• Film

“Let Liv” Filmmakers Discuss How Crafting LGBTQ+ Characters Is Its Own Political Act

The 13 minutes short film Let Liv recently had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, after having been selected from more than 8,000 competitive entries. Directed by Erica Rose, and written by and costarring Olivia Levine, it tells the story of a young woman who begrudgingly agrees to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with her new partner, using humor to deflect the anxiety she feels about it. When she unexpectedly runs into her estranged mother, it triggers dark memories and complicated emotions. Christine Taylor (The Brady Bunch Movie, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story) also co-stars.


As part of Pride Month celebration, we recently interviewed Rose and Levine via email.

How did the two of you first connect?

Olivia Levine: A mutual friend set us up because she thought we would get along. Not long after, we were on the same group chat called “Guardian GAYngels.” (We are huge lesbians and love to talk about how we’re huge lesbians.) We would hang out from time to time, and we would support each other’s work, but we weren’t super close. Then Erica approached me asking if I had anything we could collaborate on, and I brought her Let Liv. The script I brought her was really raw, and she helped me out immensely with developing it into what it is now. And once we started working together, we became fast best friends. And I mean that — we really are best friends. I can talk to her about anything and I think vice versa. And we can be honest with each other and challenge each other without falling apart. We make a really good team, and I truly couldn’t be more grateful for this partnership.

Olivia, what was the genesis of the idea for the script?

Olivia Levine: I have a lot of friends and family that have struggled with addiction and/or have gotten sober. As a child, I grew up going to AA meetings with family members. I mean, I really grew up in the rooms. I would take friends with me to have playdates and we would play Barbie in the hallway at the church. So, I am intimately familiar with how meetings work. I myself also go to Al-Anon, so meetings are still a part of my life. So, I thought the 12-step meeting space was a very rich space — both physically and emotionally — for a short. It is contained, it is charged, there’s tons of humor and there’s tons of sadness. There’s so much going on in those rooms. And then I paired that with a mother-daughter dynamic, because those are very interesting to me. I have an incredibly close relationship with my mom, but it is also super-complicated and oftentimes challenging. We love each other so much, but we also butt heads. So, I thought combining the meeting space with that relationship would make for some great drama and a very rich story.


How was the Tribeca Festival experience for you? And more broadly, is the value of festivals as much about connecting with new and potentially like-minded peers on the creative side as it is the presentation of work?

Olivia Levine: Tribeca was amazing. The programmers and coordinators were all incredibly helpful and present, and the other folks with films were so excited to connect. The festival had events going on all the time, so if you missed one, you would surely be able to make another one or two that day/night. And one really cool thing is that we sold out our first screening and there was a long rush line, so they actually added a screening. We deeply appreciated that because it allowed more friends and family and peers to attend. And yes, I do believe the festivals are just as much about networking/connecting with peers as they are about the presentation of the work. I met really cool folks from all over the place — Sydney, London, Zurich. You get to learn what everyone else is up to and if there’s potential for working together or supporting their work. I am still in touch with loads of folks from the festival, whether it be for work purposes or social purposes.

There’s a line in Let Liv about an AA meeting participant appreciating the honesty and vulnerability newcomers bring to meetings. but how differently do you view the threshold and capacity for sharing vulnerability in both in-person and online spaces in the modern world?

Olivia Levine: That’s a great question. My first instinct was to say that it’s easier to be vulnerable with people in person, but I actually think that really depends. For example, I do therapy online now, and sometimes I actually find that the distance allows me to relax more, to the point that I am able to be more open and honest with my therapist. There is something so charged about being in a room with another human being and telling them stuff about your personal life. I mean, there is something very charged about just being present with another human in a room, regardless of the sharing bit. I think sometimes online spaces allow for a little bit of distance that can often enable vulnerability and honesty. But, this all said, I do think there is something very special about being able to open up to a person or multiple folks in the same physical space. There is a sort of affective current — or multiple currents — that exist in person that can make the experience feel more… present? Yes, present. And also, I think that being vulnerable in person entails a certain kind of accountability. Like, you say the thing, and then you have to still be there and take in how you feel after or take in the looks or comments of other people. That is scary but it’s also really important in certain instances.

Also, is there any correlation or similarity to how we might respond differently to entertainment in a communal viewing experience, versus streaming something privately at home?

