Were it not for the artistic vision of a Wauwatosa native, a critically acclaimed new film — one that won high honors at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, has garnered glowing top-tier reviews, and even early Oscar talk — would likely not have been made at all, nor quite so well.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild," which premiered June 27 in New York and Los Angeles and comes to Milwaukee on July 20, was executive produced by Michael Raisler of Wauwatosa, along with partners Philipp Engelhorn and Paul Mezey.
Raisler, a graduate of (2003) and New York University (2006), met Engelhorn at NYU, where they conceived of a production company to fill a vacant niche in the film industry.
In general, big-budget studio films are funded by big-name producers with very deep pockets. Independent films are made on shoestring budgets, often through the director’s scraping for cash from week to week.
Raisler’s company, Cinereach, was formed to adequately fund independent films its principals believe need to be made, and made well, and to see that they reach a wide audience.
“There really aren’t any other not-for-profits (in the U.S.) that do what we do,” Raisler said. “In Europe and around the world, there are some cultural institutions that are producing some films for cultural purposes, because they have an interest in art and the art of filmmaking and storytelling.
“There aren’t a lot of American institutions that are financing films from a cultural standpoint.”
A Christmas gift in Wauwatosa
The partners solicit scripts and either make outright grants to worthy projects or take them on themselves as producers.
Raisler, the creative director of Cinreach, was home for Christmas 3½ years ago, sitting in his family’s Wauwatosa living room, when he first read the draft screenplay of “Beasts.”
Then just 22, he told his mother he would do whatever it took to see it become a feature film. This would be a film he would help produce, firsthand and hands-on.
“This was something I was not going to let not get made,” Raisler said.
His determination led to a film that won the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and the Golden Camera Award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It's a trait he's had from his earliest days.
Progress at Pius
Raisler got his start in film production at Pius XI, where he was a student who was interested in art but didn’t draw, was somewhat interested in photography, but was really interested in film — when there was no film program at Pius.
The school laid out some $2,000 to $3,000 for film editing software, his mother, Ann Raisler said, and told him to set it up — because no one there knew how.
Among other things, Raisler made a stop-action movie using Skittles as characters, to the tune of “I Love Candy.”
Then he got deeper, touching social issues.
“He didn’t just make kid movies,” Ann Raisler said. “Everything he did was thoughtful and deep.”
But that was the way with him, she said. Everything Michael did was all or nothing.
“He was 6 when he learned to swim, and a week later he was on the swim team,” she said. “He ended up winning swim titles against kids three years older than him.
“When he was 9, he sold more Boy Scout popcorn than anyone in the country. He pulled his little red wagon around the block and he had this way of getting people to buy the most expensive bags.
“By the time he was 12 or 13, he had a sailboat, two TVs and three bikes in the garage.”
At Pius, Raisler didn’t leap into art. He didn’t draw. But he did like photography.
“He didn’t take much art at first,” said Patrica Frederick, chairwoman of the art department at Pius. “But when we saw his photography, we said, ‘You need to do this, you need to expand on this. This is who you are.’
“It was such an honest vision, an honest voice.”
At first, Frederick said, Raisler did just that, focusing on photography and film. His art teachers saw a talent that could rise above the average, could perhaps transcend.
“We spent a considerable amount of time teaching him to draw,” Frederick said, “and he got it. But he needed that for his portfolio.”
That portfolio won Raisler a national Scholastic Arts award, the highest honor in the nation for a high schooler, and admission to NYU, a noted film school.
Rave reviews for enigmatic subject
The screenplay for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” by Lucy Alibar, was adapted from her stage play “Juicy and Delicious.” Set on a small, swampy island — the “Bathtub” — outside the last levee on the remote Louisiana coast, it centers on a little girl and her terminally ill father, among the few, impoverished families that inhabit this primordial world.
The girl, Hushpuppy, lives so close to unbridled nature, both its wonders and its horrors, that she becomes part of it, believing that animals speak to her, and that when necessary, her primal screams can ward off invisible threats.
Played by local Houma, LA, girl and first-time actress Quvenzhané Wallis, now 8 — she was 5 when she snuck into an audition for the role — Hushpuppy also believes, along with the other islanders, that their sinking home will be washed away by a gigantic hurricane, if it is not first overrun by great beasts released by melting icecaps somewhere in a world they can’t even imagine.
The New York Times review calls the movie “a blast of sheer, improbable joy, a boisterous, thrilling action movie with a protagonist who can hold her own alongside Katniss Everdeen, Princess Merida and the other brave young heroines of 2012.” Venerable film critic Roger Ebert has already declared the film to be one of the best of the year, giving it four stars.
Directed by Benh Zeitlin, who co-adapted the screenplay with Alibar, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” will have its first Milwaukee showing at the Downer 2.
Vision comes to life in the bayou
Raisler had actually gotten together with Zeitlin about a year and a half before that fateful Christmas of 2008 in Wauwatosa.
“I met Behn Zeitlin at a film festival on the East Coast, after seeing his short film, 'Glory at Sea,'" Raisler said. “It really spoke to me as something that was a measure of exciting filmmaking. This was the kind of film I wanted to be involved in, this was the kind of filmmaker I wanted our company to work with.
“I cornered him at the festival. I said, ‘You have to tell me what you’re doing, you have to tell me what you’re working on. I want to get involved.’
“He was off living in the bayou, in New Orleans, writing it, going back and forth. He and Lucy were working on it together.”
Once the new draft was in his hands — the original Alibar play had been set in Georgia and featured a boy instead of a girl — Raisler decided to back the movie.
Cinereach provided “99 percent of the funding” for the film, Raisler said. But he would do much more.
Most executive producers pay the occasional visit to the set to see how their investment is being handled. Raisler went to Louisiana and stayed in rented digs near Houma, the filming site, for five months. That’s unusual for an executive producer.
“I was living in, like, oil rig housing, sort of like a cheap motel,” Raisler said. “There’s about 110 people who worked on this movie, and they’re a Jenga block, take any one away and you lose something of the art.
“I’m sort of like the wind that blows the sails, right?” Raisler said. “We’re working together to execute this vision for the movie.
“I’m making sure that there’s a sandbox in place, so that you can build, the team can build, in order to make the creative vision come to life.
"In the hottest, buggiest place you ever saw."
'A dream come true'
The success of Cinereach and "Beasts" on a worldwide stage would have been impossible to envision for a Wauwatosa child. But Raisler seemed to have an inkling even then.
“When he was 6 years old, I took him to an IMAX movie about the making of the 'Star Wars' movies,” his mother said. “And he said then, ‘That’s what I want to do, I want to make movies and blow stuff up.”
Michael Raisler remembers that day, and he no longer wants to just blow stuff up, willy nilly.
But it hasn’t all gone away.
“Well,” he said, “in 'Beasts,' there’s a shot where we blow up a whole set. Most people do that digitally these days, but we had a model set, and we blew it up.
“Twenty years later, there’s a dream come true.”