Why We Need to Watch Mighty Ira

"Mighty Ira" is directed by Nico Perrino, Chris Maltby, and Aaron Reese. It was our pleasure to speak to them regarding the making of "Mighty Ira". The film is about Ira Glasser who is one of America’s unsung champions of civil rights and liberties. As the leader of the American Civil Liberties Union for 23 years, he transformed the organization from a small, “mom and pop”-style operation on the verge of bankruptcy into a civil liberties juggernaut with offices in every state and a $30 million endowment. In the wake of high-profile controversies surrounding free speech and racial equality — and on the occasion of the ACLU’s centennial — Ira reflects on his life at the forefront of defending the rights of all Americans, from civil rights leaders to neo-Nazis.


What draws you to filmmaking and the cinematic language?

Aaron Reese: The experience of making a film is so fulfilling. From traveling to a location to production and editing, the process is gratifying, even when it gets difficult. There are few other creative outlets that allow you to fully immerse yourself in someone else’s perspective and see the world in a new way. Chris Maltby: I can’t do better than to quote one of my favorite filmmakers, Martin Scorsese:

“Now more than ever we need to talk to each other, to listen to each other and understand how we see the world, and cinema is the best medium for doing this.” Cinema is the best place for difficult, complicated conversations and I’m attracted to those kinds of stories.


Do you believe in film schools or does making a film teach you more than film school?

Aaron Reese: I didn’t exactly go to film school, rather an art school, but I focused my education on cinema. Film schools give you excellent feedback when you begin filmmaking. I’ve heard the phrase, “Don’t waste your money on film school. Just buy a camera and make a film.” spoken often, but I disagree. It’s a place where you can study the best filmmakers, learn the process, use the available technology, and collaborate with friends that share your interest in filmmaking.

Chris Maltby: I’d say that I learned more from working at production houses than I did getting my broadcasting degree, but it was useful to have some foundational knowledge before being tossed to the wolves, so to speak.


What makes cinema stand out more than the arts for you?

Aaron Reese: For a designated amount of time, we can emotionally relate with people that we otherwise might never meet in person. Cinema is a constantly moving artform, and it keeps our attention long enough to have a meaningful connection with a story.


Did you choose a certain directing style for making your film based on the script?

Aaron Reese: We chose to record everyone in their natural environment. For some people, we recorded in their homes. For others, we interviewed them at their workplace. It was important to interview our cast members in places they were comfortable so we could elicit genuine reactions from them.


Chris Maltby: With co-director Nico Perrino as the final decision maker, the three of us got together and edited and re-edited the film until the story felt right. I’m not sure if it’s the best method for all documentary films, but it worked for us.


How did you choose the cast and the crew of your film?

Nico Perrino: The cast chose us. We picked the stories from Ira Glasser’s life that we wanted to share and found the people who could best relay those stories, either because they were involved in the events or know Ira. We didn’t use a narrator. The whole story is told from the perspective of the interviewees. As for crew, it was mostly a three-man job with some critical post-production help from a production company called JTWO, which has an office in Philadelphia near where we work. The score composers, Scott McRae and Ryan Rapsys, were recommended to us by our senior consultants.

How did you fund your film and what were some of the challenges of making this film?

Nico Perrino: The vast majority of the film’s funding came from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. We also received some funding for archival footage from the DKT Liberty Project. To say there were challenges in making Mighty Ira would be an understatement. This was our first film, so we didn’t know what we didn’t know. But if I had to pick the three biggest challenges, I would say they were 1) securing rights and permissions for the voluminous amount of archival footage we used 2) figuring out how to distribute a film during a pandemic and 3) prepping the film to pass quality control for distribution. All things considered, telling the story was the easy part.


Do you consider yourself an indie filmmaker and what would most be the most difficult thing about being an independent artist?

Aaron Reese: Though I’ve worked on numerous productions, this was the first feature-length film I took a lead role in producing. The most difficult part of being an independent artist is seeing a project through to completion. It’s incredibly easy to begin a project when it feels like a blank canvas. After numerous versions and before the project is complete, though, the most difficult aspect is to keep your resolve and continue to make it better until you feel the work is finished.


What is the distribution plan for your film?

Nico Perrino: We decided to self-distribute. Thankfully, we had the funding, resources, and promotional tools to do so. Most independent filmmakers do not. We wanted as much control over the project and timeline for distribution as possible. Finding a sales agent and securing a solid distribution deal can take time. A film might release at a festival and it could be another year or more before it is available to the general public. We didn’t want to wait — our story was too timely. Thankfully, today, there are vehicles for independent filmmakers to self-distribute their films to a wider audience, including through aggregators for streaming and manufacturing on demand for DVD and Blu-ray sales. Mighty Ira is now available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and iTunes for streaming and available on DVD and Blu-ray through many retailers, including Amazon.


What is your cinematic goal in life and what would you like to achieve as a filmmaker?

Aaron Reese: I want to continue to develop and push my work. In addition to creating more documentaries, I would like to explore different modes of cinema, including animation and short film. Making films, to me, is not a means to an end. The process of doing and learning through my work is the end itself.


What kind of impact would your film have in the world and who is your audience?

Nico Perrino: Our film is a history lesson for a younger generation. Ira Glasser’s generation of civil rights and liberties advocates is retiring from the barricades. A new generation is taking the baton. We hope this new generation — my generation — doesn’t forget the lessons Ira’s generation learned. Mighty Ira is meant to serve as a reminder.

© CHICAGO MOVIE MAGAZINE

2020