From public housing in Adelaide to million-dollar blockbusters in Hollywood, producer Bruna Papandrea’s own life is the stuff of movies. But Papandrea, now in her mid-40s and one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, has the spotlight firmly focused on creating positive change.
Early in her career, Papandrea discovered a passion for making films with women at the centre. With the launch of her production company, Made Up Stories, in late 2016, she’s come full circle.
Through her company, Papandrea is establishing the Made Up Solutions foundation, which will give young women from low socio-economic and diverse backgrounds around the world access to business opportunities and support – and not just in film.
Film, however, is one industry where the gender imbalance is particularly pronounced.
“Culturally, there’s still so much that needs to shift,” says Papandrea, who points out the number of female directors actually dropped in 2016. A report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found women comprised just seven per cent of all directors working on the 250 highest-grossing domestic releases in 2016, a drop of two percentage points from 2015 (and 1998).
“We’ve all got to do a better job, including producers like me, at putting more women behind the camera,” she says.
Papandrea has also come full circle in the sense that she’s back working and living (part-time) in Australia. Based near Venice Beach in Los Angeles, with her husband, American producer Steve Hutensky, and their four-year-old twins, Avalon and Roman, Papandrea is currently a happy commuter between the two countries.
“Since I left Australia 16 years ago I’ve been desperate to find reasons to work here,” she says. “I think there’s an enormous amount of talent in Australia. It’s one of the greatest places in the world to make anything.”
Conversely, Papandrea believes being an Aussie has given her an advantage in Hollywood.
“People love Australians … there’s a fearlessness to Australians and I think that helps. We’re incredibly hard workers and I don’t think we take things for granted.”
The art of storytelling
Papandrea’s latest work, the limited series Big Little Lies, also has strong ties to home. Co-produced by Pacific Standard – the production company Papandrea previously ran with Reese Witherspoon – and starring Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern, the seven-part series is based on Australian author Liane Moriarty’s book of the same name.
The dark comedy–drama centres on three mothers who seemingly have it all, but this facade soon unravels. It premiered on 19 February 2017 and attracted more than twice as many viewers as the Game of Thrones debut.
“Not only is the book magnificent and has a great mystery, but there’s these five women at the centre,” says Papandrea. “For us as a company, it was literally like striking gold.”
Growing up with a single mother on welfare, Papandrea was exposed to a strong female influence early on. She also had a great love of storytelling and became enchanted by theatre and the silver screen. In their neighbour’s makeshift backyard cinema, Papandrea and her siblings watched ET and Star Wars – the first films she recalls.
Over time she found her calling as a producer, a role that sees her hunting out stories and bringing talented people together to tell them. “That’s where I thrive,” she says.
The big break
The first defining moment in Papandrea’s career came in 2000 when she co-produced the critically acclaimed Australian film Better Than Sex. On the festival circuit she met the late director Anthony Minghella, who soon after hired her to run the London office of his production company Mirage Enterprises, which he opened with director–producer Sydney Pollack. This was Papandrea’s big break.
Five years later she moved to Groundswell Productions in LA, where she produced seven films, including Milk (2008), Smart People (2008) and All Good Things (2010), and had her first real taste of big success. Another five years on and she founded her own company, Make Movies.
“After you’ve worked for people like Anthony [Minghella] and Sydney [Pollack], it’s very hard to ever work for anyone again,” she says. “I want to stand by my own creative decisions.”
Papandrea’s tenacity and self-belief have stood her in good stead in a difficult industry.
“I always come at it from a place of positivity. I’m not one of those people who’s always complaining about the heights I can’t reach. I just do it.”
Her advice for aspiring filmmakers is much the same. “If you want to write, you can write, it doesn’t cost you anything … You can make a film on an iPhone now so if you want to direct a movie, then make a movie. It’s not always the most experienced person that gets a job. It’s often the most passionate and talented.”
Bruna Papandrea on the set of Big Little Lies with Australian actress Nicole Kidman.
Putting women at the centre
Papandrea’s first movie through her new production company was Warm Bodies (2013), a successful zombie romantic comedy based on an unpublished book. It was while she was making Warm Bodies that she met Reese Witherspoon at a dinner party, and the pair discovered they shared a passion for creating films with interesting women at the centre.
They co-founded Pacific Standard in 2012 and came out swinging with blockbusters Wild and Gone Girl. In 2016, after a string of successes, Papandrea and Witherspoon split. Their decision was big news but the pair still have an impressive 29 projects in the pipeline.
“Even though we don’t have a formal partnership anymore, we are still partnering on lots of things, very joyfully, and will make many other things together,” says Papandrea.
That brings Papandrea to now, and to the most exciting thing she says she has ever done.
“I feel like [Made Up Stories] is an accumulation of everything I’ve wanted to do,” she says. “It has major aspirations. I’m hoping there’s no end to the kind of output we can create – TV, film, digital – and again all with the defining idea that women will either be at the centre of it or they’ll be creators of it.”
The company has offices in Sydney and LA, “with the idea that we’ll make Australian movies here but we’ll also hopefully bring a lot of international productions to Australia too,” says Papandrea.
Her first project, The Nightingale, directed by Jennifer Kent, is now shooting in Tasmania.
“In a way there just couldn’t be a better movie to launch the company with,” says Papandrea excitedly. “It’s an independent movie, it’s got a woman director … it’s got women producers, a woman wrote it, it’s got a woman at the centre. It deals with abuse against women. It’s set in 1826 [and] shows a part of Australian history that I don’t think we’ve ever seen.
“It gets to do the two things that I really strive to do, which is tell stories in Australia but on a global canvas.”