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BRUNA PAPANDREA - Telling Stories About Women Means Telling Stories For Everyone

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, August 30, 2016

  
If you make your living in any corner of the greater Hollywood storytelling apparatus, the last year has been a series of wake-up calls. Whether it was Maureen Dowd’s scrupulously researched reportage for the New York Times Magazine or the collective raised eyebrow at another year of all-white Oscar-nominated actors, everyone who works in this business has been forced to confront some difficult truths about our industry and the structural obstacles it presents for women and people of color.

In the aftermath of these insights has come a flurry of activity to address the problem—community outreach, new hiring and credentialing initiatives, a renewed commitment to mentoring, and greater scrutiny of conventional wisdom. All of those initiatives have value. But there may be no simpler or more effective approach than the one embraced by producer and PGA member Bruna Papandrea, who formed the company Pacific Standard with Reese Witherspoon in 2012.

The Pacific Standard approach is pretty simple, actually. They produce movies—and soon, a TV series—that tell women’s stories. And for the most part, they hire women to make them.

The directness of purpose is characteristic of Papandrea—instantly accessible and zero bullshit—who grew up hovering around the poverty line in Adelaide, Australia. After some soul-searching, she abandoned the relative security of law school to follow her passion for the arts, working in local theater and cutting her production teeth on TV commercials. A bad breakup, she admits laughing, landed her in New York, where a volunteer gig on a low-budget thriller grew into a role as co-producer of the film. Taking that experience back to Australia, she found an essential mentor in Aussie film institution Robert Connolly, who guided her through her debut feature Better Than Sex. The festival circuit connected her with other mentors, most notably Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, then at their zenith as producers of sterling literary adaptations. Less than a decade later, Papandrea was producing her own adaptation, of Isaac Marion’s zombie romantic comedy Warm Bodies. With Pacific Standard, her signature film has been Wild, adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir and starring Witherspoon in an Oscar-nominated performance. More recently, the company released the comedy Hot Pursuit starring Witherspoon opposite Sofia Vergara and looks forward to the debut next year of their series for HBO, Big Little Lies.

Produced By editor Chris Green recently got to sit down with Papandrea in the bright and airy Beverly Hills office of Pacific Standard. The discussion touched on everything from mentoring to marketing—don’t get her started about the pigeonhole of "chick flicks”—but always seemed to circle back to questions of equality and representation, and how one producer—and one company—can lead an industry-wide sea change.

 


Bruna Papandrea with Reese Witherspoon at the Telluride Film Festival for the premiere of Wild
  

So how did you gravitate toward producing? You had done some acting, and some writing…

I don’t think anyone wanted me as an actor. There are some amazing drama schools in Australia and I got rejected from all of them. [Laughs] So my dreams were killed very early on. I also had a lot of friends who were actors, and came to believe that unless it’s literally going to kill you not to do it, don’t do it. Because it’s so hard. It’s just hard on the spirit, I think.

I wanted to be more in control of my own kind of destiny and storytelling. I just got the bug. I had gotten to know Robert Connolly, who’s a wonderful man and a very successful Australian producer, director and writer. He had made a $900,000 movie that I loved called The Boys. So I really looked to him, basically asking, "How do you make a $900,000 movie in Australia?” He had been offered/approached by a filmmaker to produce this movie, Better Than Sex, which was right at that budget level. He couldn’t do it. And so he suggested me, because he knew what I’d just done in New York. That was really the beginning of my career as I know it now. Together we raised money through government subsidies in Australia. There’s still a great system there to support homegrown movies. We produced this movie, Better Than Sex. And it was amazing. I did everything from decorate the production office to driving the actors to set. My friend who owned a restaurant was the caterer, still the best caterer I ever had.

Australia has a system where they provide funds to send you to film festivals if your film gets in. They’re really trying to grow their talent, particularly producers. A lot of their subsidy goes toward producers. Their big incentive is a producer offset. It’s not called a "filmmaker offset.” It’s a "producer offset.”

Hey, props to Australia, doing right by producers.

