Give Me Liberty – Interview

The russian-american director Kirill Mikhanovsky tells his genesis
of his second film presented to the Sundance and to
the Director’s Fortnight of Cannes.

By Julien Lada

Reading time 6 min.

Give Me Liberty


Into the pile of cannoise film screenings, we missed the excellent Give Me Liberty, the second production by Kirill Mikhanovsky. Awarded to the Director’s Fortnight in 2006 with Sonhos de Peixe, this globe-trotter immersed himself in the experiences of his youth to tell the story of Vic, a young man of Russian origin, driver of a vehicle specialized in the transport of disabled people. Between American burlesque comedy and Russian social drama (or the other way around), the film takes us to the streets of poor neighborhoods in Milwaukee… During a day that became uncontrollable, between the burial of a babushka, a singing contest and anti-racist demonstrations. Give Me Liberty is in the image of its director: unbridled, hectic, excessive, and above all exciting. He has no shortage of stories about the tumultuous adventure of his film.

Kirill Mikhanovsky : « My life is a Zemeckis film »

American independent cinema often shows New York, California or the South, but why Milwaukee?

This is the city I lived in when I arrived in the United States, and I had gone back there to rejuvenate, to find my bearings. Then I quickly realized that I saw Milwaukee as a real character… And that’s why I proposed to my partner Alice Austen to make a film about my memories of when I was driving a vehicle for the disabled. It was born of our common will, she co-authored and produced the film in her own name. We met in Milwaukee six years ago, when one of my projects went wrong. At that time I was deep in the hole, both psychologically and financially. She was already working on a first version of the script and was looking for someone to work with. It all started there.

A sort of four-handed autofiction? 

This film was born of purely personal experiences, but it is not an autobiography. This young driver is not my alter-ego, and if he was, then you could say that all the characters in the movie are my alter ego.

How do you manage to finance a film like this, bilingual, almost exclusively non-professional casting, with many disabled actors who are…

We found no public funding in the United States. It took us two and a half years to pitch the film. That’s when we found a studio that accepted A24, which directed us to a New York investor. He read our script and said it was the best he’d seen since Moonlight. Just two months later, A24 won the Oscars with the same Moonlight and became the most popular studio in American cinema. In June we had no news of the budget and the schedule, and in October A24 we gave up. For four years, it had been like the myth of Sisyphus pushing his rock up the mountain. But we started shooting four months later, with only a very small part of the planned budget.

Has this succession of contingencies led you to change some of your initial plans?

We didn’t sacrifice any of the characters or any of the places in the plot. The only problem was time, no one was ready for such a drastic shortening. We shot the film in 23 days, with all the constraints that that entails. Just to get everyone on the bus up or down, sometimes it took an hour. One had to think about their comfort, including in the scenes where the bus runs at 110 km/h. Chris Galust (the main actor) is neither an actor nor a professional driver. I planned to spend two months with him in Milwaukee at the start, to make him live with the actor who plays his grandfather, to find him a little job to learn how to drive this kind of vehicle… And in the end, we only had ten days to prepare, and out of those ten days he spent eight driving.And you know why he did so well?Because he had no choice, like all of us.

You make it sound like this Give Me Liberty is a two-way street: it’s as much a reflection on the American Dream as it is a message you send about the difficulties you had making the film.

We had a lot of trouble finding that title with Alice, despite our many philosophical conversations. And one day, in a coffee shop, we met a young Tunisian mechanic wearing a glaring yellow T-shirt, on which there was a blindfolded Statue of Liberty with the inscription “Give Me Liberty” (“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” is a famous maxim of Patrick Henry, major actor in the American War of Independence, delivered in 1775k, Ndlr). We went to talk to him and he became a friend. He gave us a surprise: he washed and packed the T-shirt to give us! We even planned to make it appear in a first version of the film.

Finally, your film had an adventure as incredible as its hero. 

I have spent years discovering to love the films of Vigo, Godard, Fellini, Tarkovski, Eustache, Ozu, but my life is like a film of Robert Zemeckis (Back to the future, Forest Gump).When we started this film, everyone told us it was impossible to produce. When we were abandoned on the side of the road, a producer told us that we were in a “deep shit”. When we started showing the movie, we were told it was a no name mess. A director friend, who is much more successful than me, said to me, “Your film is very good, but it will never go to Sundance,” not to mention Cannes… At every step, we were looked down on, and like an American tale, we just wanted the freedom to continue…

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