Olivia Levine: Again, I think it’s complicated. Sometimes viewing something alone can render you more vulnerable because you know that nobody is watching you watch the thing. And you thus might feel more safe having feelings about what you are watching and expressing said feelings. On the other hand, sometimes viewing something communally can stir up unexpected things. Maybe folks gasp at one part, so you feel more invested because you know they are invested! Like, the responses of other folks may prompt unexpected responses in yourself!

What was the biggest challenge of production?

Olivia Levine: I think the biggest challenge was finding the right locations that worked within our budget. Our producers were amazing and called in some favors, and we ended up getting some really great spaces that didn’t totally obliterate us budget-wise, but it was all pretty last minute. It was also extraordinarily cold when we shot. It was November and it had not been cold at all yet but of course it got cold for our shoot! So, on the second day, when everything took place outside, it was definitely a challenge staying focused at times. And because I was also a producer, I felt a bit obligated to take care of everyone, which made me a little anxious. But Erica handled the circumstances so well, and we were able to get some really great takes.

Erica, what was the genesis of Lesbian Bar Project?

Erica Rose: In March of 2020, the pandemic hit New York City and my entire industry, film and TV, shut down, as did so many. This coincided with learning from an NBC Out article that there were only 16 lesbian bars in the United States, and the pandemic could bring that number down to zero. I called my dear friend and fellow queer filmmaker Elina Street, and we decided we could not live in a world where these vital safe spaces ceased to exist. We came of age in the bars; they are vital, safe spaces and integral to community development, political action, intergenerational dialogue, and queer friendship. We conceptualized the Lesbian Bar Project documentary and impact campaign initiative. In the 1980s, there were roughly 200 lesbian bars in the U.S. and today, there are fewer than 30 left. In October 2020, we released a PSA and fundraising campaign, which helped raise over $117,000 for the remaining bars. In June 2021, we released a short documentary film and another fundraising campaign. The documentary short spotlights the bar owners, community activists, and patrons in three cities (New York City; Mobile, Alabama; and Washington, D.C.) and their struggles during the pandemic, their hopes for the future, and the impact on their communities. The 2021 fundraising campaign raised over $150,000 for the bars.

In 2022, we created, executive produced, and directed episodes for the Roku docuseries adaptation of The Lesbian Bar Project. The series was recently honored as one of the best brand-sponsored series at Brand Storytelling, a sanctioned event at the Sundance Film Festival. It received a GLAAD Media Award and is nominated for best docuseries at the 2023 Queerties.

What are the type of particular opportunities which exist in the “branded entertainment” and/or advertising spaces, to both gain valuable/practical professional experience but also tell different and unique stories?

Erica Rose: Many brands now are investing in non-traditional forms of advertising, which means putting their name and money behind worthy causes and filmmakers. It’s not just commercials, it’s short- and long-form documentary and scripted films. More typical film and/or television development can take months, if not years, so having alternative forms of financing and distribution, which can generate massive impressions, is a wonderful new outlet for filmmakers. I’ll caveat by saying it’s important to partner with the right brands who respect the vision. In my case with The Lesbian Bar Project, Jägermeister supported our point of view from day one. They understood the story we wanted to tell and championed it from beginning to end.

At a time when LGBTQ+ rights are being grossly targeted in sociopolitical fashion, does broadening the scope of queer storytelling, which Let Liv does, feel more or less difficult? And, as LGBTQ+ creators, is there any internalized pressure to lean into this tension of the moment, and tell stories that intersect more readily with the political realities of a time when some would strip away rights and/or make lives more difficult for the LGBTQ+ community?

Erica Rose: It’s an interesting question, but for me, being out, and centering LGBTQ characters and portraying them as real people with charm, flaws, wants, desires, and needs is a political act within itself. I do believe that transcending narratives in which queer people are depicted as victims or strictly marginalized is necessary for achieving full equity. I do think that as long as we keep allowing queer people to tell their stories without fear of censorship or persecution is what we should be focusing on, rather than the explicit political nature of the story itself.

What else are you presently working on?

Erica Rose: This year, The Lesbian Bar Project is going international for a “special,” focusing on lesbian+ communities in Germany. I’m also working on a comedy feature with comedian Ali Clayton called Titters. And Olivia and I are hard at work at expanding [Let Liv] into a feature. We’re ambitiously trying to get into production on it by the end of next year.