Yeah! So I feel very lucky to have come from that system. My movie got into the Toronto Film Festival and I went with the film. And it was at that film festival that I met Anthony Minghella, who had just started a production company with Sydney Pollack. And so we got to know each other. He told me, "Well, come see me when you’re in London.” Someone said to me, "He’s looking for someone to run their London office.” I said, "Don’t be ridiculous. No one is going to pay me to do that.”

But by chance, my movie then got into the London Film Festival and I ended up in London about three weeks later. We met a couple of times and I read some books for him, some scripts. And then he said, "Look, I really like you. And we really need someone like you.” Of course, he really wanted me to go meet Sydney Pollack. That was a very surreal experience, driving onto a studio lot for the first time. I mean, Hollywood is exactly like you imagine it from the movies. It was one of those dreams-come-true moments. I just loved sitting with him and listening to him. We had a great meeting, I went back to Australia, and then my phone rang two days later and they offered me a job. Less than a month later I was living in London, working for these two amazing gentlemen.

What a whirlwind.

And I will emphasize, gentlemen. I kind of make a lot of jokes, but after you’ve worked for two people like that it’s hard to work for anyone else. I worked for them for five years. It was a wonderful time in my life. That’s where I really learned my love for novel adaptation, because Anthony and Sydney had done it so brilliantly. That’s where I got my exposure to LA, and I have gotten to know the agencies and the culture. It was an amazing time. So often, mentoring is a matter of giving someone access to relationships, understanding the culture of the business side of it. Those first agents I met, the first directors and producers—they’re still very significant to me. Those people are still in my life. If you’ve produced a movie, people assume you must all know lots of agents. But it’s just not true. Access is a big thing. I’m always aware of how access is particularly hard for people who don’t have prior relationships. If you weren’t born into the business, it’s very difficult to feel like that’s accessible to you.

So one of the things I always try to think about and help guide my future and inspire is supporting diversity not just within gender and race—which are hugely important—but also diversity of socioeconomic status, which I think is just as valid and valuable.

And rarely talked about.

Rarely talked about in any country, in fact. That’s a cause that’s so close to my heart, making sure that those people are represented and that they have the kind of access to make their dreams come true, like all of us should. Anthony and Sydney always understood that. I was always a bit dumbfounded as to why they hired me. I mean, I was 29. I’d made one low budget movie. I didn’t finish college. And I remember asking Anthony years later, "Why did you hire me?” He said, "Well, I thought you were smart, and you made me smile.” It was a very loving environment. You just wanted to have good conversations. And it was just so exciting to kind of be around that knowledge and those stories. It still inspires me.

One of the things they taught me is —and I don’t think this is an obvious thing, sadly—just always do the right thing by people. It’s actually rare. I’ve had a couple of people not do the right thing by me in my career. But they always treated people with respect and did the right thing. I think that can’t be undervalued because not everyone in our business behaves like that.

A bit of an understatement, to say the least. So you were doing mostly development for Anthony and Sydney?


Papandrea (right) with mentor Anthony 
Minghella and Naomi Watt
s.

I did a lot of development over those years, but I ultimately got the bug to be back on set. So I spent a year in New York with GreeneStreet Films, after which I got offered a job with Michael London, who had just raised a fund for Groundswell Productions. That was another boom time for learning the industry, because it was the beginning of all that equity pouring into independently-financed movies. And I also got to produce five or six movies, one after the other. So it was a very productive time.

So this was more of an on-set production position as opposed to development?

It was a little bit of both, the very beginning of those kind of hybrid production/finance companies. But Michael was the final decision maker. It was his company, so he had every right to be that person. But I wanted to be in control of exactly what I was making. And the only way to do that was to start my own company. So after five really great years, I just decided to back myself. I’ve been poor my whole life. The good thing about being poor your whole life is you’re not scared to be poor. I make jokes, but it’s kind of true. I’m pretty scrappy. I don’t long for really expensive things.

But it was time to back myself and to do more of what I’d been doing with Anthony and Sydney, adapting novels from the outset. So I started my own company and optioned a couple of novels. A friend of mine named Laurie Webb had a little business working with unpublished novelists and screenwriters and very successfully took a couple of novelists through publication. She kind of went through that process with them. She had edited this one novel, Warm Bodies, and she called me and said, "Look, I know you’re not someone I think of for zombie stories. But it’s so special. This guy is really a talent.” So I read this novel on a plane and, oh my God, it was magnificent. It was this incredibly beautiful, character-driven genre story, which, I mean …

You don’t come across a lot.

