Aquarians

Chandler Massey prepares for a scene in "Aquarians," written and directed by UW-Madison graduate Michael M. McGuire.

PHOTO COURTESY OF TWIN CITIES FILM FESTIVAL

It wouldn’t have seemed right for Michael M. McGuire to premiere his debut film “Aquarians” at a film festival in Florida or California.

After all, the family drama was filmed in McGuire’s hometown of Marinette in northern Wisconsin in January of last year. Frozen lake keg parties, cars spinning into ditches, and lots and lots of snow and ice figure prominently in the film.

So McGuire, a 2001 UW-Madison graduate, is happy that the film will premiere in Minneapolis at the Twin Cities Film Festival on Oct. 22. The festival starts Wednesday and runs through Oct. 28.

And, after that, the movie will come home to Wisconsin to play at the Driftless Film Festival on Nov. 3.

“The Twin Cities Film Festival, it’s just one of the most appropriate places to debut the film,” McGuire said. “I wanted to showcase the cultural nuances of the upper Midwest, and hopefully that will be very accessible for this festival’s audience.”

Now in its eighth year, the Twin Cities Film Festival offers a mix of local and regional films and early looks at films considered contenders for next year's Oscars. This year’s slate includes the thriller “Attack of the Tattie-Bogle,” shot near Eau Claire, as well as Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” and Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill.

McGuire attended the UW-Madison in the 1990s, earning a double major in history and theater. He intended to go on to law school, but after participating in a joint University Theatre/Madison Rep production of “The Three Musketeers” that was written by James DeVita, he decided to pursue his acting passion. DeVita has a part in “Aquarians.”

After graduating, McGuire moved to New York and acted in theater, taking a few small parts in television and film. He became more interested in making films rather than performing in them, and enrolled in graduate school at the American Film Institute in California. It was there he began working on the screenplay for “Aquarians.”

“Aquarians” stars Chandler Massey as a twentysomething priest who returns to his Wisconsin hometown (called Silver City in the film) to fill in for the ailing local priest (Richard Riehle). While there, he reconnects with old friends and family, including his ne’er-do-well brother Jake (Shane Coffey), from whom Danny has been estranged since a family tragedy.

“It took a long time to develop and I admittedly delved into my own past,” McGuire said of the screenplay. “I’m the oldest of three brothers and like a lot of families, we got in a lot of crazy fights but we were also the best of friends at times. There was a lot to draw on there.”

The cast includes several actors from the Madison area in supporting roles, including DeVita and Colleen Madden from American Players Theatre, UW-Madison graduate Melissa Nearman, and Children's Theater of Madison actor Flynn Marcus.

McGuire knew that “Aquarians," with its northern Wisconsin setting and hard-to-pigeonhole tone, would be a hard sell for Hollywood studios, and ended up going the independent route to raise financing for the film, including a crowdsourcing campaign on Seed & Spark. But there was a big upside to shooting a movie in his hometown.

“It made it an interesting challenge to get the backing for the movie,” he said. “But I also knew that by filming it in the small town where I grew up, I would be able to capitalize on support and resources that I wouldn’t get in Los Angeles. You tell them you want to come in and shoot, and they’ll shut it down and ask what you need.”

For example, a high school friend who owned an auto body store provided a wrecked car and a tow truck for a car accident scene. And Westlund Bus Lines, which provided the buses McGuire would ride on as a teenager, provided a bus for a key scene.

“We had 100 people show up to be extras in our church scene for nothing more than to be in the film and support it, and get some lunch,” McGuire said. “That kind of support was overwhelming and really touching. It’s the kind of hospitality that you can only conceive of getting in the Midwest.”

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.