Portland-based filmmaker Molly Preston’s first feature-length film Freedom, WI, shot in and around the Fox Cities (she called Appleton home for seven years) is currently in post-production. Appleton-based filmmaker Len Burruso posed a series of questions to Molly about the process of making the film. Find more about Freedom, WI at https://www.freedomwifilm.com.
Len: What is so special about the idea of place in your film?
Molly: Every town, city, state, and country has its own totally unique qualities. Where you are can affect how you interact with others, what situations you end up in, as well as your goals and dreams. I started writing the script when I was living in Appleton and it was inspired by ideas and feelings I had based on where I was at the time. Personally, I like to physically be in the space where I want a film to take place at least during some of the writing stage, so that I can get inspiration from the sounds, smells, and sights of the place. I was lucky enough to be able to come back to Appleton several times while I was writing the script.
L: Why not shoot it on the West Coast (Portland)? Did location play a character in the film?
M: It would have been logistically simpler to film in Portland, OR where I am based, but I really wanted the film to be authentically Wisconsin. I wanted our cast and crew to be in Appleton and the Fox Cities area, and to have the opportunity to experience a slice of life in the location that had a huge influence on the story and the characters. I also wanted to have a chance to give back to a community that I feel gave me so much over the near decade that I lived there.
Our home base was Appleton, but we filmed in several different locations around the Fox Cities. Our main character’s house was in a beautiful home in Menasha (shout out to Grace and Jacob Rex!), Kaukauna’s Mayor Tony Penterman helped us close down one of their main streets for us to use (the street sweeper even came the night before to make the street sparkle!), and we shot in a cemeteryin Greenville that was nestled between a cornfield and cows. Most of our other locations were in Appleton, including Dance and Jim’s Place. It was really fun to be back in a place that I’m so familiar with and have so many fond memories of, but to be approaching everything from a filmmaking perspective. Making a film in Wisconsin made me look at everything differently!
The location definitely plays a character in the film. We wanted to feature architecture and landscape that feel unique to small town Wisconsin.
L: What were your days like on set in Appleton?
M: When we arrived on set, I’d have a conversation with Director of Photography, Kevin Forrest, about the scene and what shot we were starting with. When the actors arrived, we’d block out the scene, which isn’t a full rehearsal, more of just a walk through of where they would be in the scene. Once blocking was good to go, Kevin and his team would get starting setting up the lighting and camera and I’d chat with the actors and other departments. I’ve worked with the Portland-based crew countless times and consider them to all be some of my best buddies. We are a pretty well-oiled machine, and it was really interesting to see how everything came together between them, the Midwest based crew, and the actors. Being on set is hard work, but we had a lot of fun! Everyone in the towns where we filmed were so kind and generous. It was wonderful when people would come up to us and ask what we were doing. We met a young, aspiring filmmaker when we were filming outside of Jacob’s Meat Market, and we were able to have her come by our set a couple of days so that she could observe and even help out our art department! That was a huge highlight for us!
L: From a cinematographic perspective, is there anything that drew you back to Wisconsin? The quality of light? The landscape?
M: Our Director of Photography, Kevin Forrest, was obsessed with the clouds! That may sound funny, because there are clouds everywhere, but in Wisconsin, the clouds are so huge, white, fluffy, and constantly changing. The clouds alone didn’t draw us back, but also the way that the light hits the landscape and architecture. I bet that Kevin could describe it better than I can, but there’s just something special and unique about the quality of the light in the midwest that we don’t have in the Pacific Northwest!
L: How was the crew? Where they a local crew, a crew you brought, or did you fly in department heads or keys? What makes a great crew person in your estimation? What does a great crew person add to a film?
M: Our producers, camera department, grip and electric, sound mixer, and myself all came from the West Coast, primarily Portland, OR. Our art department, hair and makeup artists, and production assistants were all from the Midwest - Chicago, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, and Appleton! During the pre-production stage, it was very helpful to have the producers and director of photography in Portland. We were able to work together in the same time zone and in-person to work through the shot list, schedule, etc. When it came to the visuals - set decoration and props that we would see on screen, it was awesome having a local team headed up by Chicago- based Production Designer, Julia Carusillo. As a midwesterner, she knows the area, the styles, and the quirks that make the Midwest special.
Filmmaking is unique in the way that it is a collaboration, but there is also a strict hierarchy within the crew. You might think, “hierarchy, that’s lame,” and I understand why that might come across as a negative thing, but I actually think it’s great. Having a hierarchy means that everyone specializes in and totally owns their job. I think that this gives people the opportunity to really shine in their role. When someone takes pride in and owns their position, I think that makes for an excellent crew member.
L: What were some of your biggest challenges while shooting on location in Appleton?
M: The mosquitos! Honestly... they were everywhere! Our two leads, Aimee La Joie and Stephen George, ended up buying zapper rackets, which inspired our Director of Photography to buy more. In between takes there was a constant sound of “zap! zap! zap!” Surprisingly, no zapper rackets made it into a scene by accident. I’ll have to add a disclaimer at the end of the film that says, “mosquitos were harmed during the production.”
L: Can you tell us about any great memories you have from production?
M: So many to choose from! One of my favorite things about production was being able to share the wonderful parts of Appleton with people who I’ve worked with in Portland. Everyone out here knows how much I love Wisconsin, and it was really exciting to get to show them some of the places I talk about all the time in person! Some of the highlights were going to the Fox River House (and getting a round of proper old fashioneds - with brandy of course!), getting cheese curds from Jacob’s Meat Market, and filming at Dance and Jim’s Place.
