In Movies & TV

Alice Austen and Kirill Mikhanovsky during the making of the Kickstarter campaign video at Ollie's, 100 W. Maple St.

Russian immigrant aims to tell his Milwaukee story through film

In 1993, Kirill Mikhanovsky moved with his family to Milwaukee's East Side from Moscow. He was 18 at the time and wanted to enroll in college. However, a case worker suggested that he get a job instead and so he went to work at the McDonald's near Oakland and North Avenues.

"It was very America. Very Milwaukee. I was working with drug addicts and teenagers and I was just trying to learn English," he says. "The first thing I learned was '24 on top' which is what I said to the cook when I slid a tray at him with 24 burgers on it. He would always say 'thanks, man' but I thought he was saying 'thanks, ma'am' and so I was constantly insulted."

Two months later, after realizing his coworker wasn't questioning his gender, Mikhanovsky quit his job at McDonald's, applied at just about every business on Brady Street, and then remembered that the manager at the Hotel Wisconsin – where he stayed for a week when he first moved to Milwaukee – guaranteed him a job whenever he needed one.

Mikhanovsky answered the phones at Hotel Wisconsin and in doing so learned more English. He later took the ESL test and finally enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

He thought about enrolling at film school at UWM, but instead studied linguistics and planned to go to Law School because he had promised a relative before leaving Russia that he would someday be a lawyer. But Mikhanovsky continued to have a strong passion for film.

"When I was 14, I started watching six or eight movies at a time. I'd skip school to watch movies and I kept a diary of every filmmaker, editor, cinematographer. I was like an accountant for the movies," he jokes.

Before long, Mikhanovsky met some film students who invited him to act and help out with short films. One of the students told him he had the money to finance a short film and Mikhanovsky, who was also driving a van for disabled people at the time, went home and cranked out a 28-page script for a film, "Terra, Terra."

The short film would serve as part of his application to New York University's graduate film department. Mikhanovsky was accepted into the program in 2001 and graduated in 2004. During his time at NYU he made another film, this one based on his travel experience to a fishermen's town in Brazil, and won a student competition.

The film caught the attention of Andrij Parekh – the cinematographer behind "Blue Valentine," "Sugar" and more – who suggested Mikhanovksy make it into a full feature. Mikhanovsky quickly raised enough money to do so and his debut film, "Sonhos de Peixe," premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it won a Prix Regards Jeune award.

Now, Mikhanovksy, who moved back to Milwaukee two years ago, is raising money to make a full-feature, dark comedy called "Give Me Liberty" that's set in Milwaukee and inspired by his early experiences as a Russian immigrant driving a handicapped van.

The film was written in collaboration with American playwright Alice Austen, a Harvard graduate whose adaptation of "Animal Farm" just finished a long and successful run at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. Austen studied writing with Ken Kesey and acclaimed Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

According to Mikhanovksy, Benh Zeitlin, who directed "Beasts Of the Southern Wild" said the script "rocked his world."

"We envision the film is an edgy, bold and no holds barred kind of a cinematic experience," says Mikhanovsky. "We have been told by several producers out in L.A. that scripts like this don't come along often."

Although advised not to shoot in Milwaukee due to lack of tax incentives for filmmakers, Mikhanovksy and Austen refuse to make it anywhere else. Austen has deep roots in Milwaukee – she has lived here for 10 years and is related to Enoch Chase who was one of the first non-native settlers in Milwaukee.

Mikhanovksy calls Milwaukee his "second home" and the place where he became an American.

"This film was inspired by Milwaukee, written with its milieu and people in mind and the only way to preserve the artistic integrity of the script is to film it here. In the city we live, in the city we love," says Mikhanovksy.

A Kickstarter campaign is underway to help the film begin shooting in Milwaukee this February.

"Our goal is to raise a portion of the budget through Kickstarter in order to maintain creative control of the project, as well as to attract more investment," he says. "We are trying to rally the community behind the film and bring world-class talent to a film that's about Milwaukee and shot in Milwaukee."

Go here to find out more about "Give Me Liberty" and / or to make a donation.

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