I first heard about the movie because my friends Ron McCrea and Elaine DeSmidt had roles as extras. Ron is a retired Capital Times city editor and author of an acclaimed book about Frank Lloyd Wright. Elaine served on the Dane County Board and generally keeps Ron and his rogue journalist pals in line.
Back in June 2000, they played guests at a college graduation party that was a central scene in a film called “Making Revolution,” shot in and around Madison and directed by a West High School grad named Daniel Klein.
The twist in the film is that the party’s guest of honor didn’t really graduate from college. Rather, he is using the occasion to collect envelopes full of money from his parents’ friends to fund a political uprising.
“I’m involved in a new start-up,” the “graduate” tells someone at the party.
“A revolution, actually.”
Years later, the story has taken another twist. The young actor playing the “graduate” was a friend of Dan Klein’s from New York University film school. Last month in Hollywood, that friend, Mahershala Ali, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in “Moonlight,” which itself won Best Picture.
“Making Revolution” was Ali’s first feature film.
“It’s going to take 20 years for me to become a great actor,” Klein recalls Ali telling him while they were making the film.
He's ahead of schedule, it would seem. Before his Oscar-winning performance in "Moonlight," he turned in memorable performances in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," two "Hunger Games" movies as well as "Hidden Figures." And he played recurring roles in "House of Cards" and "Luke Cage," both Netflix series.
Klein—who is still writing scripts and recently helped expand the film program at DePaul University—brought up that conversation when we chatted by phone last week.
Klein says he first offered Ali a different role in the movie. After reading the script, Ali, Klein says, “gave me a beautifully articulated argument about why he should play [the faux-graduate].”
The graduation party scene was shot at the rural Dane County estate of Nick Sondel. Extras, 27 in all, included then-Dane County Judge Moria Krueger and her attorney husband, Ed Krueger, West High School drama teacher Keesia Hyzer and my friends Ron McCrea and Elaine DeSmidt.
In a note last week, Ron recalled his impression of the future Oscar-winner, Ali, on set: “Calm, quiet, unassuming and professional. He was radiant and projected a powerful star quality that wowed everyone. When the camera rolled, he was the center of attention. Off camera, he was friendly and accessible.”
Other Madison-area locales for the film included Library Mall and the Orpheum Theater.
Other show-biz careers trace back to 'Making Revolution'
Klein points out that Ali is not the only alumnus of “Making Revolution” to make good in show business.
When Klein was in Madison in 2000 doing pre-production work for the film, he ran into a friend from film school in New York who was in Madison visiting his girlfriend.
Noting that the script was still a work in progress, Klein enlisted his buddy’s help. Colin Trevorrow got a co-writer credit on “Making Revolution.” Some years and a few independent films later, Trevorrow—having impressed Steven Spielberg—directed the 2015 blockbuster, “Jurassic World." He is now signed to direct the ninth and final film in the “Star Wars” saga.
A 1992 West High School grad named Marc Webb had a small speaking role in “Making Revolution.” Webb would go on to direct the 2012 and 2014 installments of the “Spider-Man” movie series reboot.
The list goes on. The script supervisor (who is in charge of continuity) on “Making Revolution” was Gabe Gronli, a Memorial High School grad who is now a writer for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Jeremy Beiler, one of the young stars of “Making Revolution”—filming in Madison started the day after he graduated from Memorial High School—is now a writer for “Saturday Night Live.”
For all the talent involved with “Making Revolution,” the director, Klein, allows that the finished product was less than Oscar-worthy.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” he says, with a chuckle.
It was shot with very little money—“a micro-budget,” Klein says—and events in the outside world conspired against it. Set for a fall 2001 release, it was pushed back after 9/11, when a comedy about revolutionaries didn’t seem funny.
“Making Revolution” opened in Madison in April 2003, playing a week at the Orpheum. It set no box office records. But it launched an Oscar-winner, and more.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.