Susan Cartsonis watched “The Wizard of Oz” every year as a little girl.
However, she quickly realized that there weren’t many other feminist role models like Dorothy on screen.
“I like stories about women in which they’re dimensional, in which they have agency, in which they actually do things,” Cartsonis said. “While that may sound very fundamental, oftentimes, it’s not the case in films. It makes me feel for the actors who play these roles, and it makes me feel for the audience, who’s deprived of interesting female role models and entertainment.”
The UCLA alumna took her passion for telling stories about women and channeled it into her work, producing female-driven films including “The DUFF,” “Carrie Pilby” and her latest film, “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train,” which she produced with fellow UCLA alumnus Nick Moceri. The two combined Cartsonis’ emphasis on female-driven content with a diverse cast and crew to tell the story in a more authentic way.
“Deidra & Laney Rob a Train” tells the story of two sisters whose mother is sent to jail. Left on their own to support themselves and to avoid separation in foster care, the duo decides to begin robbing a train that passes by their house. The comedy premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was released on Netflix on March 17.
The film’s director Sydney Freeland and screenwriter Shelby Farrell selected Moceri and Cartsonis as potential producers and collaborators for the film due to Moceri’s prior experience with low-budget films and Cartsonis’ ability to make female characters come to life on the screen, said Frank Wuliger, the agent for Freeland and Farrell.
Cartsonis said she was initially hesitant to work on the project because the budget of the film was much smaller than that of her previous projects and she was unsure of what she could contribute.
“But all was lost when I read the script, which I loved,” Cartsonis said. “I felt like I had to be a part of it because I loved the girl power-ness of it and what it was saying.”
Cartsonis and Moceri met and decided to produce the film together, working with Freeland and Farrell to further develop the script during the spring and summer of 2015. They eventually submitted it to Netflix, which Moceri said was looking to develop a female-driven film with a female director and a multiracial cast.
Cartsonis and Moceri then began the preproduction process of casting the film and assembling the crew. The two tried to let the diversity behind the camera represent the on-screen diversity of the film, Cartsonis said. The crew they assembled comprised of people of various races, including African-American costume designer Ciara Whaley and a duo of Chinese-American production designers.
“We weren’t about to compromise the quality of the film, but our attitude was that we would absolutely take chances on people that we thought were hugely talented – even if they didn’t quite have the experience – if that would bring more diversity to the table,” Cartsonis said.
The need for diversity behind the camera was in part practical, Cartsonis said. Because the two leads were African-American women, it was important to have a crew that knew how to light characters with darker skin tones and work with the leading actresses’ natural hair.
“It’s important to have the diversity behind the camera as well as in front of the camera, so that the people in front of the camera look good and also so that everybody feels good about the story they’re telling,” Cartsonis said.
The diversity also served to change the atmosphere of the set, as cast and crew members felt a sense of camaraderie and empowerment from seeing people who looked like them in various roles throughout the set, Moceri said.
“I think when you’ve got a female-led crew making a movie about young women, there just is an authenticity to the story and a relatability and that comes through in the film,” Moceri said. “You’re giving opportunity and voices that people aren’t given enough.”