ForthWrite Magazine’s Alexandra Miller spoke with producer and podcast host Carolina Groppa about succeeding as a female producer in a male-dominated industry, using film as a vehicle for social change, navigating harassment in the workplace, and how her Brazilian roots taught her not to sweat the small stuff.
As opposed to just asking you questions about feminism or being a successful woman in a male- dominated industry, we just want to know what your real experiences have been — whether large or small, were there moments that made you grateful or discouraged to be a woman in Hollywood? If you’d like, please speak on your Brazilian heritage with relation to your career.
Coming from a third world country and then moving to America when I was really young, I sort of have grown up with American values. But, I’m very much rooted still in my Brazilian culture in the sense of how I operate, the perspective that I bring to the world, who I am, and how I choose to live my life on and off sets. I don’t think there’s any difference nor should there be a difference between who you are professionally and personally. I think they should be one in the same, especially in an industry where so much of your value and your contributions to a project are really about who you are and who you decide to be. You can learn union rules and you can learn how to do budgets and work on schedules and the logistics but how you’re going to deal with people is really what sets you apart from others in our industry. Are you going to show up from a place of kindness and cooperation or you going to dominate from a place of fear? I think that there is this old school approach to the work that is sort of weaning itself off with the younger generation…it’s a little bit more collaborative [and] inclusive with everything that’s happening with the Me Too movement and all of the different minorities in getting more opportunities and visibilities. I noticed that when I work with younger people (younger meaning like my age or younger) there’s just not a disrespect of me as a woman in the workplace, I am treated more as an equal versus when I’m working with men who are in their 50s and 60s…there is a difference in energy and approach. Coming from a country where I know there is such a glass ceiling on your potential and no matter how bad it gets in America, it’s never going to be as bad as most places in the world. It just always keeps you on that perspective where you’re sort of thinking on a macro-level about what’s going on as opposed to the micro and you’re not really letting everything that happens, the nuisances [and] the dumb stuff on set or in our world get to you because they’re much bigger things that you should be concerned about.
I believe there is this misunderstanding about “Oh if you’re a woman that means you’re too emotional, you’re too vulnerable, and you’re a deficit,” but I disagree. We’re all emotional beings and women tend to have the stereotype of being more in touch with their emotions but we’re all emotional beings and making a movie is an inherently extremely emotional experience. How are you going to talk to someone when the way you speak to person A isn’t the way person B is going to understand the same information? Having that finesse — I think women are more equipped to handle that than men because we, in my opinion, do that our entire lives. Having to step into new environments and understand what our place is and how we are going to get what we want because we can’t just show up and get it like men. I think that my vulnerabilities and my sensibilities and what I bring makes me better at my job as opposed to it being a deficit to my job as a producer. Being able to be vulnerable in front of people is a strong move…I just think that that is a healthy approach to life and thus to this workplace which bleed so much into your personal life. From a person who handles physical production because that’s what I do, it’s nonstop. You’re tethered everyday, it doesn’t matter that it’s a weekend [and] that it’s my Saturday. I’m the one that’s got to be always connected. I can’t put my phone down. From the day that you sign onto a project which for me on Sylvie was January until it ends which was mid-April that is four and a half months of my life that I am one hundred percent committed to that project because it requires that much of yourself. Unfortunately it’s not sustainable in the long run, I think that’s why people burn out and get cynical down the line.
Have you seen a significant difference in working with female directors and writers as opposed to male writers and directors?
Yeah, huge significant difference in working with female writers and directors as opposed to males. Predominantly women tend to be more collaborative from the jump, less entitled, [and] less coming from a place of knowing it all. They really want your opinion and they really want your input. I had a really cool experience last summer where I worked with Refinery29, they do this cool series every year called Shatterbox which is really giving a focus and a voice to female writer-directors and I got to produce one of the shorts that Gillian Jacobs directed. We had a predominantly female crew, and not by choice — it just kind of happened that way. Our DP was female, script director was female, sound…this is also testament to Gillian specifically because she turned to her posse of ladies and be like what do you guys think of this? She was really inclusive in that process. Is that to say men are not that way? No, absolutely not. I think there are men like that who are wonderful humans and they don’t get enough praise for that in this time that we’re in but unfortunately that is a very small percentage of men in this industry in my experience. Because I look a lot younger than I am and I’m small, I get treated as the cute girl on set when it’s like no I’m a professional and I’m your equal and most of the time I’m your boss and I just want to be treated with respect. However sometimes with women there is this catty competition of some sort which I’ve never understood. I’ve met women who bring that into the workplace but I think it’s it’s less and less now with everything that’s happened since Weinstein two years ago. It’s shifted a lot of perspectives in our industry.
Autism in Love, the feature-length documentary on the unexplored dynamics of relationships within the autistic community you produced, was nominated for an Emmy award in 2017 (congrats!!!!). Do you feel as though there is more of an urgency with stories and people that are misrepresented or silenced by society?
