Tosa native played key role in Sundance win
Michael Raisler is award-winning film's executive producer
The independent film "Beasts of the Southern Wild" has won the Sundance Film Festival, taken a top prize at Cannes and already has strong Oscar buzz. But for Michael Raisler - an executive producer and Tosa native - the screening at the Oriental Theatre for members of Milwaukee's film society fulfilled a childhood dream.
"This movie is about home, community and how they play into a little girl facing the end of her universe and how she rises above it," he said. "It's an emotional film experience."
So it was apt that Raisler, 26, could return to his home last week to introduce the movie and hold several question-and-answer sessions to give viewers some insight into the creative process behind the film.
"A lot of people wanted to know if they were interpreting the film the right way," he said, adding that there's no right answer. Rather people will draw from their own individual lives.
Helping others first
That concept of experiencing art and creating pieces that spark conversation led Raisler and Philipp Engelhorn - a schoolmate at New York University - to launch not-for-profit film foundation and production company Cinereach during their junior year.
"We started giving grants to film projects that were interesting and engaging," he said. "By model and design we're supposed to be taking risks."
So far Cinereach has supported 100 projects through about $5 million in grants.
But the duo also looked for its own first big project and had a goal to work outside the typical Los Angeles or New York film realms. They had been impressed by a short film, "Glory at Sea," set in Louisiana and directed by Benh Zeitlin.
"I cornered the director and said, 'What are you going to do next because we want to be part of it,' " Raisler said.
Facing the challenges
In his role as an executive director, he made sure "nothing fell between the cracks," which meant even taking on tasks like putting up a tent to keep cast and crew from the sweltering sun and loading film into the camera.
But on a larger scale he was involved in making sure the creative vision was executed. That meant figuring out how to safely handle animals, a 6-year-old girl that was the central character and explosions all in the same project; handling land disputes and getting permission to shoot on bayou properties, and hiring cast and crew.
"It was always a different challenge," he said. "It was probably a $10 million script, but we didn't have $10 million in funding - so if it needed to be done, I handled it."
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" tells the story of Hushpuppy, a girl who is on the brink of becoming an orphan in a Louisiana bayou community that is cut off from the rest of the world by a sprawling levee. With her childish optimism and extraordinary imagination, she becomes a hero who rises above tragedy.
The film was completed two days before Sundance and it went on to win the film festival.
"It cuts you back. It almost knocks you over - there was this roar from the audience," he said. "You felt the force of the 2,000 people."
The win brought a U.S. distribution deal from Fox Searchlight and the film opened in New York and L.A. in June. Since then, the buzz has led to openings in other cities, including Milwaukee, where it is showing at the Downer Theatre.
Angela Catalano, program manager with Milwaukee Film, had seen the film at Sundance but didn't realize there was a local connection until Raisler called.
"We were blown away," she said, adding that the organization flew Raisler to Milwaukee for the screenings and had him meet with about a dozen local filmmakers. "It's arguably the most important independent film of the year."
Building a relationship with people like Raisler - someone with local ties and success in the industry - can prove helpful to Milwaukee Film's membership, Catalano said.
Raisler can't remember a time when he didn't want to be involved in making films, although he initially thought special effects were going to be his niche.
He recalls many family trips with his parents, Ann and John Raisler, to the theater and admits, "I was really fascinated in the magic of movies."
His mother recalls the moment Michael told her he was going to make movies. He was 6 years old and she had taken him to the newly opened IMAX theater at the Milwaukee Public Museum. They watched a movie about making movies.
"He announced he was going to make movies when he grew up. He never changed his mind," she said.
His parents bought him a movie camera and throughout high school he created artistic works, not the kind of goofy recordings with friends that most kids do, his mom said.
"Everything he did, he always pushed," Ann said.
At Pius XI High School, he took a film theory class that got him thinking critically about film, and he frequented movies at the Rosebud and Oriental theaters. Then he got accepted at NYU.
His mother wasn't surprised, in fact she predicted the film's Sundance win. Now, her Oscar predictions aren't looking so pie-in-the-sky either, she said.
"Mother isn't looking so crazy these days," she said.
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