by Steven Prokopy
An award-winning screenwriter and playwright, Alice Austen’s current film project, GIVE ME LIBERTY, made with co-writer/producer/director Kirill Mikhanovsky, follows the day in a life of Milwaukee medical transport driver Vic (Chris Galust), who is perpetually 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, so he must take them via new routes that completely uproot his scheduled clients, particularly Tracy (standout Lauren "Lolo" Spencer), 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.
With roots deep in the Chicago theater world, Austen recently adapted George Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM for a run at the Steppenwolf Theatre, and has also had her work at the Goodman Theatre. Before her work as a writer, she was an international lawyer (she studied law and creative writing at Harvard University), having represented Vaclav Havel’s Czech Republic. For the stage, she is currently working on “Bolshoi” with Simon Shuster and Jeff Calhoun (“Newsies”).
GIVE ME LIBERTY debuted at Sundance earlier this year and was praised for giving voice to citizens who rarely get significant screen time in movies, as it blends first-time actors with more seasons performers with impressive results. We spoke to Austen when she was in Chicago recently for an opening night Q&A screening with Mikhanovsky of GIVE ME LIBERTY (distributed by Music Box Films), which is continuing its run at the Music Box Theatre.
Question: You can't watch this movie and not wonder, where did the idea of creating this melting pot of nationalities, races, abilities, ages languages into one moving vehicle come from?
Alice Austen: The original idea was to write a story about contemporary Milwaukee, which to us was the epitome of the American story, the American dream, and the American city—the struggles and the great things as well. When Kirill first came to the United States, he came through Jewish Family Services to Milwaukee in the early 1990s, and one of his first jobs was driving a van; he did it for a short time and he told me stories, and they were really funny. None of those stories got into the movie, but the funniest thing that happened was that when we first started scouting, we went to a place where a number of people with disabilities worked, and this woman who was blind and in a wheelchair heard Kirill talk and said, “It’s the driver.” And it had been well over 20 years since she had heard that voice, and I thought “What on earth did he do?” But to us, the van was always this connective tissue in the film, it would bring people together and be the thing that would criss-cross a segregated city.
Did you intend for it to be political? You have different people represented, but you also have comments on the health care system and immigration, even the current state of our relationship with Russia.
AA: It was an organic thing that happened. We did not intend to write a political film at all, nor did we intend to right a comedy—that’s the funniest thing. We were in a meeting in New York, sitting around with a bunch of studio executives, and they described our script as “your brilliant comedy.” We looked at each other in panic. We’d written a dramatic film, but I guess on the page, it was also quite funny.
When you’re collaborating as a writer, how did that process work. Did you write side by side, did you take turns on things? It has to be much different than what you’re used to as a playwright.
AA: Yes. Kirill and I have a great collaborative connection, but we fight, so sometimes we’d be writing together, sometimes we’d take turns at the computer, grabbing back and forth. He would take a stab at things, and then I would take it. I’m someone who is very meticulous about structure. In the process of getting this film off the ground, we shot another film. We had certain pieces in place but not all of them, so we shot another feature film in 10 days, which was itself a story, and that one is in post-production. We actually got support from the Sundance Institute, and it went to the Skywalker Soundlab—it’s a very interesting genre piece. But we had to put that aside because this one got greenlit, so we had to move on it.
But as he was editing that one—so many people loved the script [for GIVE ME LIBERTY], but something was holding it up. I’m not one of those writers who looks at something I’ve written and says “No, it’s perfect. Everyone is wrong.” I thought, “People love it so much, but it’s not moving forward,” so I took and made it into a 24-hour time period with a very structured, ticking plot. Before it was over days, and it was great and wild and there were a lot of things that ended up being cut out that we loved—you always kill your babies, as they say. But what this permitted people to do was relate to these crazy worlds being brought together, because everyone can related to having a crazy day: “Oh my god, I’ve had a day like that. I understand.” And that script hit the zeitgeist, and we had many well known actors reaching out to us. Everyone wanted to be in the movie. We were in discussions people like Donald Sutherland to play Grandpa. It became a comedy. We Skyped with every actor in DUNKIRK for the role of Vic. It was very interesting.
How do you land on your Vic [Chris Galust] then? He’s a first-time actor, right?
