Producer Bruna Papandrea tackles Hollywood sexism with Big Little Lies
“I want to keep putting women at the centre of stories, and giving our daughters examples of what women can be,” says Bruna Papandrea, the Australian-born, Hollywood-based producer of Gone Girl, Wild, Pom-zom-rom-com Warm Bodies and the hotly anticipated HBO series Big Little Lies.
“Maybe I’ll make a movie about a female president for instance, just to let the world know that is still possible.”
Papandrea is dressed all in black when we meet at the Screen Forever conference at Crown in Melbourne. “I’m in mourning, for the US election result,” she says. “I mean it. I’m really upset.”
It was the lack of decent roles for women that spurred Papandrea and Hollywood star Reese Witherspoon to launch Pacific Standard, a production company with the specific aim of finding and telling stories by and about women, in 2012. They made Gone Girl and Wild (buying the rights to both before the books had been released) and the cop comedy Hot Pursuit before parting ways in August.
Witherspoon continues with Pacific Standard, while Papandrea is again a solo operator, not yet settled on a name for her operation. “I think I’m calling it Make A Movie,” she says. “For now.”
She is coy about why they split. “Let’s just say we are two strong women who both speak their minds. But we have a lot of projects in the pipeline, so we will be doing business together for a long time yet.”
At any rate, the mission to create female-led content remains. “We are starving for it,” she says. “Television has done a better job than film, but we’ve not done a good job at representing women.”
You could make a case for Papandrea as the star of her own motivational saga: the daughter of an Italian immigrant single mother, she grew up in Elizabeth, the rough-neck hood north of Adelaide that also gave us Jimmy Barnes. Not so far away were the Snowtown murders – and, in nearby Gawler, Justin Kurzel, who made the excellent Snowtown, and his brother Jed, who scores Justin’s films and plays with rock band The Mess Hall.
Making it out was no small feat; making it as far as Hollywood, via Sydney (where she produced Better Than Sex) and London (where she worked with Anthony Minghella for five years), was something else.
“I was always strong-willed, defiant,” says Papandrea. It’s the sort of trait you imagine is an essential item in a producer’s kitbag, though might also cause a few sparks along the way.
She is an avid reader, getting through about a book a week – “it used to be more, but having twins really slows you down” – many of them at pre-release stage.
She was given a manuscript of Big Little Lies, by Australian author Liane Moriarty, while shooting Hot Pursuit with Witherspoon in New Orleans. She was ashamed to admit she hadn’t heard of it, or the author. “So I told Reese, and of course she’d already read [Moriarty’s] The Husband’s Secret, because she’s read everything. And I read it overnight and fell in love with it,”
The first thing she did was call Nicole Kidman, who similarly devoured and loved it straight away. Then Witherspoon said she was in too, which might have been tricky in a story with only one great female lead – but this one had five. “I didn’t have to play favourites, thank God, because they wanted different roles.”
With those names attached, the buzz grew quickly. Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelley signed on to write the scripts, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz and Alexander Skarsgard joined the cast, and director Jean-Marc Vallee – who had made Wild with Papandrea and Witherspoon – agreed to direct all seven episodes of the series, its action now relocated from Sydney to Monterey in northern California.
“It was really like making one long movie,” says Papandrea of the six-month shoot. “For Reese it was so great having another actress like Nicole to talk to about the scripts and the characters. They’re both such brilliant girls, and to be able to have that really intellectual conversation was really fun for all of us.”
And as for that brief they set with Pacific Standard, Big Little Lies looks likely to over deliver.
“We haven’t just managed to find one interesting woman at the centre of a story, but five,” Papandrea says. “It’s like nirvana.”
Karl Quinn hosted an In Conversation session with Bruna Papandrea at the Screen Producers Australia conference Screen Forever. Big Little Lies will premiere on Showcase in February 2017
(The Sydney Morning Herald)