… You don’t come across a lot! His voice, it was just … People always ask me what you look for as a producer and I think it’s so hard to quantify until you read it or feel it or see it. But when you read good writing and see a unique perspective on the world, it’s so invigorating. I literally got on a plane the next day to meet Isaac, this brilliant young novelist. And I said, "I’m going to give you some money out of my own pocket. I don’t have very much. But we’ll work together. Eventually, we’ll sell it. You’ll do a deal that you’re happy with, and I’ll do a deal I’m happy with.” We just joined hands and took the leap. I really believe in the power of sweat equity. It’s what producers do. We work and put the pieces together until a project becomes something that someone wants to make.

Honestly, I thought it would take a really long time with Warm Bodies, but it didn’t actually happen like that. Erik Feig and Gillian Bohrer at Summit just fell completely in love with the book. They saw exactly what I saw. We got an amazing filmmaker interested straightaway. A year and a half later we were making the movie. It was a phenomenal experience from start to finish.

And that experience put you on the path toward Pacific Standard?

It was during the making of that movie that I met Reese. We’d met socially a few times through friends but really didn’t know much about each other. Evelyn O’Neill at Management 360 and Maha Dahkil, an agent at CAA, thought we might like each other. I felt I’d be definitely interested in a partnership at some point, but our tastes would have to be aligned. So we started the conversation, and it happened very organically. We started sending each other material and the first thing she sent me was Wild, before it was published. And I fell completely in love with it. This was exactly the kind of movie I wanted to make.

So we decided to team up. It just became clear that we were incredibly like-minded and developed a goal from the outset that we wanted to make things with women at the center. I have a lot of friends who are actresses and we’d all been constantly disappointed by the quality and quantity of roles that were available to women.

Reese naturally felt the same way, and so that goal became clear early on. So Pacific Standard was born and grew very organically. It’s a true partnership.

How did you guys tee up Wild as the company’s debut?

Wild was obviously going to be the first movie through this brand. It held a lot of emotional importance to me and what it represented in the world. It was a great movie to launch a company with. We were going to make movies with women at the center. We wanted them to be well reviewed, but we also did want them to make money. And of course, movies with women at the center historically have always made money. But it’s like the industry needs constant reminders of that. So we try to keep giving them constant reminders.

The other thing that drives us crazy is this perception that anything with a woman at the center is a "chick flick”. And it’s just not true, obviously. Why can’t a movie with a woman in the center appeal to all sexes? Because of course they do. Cheryl Strayed got as many fan letters from men as she did from women, because Wild was just a human story that everyone could relate to.

One of the real challenges of Wild is the degree to which it’s all in the voice. It’s not just that Cheryl’s memoir and story are magnificent; her writing is magnificent and it’s why the book is so successful. One of the things that excited me, the same as with Warm Bodies, was that the story didn’t conform to traditional film structure. I’m not a big believer in that. I believe that if a story feels like something you haven’t felt or read or seen, then that’s exciting.

With Wild I think Reese and I considered ourselves the gatekeepers of Cheryl’s story. Now sometimes the author is the screenwriter. I don’t believe it’s always the right path. It can be a risk if a novelist has never written a screenplay. But my feeling is—I feel this with actors as well— they are the best judge of what they can achieve. I think most people have good instincts about themselves. Nick Hornby, for instance, is a wonderful novelist and a wonderful screenwriter, but he doesn’t adapt his own books.

In the case of Wild, we got an incoming call from Jenny Cassarotto, a wonderful agent in the UK, saying that Nick Hornby had read the book and loved it and would like to be considered. That was such a gift to get that news. He came to LA, we sat with him and he just knew. He understood how he had to be involved structurally but also really retain the aggressive beauty of Cheryl’s voice.

That’s a good way of putting it.

