Native son
Acclaimed film producer says Milwaukee LGBT Community Center inspired him to success

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Michael Raisler, producer of the award-winning independent film “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” -Photo: Courtesy Milwaukee LGBT Community Center

Wauwatosa native Michael Raisler is co-founder of Cinereach, a New York-based nonprofit movie production company and foundation. Raisler has experienced his greatest success since the company launched in 2006 as executive producer of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” The feature film debut of director Benh Zeitlin, the acclaimed movie is currently in release. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival and the coveted Camera D’Or at Cannes.

Raisler spoke with WiG in advance of appearing in Milwaukee at a series of screenings.

How does it feel to be on your home turf?

Michael Raisler: I’m literally freaking out. We had this amazing spread in the (Milwaukee) Journal Sentinel today. That’s a paper I grew up reading. Having Duane Dudek review the film was incredible. We did a screening at the Oriental Theater. That’s where I saw “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” – I grew up in that movie theater. To have it show in Milwaukee, at that theater, is insane. To have all my friends and family and high school and swim team coming out, showing up to see something I did is insane. It’s like being at Sundance (Film Festival) all over again.

Were you prepared for the response to “Beasts”?

Not at all. We had hopes. We felt like we made a film that was working and that we were going to have an audience. We thought people were going to respond to it. But we never anticipated the explosion that happened. People have really engaged with this fable that we told. I guess we just struck a chord. It’s beyond our wildest dreams. It’s something that’s so humbling, but keeps us going. That’s why you make movies. You make movies so hopefully people will like it and have something to say about it.

As a youth, you were involved with the Milwaukee LGBT community center’s Project Q. What can you tell me about your involvement?

Project Q is a by-youth, for-youth program. When I was in high school, I was coming out when I was 14, 15 years old. I wasn’t out to my family yet. Project Q is a program for youth that is partially conversations about sexual health, identity and dealing with bullying. But it’s also a space in the community for young gay people to come together with their allies and their friends and hang out in a safe space. For me, it was a really important time, a fragile period of my life where I was dealing with a lot of struggles, being young and gay at a Catholic school, trying to figure out everything. It was tremendous to have a community that I could call on and be a part of. It was great, and that’s where I met a lot of my dear friends.

What kind of impact did Project Q have on your career?

Basically it gave me the motivation and confidence to move to New York at 17 years old and pursue my dream and be confident in who I am and what I want to do. Right now, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t take no for an answer. I meet challenges head-on. I have dialogues with people, engage in conversations and troubleshoot and network. I do all the things a producer has to do. A large part of that is due to the spark of being a young person who had to figure something out very early and survive. I had a long history of pain and then came out better for it and that was due in large part to having the support of community and Project Q and the (Milwaukee LGBT Community) Center.

Cinereach also was involved with the films “Pariah” and “Bully.”

And also with the (Iranian) film called “Circumstances.”

Is Cinereach’s focus geared toward LGBT subject matter?

We’re focused on the issues of our time, the conversations of our time. These particular films are really striking and speak to important issues. There’s a conversation about what it means to be a young African-American woman, a conversation about what it means to be gay in the Middle East, a conversation happening about what it means to be a young person being bullied and facing that conflict. There’s a reason we supported those films, there’s a reason they’re being made. As long as there’s something to say about LGBT issues, or any other issue really, it’s something we’re going to engage in. Right now our country is so divided, so red and blue, and there are going to be a lot of filmmakers that have things to say about that dialogue.

What do you miss about Wisconsin?

I miss the space. I miss having room to breathe and being able to get out to nature. Living in New York, it’s really hard. I don’t have a car. I can’t just drive out to the woods if I want. I really miss the lakes and all that. There are a lot of people here that I love that I don’t get see as much as I’d like to. I make it back once or twice a year. It’s always hard, even if you’re here for a week, to see everybody you want to.

Would you like to someday produce a film set in Milwaukee?

I think that would be incredible. There are some Milwaukee-based filmmakers that I’m getting to know that I think are really promising. I think there’s a lot of fertile ground in Wisconsin, a lot of stories to tell.