Michigan doubles as Ukraine in film debuting at Ann Arbor's Cinetopia Film Festival

Heidi Philipsen-Meissner first crossed paths in 2018 with a script for a movie called “Love & Vodka.” Six years later, she’s preparing for its world premiere in Ann Arbor.

Speaking by phone this week from Berlin, the director, who’s originally from Ypsilanti, is sharing the news that post-production work on the sound for the romantic comedy was just completed at 3 a.m. Monday.

“Right after I got out of that, I kind of felt like Forrest Gump when he goes on that long run,” she says with a laugh.

Svitlana Kosolapova, third from right, plays Katya and Zach Bradley plays Bobby in "Love & Vodka," which will have its world premiere June 23 at Ann Arbor's Cinetopia Film Festival.
Svitlana Kosolapova, third from right, plays Katya and Zach Bradley plays Bobby in "Love & Vodka," which will have its world premiere June 23 at Ann Arbor's Cinetopia Film Festival.

The years-long marathon of bringing “Love & Vodka” to the screen — and the ultimate decision to shoot it in Michigan, with Grayling and Bay City doubling for Ukraine — is a story in itself.

And the latest chapter is a happy one. "Love & Vodka" will be screened June 23 at the Michigan Theater as the closing night selection of the 2024 Cinetopia Film Festival, which opens Thursday. It's being revived this year after a lengthy pause.

The last Cinetopia happened in 2019. After launching in 2012, it became Michigan's largest annual film gathering with venues in Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Royal Oak and Detroit.

Plans for the 2020 Cinetopia had to be scrapped because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, as movie theaters waited to reopen and struggled to bring back audiences, the festival remained on hiatus. The conversation about bringing it back started in earnest in 2023, according to Nick Alderink, cinema program director for Marquee Arts, the nonprofit group behind the festival.

”People are still just learning how to get back to theaters,” says Alderink, who calls this year's Cinetopia a reintroduction.

The festival will be held at Ann Arbor's Michigan and State theaters, along with two silent movie screenings at the University of Michigan’s Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. The tagline of the event is “the world’s best films from the world’s best festivals,” says Alderink, who notes nine movies in this year’s lineup are from the Sundance Film Festival.

“Love & Vodka" is described by the festival as “a mad-cap, culture-clash, Ukrainian-American romantic comedy that aims to celebrate the transatlantic friendship between Ukraine and America, focus on love, sooth sadness with laughter, and help raise support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian diaspora in a time of tragic loss and war.”

Heidi Philipsen-Meissner,  is a University of Michigan Residential College alum with a career that includes film, theater and television and even a stint in journalism at Germany’s international news channel.
Heidi Philipsen-Meissner, is a University of Michigan Residential College alum with a career that includes film, theater and television and even a stint in journalism at Germany’s international news channel.

Philipsen-Meissner, who directed, produced and co-wrote the movie, is a University of Michigan Residential College alum who has lived in Germany and New York, and built a wide-ranging career that includes film, theater and television and even a stint in journalism at Germany’s international news channel.

In 2018, she read a screenplay by R.J. Fox, an author, independent filmmaker and English and video production teacher at Ann Arbor’s Huron High, where her son spent his freshman year. The script was based Fox’s first book, “Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine,” a funny, quirky memoir about meeting a Ukrainian exchange student in 2001 on the E.T. ride at the Universal Studios tour and the romance that followed.

Philipsen-Meissner says she loved Fox's story, which had similarities to her own experience of meeting her future husband at a train station in Germany’s Black Forest. She says she told Fox she wanted to make “Love & Vodka” if he would come on board as a producer.

From there, things got a bit complicated. First, Fox dropped out of the project for personal reasons. Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. By January 2022, she says, she had found a Ukrainian partner for the project and was planning to shoot the film in Ukraine on a budget of roughly 1 million euros (or slightly more than $1 million).

”We literally signed it, the contract around January 2022. Guess what happened February 2022?” she says.

That month, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, sparking the devastating war that still continues. Philipsen-Meissner, who had previously lived in Germany and returned there in 2018 with her husband and two children, immediately immersed herself in helping provide food, supplies, housing and German language lessons for the Ukrainians who were pouring into the country.

“We just jumped into trying to help refugees who were coming in to the Berlin train station, and that’s what taught me not to feel sorry for myself,” she says.

While in Ypsilanti for Christmas in 2022 with her mother, Philipsen-Meissner wasn’t sure what to do next with the film. While pitching in on some renovations to her mom’s home and looking at some children’s furniture from there, she wound up meeting Amber Galkin, who had been profiled a few months earlier in the New York Times.

Galkin, an activist for Ukrainian refugees in Michigan, knew someone who could use the furniture and became an invaluable resource to the movie. Says Philipsen-Meissner: “The next thing I know, I’m bringing her on as associate producer to help me have that outreach to the Ukrainian community in Michigan, which was so essential.”

Through that connection and many others, Philipsen-Meissner decided to shoot “Love & Vodka” in two locations in Michigan. One was Grayling, where she learned from Ukrainian refugees that the pine forests there resembled the Carpathian Mountains region. The other was Bay City, where Bruce Falcon of the Hell’s Half Mile Film & Music Festival there encouraged her to use locations like the nearby MBS International Airport. Falcon also became an associate producer.

With money raised from the crowdfunding site Seed & Spark and her own funds, Philipsen-Meissner shot the film in 10 days in the summer of 2023. The Motion Picture Institute in Troy, where she also studied, provided equipment. She credits being able to finish production in such a brief window to many factors, including the support of a dedicated crew that included director of photography Jay Feather, Ukrainian-Polish film editor Yakiv Komarynsky and her daughter, Sophie Meissner, who worked as a junior producer and film music supervisor.

Chicago-based actor Zach Bradley plays Bobby in "Love & Vodka" by filmmaker Heidi Philipsen-Meissner.
Chicago-based actor Zach Bradley plays Bobby in "Love & Vodka" by filmmaker Heidi Philipsen-Meissner.

The lead roles of Bobby and Katya are played by Chicago-based actor Zach Bradley and Ukrainian actress Svitlana Kosolapova, who moved to New York City in 2023. Much of the supporting cast was drawn from Michigan's Ukrainian community.

The screenplay was revised in order to be respectful of current events. The time frame was changed to 2018 and beyond. The war is now acknowledged in the screenplay and some Russian words originally used have been changed to their Ukrainian versions.

Given the loss and tragedy that Ukraine has endured and still is facing, Philipsen-Meissner admits she wasn’t totally sure that this was the right time to make a romantic comedy. But she says the message she received from Michigan’s Ukrainian movie was clear.

They told her that they “really needed something that’s uplifting …. and how much they need home and family and love right now.”

Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at jhinds@freepress.com.

'Love & Vodka'

5 p.m. June 23

Michigan Theatre

603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor

Cinetopia Film Festival

Thursday-June 23

Screenings are at Ann Arbor's Michigan and State theaters (and two silent-film screenings at the University of Michigan's Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre). The festival opens Thursday with "For When You Get Lost" and closes June 23 with "Love & Vodka."

For tickets and festival passes and full information on the film lineup, go to the festival's official website at https://marquee-arts.org/cinetopia/.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Cinetopia festival features film set in Ukraine but shot in Michigan

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