My absolute favorite scenes to film were on the final day of production. We filmed at Crutch of Memory, an awesome music studio and label, where we had a party scene with the Appleton band Dusk, that features my good buddy Julia Blair who is also our composer! It was beautifully lit and the set decoration was incredible! Any time we can do a scene with great music and dancing, it’s always a fun time! Two of my best buddies (here’s looking at you Elyse Lucas and Chris Dorn!) live just a couple of blocks away from the house where I was staying. They were so incredibly supportive and helpful in the years leading up to production and during the shoot itself. On our final day, they were featured in one of the party scenes, which was a really fun collision of my two worlds - Portland film friends, new friends from the cast and crew, and friends I’ve had for over 15 years! Our producer, Katie Dalziel, managed to get the wonderful folks from the Appleton Fire Department to drive one of their trucks with the lights flashing through one of our shots! That was pretty damn cool. It was the absolute perfect way to finish the production.
L: What was your cast like?
M: Our cast was amazing! Our two leads, Aimee La Joie and Stephen George, ended up becoming really close during prep and the production. Usually on set when an actor is wrapped for the day, they leave set, but anytime Aimee or Stephen finished before the other, they’d stick around to support the other. I loved that! All of our supporting actors, Melissa Shoshahi, Michelle Renee Thompson, Cory Hardin, Jessica Ambuehl, and Richard Baiker, were some of the kindest and hard working people I’ve ever met. It was an absolute joy getting to spend three full weeks getting to know Aimee and Stephen, and then getting to meet new folks who were on set between one and three days at a time. I consider myself to be extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to work with such talented and all around wonderful people!
L: Did you go through a long casting process or did you write the film with particular actors & actresses in mind?
M: Our casting director, Jen Elkington, made the casting process so easy! She reached out to specific actors we had found through Wisconsin and Chicago based talent agencies, social media, and through comedy. We had everyone send in a self-taped audition and then did call backs over zoom. Everyone who auditioned brought something different and special to the roles. When the folks who ended up in each role read their parts, something just clicked and felt right. I felt like I was getting to know the real characters and discovering something new about them, something I never could have seen by just reading words off of a page. It was a really exciting process!
L: Do you remember when you had the initial idea for the film?
M: I had the idea before I was working in film professionally. I was living in Appleton on College Ave., and worked two jobs, also on College Ave. - shout out to Brewed Awakenings and Dance! I really wanted to work in film but I didn’t know how to achieve that, so I thought I’d try making a film with what I had available, with myself and my friends in all of the roles. I started writing Freedom, WI with that in mind, intending to create a short film. As I was writing, I felt that I had something special that I wanted to save until I had the skills and the means make the film in a professional manner, and I’m really glad I did!
L: Did you shoot with a particular set of lenses or a particular camera in mind for the film?
M: We shot the film on an Arri Alexa Classic. Our DP Kevin Forrest had used the Arri several times before, and we really love the look of it. Fun fact, we only used two lenses for the whole film - 14mm and 40mm Arri Ultra Primes! Using these lenses gave us a perfect opportunity to highlight both the characters and the locations that they were in.
L: Did you shoot in a particular aspect ratio or resolution for any specific reason?
M: We shot in 16:9. We considered a wider aspect ratio to capture the beautiful Wisconsin landscape, but ended up deciding against it. Freedom, WI is the story of friendship between two people, and we wanted to capture scenes with the two of them where we could be with them in a two-shot without having a ton of extra space on either side or having them far apart. The 16:9 aspect ratio allows for that, while still giving a wide enough view to feature the beautiful scenery.
L: Did you discover aspects of the story that you had not foreseen in the editing process?
M: I absolutely LOVE the editing process. In film, a story is created three times - first in the writing stage, second during production, and third in the edit. When I was editing, I tried to take off the writer and director hats and focus only on what worked for the edit. I had to make some tough choices and cut some shots (and even a couple of scenes!) but I believe that the film turned out better because of it.
L: How did the score and your composer play a part in your film?
M: Our composer, Julia Blair, is a good friend of mine from when we attended Lawrence University in Appleton together. We used a mix of songs from Julia’s debut solo album, Better Out Than In, that was released earlier this year, and music that she composed, recorded, and mixed in collaboration with Amos Pitsch. We also used a few other tracks from bands and musicians that have a connection to Wisconsin, including Liam O’Brien, Yellow Ostrich, and Holy Sheboygan. Toward the end of the film, we see Julia singing with her band Dusk in a scene that is a big turning point for the characters. I loved the idea of hearing Julia’s voice and musicthroughout the film before we see her in this scene. I’m hoping that some viewers make the connection when they see her on screen. I think it’s a pretty fun little easter egg! Julia did an amazing job finding a really cool style and instrumentation for the score that adds cohesion, interest, and emotion. She’s so talented!
L: How did costume, hair, and makeup play a part?
M: Our lead Hair and Makeup Artist, Jenni Schenk was amazing! She created looks for the characters that felt unique and appropriate for each and every one. The main character, Penny, is a bit of an angsty young woman. Quite often in films, when there is a moody character, they will be dressed in all black or dark colors with similarly styled makeup. It was important to me to not stick to this stereotype. We had our lead in bright colors and fun 60s inspired dresses, which felt like a fun twist from what we might usually see.
L: What was the color grading process like? Did you work with a Colorist? If so, what did you try to emphasize, or what discoveries did you make in the grading process?
M: We’re working with a Portland based Colorist, George Costakis. It’s been wonderful sitting down with him and Kevin (our DP) for live sessions and watching George do his magic. He has done an excellent job highlighting the natural beauty of the landscapes, emphasizing specific design elements, and giving the film an overall look that fits just perfectly.
L: Would you come back and film again in Appleton?
M: Definitely! Maybe one day I’ll become known as the film director who shoots most of their feature films in Appleton, Wisconsin!