AA: It was brutal. We went through 400 actors; we were looking for a name actor to anchor it. Shia LaBeouf was one of the actors we were very interested in. His manager loved it; Shia was in Greenland. My mother is a psychologist and a painter, and she’s great a reading faces, so we would always send her the clips of people we were considering, and she doesn’t know actors as all, but she saw Shia and said, “Look at that smile. He’s got such sweetness, but he looks like he might be difficult.” And I saw Shia at Sundance and talked to him, and he remembered the script, and I told him what my mom had said, “Dude, your mom is fucking insightful.” But in short, we weren’t finding the right Victor, and at that point Jennifer Venditti, the legendary casting director in New York was brought in, and she’s done a lot of street casting—she discovered Sasha Lane from AMERICAN HONEY. She had a real time clock, because at that point, we were shooting within a month. And in week four, they hadn’t found anyone and were really disheartened, and one of her scouts spotted Chris, and that was all she wrote. They heard him speaking English and wondered what the odds were that he spoke Russian, but then they heard him order cake in Russian, and we had our Victor. He’s an electrician by trade, and now he’s decided he wants to be an actor.
I wondered if it had sparked something in him.
AA: It did. His performance is so superb, and he was really driving.
I’ve had more than one critic tell me that they loved the film, but they would have liked it more if they hadn’t felt like they were having a panic attack while they were watching it. And one of them said that strictly because they hate being late for things, and all this movie is is a guy who is perpetually late for things. Did you were making a timeclock thriller on top of everything else?
AA: It’s funny, I’m always inclined to have that sense of tension and anxiety. I think it makes something more compelling. And I also hate being late. I’m on time always, but Kirill is more relaxed about running late, so we had that constant tension even on set because we were constantly fighting the clock, and that fed into the process of making the film. Also, Chris, this is the first time he’s acting, so there was a lot of verisimilitude there. He was under incredible pressure, if you think about it. When he came in, he only had time to train as a driver, and then he was on set acting and driving. The one think most people have said is that they have that tension and anxiety, but they feel like they’re in the van and they love that.
You can’t not feel like you’re a passenger in that van. How do you fit a crew in that van? It’s packed with passengers.
AA: There were at least five people in there that you don’t see. It was terrible. Everyone’s legs would fall asleep. We were all on the floor; it was really challenging.
When you’re writing, how do you write chaos? What does that look like on the page?
AA: It’s all very scripted, even the scene that we call the “Cadillac scene,” even though he hits an SUV because an SUV is what we were allowed to mess up. But of course we had Maxim Stoyanov, a very gifted actor who plays Dima, and he’s brilliant at creating and helping to marshall everybody. He was the linchpin in a lot of those scenes, where he really understood how to raise the level of what was happening. And Kirill worked very closely with the choir, and they were amazing, and they’re all in their 80s. They were so Soviet in their approach, so stalwart; they would do what they were asked to do, which was quite extraordinary. And most of them don’t speak much English, so it was wild.
Let’s also talk about Lolo, because she comes across as a trained actor here.
AA: She is, but this is her first role. She’s had some training, but we were absolutely determined to cast a young woman with a disability, and at one point, we were getting pressured to cast somebody like Lupita Nyong’o, because it would have made a lot of things easier, and she’s a wonderful actress. But we felt that would have been a terrible disservice to the individuals with disabilities in the film. It was really hard because we didn’t know where to look. There are some wonderful casting people at the Goodman Theatre, and I called them, and someone had said they had an idea because at one point, the Goodman had done a show and it was very inclusive, so they reached out to someone who got me in touch with a casting director in New York, who got me in touch with an agent in L.A., who was Lolo’s agent.
And as soon as we saw and talked to Lolo, we knew; there was no question. She’s so brilliant; it’s been on many best-of lists of the year. And we’re now been approached by a group that wants to do an awards push for her. The excellence of Lolo’s performance could easily be overlooked because she’s disabled, but her performance is superb; she’s a brilliant actress and it should be recognized. She was on her marks; I’ve worked with so many actors at this point, but I have not worked with someone who was so able to do what she did take after take after take, adjust and nail it. She’s really talented.
Tell me about shooting in Milwaukee. Why did you want to shoot it there, and what did you want to capture about the city that maybe other cities don’t have?
AA: Well, we both live there and both have odd connections to the city. Kirill’s family came her as refugees from Moscow, and my great-great grandfather was the third settler in Milwaukee, the first doctor; he patented the a brick process and built the factories that made the bricks. And then my family went back east and west, but then I moved there 12 years ago. So we both feel a real affection for Milwaukee and also feel very strongly that it was part of America that was overlooked in the last election. It’s the America that doesn’t have this explosive technology of the coasts or new industry; it’s trying to find its way and struggles with segregation and poverty. Milwaukee happens to be a minority majority city, which many people don’t know. Most people think it’s a lot of white people and beer and sausage, right?
