Molly Preston '10 next to a cameraman, surrounded by light stands.
Molly Preston ’10 directs action during filming of Freedom, WI outside a home on Meade Street in Appleton, two blocks from the Lawrence University campus. She is the writer and director for the feature film, with scenes being shot across the Fox Cities. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

Molly Preston ’10 calls it a love letter to Wisconsin.

The New Jersey native fell hard for Appleton, the Fox Cities, and Wisconsin when she arrived as a first-year student at Lawrence University 15 years ago. She loved the picturesque landscape and the small-city vibe that blended active arts advocacy with Midwest niceties. Now the aspiring film-maker has brought her Portland, Oregon-based film crew to the Fox Cities to film scenes for Freedom, WI, a coming-of-age comedy that she has written and is directing.

“Wisconsin will always be that place that feels like going back home,” Preston said.

The film crew, 15 to 20 strong on any given day, has been shooting scenes in and near downtown Appleton as well as nearby locations in Kaukauna, Menasha, Greenville, and, yes, Freedom, since the middle of August. Preston is hopeful the movie—it’s centered on a young woman living in small-town Wisconsin who has her routine disrupted when she strikes up a friendship with a writer from Chicago—will be ready for the film festival circuit next summer.

It was while a student at Lawrence that Preston first began entertaining the idea of a career in film. It was before Lawrence’s Film Studies program launched, but the history major found herself drawn to a number of history classes that focused on film.

“I took every single film-related class that I possibly could,” she said, pointing to insights from history professors Peter Blitstein and Paul Cohen as being particularly helpful in allowing her to connect her love of history with her passion for film.

Molly Preston '10 talks to a cast member. They are surrounded by blooming flowers.
Molly Preston ’10 (right) talks with a cast member of Freedom, WI as they shoot scenes in Appleton on Sept. 7.

She learned to look at films through the lens of history.

“You are not only analyzing the film for what the filmmaker did—the cinematography, the acting—you are also analyzing a moment in time,” Preston said. “What the historical context is when the film was written and when it was shot – gender norms of the time and the political climate. It’s just really interesting to think about history through watching a movie and figuring out how the world was in that moment and how that might have influenced the filmmakers to make the movie in that particular way.”

Those are analytical skills, she said, that come into play now as she finds herself writing and directing her own stories.

“I found that while I don’t technically work in the field of history, learning how to analyze text and figure out the narrative based on facts you read from different sources has made me a better filmmaker, a better writer,” she said. “It’s definitely benefited my work in film.”

Preston said she wishes Lawrence’s Film Studies program had been there when she was a student, and she encourages current and future Lawrence students who are interested in film to dive in deep.

A $5 million gift from Tom Hurvis ’60 and the late Julie Esch Hurvis ’61 in 2011, a year after Preston graduated, led to the creation of the Hurvis Center for Film Studies, launching an interdisciplinary studies program that explores film theory, history, analysis, and interpretation and allows students to create their own art in a state-of-the-art film studio.

Preston moved to Portland eight years ago to try to make headway in the film industry. She started as a production assistant, then moved into editing and producing before jumping into her own project with Freedom, WI, a story she began writing while living in Appleton shortly after graduating from Lawrence.

Molly Preston '10 stands next to seated cameraman, while looking into the monitor.
“It’s a fun time with friends, old friends and new friends,” Molly Preston ’10 says of shooting the film in the Fox Cities. She lived in Appleton for several years after graduating from Lawrence. She now lives and works in Portland, Oregon.

The storyline is dark but comedic, she said, focused on a young woman in the tiny Town of Freedom who enters adulthood grappling with grief. A relationship with a struggling writer from Chicago sets her on an unexpected journey of self-discovery.

Her film career is still a work in progress, but Preston is hopeful this film will be a stepping stone to more opportunities.

In the meantime, she’s spending nearly a month in Appleton and the Fox Cities, working alongside her husband, who serves as director of photography, and a film crew that has grown tight. They’ll finish filming in mid-September before heading back to Portland.

“It’s a fun time with friends, old friends and new friends,” Preston said of being back in Appleton. “We work such long hours, but we have our fun while we’re working.”