Yeah, aggressive beauty. Not shortchange it and not soften it. He told us, "I’m going to give you a draft in eight weeks.” I said, "Yeah, sure you are.” And eight weeks to the day, he gave us that screenplay. And it was magnificent, I have to say. It was one of the most exciting first drafts I’d ever got.

Soon after, we got into business with River Road, Bill Pohlad’s company, because it was important to us to try and develop the script a little bit more outside the system. Then with that script, without a director, but with Reese attached to star, we took that to studios and kind of auditioned them to see who we wanted to be our partner. We really were in a position to choose the right one, which turned out to be Searchlight. We continued to work on the script with them, but it was a very fast-moving train at that point, because the weather was going to dictate when the movie got made. Searchlight was amazing. They stayed true to their promises. They’re very filmmaker friendly. Together we went out and attached Jean-Marc Vallée to direct it.

How did you settle on him?

We had the script out to quite a few people. Jean-Marc had been one of the first people we thought of. I had been such a fan of his earlier movie, Crazy, and Reese had just seen some scenes from Dallas Buyers Club, which hadn’t come out yet. But he was attached to something else, so we couldn’t really get the script to him for a while. It wasn’t until late in the day that we finally got him to read the script, and he just fell in love with the story, Cheryl’s story and Nick’s script. So we flew to Montreal and we convinced him to consider putting the other thing on hold because we were ready and we wanted to go straightaway. And then the kind of train took off, and it was great. Even though we were making it with a studio partner, it still felt like making an independent movie. It had that spirit. Jean-Marc and Nick spoke through the process as we made the film; Cheryl stayed a part of the whole process as well.

Is that typical? I mean, I know some producers would rather not have screenwriters that closely involved, let alone authors of source material.

No. We are very collaborative with our novelists. I mean, it’s their book. That said, every situation is different. Some novelists don’t necessarily want to be involved. They’re busy writing their next novel. Also, it being a memoir, Cheryl is very close to the story. We literally wanted to replicate everything as she had experienced it: the color of the tent, the shape of the tent, what was in the backpack, what the hospital really looked like when her mother was ill. So she was very involved every step of the way, including how the movie was put into the world.

And of course, how your movie goes into the world is everything. I’ve seen movies I’ve made destroyed by the way they’ve gone into the world. Often that can be a matter of where a distribution company’s business is at a given time, what their priorities are. Some movies have the wrong home or the wrong timing. It’s often got nothing to do with the quality of the work. So we’re always very conscious of choosing our partners well. Everything has its own home. 

Bruna Papandrea reviews footage alongside Sydney Pollack.

 

So tell me more about your approach to book adaptation. How do you seek out and secure material? There’s a lot of competition for good stories.

In terms of finding material, I think a lot of that depends on where you are in your career. I found Warm Bodies because a friend of mine was editing the book. A lot of material comes through literary agents who we’ve established relationships with and who have come to trust us with that material and trust that you’ll get it made.

I think one thing to keep in mind even if you’re competing with other so-called big producers, there’s a lot to be said for passion and "sweat equity,” which is a phrase I use all the time—meaning, I got on a lot of planes. I used those airline miles! I got on a plane to meet Isaac Marion face-to-face. I think there’s a lot to be said for meeting in person with a novelist and showing them how deeply passionate you are with respect to their work. Even if you have no money you can make a gesture of some kind to option the book … "Look, I don’t have any money now but in 12 months, if I still have the option but I haven’t done anything, I’ll give you x amount of money.” There are lots of ways to structure deals so that people feel like you’re moving forward and that you’re going to put your time and energy into it.

We haven’t even talked about Hot Pursuit yet. And it’s hard to imagine a film that’s less like Wild.

I give Reese a lot of credit for that. We both talked a lot about Latinas not being represented on screen, particularly given how much of the movie-going audience they represent. And we were both big fans of Sofia’s. So very early on in the company Reese determined, "Well, let’s develop a movie for me and Sofia.” At the same time Dana Fox, who’s a wonderful screenwriter and producer, had an idea that she was developing for this kind of Odd Couple-type story. She and Reese were friends, and we decided to team up. And then suddenly this script was born. We sold it. But we had developed it on spec. It really came from simply identifying something that we wanted to do, which was pair these two women.

