brought so much intensity with us after years of trying to make this movie. Then, of course, we had this final dash to making it. In October 2017, the structure we had collapsed, and Alice and I found ourselves without a single penny. We needed to shoot, and we knew if we don't shoot it this winter, we would start losing people—physically, even, because the octogenarians were not getting any younger.
Certain people, as loyal as they were, began to doubt the film and the possibility of its making. But we did it. Three months later we were racing the car, we were building, we were shooting with the little money we had, and still looking for additional funds, and finding them. Alice was on the phone with investors on the set. The intensity of how we approached the reality we were trying to capture—and the resistance we faced—produced a very special energy. You can see it in the film, like you said at the beginning.
NFS: Looking back on this intense experience, what lessons will you remember?
Mikhanovsky: The horror—the utter, complete horror. [Laughs] Every day was my chamber of horrors.
Editing was just the toughest editing experience I ever had. It was a trial of patience and endurance. I'm not an editor, per se; I don't edit other people's work. But I understand editing. It's the place where you have ultimate control. Directing is about control, but there's no place where this control can be exercised to the fullest as in editing.
Editing to me is linguistics. It's inventing a language. We had to rush so much and were not particularly prepared for the shoot. So although the production was amazing, we were so understaffed, and people had to wear many hats. There were many sleepless nights. So in the end, in the editing room, I got this mixed bag of this alphabet and I needed to construct syllables and words out of it, and then sentences and then possibly discords. It was unlike any other exercise I've had in my life. I had to create distance between my self and the material. It's very important to be able to handle it, and not be sensitive about it. That's the problem with directors when they edit their own material—they are too sensitive. But I don't think anybody else would be able to have the patience that this material required.
NFS: Was there a particular scene that felt like an insurmountable challenge? How did you overcome situations like that and get creative and make it work for you?
Mikhanovsky: The protest scene was very challenging. For obvious reasons, we didn't get as many people as we wanted. And that's an understatement. It was speciously cold. It was just hard to be outside. Luckily, we had the doors of a local community center open to us, and it was really warm inside there, so that helped. We had very few lights, and we needed to create this sensation of something larger than life—something epic happening. You know, it doesn't have to be a 100,000-person march, but it needs to feel the scale of the event. We couldn't compete with other movies with protest scenes. We didn't have the budget, or the muscle, to show many people. And plus, it's not really about the people protesting; it's about our character. This is the last scene in the movie. It's about two or three characters in a crowd, connecting. And it's important to be focused on their experiences. So that was the approach. We had the idea of being blinded by the lights so that you couldn't see what was around.
With this small direction, I think it allowed us to focus on the essential and make the scene work. I think it was creative because we had very little, and we really had to reach an understanding of how we wanted the scene to look in the end.
Another challenging scene was...well, we had so many. I mean, it was just one challenge after another, let me tell you. It was just so challenging all the time that it just stopped being a challenge. It was just like normal. But with filmmaking, I say that if you're having it too easy, you're doing something wrong. Challenge is a part of it. How can it not be challenging? It's part of the DNA of filmmaking. If you're looking to do an easy, kind of loungy movie, then that's how it's gonna feel onscreen.
That is to say, I really value this film as an experience. The reason why watching this film is an experience is because making it was as big an experience—if not bigger—than the finished film. The process and the product are inseparable.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.