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The Big O: How Nora Grossman of ‘The Imitation Game’ Broke the Code of Becoming a Woman Producer

The Big O: How Nora Grossman of ‘The Imitation Game’ Broke the Code of Becoming a Woman Producer

Of the top 250 movies that were released last year, women made up only 23% of the producers involved with those titles — down 1% from 1998 — according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. 

One of those producers is Nora Grossman, whose scored a hit her first time out with The Imitation Game, the story of closeted genius Alan Turing, who helped end World War II by breaking Germany’s Enigma code. The $14 million historical drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch has grossed $103.7 million worldwide since opening in late November.

Grossman, 31, not only broke the code of how to enter this male-dominated field, but has also joined the ranks of the five other female producers this year whose films are among the eight competing for Oscar’s best-picture prize.

On top of that, The Imitation Game earned a total of eight nominations — second only to The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman, tied with nine each.

Grossman, along with her fellow producer and business partner, Ido (pronounced EE-do) Ostrowsky — who originally came up with the idea of turning Turing’s story into a film – have set the bar incredibly high for themselves when it comes to new ventures. “First world problems,” jokes the LA native and current resident, who spent the later part of her childhood in North Carolina. “We never thought we would get this far. We need to retire. We keep getting reminded over and over again that this won’t happen again.”

The Boston University grad, who studied film and then switched to TV, found herself out of work after her job as a junior executive at Prison Break creator Paul Scheuring’s company came to an end in 2009. At the same time, UCLA grad Ostrowsky, 35, was finishing his stint as an assistant on the CW’s Gossip Girl. “A mutual friend introduced us,” she says. They officially formed their own production company, Bristol Automotive, in 2012 once The Imitation Game was in place.

Grossman found time in between attending awards shows and doing Q&A panels to speak to The Big O about her experiences as a producer, her feelings about Keira Knightley’s Oscar-nominated role as Joan Clarke, and what the future holds.

W&H: Why did you choose the name Bristol Automotive for your production company?

Grossman: We had to get a name trademarked when we were in London to shoot the movie. An assistant told us the story about Bristol Cars in Kensington. The owner restored vintage cars, and they were very expensive. Even if you came in with thousands of pounds in cash, he wouldn’t sell one to you if he didn’t like you. We liked that attitude, and that is how it came together.

W&H: A publicist working on The Imitation Game told me that you and Ido, who is openly gay, have a close relationship not unlike that of Turing and Clarke, a member of the Enigma team and his closest ally in the movie. I assume that, unlike Turing, he never proposed to you.

Grossman: That is funny. Oh, sure, we work well together and we have a good relationship. But we are not engaged, and we don’t plan to be. We started the company without putting much thought into it. We just said, “Why not?” We are still working it out, but that is a good thing.

W&H: There are a fair number of other female producers involved in the Oscar race this year. Oprah Winfrey and Dede Gardner (Brad Pitt’s producing partner) are behind Selma. Boyhood has Cathleen Sutherland. The Theory of Everything has Lisa Bruce. And Whiplash has Helen Estabrook. The acting nominees always get to know one another at the lead-up events to the Oscars. Have you networked with any of the other women producers?

Grossman: For sure, and I think that is one of the advantages of being in the minority. Lisa Bruces’ fiancé was on our flight when we first came to London. They lived in Notting Hill, too. She is a fun person. And Helen and I have been friends for years. It is nice to share a woman’s perspective on what we are going through and to have someone to go shopping with, too. I haven’t met Oprah yet, but she is on Ido’s agenda.

W&H: Gender diversity in film and TV has been a hot topic lately. Did you encounter any barriers because you are female?

Grossman: I have never felt at a disadvantage. Producing is more open to women than directing and writing, and it worked out for me. When I was originally a film major at Boston University, it was mostly male students. I switched to TV, where it was fairly even. My favorite teacher there was a woman, Cathy Perron, and I went back to the campus to speak there in September. There are a lot more women than men on the BU campus, so I never felt like a minority. And I knew I never wanted to direct or write. I don’t want to be on a set every five minutes.

W&H: Let’s talk about Joan Clarke. There has been a great deal of discussion about the accuracy of the best-picture nominees that are based on a true story, particularly about American Sniper, Selma, and The Imitation Game. A niece of Turing’s said that Knightley was too attractive as Clarke, who she described as “quite plain.” Andrew Hodges, author of the biography that the film is based on, said that the relationship between Turing and Clarke was not as close in real life as it appeared on screen.

Grossman: We like Joan as a character, and what is in the film about her and Turing is all true. They were best friends, they did get engaged, they stayed in touch after the war. One thing that was changed is that, even though they used crossword puzzles to test potential codebreakers, Joan wasn’t recruited in that way. She was hired as a linguist and made the transition from there.

W&H: What about hiring of Keira Knightley for the part? Why her?

Grossman: She is such a great actress and has done such great female roles. People who see the film are aware of what a range she has. Keira is about to make her Broadway debut this year (in the play Therese Raquin this October), which is great. We were very fortunate she raised her hand to play Joan. She is intelligent, funny, and strikes the right balance between beauty and brains. We met with a lot of actresses for the part. She gives such a subtle performance. There is not much footage of the real Joan Clarke, but she dove in and did research.

W&H: You and Ido already have a number of projects in the works, including a film with J.J. Abrams (Lost, the current Star Trek franchise, and this year’s new Star Wars film) and his company Bad Robot.

Grossman: We have a project that J.J. set up at Paramount. It will be another character study, but with a genre component. We have a deal with Sky Atlantic with The Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore and director Marc Forster (World War Z) attached. We have another project that we want to do with Julianne Moore and we are working with a writer for that.

W&H: Will you make doing vehicles that showcase women a priority?

Grossman: It’s really about finding great characters or stories, whether male- or female-driven. But we would do anything to be supportive. If we see an opportunity to involve more women, we will go for it.

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