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Meet The Woman Behind The Viral #FreeTheNipple Campaign

Making a movie about nudity is not easy.

December 17, 2014

You might remember the #freethenipple protests from this past summer; endorsed by Scout Willis, Chelsea Handler, and Miley Cyrus, Free The Nipple fights for the rights of women to go topless in public, a narrow ask with larger implications about gender equality. #freethenipple is more than just a trend—it's a feature film, too, and from Free the Nipple's initial conception, director/co-writer and star Lina Esco faced the same moral and logistical obstacles as the real-life activists and the characters that populate her film. Perplexed distributors, difficulties with obtaining permits, and a skeptical public opinion proved trying throughout production—conflicts and dramas that Esco worked into her script, as she alllowed the film to grow and take shape in accordance with her own journey. Esco appeared in the Miley Cyrus-starring LOL back in 2012, and the director of that film, Lisa Azuelos, eventually funded Free The Nipple. "That was the only thing that came easily," Esco says now, "was finding the money. Everything else has been so tough. We've worked against all odds—from people not taking it seriously because of the title, to record labels turning us down for music licensing."

Free The Nipple centers around a group of women fighting guerilla-style to change the laws and policies that perpetuate the sexualizing of women's bodies (a tall order, to be sure). The plot of the film follows the group, led by an engaging Lola Kirke (sister of Girls actress Jemima Kirke), as they face various obstacles—financial, logistical, societal—on their path to stage a large-scale nude protest in Washington D.C. When I asked Esco about the sheer size of her fight, she tells me about visiting the NYC-based Occupy Wall Street protests of 2013 with her best friend ("the freest person I've ever met") and other topless girls in tow, armed with a 5D and the desire "to start a dialogue." "Within minutes we had 300 hundred people surrounding us taking pictures and shaking their heads like they could not understand what they were looking at. It was like we were aliens. I said to them, 'Whenever you guys are done taking pictures, let's have a dialogue.' It took about 15 minutes before those 300 people relaxed. That's when I knew I knew I had to make this movie."

With the film showing now at IFC in New York, we spoke with Esco about her film's lofty agenda, and what exactly it takes to get a film about nudity made today.

When did you first get the idea to make Free The Nipple? Four years ago, in 2010. That's when I even bought the domain freethenipple.com. At the time my friends were laughing. They're like your thinking of doing something called 'Free The Nipple? You're fucking funny.' I'm like, 'yea that's the point.' It's supposed to be fun and engaging. It's not about pushing our agenda onto people. I wanted to make a movie about girls challenging censorship by going topless for equality, to start a national conversation.

Why center your film so intently around the nipple? The nipple has become the trojan horse of real issues of inequality and oppression of women. What we've done is kind of pave the way for women to stand up for equality and continue the dialogue. It's not just about women, it's about men as well. it's about incorporating everyone, because we're all in this together.

What were the biggest challenges to getting this film made? The first half of the film is censored, while the second half isn't and that wasn't an artistic choice. Even though it's legal to be topless in New York City since 1992, when I had permits to shoot the opening sequence on Wall Street, the cop on site said to me, 'You got to get all your girls to cover up.' I said 'What are you talking about? I have permits and it's legal.' He said 'Not when it can seem like you're shooting porn to passersby.' That's when I gathered my team and decided we were going to shoot all the other exteriors running guerilla style. One shot, one take sort of thing. A lot of them were scared but we did it. We stole all those exteriors and we got no permits for that. We stole everything.

What's the distribution plan for the film? When I started showing the film at the end of 2013 to a few distributers, they all dug the film but they don't know how to market it. That's when I started educating people on the movement—they were just judging based on the title. Miley Cyrus and I have been friends for years and she came on board and supported the cause because she believed in it and that made kickstarting the campaign so much easier. All of the sudden all of these media outlets were talking about our little movie and our movement, and then Lena Dunham, Liv Tyler, Russell Simmons Scout Willis, Chelsea Handler, Rihanna, and Cara Delivingne got involved. After that, a lot of the distribution companies that we showed the film all started calling. We ended up going with IFC because it's who I connected with the most.

Hear the song Cyrus recorded for the film, below.

In a lot of ways this felt like more than a purely fictional film—almost like a how-to for people who want to stage their own protest. Was that intentional? Yeah, absolutely. It was to start a dialogue. Also, it was intentional and is based on real life people, like this woman who got arrested at a New Jersey beach for being topless and went to jail for nine days, or Moira Johnston who walks around New York topless sometimes and has gotten arrested many times. Obviously these are things we thought about and we put all that dialogue in—us thinking these things through. It's in the script because it's what we live. These are the questions that are in our head. Again, this is not your typical Hollywood film, the typical storyline. It was meant to be something different and fresh. I wanted to break the fourth wall, too. To have that moment where the line disappears and you realize this is actually real and this is happening.

Meet The Woman Behind The Viral #FreeTheNipple Campaign