How Lolo Spencer and Alice Austen Defied Expectations and Made an ‘Unmarketable’ Film (Video)

The star and producer of “Give Me Liberty” were featured speakers at TheWrap’s Power Women San Francisco event on Monday

“Give Me Liberty” isn’t the easiest film to describe in one sentence. But its producer, Alice Austen, and lead actress, Lolo Spencer, knew it was exactly the kind of film that needed to be told — even when studios and financiers wouldn’t support them.

“We were told that we were unmarketable, undistributable, unreleasable,” Austen said at TheWrap’s Power Women SF event on Monday evening, quoting detractors who said “Give Me Liberty” would never make it to Sundance or Cannes.

The film follows a disability transport driver in Milwaukee who, accompanied by a group of octogenarian Russian immigrants, must pick up a young woman in a wheelchair on the other side of town amidst protests in the city. “Give Me Liberty” eventually went on to premiere at Sundance and was unanimously chosen to participate in Cannes.

But even as the film received interest at the festivals, Austen said that many of the U.S. distributors she spoke with — most of them men — frequently told her, “We don’t know how to market this film.”

“For me, there was a clear code,” Austen said. “If we had plunked Jennifer Lawrence in a wheelchair and had her pretend to be disabled, we would’ve had an $11 million dollar deal out of Sundance, and we didn’t do that.”

The lead role of Tracy went to Spencer, a lifestyle and disability influencer who has been outspoken about her experiences living with ALS. Spencer said the project and what it stood for drew her in almost immediately.

“Once I read the script and had plenty of talks with Alice and Kirill, our director, about who Tracy was and how important it was for them to actually cast a young black woman in a wheelchair who actually is disabled to play a role of a character that has a disability,” Spencer said, “I knew I had to be a part of the project, and I was just going to figure out how to act on the way.”

Spencer, pointing to the limited ways in which inclusivity is often discussed in the entertainment and beauty industries (“disability is always either the last one mentioned or never mentioned at all,” she said), sees films like “Give Me Liberty” as a good step forward.

“I’m just glad that people are starting to be made aware of people with disabilities, because even in society [on a] day to day basis, we feel ignored a lot of the time,” she said. “For industries as big as entertainment and beauty to really start to pay attention is really, really helpful.”

TheWrap’s Power Women events bring together prominent and influential women across industries to meet and discuss larger issues concerning inequity and empowerment. Later that evening, the event — sponsored by Dolby and Hearst — featured a conversation between attorney and Democratic Party strategist Christine Pelosi and San Francisco Chronicle editor in chief Audrey Cooper.