Women Behind Canadian TV: Vanessa Piazza

Prodigy Pictures Executive Producer Vanessa Piazza
Credit: Vanessa Piazza

Vanessa Piazza can easily be described as one of Canadian television’s rising stars. During her 10 year career she’s quickly worked her way up the production ladder, starting as an associate producer on Lost Girl to eventually serving as one of the show’s executive producers. Also, as one of Prodigy Pictures’ executive producers, she is ready to begin production on the second season of Dark Matter.

Piazza recently took part in our Women Behind Canadian TV series here at The TV Junkies and shared why she feels especially lucky to be working in television in Canada. She also talked about why she personally feels responsible to help bring diversity behind the scenes of the shows she works on, and what critical position is severely lacking a female presence.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Can you share with us a little about your background and how you got into television production?

Vanessa Piazza: It was the classic story of working my way up. I started at the bottom and got my first producing gig on a mini-series called XIII. That ended up turning into a television series, and I moved up to supervising producer and just went from there. I slowly worked my way up to Executive Producer on Lost Girl where I spent five seasons, and now I’m going into my second season on Dark Matter.

TTVJ: As you have worked your way up in the ranks, did you ever feel any opposition or that you were treated differently because of your gender?

VP: I do have to say, for myself, that I’ve felt pretty embraced as a female. I think being young and a female has a particular challenge where you’ll often get people saying, ‘Oh wow you’re pretty young to be doing what you’re doing.’ But I do feel that the television and film industry in Canada has been quite accepting of my gender. I’ve worked with lots of men and women behind the scenes and I don’t feel like it’s affected my career.

I think that as a woman you just have to constantly work harder to prove yourself in general society, but I do think that in our industry there has been a lot of change in the past decade since I started in the business. I’ve noticed a lot of change in networks and government programs making sure there is equality both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. I think in Canada we are lucky in that way, and we’re starting to see it happen in the States as well with diversity and gender equality.

For myself, watching that change over the past decade has been really positive and it’s something that’s important, as a young female in this industry, that I’m aware and constantly supporting other young females. It’s a dialogue that just has to continue to happen to keep that change happening.

TTVJ: Genre television seems to have women represented more so than other areas with people like Michelle Lovretta, Emily Andras and Daegan Fryklind all leading up shows.

VP: There are in Canada though a lot of female showrunners on the procedurals as well with Tassie Cameron and Sherry White. There is a lot more female representation behind the scenes in writers’ rooms here on shows that are also big series in the States. But I do think it’s got to be an active discussion that continues to take place because it’s a systematic problem that we do have to be aware of.

TTVJ: How does diversity come into play then for you when hiring staff behind the scenes, as well as when casting the show?

VP: For me it’s really important to have diversity behind the scenes and on camera because it’s the reality of the world we live in, and important to have that representation on camera, in writers’ rooms, on the crew and in every aspect. Feminism is about equality as well–all types of equality–so for me it’s extremely important to have all types of diversity represented, and I think all of the shows I’ve worked on would represent that. The cast of Dark Matter is a completely diverse cast and Lost Girl was diverse and we were constantly treating sexuality as something that is fluid and not putting labels on anybody. We are always trying to let audiences feel like they can relate to somebody on a series.

One of the nice things about the industry here [in Canada] that will continue to breakdown that systematic issue, is having programs at the broadcaster levels, and the government agencies where there are a lot of initiatives to make sure we’ve got diversity on and off screen. I think that’s really helpful and it’s amazing to me to live in a country where we do see that. I would say that our industry is a lot more accepting than other industries out there–like say finance for example–just from speaking with my peers that work in other industries.

Half of my core staff that work here year round, over 50 per cent are female, over 50 per cent are gay. I think this industry lends itself to being accepting of everybody, so in that way I’m proud to work in that type of environment. I constantly try to be promoting a work environment where everybody feels safe and everybody feels welcome and nobody feels discriminated.