The film wasn’t a huge financial success, but it certainly wasn’t a bust either. They weren’t very kind to us in the press, which is fine. It’s a comedy. People are going to have different opinions. But it’s actually a movie I’m very proud of. l had a great experience working with a female director, Anne Fletcher, for the first time. That was an amazing experience for me, just to have those conversations and work in that way. I definitely plan to work with women directors a lot more. Simply putting women behind a camera makes a huge impact—though there’s definitely a different standard when there’s a female at the helm. You see it in the way that they’re treated. If a woman raises her voice, she’s a problem, and if a man raises his voice, then he’s a leader, a genius.

The past year, this industry and the media surrounding it have given a lot more attention than I can ever remember being paid to gender and ethnic equality and representation. You guys are clearly near the center of that. I mean, you’ve made it part of your company’s mission.

For me as a producer, I was honestly just sick of not seeing interesting female characters at the center of our movies. I mean, setting aside the behind-the-camera issue, because that’s a whole other problem. As a culture, we need to give young people an example of a wider range of women, even if they’re complex or sometimes do selfish or destructive things. We simply need a better representation of women in the world. If we’re not reflecting that in our art and in our culture, then where are we doing it? I feel like the sea change actually started in literature. I feel like writers, collectively, have done a better job of putting women at the center of novels. And those books have become wildly successful. Because, guess what? Women buy the most books. And, guess what? Women watch the most movies. And, guess what? Women buy the most consumer products. So we need a better gauge of what our marketplace looks like.

The flipside—and this is my other big thing—is that women’s stories are not just for women. It’s insulting, quite frankly. I’m supposed to be interested in anything with a man at the center, but it’s like a special event if a man is interested in a movie with a woman in the center? That’s crazy. My job is to provide content that is interesting for everyone to see. Marketing plays into it too. We have to stop marketing movies with women at the center just as "chick flicks.”

Is that a function of marketing departments being a little further behind the cultural curve than the creatives are?

Both groups play an important role. It’s my job as a producer to try and align myself with a distributor that I feel is going to put it out into the world in the right way. It took me a long time to learn that lesson. Michael London really taught me that, actually. Your movie is not done when you call "cut” and you wrap, or even when you finish post. You have to pay attention to what your poster looks like and what your trailers look like. You’ve spent more time with this film than anyone. What is it supposed to feel like? Who is it being marketed to? What’s the plan for the campaign? You cannot just drop the ball. The job of a producer spans from first identifying a story you want to tell right up until the release.

Do you feel that you have more access to those marketing and distribution conversations than you might’ve had earlier in your career?

I always try to take an active role definitely. But my experience is that my partners have been very open to that. I mean today, you’re marketing from the second you’re on set and someone is tweeting out a picture of you at first look. It no longer just happens at the end of the movie or TV show. For our series with HBO, we had a meeting with the marketing people before we started filming to talk about what we were going to do and the way it can be presented in the world. There’s lots of reasons to work with a company like HBO. But the way that they market and put their series into the world is magnificent. And that played a big part in our decision to align ourselves with them as partners.

 

So just getting back to the long view with gender representation … When will we know that we’ve succeeded? Or at least that we’re on the right track?

I like to aim for the stars. Even just by aiming big, stuff will shift. It is a little astounding to me that we haven’t come nearly as far as we should have in terms of equal pay and women’s rights. I mean, just in the world—forget about our business. But look, for my part I’m just going to keep trying to put as much as I can into the world that I believe will hopefully help shift some of it. My worry is over the way that these conversations can become very fashionable. Gender, equality, and diversity are very fashionable right now. But I pray that it’s just not a passing thing because it’s something that we can’t stop talking about, ever.

I mean, I’m on the Producers Guild Board and when I look at the makeup of that group, I’m very conscious of diversity. Do we have enough socioeconomic diversity? Do we have diversity from different parts of our business? And I feel that now with every movie I make, with every board I sit on, I vote that way a little bit more consciously. I think that’s good. I mean, we all need to be more conscious of it. It’s the only way things change.

 - photographed by Kremer Johnson Photography

- this article originally appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of Produced By magazine

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