"Maybe America just needs a big blast of boobies": Lina Esco tells Salon about her topless crusade to free the nipple

The actress and "Free the Nipple" director on filming a movie "girlrilla" style -- topless for the sake of equality

Published December 16, 2014 3:00PM (EST)

Lina Esco   (AP/Richard Shotwell)
Lina Esco (AP/Richard Shotwell)

Lina Esco's new film, "Free the Nipple," opens with a strange montage: A group of women run topless through the streets of lower Manhattan wearing capes that blow in the wind, revealing their defiantly bare chests -- but not revealing the movie's eponymous body part. The women's breasts are censored in the way we've come to expect women's breasts to be censored on most TV shows and in many movies -- a large blur over the décolletage that is so familiar, but seems jarring when it shows up in a film about the glories of toplessness.

Of course, that isn't really what "Free the Nipple" is about; it's more about those familiar, large blurs over women's implicitly unacceptable bodies.

Esco, who directed the film, also stars as a journalist-turned-activist named With, who helps spearhead a movement called Free the Nipple. Although the movie is fictional, the real-life origins of the Free the Nipple campaign are similar. Esco intended her directorial debut to be a work of activism, and for it to spark both a movement and a dialogue about censorship, violence and gender equality. Due to distribution delays -- after all, how exactly do you market a feminist film called "Free the Nipple"? -- the movement got a head-start, but only after Esco started telling her friends (including little-known pal Miley Cyrus) about the project.

The idea of overcoming gender-based double standards by "freeing the nipple" has taken hold since the film finished production, and several celebrities -- notably Scout Willis and Chelsea Handler -- have taken stands against censorship of the female body. Now that the film is finally available in wider release, Esco hopes the conversation will continue.

Salon talked with the filmmaker by phone about her aims for the film, the struggles of shooting a movie topless in New York City and what America's fear of the nipple is really about. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

At the beginning of the movie, the women are actually censored -- was it supposed to be like that, or was it just my screener? If it is like that, why did you decide to include censorship in a movie about fighting censorship?

It’s supposed to be like that. The first half of the film is supposed to be censored and the second half isn’t. It ended up being, visually and cinematically and poetically, important -- but it wasn’t something that I wanted there. Even though it’s been legal to be topless in New York since 1992, when I had permits by the city to shoot on Wall Street for my opening sequence, literally when I said action and had all the girls running around topless, the cops basically said to me, “You all need to cover up or wear pasties with a strip around the back.” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” He goes, “Well, if you don’t, I’m going to arrest you right now. If you’re shooting topless women, it can seem like you’re shooting porn to passerby, so you’re going to have to cover up.” So that was one of the biggest surprises I had to deal with. I was like, “What the fuck am I going to do now?” So I literally gathered my entire team and said, “A lot of you guys are not going to agree with me on this, but I’m going to go and steal all of the shots, run and gun, guerilla style. Some of you will not want to be a part of this, and we’re probably going to get arrested, but I’m doing it.”

Did you end up getting arrested?

Yeah, I have many warrants for arrest. I almost got arrested a few times. The movie was almost shut down in production four times. They were after us. So all the exteriors, even the Times Square shot -- everything was rehearsed. For everything, we got to the location beforehand, we mapped it all out, and it was a one shot, one take kind of thing. And you can see, actually, at the end of the Times Square shot, when we’re running, you can see the cop cars pulling up. At the end of that shot they came after me and they started grabbing me. Thank god I had a great team to talk to them, to calm them down. It was ridiculous.

It seems to me that that would be an important part to publicize, because it goes so well with the message of the film -- to say, “This is legal, and yet we’re still being harassed.”

Exactly. And a lot of people asked, like, “Oh my god, was it an artistic choice to show the audience what censorship feels like?” Well, in a way, thank god that that happened, because it’s kind of cool that the first half of the film is censored and the other half isn’t. Symbolically, it means a lot. But that’s the real story behind it. There’s no way we could have done it with permits from the city in a way that was legal. We got to every location and it was literally one shot, one take. We could not afford to do another one because then the cops would come. People would call the cops, but the cops were already following us.

What drew you to the project and the campaign in the first place?

I think four years ago it all started. I grew up acting, and I knew I wanted to direct a movie that was going to mean a lot to me. I started at a very young age questioning why are women not equal to men. I knew that the movie that I wanted to do -- I wanted to portray strong female role models that are going to inspire young boys and girls growing up, that they can look up to.

I also started researching more about this in 2010, and that’s when I started going into the history of women’s rights. The more I started digging into this, the more I was bothered by all of it. I knew that I wanted to talk about equality at the root of it all, really. I started learning about Phoenix Feeley, who got arrested at a New Jersey beach for going topless a few years ago, and, even though it’s legal, she got arrested and was in jail for nine days -- also on a hunger strike for nine days.