TTVJ: Lost Girl had females in lead roles both on and off screen with past showrunners such as Michelle Lovretta and Emily Andras, but now Dark Matter is ran by Joseph Mallozzi and most of the writers are men. Can you talk about the female presence on Dark Matter?

VP: We have had a lot of female directors on both Lost Girl and on Dark Matter. That is one area where you see a real difference between males and females. There aren’t many female directors being represented in television, especially young, female directors. That’s something we need to continue to work at, giving people that foot in the door. I’ve always pushed having female directors on series and last year we had Lee Rose, Amanda Tapping [on Dark Matter] and this year we’ve got Mairzee Almas directing. We’re looking for another female spot as well and then we’ve got Amanda Tapping coming back again.

One thing I have noticed is that there seems to be a lot more pressure to prove yourself as a director if you’re female–to prove that you have the technical skills, to prove yourself to the industry and to society. You see a lot of female directors breaking in at later ages, but we’ve got to change that. We’ve got to give women the same chance that we do men in that industry because there’s so many talented female directors out there.

TTVJ: So it’s not really an issue of there just not being as many female directors out there, it’s just that we need to give them a shot?

VP: It’s a systematic issue again where television is very hard to break into as a director. So if somebody isn’t giving someone that first chance–whether it’s having an up and coming female director shadow so they get that experience and can get their foot in the door–it’s just being aware of that. In talking with Lee Rose about it, she’s a veteran director who has worked on True Blood and other huge international series, and she was telling me of the struggles throughout her career of really having to stand her ground as a female in a directing position. It’s intimidating. That is an area where we’re seeing a lot more female writers, but directing is an area we can continue to work on. You do see people like Larysa Kondracki who is a young female director who has had huge success internationally and we’re seeing changes, but it’s an area that is slow.

TTVJ: You’re not the first to single out directing as an area that’s severely lacking female representation.

VP: That’s why as a producer it’s important to me to help break down that barrier.

Another area on Dark Matter we’ve got a huge female presence is in our strong female characters. The female characters are always driving the action. The character of Two (Melissa O’Neil) becomes the defacto leader of the crew and that was definitely a choice. The character of the Android, we all made the choice to make that character female which is very unusual for an Android character. That character is played by Zoie Palmer who was also on Lost Girl and has a huge female following. The character of Five (Jodelle Ferland) is known to be the really smart character who can crack all the codes. I think we have a really strong representation on screen of female characters.


TTVJ: In my weekly post-episode chats with Joe [Mallozzi, Dark Matter’s showrunner] I almost always had to stop myself from going on about how great the character of Two was.

VP: She’s a kickass character. The other nice thing about her character though was that her story wasn’t always about her relationship with somebody. That’s not something you’re used to seeing from a female character. A lot of the time we’re seeing female characters and how they interact within their relationship, whereas you can have shows that are led by male superheroes and it can be just about that. So it’s about how we treat the characters and not just seeing female leads. I do feel like I’ve seen a difference in the past decade of seeing more complex, strong female characters leading shows–like Homeland, all of Shonda Rhimes’ shows, Supergirl, Orphan Black.

TTVJ: What advice do you have then for other young women looking to break into television production and other behind the scenes positions?

VP: Have self confidence and put yourself out there. You have to have a voice and integrity. We all, as a society, have to be trying to change that landscape. We have to keep changing the way female characters are portrayed and how they are supposed to be perceived. Making those complex stories that are empowering, that’s important. Telling empowering stories is important.

Don’t ever be scared or feel like you can’t strive for what you want–as a producer, writer, actress, whatever–just get yourself out there. We are entering an era where we see a great difference. Even looking at things like Transparent where you’re dealing with so many strong female characters, so many complex characters, sexuality, diversity and fluidity. A show like that or Orange is the New Black are series that were created by women and I think we are entering an era that is really exciting. We still have to constantly make that better and be aware of the generation that is coming up, that we are helping them and make them feel supported.

Thoughts? Comments? Sound off below! Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.

Dark Matter returns for Season 2 to SyFy in early 2016.