It has all of these qualities that nobody knows about, and for us, it represents the heart of the American dream in many ways. There are a number of immigrants; there’s a struggle with race; a lot of factories closed and new industries are struggling to get up and running because the middle class is struggling so much. That was non-negotiable—we wrote the script for Milwaukee. The worst part was that no one outside of Milwaukee was really interested in shooting there. There are not tax incentive in Wisconsin, so as a business decision, it was a terrible decision. At first, no one in Milwaukee even believed it when we said we wanted to make a world-class film in Milwaukee. So that made it very hard, and there was a point where we got offers to do it in L.A., an offer to do it for full-budget in Detroit, and we turned them down. We thought, “Are we idiots?”
The American Dream is a big part of this movie. These are people who don’t believe it’s dead, but they’re struggling to realize it. Talk about its place in this story.
AA: I think ultimately, the American Dream is out capacity to come together, to work together. I have a background as a human rights lawyer. I found the Human Rights Journal at Harvard Law School with two friends. And I worked a lot overseas. Interestingly, when Kirill came to this country, I went to the Czech Republic are represented Vaclav Havel while he established his government. So for us, the idea of the American Dream was always important, and it’s hard to see people say that it’s dead, or such a divisive, dangerous time in our country. Speaking politically, I’m horrified to see how uncivil our discourse is. To see an incapacity to hear what someone else it talking about. There’s a fundamental lack of imagination, and ultimately, imagination is a part of empathy. And all of those things fed into the script in great measure.
I read that the film took a while to get rolling, like a couple of years. Are you glad it’s coming out now, rather than even three years ago? It feels so much more relevant to the nation today.
AA: It’s funny that you ask that question, because I’ve joked with people before that I’ll write something that anticipates the zeitgeist too early. So the fact that it did take a while, yes, it’s interesting. It’s still playing in France, where it opened in July on 100 screens, and the French look at Victor, who wears a yellow vest, and say “Gilets jaunes” [the yellow vest movement], and it captured a certain zeitgeist around the world. The Russians really responded to it, the intelligentsia really responded to it and bonded to it. And there are a lot of reasons for that in Russia. I think, yes, it’s more powerful now after what’s gone on in the last few years.
The film does end on a hopeful note. Was that important to you to have it end that way?
AA: Yeah, no spoilers, but there’s one character who, in an early draft of the script, did die, and he was convinced he needed to. I think it’s hopeful without being saccharine. Everybody still has to get up the next morning and go back to work and do what they do. But I think Kirill and I are optimists, even though we are pragmatists. I think that at the end of the day, optimism has almost become transgressive; it’s easier to write a really awful, horror movie where a lot of people are killed. Those movies sell really easily, but those characters don’t have a future.
Tell me about your Sundance experience. Was that your first time?
AA: Yes, it was my first time having a film there. That was crazy because we submitted a cut of the film to Sundance, and even our teams said it wasn’t going to get in; that would be crazy. So we were doing pickups and focused on Cannes, and we got the call the call from Sundance in the middle of pickups, which was shocking on two levels: I had set up our post-production, and I scheduled it just in case we might get into Sundance with a great French post-production house on a schedule that seemed insane. And we got the call from Sundance right before Thanksgiving, and we had to edit in the pickups, so Kirill went to France. We had an edited cut, but he was still tweaking it at the very end of December, and I got there in January and we were sound designing, sound editing, color correcting and editing overlapping, which nobody does. So we were working literally 24-hour days, totally exhausted, because the whole year was so busy.
And we flew back and had two days until we were supposed to be at Sundance, and we landed and get the horrible phone call you always dread: “We can’t read the DCP.” So we had to get a new DCP done at Dolby, and then we went to Sundance, where the film played opening night. So it wasn’t like we could relax for a couple of days, and then there was the incredible tension of whether it was going to get picked up, and it wasn’t out of Sundance, and that was really difficult. So that’s when we went back and did a new cut, which is really hard. We had submitted for Cannes and they reached out to us and that late winter/early spring, and there were people on our team that were upset that we turned down SXSW and San Francisco Film Festival; we were selected for New Directors/New Films at Cannes and we accepted and then got a note from the head of Wild Bunch saying that if we’d accepted anywhere else, we were off the table. I think we are only the fourth feature film to premiere at Sundance and go on to Cannes; the odds are nil basically. So our crazy gamble paid off, but the film was built of bold decisions. It was a different version of the film, so Cannes could say it was the world premiere of the new version, and we had a 12-minute standing ovation.
Congratulations and best of luck. Thank you.
AA: Thank you so much.
Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com), and appears weekly on WGN Radio as part of the Nick Digilio Show’s Monday Morning Movie Reviews segment. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.”