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
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.
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 Watts.
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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