Give Me Liberty is a new full-blown farce, mixing controlled chaos with erstwhile wisdom in a tale about a medical transport driver torn between his promise to get his elderly relatives to a funeral; and his desire to help a headstrong young black woman in a wheelchair when a riot breaks out in Milwaukee.
Medical transport driver Vic is late, but it’s not his fault. Roads are closed for a protest, and no one else can shuttle his Russian grandfather and émigré friends to a funeral. The new route uproots his scheduled clients, particularly Tracy (Lauren “Lolo” Spencer in a breakout performance), a vibrant young woman with ALS. 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.
In advance of its showing at the 13th Annual Riverside Saginaw Film Festival, here is a conversation with the director, Kirill Mikhanovsky.
Which Came First, the Story or the Characters?
First was the job I had driving a medical transport van back in the ‘90s, which was one of the first jobs that I had in this country. I thought about making a movie back in 2006, but was discouraged a little bit by the fact that what I was actually interested in was gone, and I was not interested in making a period piece. Then in 2013, I believe, at that time I was working with Alice [Austen, writer/producer] on another script. The city of Milwaukee was very inspiring and so I thought of making a smaller film in Milwaukee. I proposed it to Alice. That [medical transport driver] job had a lot of hilarious, touching, wonderful, moving stories. And that was the starting point. From there, a fictitious script was born, taking place over the course of I believe seven to eight days, with a wild slew of hilarious characters, combining comedy and investigation—almost like a detective story and love story and road movie with the main character driving the van, etc.—but some revisions later it became a day-in-the-life of this character Vic.
It’s refreshing to see a move set in an American city that isn’t Atlanta or Louisiana or whatever state is currently offering the best tax incentives. In your 4-year journey getting this movie made, was there a point where forces were trying to talk you out of shooing in Milwaukee?
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 around it.
How did you as a director manage to create such a genuine atmosphere of chaos without having the entire production fall apart?
When we set out to write Give Me Liberty, we knew we wanted to make it burst with life, feel visceral – be uncompromisingly authentic. We wanted to make it Milwaukee – the city that inspired the film – with locally cast non-actors. By doing so, we were indeed inviting a host of challenges related to working with a group of non-English-speaking octogenarians, people with disabilities, a multi-ethnic local non-professional cast, and a few Russian-based actors [think visas, travel, schedules, etc]. Winter, multiple locations, limited production resources, minimal prep and shooting time didn’t help. Let’s top that off with a VAN - the film’s main location – crammed with cast and crew location that doesn’t stop cruising at 40-75mph through America’s most segregated city.
All of the above was the only right way to make GML. And, in October of 2017, facing a “to be or not to be”, that was the only way to make it. We had to work with the less controlled, more chaos-conducive elements that would, consequently, make the creative process and the production more challenging, but would also allow for a better film. To sum it up, in order to create the right sense of chaos in film, a form of controlled chaos needed to be invented – the kind that would allow us to be blessed with the spontaneous and the sublime. And blessed we were. heads around 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.
It annoys the hell out of me when people say the American Dream is dead. Those who are really happy to announce the death of the American Dream fundamentally don’t care about it and do not understand it. Because what is the American Dream?
We don’t talk politics in this film. But I love that certain political issues are touched upon without being touched upon. I love talking about things without talking about them. And this is great that this question is there. To me, the American Dream is not something that is here waiting for you. The American Dream is something that people who come to America must bring with them. That’s the American Dream, to me.
So if you come here and say the American Dream is gone, well then you didn’t bring it with you. Because the American Dream is only dead if it’s dead within you. It’s not “out there,” it’s not sitting there waiting to be grabbed. In this sense, I am an idealist, I’m a romantic—not in a sappy, saccharine sort of way—and so is Alice. We really believe in this country, as imperfect as it may be, as every country is.
Certain things we strongly dislike, certain things we admire. It’s a wonderful place. The American Dream is a big part of the foundation upon which the house of Give Me Liberty is built. We did a lot of talking about it, we did a lot of musing on the idea, and I think it is this concern for the idealism, the fading of which we lament in America, that this film was made.
Give Me Liberty will be screened as part of the 13th Annual Riverside Saginaw Film Festival on Friday November 8th and Sunday November 10th at 11 AM at The Court Street Theatre. Tickets are only $5.00.
16th November, 2023
7th November, 2023