I started gathering all of this up, and in 2010 I was in a movie called LOL with Miley Cyrus. I had told the director, Lisa Azuelos, that I had an idea about making a movie and a movement called Free the Nipple, about women challenging censorship laws by going topless for equality. And she was like, “That’s a great idea, whenever you’re done with it I want to finance it.” And I thought she was kidding! But, no, she wasn’t. When I came back to LA, I met with my friend who’s a screenwriter, Hunter Richards, and I said, “Listen, I have this idea about this movie called 'Free the Nipple.'" And at that time, I remember in 2010 buying the domain freethenipple.com and my friends laughing, saying, “You’re going to make a movie called ‘free the nipple,’ haha!” And that’s the whole point. It’s supposed to be funny; it’s supposed to be engaging. That’s the whole mission. We’re just trying to start a dialogue.

When I started showing the movie around, people were responding to it, but they just didn’t know what to do with it. They were like, “I really connect with the film, and I like it, but I just don’t know how to market it.” Some distribution companies were telling me that. And I just said, “Fuck this shit. I’m going to market this myself. I’m going to start a real movement. I’m going to do this.”

In the movie, you talk a lot about both this gender-based double standard, but also the prevalence of crime and violence in movies compared to nudity. I feel like we live in a culture that doesn’t grapple well with nuance. Do you worry that having these multiple messages and multiple explanations for why the aversion to female nudity is such a problem, might be difficult for audiences to understand?

That’s why I wanted to make sure that the movie didn’t feel preachy at all, because there were so many talking points that could come up. You could sit down and talk about Free the Nipple and equality for hours; it’s like talking about politics and religion -- it never ends and everyone has an opinion. No one, at the end of the day, is right or wrong, because you have an upbringing of the way you think, and if you do not want to be open-minded because that’s the way you’ve been brought up then that’s fine. Again, the point of the film is to start an open dialogue about this, because it needs to be had. The violence and the MPAA -- they’re so hypocritical in the sense that if you’re going to be censoring women and nudity and sex and love and all that stuff that’s natural, you should be censoring violence too! There should be a balance!

We talk about so many things in the movie that I hope people will pick up something. I think people are smart enough to want to talk about it, too. The only reason why I’m saying that is because of what happened in the past year. I didn’t think we were going to be where we’re at right now. Honestly, when I imagined a conversation, I imagined something much smaller. But for the last year, every single time Scout [Willis], or Cara Delevigne or any of these girls come and speak up publicly and support the cause, the media outlets continue to open a conversation even bigger and allow Free the Nipple to explain ourselves even more about what we’re doing. It's not about going topless; it’s about equality. If I would have made a movie called "Equality" and nobody was going topless, no one would be talking about this. No one. And the nipple has become the symbol of female oppression. It’s also the Trojan horse that’s unveiling the real issues of inequality. You have to do certain things to talk about certain things. There is no way we would be talking -- I wouldn’t be talking to you on the phone if the title of my film was “Equality.”

Does that ever frustrate you -- that this thing you’re fighting against, this hypersexualizaiton of women, is one of the things that can help get all of this attention to the cause? How do you grapple with that?

It’s the same thing as what this guy told me: “If you’re going to be topless, I can’t help it, I’m going to non-stop look because I’m going to see them as sexual things.” And I said to him, “Okay, so what if we sit down for about five hours, and I’m still topless the entire time. Aren’t you going to get tired of looking at them at some point?” And he said, “You’re right.” Maybe that's it -- maybe America just needs a big blast of boobies. Just chill the fuck out. There’s so much money in hiding them. A 7-year-old girl came up to me and said, “Why is it they can sell them but we can’t wear them?” She was amazing. There’s so many laws against women’s bodies, but there are barely any laws against men’s bodies. This is about having that choice. Being topless does not equal liberty. This is not about going topless. I’m not promoting, in no way, shape, or form, for the whole world to go topless. This is what we had to do to start a dialogue. And it has begun, and now I want to continue it. I hope that the movie will explain itself more than I ever can or will.

What’s next for you?

We have a long road. I get emails and tweets and direct messages on social media outlets from young girls from the age of 15 all the way up to their 30s; young girls in high school and college are writing papers on this. Teachers are doing lectures on this. That gives me hope that there is something changing, that there is hope in the future. Why are we so afraid of this nipple? Why?

This is a fun movie, it’s not about pushing our truths onto anybody. Even the campaign has had a life of its own, and its very organic how it just comes up in and out. The same thing with the movie: If you want to have a dialogue about this, great! If you don’t, that’s okay too. We’re not here to push our truths onto people or say who’s right or wrong. It’s about finding a way to try and open each other’s minds and exchange ideas and opinions.

"Free the Nipple" is open in select theaters in New York and opens in Los Angeles on Dec. 26. It is also available on iTunes.

By Jenny Kutner

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