The scenes play out in the historic Pritzlaff Building constructed in 1875 in downtown Milwaukee.
The Countryside Motel in Sturgeon Bay has a starring role along with a cabin in Ootsburg, Mee-Kwon Park Golf Course in Mequon and Trattoria Stefano, an Italian restaurant in downtown Sheboygan.
The crayfish nipping at the toes of the cast and crew wading in the Pigeon River were unexpected but only added to the Wisconsin vibe for Ryann Liebl.
The backdrop for her first feature film, “Mags & Julie Go On A Road Trip,” was a serious but comedic way for Liebl to show off her home state’s geography, architecture and people beyond cheese, brats and the Green Bay Packers.
“This is my love letter to the state I grew up in,” Liebl said last month from Florida where she is working on another film project. “I’m not making fun of them at all. I’m talking about — which I think is very true — that Wisconsin is full of character. And what I find with Wisconsinites is that everybody is very uniquely themselves. They don’t apologize for who they are and they’re very helpful and they’re very much a part of their community. And that’s very much what this film is about. It’s about real people in real situations being very uniquely themselves.”
The movie, scheduled for release Nov. 24 on iTunes, Amazon Prime and other video on-demand platforms, was filmed entirely in Wisconsin and with a cast and crew either born in, moved to or who have some other tie to the state. The only exception is co-star Elisabeth Donaldson, who lives in Nashville.
The plot revolves around best friends Mags and Julie whose life trajectories are in contrast. Julie has a near perfect life and marriage. Mags is stressed out, hates her job and is single. A road trip together ensues and includes Milwaukee’s urban landscape along with the rural roads of Sheboygan and Ozaukee counties and a stop in Door County at a 16-room motel owned in real life by Liz Merner, who bought the place in 2016.
Merner thought at first that an e-mail she received from Liebl was a hoax but was excited to offer up her motel once she realized the query was legit. The motel was built in 1962 in Bailey’s Harbor and remarkably, in 1994, moved in three pieces to Sturgeon Bay. The movie shoot took place over three days during mid-week.
“The weekend is really where we get a lot of our business from fisherman so during the week it’s a little bit slow so they pretty much had the place to themselves,” Merner said. “It really will help promote the business.”
Liebl (pronounced lee-bahl), who also wrote, directed and co-stars in the movie, said the film “takes the audience on a journey of what it means to be a woman and balance life” and has some of the feel of Schitt’s Creek, the recently concluded Emmy Award-winning Netflix comedy that tells the tale of a once wealthy family forced to live in a motel and having to adjust to life in a small town. But she thinks her film is more in the spirit of a John Hughes production, usually set in Chicagoland and filled with everyday people.
“He loved that not-politically-correct, character-driven kind of down-to-earth comedy. And what he did that was so brilliant is that he just about wrote people, real people that he knew. And he put those people in his movies and that’s what made them so endearing,” Liebl said. “You see that in all of his movies, even though they’re ridiculous, there’s a lot of heart-felt stuff in them. You really care about the people.”
Liebl’s movie, shot over an 18-day period in July 2019, also features Wes Tank, a Milwaukee artist who plays a boss in the film, and Franki Moscato of Oshkosh, who is cast as a young hitchhiker. Tank, since 2015, has been rapping Dr. Seuss books and other children’s stories to Dr. Dre beats and has shot to fame with his YouTube videos that have garnered millions of views.
In 2018, Moscato was an American Idol Golden Ticket winner who advanced to the final round of 175 contestants but didn’t make it to the final cut. There were about 15 people in the main cast but another 55 to 60 people, many of them from Sheboygan, were used as extras in the film. It included employees from restaurants Field to Fork and Trattoria Steffano who took part in the restaurant scenes in Sheboygan.
Angie Campbell, 31, grew up in West Allis, lived in southern California for a time and more recently in Chicago. She now lives in Milwaukee and has been in commercials, film projects at UW-Milwaukee, studied at Second City in Chicago and has been in one episode of “Chicago Fire.” In “Mags and Julie,” Campbell plays the owner of the motel and was stoked that Liebl set the movie in Wisconsin.
“It really did draw me to the project,” said Campbell, who was impressed with Liebl’s energy. “She’s one of the most focused people I’ve ever worked with. And even though she is so driven and focused, she was always down to (goofing) around. She really wanted people to have fun on set. This is something she wanted to create for a long time and all of us were just excited that it was actually, finally happening.”
Liebl, who just turned 43, lived for a time as a child in Cedarburg before graduating from Nicolet High School in Glendale. She started acting at 14 years old and two years later began landing professional roles in theater. After high school she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career and became a student at the University of Southern California School of Theater where she minored in film and began studying under renowned acting teacher Milton Katselas, who pushed her to pursue writing, directing and film making.
After several roles in which she worked alongside Dennis Farina, John Travolta, Zachary Quinto, Joe Manganiello and John Michael Higgins, Liebl founded her own production company, REL Films. She had shot music videos and commercials in Wisconsin and for years had an idea for a movie based in her state that is centered around the two main characters thrashing and having an argument while in a marsh. She settled on the Pigeon River on Sheboygan’s northwest side.
“The whole movie was built around that one concept,” Liebl said. “I started writing it with Wisconsin in mind but it’s not just about a funny story and getting it all together. You’ve got to find spaces and have the quality of the product so high that it looks like you spent a million bucks.”
For “Mags and Julie,” Liebl rented a large office space in a historic building in downtown Sheboygan where she did her pre-production work setting up filming locations, acquiring props and coming up with wardrobe. She also did the casting, set design, much of the post-production and promotion for the film that cost just “tens of thousands” of dollars to make. It was financed by reaching out through social media channels which led to investors.
“I’m really glad that the first movie I’m doing is about Wisconsin and that it’s a comedy,” Liebl said. “I think people need to laugh right now more than they ever have. The movie is not political, it’s not divisive, it’s not trying to force or push a message. It’s just a very accessible film that families can watch together and simply be entertained.”