Autism in Love has been the gift that keeps on giving…what a special project to be a part of. I think the urgency is really stories of anybody who is disenfranchised. I do think that one of the gifts that Netflix gave us when it came on the scene was just bringing a new light into the power of documentaries and how it can shape our perspectives. The viewer is getting to experience someone else’s perspective on the world in a really safe way. That’s the power of cinema and the power of film. Can you transport someone out of their comfort zone into another world for a few hours so they can walk away from that experience a tiny better version of themselves? A little more enlightened, a little more compassionate, a little bit more patient, a little more understanding of someone else’s experience. At its best, that is what films give us. It’s the only medium that shapes people’s minds like that. As humans, we’ll always crave getting to see someone else’s experiences from the safety of our couches.
What’s a question you’ve never been asked that you feel is important? Especially regarding women in film both in front of and behind the camera, what’s a topic that has been overlooked?
Everybody wants to ask you “How you get to do the thing you do?” and “What’s the secret? What’s the shortcut?”, and it’s almost annoying because how do you summarize the years of heartbreak and disappointment and successes and everything that makes up the moment of time I am in now? The amount of work that has gone on behind the scenes…nobody wants to hear about the 10,000 hours you put in, they just want to see you make something that takes a ton of effort look effortless. I love posting behind-the-scenes stuff on set and [giving] people a little bit more insight into just how crazy things can be because I think that there is a misconception about what that life is actually like. I want to be a conduit between the real world and the industry at large. I’m a very curious person and I always like to ask everybody all the things all the time. I think a topic that’s often overlooked is not [necessarily] sexual assault but it’s this unspoken thing women deal with where men can touch them in a certain way or talk to them in a certain way that isn’t abusive at all but it’s just inappropriate. Someone calling me “hun” or “doll” or “sweetie”, a man who is my senior calling me pet names…that’s not my name. You would never do that if I was a man. And if you put someone in their place, you’re a bitch. If it’s somebody who is inferior to me I will always remind them and say, “Hey my name is not sweetie or sugar it’s Carolina.” But the problem is that comes when it’s your boss. We have a systemic problem in our industry where men feel like they have the permission to call you sweetie and does that lead to them feeling like they have the permission to do all of the inappropriate things we have heard about. There is a very clear line drawn in the sand between what [is and isn’t] sexual abuse, but then there is this murky gray area that we live in that [these smaller actions are] not “bad”, but don’t feel good. What I find most fascinating is that I have really great relationships with a lot of men in this industry of all ages, and the men that I am actually friends with never touch me. It’s this weird power play thing that I wish we could find a way to address and I don’t know how to be a part of that change but I am definitely aware of it. Because the perpetrator never sees that as being wrong behavior. Everybody’s correct in their perspective, but they have no regard for how it’s being received. When you’re being very visual about not enjoying someone touching you in a certain way and that person still doesn’t pick up on that social cue it’s like alright you either say something and you risk it being really awkward especially if it’s your boss or you just kind of deal with it. And that’s what women do. We just deal with it. There are so many bigger problems that you just let that one fall by the wayside.
In addition to getting a much needed shift in perspective, why do you think it’s important to have women leading behind the camera? How does that change the creative environment for the better?
It’s important for women to lead behind the camera because it shows the other girls coming up that there are more jobs and in our industry than just being an actor or director or writer. It sets this example for men and women that we’re all capable of working together and doing the same jobs. There are plenty of women who are grips who like the physical labor part of that job and want to be moving around and they would be bored out of their mind sitting in an office doing paperwork. There’s a place for everybody which I think is why of any industry the film industry is so inclusive. There’s actually a program that I work with which is helping people who have experienced homelessness or who have a criminal record rehabilitate back into society. Because if you think about it any traditional job has thorough background checks on a person, and those people can’t really get jobs because of their criminal record and sometimes it’s just a bad mistake someone made once and should they be reprimanded for the rest of their lives when they’re just trying to get their life back on track. But the film industry – we hire people left and right we don’t do background checks you know who it’s all based on word of mouth really so if anybody has a terrible record we never know about it. And obviously if we find out that they’re just a terrible human doing terrible things, we make sure that our colleagues are all aware, but there are many people who I work with who are the kindest sweetest people and you would never know that they probably have a criminal record. It’s inclusive even in a bigger scope than just gender and sexual orientation and ethnicity because you really get to have a hand in helping people who have had unfortunate things happen in their lives. I don’t know of any other industry that is as inclusive as ours can and should be.
Carolina Groppa has launched a new podcast entitled “Life with Caca”, in which she has candid conversations with fellow producers to “demystify” what a producer really does. With an already stellar lineup of professionals such as Eva Longoria and Alana Mayo, Groppa has successfully dedicated her time off set to creating a dialogue about the messy and challenging parts of a producer’s life – the “caca”. “Life with Caca” airs every Tuesday both on her site and on Apple Podcasts. You can also find her on Instagram posting intriguing and informational behind the scenes videos from set as well as pertinent advice for rising young women in the industry.
Editor’s Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.