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Indie Impresario
Film producer and Wauwatosa native Michael Raisler earns critical acclaim for "Beasts of the Southern Wild"


September 2012

Michael Raisler at the opening of his film at The Downer Theatre in Milwaukee.
Photo by Paul Williams

Michael Raisler’s love of making movies harkens back to his childhood in Wauwatosa.

"My mom took me to see a making-of ‘Star Wars’ documentary at Discovery World. I was totally fascinated by the miniatures, the special effects and movie magic. I wanted to be a pyrotechnician when I was 10," says Raisler.

Today, Raisler has realized his movie-making dreams, as executive producer of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" — this summer’s blockbuster indie film — which tells the story a young girl dealing with the aftermath of a hurricane that turns her Louisiana island world upside down.

Raisler admits a fascination with Spike Lee’s "Do the Right Thing" changed his world. "That film opened my eyes to whole tradition of film I hadn’t discovered yet," he says. "I fell in love with a lot of ’90s independent and foreign films like "The Ice Storm" and "Run Lola Run." A graduate of Pius XI High School and then New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Raisler still loves the magic and emotion of movies — especially how films speak to an audience and communicate ideas about the world through imagery. He also revels in the making of films. "Keeping everything in balance while trying to execute the vision for the film is a really invigorating challenge," he confides.

In addition to his own film producing, Raisler is creative director for Cinereach, a New York-based not-for-profit film production company and foundation that "champions vital stories, artfully told." The organization awards grants for numerous projects, receiving about 3,000 proposals a year. Subsequently, he watches lots of movies.

Raisler’s parents were in his court from the start, sacrificing, as he says, everything for his younger sister, Kelli, and himself. "They only ever asked one thing of us, ‘Follow your dreams and never settle,’" he says. His sister just graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and is now pursuing design work.

Michael Raisler shooting behind-the-scenes footage for "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Photo by Paul Williams

Coming home to Milwaukee for a "Beasts" preview this summer was a dream come true for Raisler, who saw his first independent film at one of his favorite theaters — The Oriental. "I thought it would be so amazing to have a film shown there. To have that happen already so soon in my career was so amazing," he emphasizes.

Raisler was excited when moving to New York at age 17; he knew the Big Apple wasa tremendous opportunity, so he met it head on. "It can be a bit of a tough town; it’s a little different out here than it was in Wauwatosa," Raisler chuckles about his adopted home city.

While in school at NYU, Raisler’s friend Philipp Engelhorn, Cinereach’s executive director, told him about his idea for a nonprofit that would make movies from a noncommercial standpoint. "It was 2006 and there was a lot going on in the world, both politically and in the independent films’ space," he says. "All the studios had specialty divisions that were churning out these commercially minded ‘indie-style’ films but there wasn’t a lot of support for cutting edge, daring filmmaking that was trying to engage with the current climate." Engelhorn was so convincing that Raisler had no problem joining the endeavor.

For productions like "Beasts," the Cinereach team gets involved at the concept or script stage. "Usually we’re responding to something specific that compels us to get involved in a major way," he says. "We’re opportunistic that way ... we don’t have to produce any set number of films every year, we only do it when we feel we need to. With ‘Beasts,’ we wanted to make something really adventurous, really unique."

For films in its grants program, the organization is less directly involved. The group is supporting someone else’s dream, so there has to be a lot of faith. "We’re not risk adverse, we love it," he says. "I love when a filmmaker is trying to do something that a commercial financier would look at and say "You can’t do that, it won’t work."

In Raisler’s mind, that’s why Cinereach is here, to push those boundaries. It doesn’t always pan out, but it does more often than not and it’s a beautiful thing to see, he asserts.

For Raisler, creativity is being able to problem solve and communicate. It’s about being compelled to say something, to express something, and to do it with whatever tools and skills you have — whether that’s a guitar, a paintbrush or a camera. He realizes that film is an extremely collaborative process, pointing out that "filmmaking is not literature. It’s not painting. It’s generally not one person sitting at a desk creating a world. It’s a team of people coming together to execute a vision."

Cinereach currently has three films in the works and several upcoming grantee projects. Among them, Raisler is acting as executive producer for the next piece by Tom Gilroy called "The Cold Lands," about a young boy who navigates the forest of the rural Catskills of New York after losing his mother.

Look for it on the Big Screen, brought to life by Milwaukee’s own Michael Raisler. 

Releasing the Beast

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is the gripping story of how a 6-year-old Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis) leaves her Delta-community home searching for her mother, while also confronted with her dad’s fading health. Compounding the problem are environmental changes after a hurricane that releases a pack of prehistoric, pig-like creatures called aurochs.

Raisler says the numerous challenges involved in the creative process was what made "Beasts" so much fun to make. "Filming on water is a huge challenge, but it totally paid off,"he explains. "There are few things as nerve-racking as putting a film camera on a boat, to say nothing of working with kids and keeping down costs.

"You just have to be able to problem-solve on the fly and always keep the vision of the film in mind. You have to protect that at all times, or everything will be for naught," he warns.

The script was written by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, and won the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury prize, along with a cinematography award for Ben Richardson. The critically acclaimed movie is currently making the festival scene and rounds of special screenings.


This story ran in the September 2012 issue of: