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creative:impact - When my book becomes a film…

Heidi Philpsen-Meissner at the Cinetopia premiere of "Love & Vodka" at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.
Deb Polich
Heidi Philpsen-Meissner at the Cinetopia premiere of "Love & Vodka" at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Creative Washtenaw CEO Deb Polich at the WEMU studio.
John Bommarito
89.1 WEMU
Creative Washtenaw CEO Deb Polich at the WEMU studio.


R.J. Fox

Author Robert J. Fox
Robert J. Fox
Author Robert J. Fox

R.J. Fox is the award-winning writer of three published books, several short stories, plays, poems, a memoir, and 15 feature length screenplays. He is also the writer/director/editor of several award-winning short films.

Two of his previous publications (LOVE & VODKA: MY SURREAL ADVENTURES IN UKRAINE and AWAITING IDENTIFICATION) were published by Fish Out of Water Books. LOVE & VODKA was shot as a feature film in 2023 and is premiering in June 2024 at the Cinetopia Film Festival in Ann Arbor, MI. Fox also wrote the screenplay adaptation. His third published book is a collection of essays entitled TALES FROM THE DORK SIDE. He has also written 15 feature screenplays and have been published in over 20 literary magazines. His debut novel Awaiting Identification placed on MLive's top 10 Michigan books of the year.

Fox graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and a minor in Communications and received a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI.

In addition to moonlighting as a writer, independent filmmaker and saxophonist, Fox teaches film and literature in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, where he uses his own dream to inspire his students to follow their own. He has also worked in public relations at Ford Motor Company and as a newspaper reporter. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI.

Heidi Philipsen-Meissner

Heidi Philipsen-Meissner
Heidi Philipsen-Meissner
Heidi Philipsen-Meissner

Heidi Philipsen is an actress, producer, writer, director, activist, and entrepreneur with over 25 years of professional experience in international film, theater, television, and communications. Heidi’s acted in, produced, managed, and coordinated multiple features, shorts, commercials, and broadcast television (DW-TV); worked with stunts in such action films as SALT with Angelina Jolie.

A former journalist in her pre-film life, Heidi’s penned for such publications as The Berlin Journal (Founding Managing Editor), Die Welt, All Movie Guide, Honesuckle Magazine, The New York Times, Bitch Flicks, Current Magazine, ScriptMag, and NYWIFT’s Women in Film Blog as featured on The Huffington Post.

Her company, Personae Entertainment Pictures’ first feature film, the multi-festival award-winning drama DARCY, THIS IS NOWHERE, is available online via Amazon Prime, Herflix.com and VimeoPlus. Her solo-directorial debut feature, the international, fish-out-of-water romantic dramedy American-Ukrainian feature Love & Vodka – inspired by the story by screenwriter/author R.J. Fox –is preparing for its film festival premiere as the Closing Night screening of the Cinetopia International Film Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And Heidi’s follow-up feature, the self-penned feature, a romantic comedy called Kidnapping Love (working title), which ranked in the top 15% of the Nicholls Academy Fellowship Screenwriting Awards and was a Quarterfinalist in the Screen Craft Fellowship Awards, is already in development with plans to be filmed in Europe.

Heidi has been a socially conscious and gender-equity activist in the entertainment field since her beginnings as an apprentice at Theatre 89, Berlin back in 1996, and has since gone on to establish the Personae Theater Ensemble, where she produced and directed thought-provoking plays such as William Mastrosimone's "Extremities" in cooperation with the University of Michigan's Take Back the Night Rape Awareness Events, as well as Anne Nelson's "The Guys" on the 5th anniversary (2006) and in memoriam of NYC 9/11's fallen firefighters, to benefit the local fire stations of Ypsilanti, Michigan, and, again, on the 10th anniversary (2012) in Albany, New York.

In 2012, after dedicating her service to New York Women in Film & Television for many years, Heidi gathered some of the top professional women in film around the upstate New York / Hudson Valley region and founded Upstate Women in Film & Television (UPWIFT) and pioneered programming that empowered diversity and gender equity in the film industry, producing monthly screening events such as "The Reel Women Screening Series" and "What's in Your Toolbox?" filmmaking workshops for women.

Her film “Love & Vodka,” for which she just received the license to use the Producers Guild of America “p.g.a. mark” award for proof of producing, is both an example of sustainable filmmaking and socially aware/social impact entertainment, as the film was made via green production guidance principles and brought jobs to Ukrainian refugees in Michigan. “Love & Vodka” will be partnering with Samaritas, a global, social services nonprofit, to raise awareness and support for Ukrainian refugees everywhere. Further, over 50% of leadership roles in “Love & Vodka” were held by women in film.

Heidi is a member of the Producers Guild of America and serves on the Employment Committee, the International Committee and the Women’s Impact Committee (an inaugural member & one of the writers of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Guide with Lydia Pilcher as the Head of the committee), the Producers' Union, the Bundesverband Produktion Film und Fernsehen e.V., SAG-AFTRA, AEA, the Alliance of Women Directors, The Directors List, NYWIFT (serving on the Communications Committee), Founder & President Emeritus of UPWIFT, and was a Representative for both Hamburg and Berlin on Women in Film & Television Germany.

She is a proud alumnus of Sweet Briar College, the Motion Picture Institute, University of Michigan, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Albert-Ludwig’s Universität in Freiburg, Germany, UCLA’s Professional Advanced Screenwriting Program and Eastern Michigan University's MBA in Management Program, where she served as an inaugural member and Communications Board Member for their Eagle Investment Club.

She juggles her time commuting between Berlin, Germany and Ypsilanti, Michigan, being a proud mother of two adult children, currently studying at the University of Amsterdam and Eurasmus University, Rotterdam, daughter to a stillworking chemist/medicinal patent research specialist mother, Judy Philipsen, and traveling with the love of her life, Renewable Energy and Sustainable Enterprise professional, Niko Meissner.


"Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine" — The book

R.J. Fox

Personae Entertainment Films

Heidi Elizabeth Philipsen-Meissner

"Love & Vodka" — The film

2024 Cinetopia Film Festival


Deb Polich: Welcome to 89 one WEMU's creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host. It's our time to meet members of Washtenaw's creative community who have made their marks in the arts and creative industries here, across the nation and internationally. We put our lens on film today. Let me set the scene. It's the last night of the 2024 Cinetopia Film Festival, and the film "Love and Vodka" is on the screen at the Michigan Theater as the final, closing film of the festival. Both Ypsilanti-based author and screenwriter R.J. Fox and producer, director and writer Heidi Philipsen are in their seats. They are seeing this film for the first time with an audience. 90 minutes later, the credits roll. And they wait to hear the audience's response. Cut! We will get to what happens next. But first, let's welcome Bobby and Heidi to WEMU.

Bobby Fox: Thank you for having us here!

Heidi Philipsen: Yeah, thanks so much, Deb!

Deb Polich: So glad to have you here! It was great fun! I was there, and I want to say congratulations on your film, first and foremost!

Bobby Fox: Thank you.

Heidi Philipsen: Thank you.

Deb Polich: So, I would like to start first with Bobby. It was 2019 when you were last on our show. And at that time, we were talking about your day job as a film instructor at Huron High School and that you were also the author of a few published novels at the time. And one of them was "Love and Vodka," which was largely based on your life, and it was on its way to becoming a film. Can you give us a short synopsis of the story first?

Bobby Fox: Yeah. So, it's a classic fish out of water, rom-com, based on my own experience traveling into Ukraine, where I was literally a fish out of water, pursuing a love interest that I had. You know, I decided, "Hey, I'm going to go and propose to this girl halfway around the world that I'd only physically had been with for about 20 minutes in person." So, that becomes the impetus for what I wrote as "Love and Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine," which is all about following your dreams and your heart, even if sometimes it's a naive choice, and having an adventure. And that's exactly what it ended up being. I was kind of like, "Okay, I have to put this down in writing now."

Fish Out of Water Books

Deb Polich: So, clearly, you weren't afraid of those kind of career choices or opportunities to, like, really jump off a cliff. But a lot transpired since 2019 when we first met, and getting the film under the screen has not been an easy path. At some point, you made the choice to hand over your creative product to another creative in Heidi. What was that decision like for you? And how did you come to that conclusion?

Bobby Fox: Well, it was pretty much an easy choice because Heidi, when she read the script, she expressed a lot of interest in the story and seemed to connect with it in the way I had, which was important for me to find somebody who saw the same thing I saw in this story and the potential for it to be on screen. It was initially written as a screenplay before it was a book. So, I always have a film brain. So, I was always like, "Okay. Now I need to find somebody who could bring it to life and springboard it off from the script." I'm first and foremost a screenwriter before anything else in film. So, Heidi just saw what I felt in it, and it was really a clear choice at that point.

Deb Polich: And, Heidi, what's it like for you to be entrusted with somebody else's work--to take what Bobby had created and then put it through your filter and bring it to life in the way that you saw that it should happen?

Heidi Philipsen: Right. Well, actually, he got the script to me in 2-18.

Deb Polich: Oh, okay. So, it was even before you met him.

Heidi Philipsen: Yes, even before. And we were going to produce it together because I had just come off of "Darcy." And I said,"I'm so sorry, Bobby, but I can't do this alone. It's a lot of hard work. It involves a lot. And will you help me?" And I think we were doing a three-legged race for a while until it just becomes. It really is too much to try to handle a full career, doing teaching and something else. So, at some point, I think it was around 2-19 that, after Cannes, that we went together to Cannes. I brought him out there to kind of really try to see how we could do marketing it. We went to the Ukrainian stand, and then, from there, I just kind of carried on. You know, you have to be able to really see yourself in the script. Otherwise, you can't. You're almost like a surrogate parent.

Deb Polich: I'm sorry. When you say "yourself" in the script, do you see yourself as an actor in the script, or is it as a director seeing yourself in the script?

Heidi Philipsen: The whole thing.

Deb Polich: Okay.

Bobby Fox: Like, emotionally.

Heidi Philipsen: I think as a writer, actor, producer, everything. So, for me, I met my husband in Germany at a train station in the middle of the Black Forest. It was a very similar situation, and that's why I could see what he did. Many people said, "Oh, that's too far fetched! This guy would never do that." And I was like, "Yeah, he would!" Because my husband and I did something similar. So, in that way, it's like you just put yourself in there. And that was what allows. And then, of course, we had a lot of time to spend a lot of time together.

Deb Polich: Sure.

Heidi Philipsen: And I got to know Bobby really well. And, with that, you stand back and you're like, "Okay, I'm starting to get a sense of who this guy is, not only on paper but outside of paper because he put his whole heart into it."

Deb Polich: Right, right. Right right right. So, there you were, Bobby, seeing the film for the first time and its completion in the audience at Cinetopia. What was that like for you?

Bobby Fox: So, I have to admit, living up a lot of anxious feelings, only because I had full faith it was going to be a very enjoyable film--a great film, which it ended up being. But just not knowing for sure what to expect and knowing that I'm seeing an interpretation of my own experience through the lens of someone else and with a person playing me. There's a lot of just "this is so weird and bizarre." But also, once I settled into the movie, I was able to just kind of objectively sit back and enjoy the movie for what it was. And there were moments where it was painful--not in a bad way, but because of how much it brought me back to the real-life moment.

Deb Polich: Sure.

(From L to R) R.J. Fox, Heidi Philipsen-Meissner, and Deb Polich at the 2024 Cinetopia Film Festival.
Russ Collins
(From L to R) R.J. Fox, Heidi Philipsen-Meissner, and Deb Polich at the 2024 Cinetopia Film Festival.

Bobby Fox: Throughout the movie multiple times, just not even scenes just with me, but the other characters. I'm like, "I'm watching like a projection in my mind now."

Deb Polich: Rather surreal.

Bobby Fox: So, yeah, it was very surreal. And definitely, I never quite had feelings like I had throughout that process. It was just a mix of all different things. Again, all positive, but it was a huge sigh of relief after that. I could be like, "Okay, I survived this."

Deb Polich: That's awesome! 89 one WEMU's creative:impact continues. Bobby Fox and Heidi Phillipsen are my guests. Heidi, same question for you. You obviously seen the film from beginning to end multiple times, but not with an audience. What did the audience bring to the situation?

Heidi Philipsen: So, similarly to Bobby, I grew up on the Michigan Theater. And to be there in that space with the audience and have so many people laugh at those moments you hope they're going to laugh, and then they do even more heartily. And then, there's other moments where you cry, but you don't know if it's going to affect them the same way. It's just absolutely magical. It was the most beautiful experience in the world and made all the heartache, all the hard times, all the labyrinths to go through, it was surreal for me too. It was like finally hitting that magical place where you're like, "Okay, this is why I do this." Really.

Love & Vodka

Bobby Fox: And people did tell me afterwards that they cried. And, to me, the laughter I knew was going to come easy, but would they feel the emotion of the characters and the romance. And the fact that people did cry, I was like, "Thank you for telling me that." Mission accomplished!

Deb Polich: So, as it's really difficult to take...well, you said you started out with the screenplay and then the book, but to take anything and hone it down into making a film, were there things that you had to make decisions about, Heidi, that you kind of wish you could have kept in the film?

Heidi Philipsen: Oh, totally.

Deb Polich: Yeah?

Heidi Philipsen: Oh, absolutely. You know, here's the thing. And I think this is also a larger scale discussion right now in terms of the big budgets a lot of those films out there have.

Deb Polich: Sure.

Heidi Philipsen: They would say a $1 million project is a microbudget these days. And so, we're talking about a sort of a mini-mini. And with those constraints, a lot of people are like, for example, in the original book, they met--and I loved this so much--they met at the Santa Monica pier, the way he kind of wrote the script initially, in a Ferris wheel. And I so wanted to make that happen. It was so romantic. It was really great, but there was no way I had the money for those logistics.

Deb Polich: Right.

Heidi Philipsen: Like, there's no way. So, it's, like, you have to be creative and think out of the box and "Okay, what do we have? We have this location and this location we can pay for. We can't fly people in. How are we going to make this happen?" And I've just gotten to that point where I'm like, "If there is a creative way to make it work, let's do it. And above all, remember. It's got to be grounded in emotion in real grounded performances." And that's what I'm really most proud of.

Deb Polich: And, Bobby, a question back to you. Was there anything added--anything that Heidi added--that didn't really happen in real life that you both were either fond of?

Bobby Fox: Well, I will say it was definitely the spirit of everything that happened, but there were definitely, to me, the one thing that I really like that was not the real story was the ring.

Deb Polich: Oh, so there's the...

Bobby Fox: The grandmother in the ring.

Deb Polich: Right, right.

Bobby Fox: For those who haven't seen it.

Deb Polich: Yeah, we'll leave that up for us to find.


Bobby Fox: But I really like that touch. It was definitely...it did not happen that way. But it made the story.

Deb Polich: It was kind of fun. Yeah. So, the grandmother kind of takes the wedding ring. That was pretty cool. Let's go back to the scene I said at the top of the show. You know, credits roll, 90 minutes is over and you're in the audience. And what was it like, very quickly, because we've just got two minutes to go, for both of you to feel with the energy from the audience? Heidi?

Deb Polich: Well, as you know, I kind of set the stage asking people to close their eyes and remember what it's like to be in an airport saying goodbye. And this is a theme that's universal right now. There's so many people doing that. They reacted exactly the way I was hoping they would. It really worked out well, and I couldn't have asked for anything better, honestly.

Deb Polich: That's so great. And Bobby?

Bobby Fox: For me, it was just a sense of a culmination of a dream I've had for 30 years of my life since I was in high school. Seeing something I've written, something that was meaningful to me up on a big screen, in a theater like the Michigan Theater, and just knowing that I had students in the audience that also I feel like I'm hoping that I'm an inspiration to them as well. It kind of just felt like a full circle moment, Deb, from high school as a student to the students I have that as a high school teacher. So, it's a really strong sense of accomplishment. Absolutely.

Deb Polich: Heidi, what's next for the film?

Heidi Philipsen: Well, personally, I'm off to Chicago to start making more connections for the next festivals, looking into distribution, and just keep on hitting that trail.

Bobby Fox, Deb Polich and Heidi Philipsen at the WEMU studio.
Mat Hopson
89.1 WEMU
Bobby Fox, Deb Polich and Heidi Philipsen at the WEMU studio.

Deb Polich: Thanks so much for sharing that with our community and for putting this in our hearts and minds. It was really fun. I was in the audience, as you know, and really enjoyed it. So, I want to congratulate you both again on the success with your film "Love and Vodka!" And thanks for being on the show!

Heidi Philipsen: Thanks for having us!

Bobby Fox: Thank you!

Deb Polich: Bobby Fox is the author and Heidi Philipsen is the producer, director and writer of "Love and Vodka." Find out more about the film and see some photos from the premiere at wemu.org. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host. Mat Hopson is our producer. Please join us every Tuesday to meet the people who make Washtenaw creative. This is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.

If you'd like to a guest on creative:impact, email Deb Polich at deb.polich@creativewashtenaw.org.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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