Producer Bruna Papandrea On The Power Of Female-Focused Projects Despite “An Amazing Double Standard In The Business”

The global pandemic may have brought the world to a standstill, but it didn’t stop hitmaker Bruna Papandrea from plowing ahead with her bustling production slate. The Australian-born producer was set to begin shooting Toni Colette starrer Pieces of Her in Vancouver, Nine Perfect Strangers with Nicole Kidman in L.A. and Anatomy of a Scandal in London, when COVID-19 descended upon the world last year.

Undeterred, tenacious and a decisive problem-solver, Papandrea was able to pivot the productions of Pieces of Her and Nine Perfect Strangers, convincing cast and crew of both projects to relocate to Australia’s relatively Covid-free east coast (Anatomy of a Scandal later finished in London) for the many months much of the world was in lockdown. For Papandrea, whose company Made Up Stories has offices in L.A.—where she lives with her producer husband and eight-year-old twins—and Sydney, this quick swivel to her homeland is a perfect example of how her ability to get things done has earned her a spot as one of the most dynamic producers in the television and film business.

Papandrea is perhaps best known for championing female-led stories, and she has a remarkable instinct for optioning novels that are going to click with international audiences on screen, such as Gillian Flynn’s best-selling thriller Gone Girl and Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. When working with Reese Witherspoon at their company Pacific Standard, they earmarked Big Little Lies from Aussie writer Lianne Moriarty. Running from 2017 to 2019, the show went on to become a huge hit for HBO, with a stellar cast including Witherspoon, Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz, spawning two series and winning eight Emmys.

Since setting up Made Up Stories in 2017, Papandrea has continued to put women at the center of projects, proving to the industry bigwigs that her hits aren’t just anomalies: women are bankable and audiences will come again and again to watch them. Her company produced last year’s captivating thriller The Undoing. The Kidman and Hugh Grant starrer became one of the most watched TV series of 2020 and the first show in HBO’s history to grow weekly over the course of six episodes. She also produced Eric Bana vehicle The Dry, as well as Penguin Bloom with Naomi Watts—both of which proved to be big hits at the Australian box office—and she has more than a half-dozen projects in production at any given time.

I sat down to talk with Papandrea via Zoom while she was quarantining in a Toronto hotel, having flown there from Australia to work on another high-profile project—Netflix thriller Luckiest Girl Alive, starring Mila Kunis.

DEADLINE: You’re across so many successful projects in both film and TV right now, but this is no overnight success story. How did you start in the business?

BRUNA PAPANDREA: I’ve always had jobs since I was around 13 years old and I exposed myself to a lot of things, from acting to writing to law. My real entry into film was that I had a playwright friend who recommended me as an assistant at a commercials company run by cinematographer Dion Beebe and his wife. I ended up going there producing commercials. I was very young, around 24 at the time, and it was what got me into the film business, because with that money I funded my own short film and then started making low-budget films.

DEADLINE: What would you say has been a real turning point in your career?

PAPANDREA: My big break absolutely was right after I made my first movie, Better Than Sex, in Australia for $900,000, and I met Anthony Minghella at the Toronto Film Festival. That was really my big, life-changing career break, because then I went to work with him and Sydney Pollack [in London], which was the best break anyone could hope for—they were such good men, such good humans. I didn’t finish college, and I like to think of that as my film school, working for those two men. It was there that I really honed my love of adaptation, because— obviously Anthony was such a great adapter of books. Everything really took off for me after those five years.

DEADLINE: You’ve got such a good eye for adapting content. There’s Big Little Lies, Gone Girl and Nine Perfect Strangers, to name only a few. What are you really looking for when you’re scouting material?

PAPANDREA: I always tell the women who work with me, “Listen to your instinct and respond the way you always respond to something.” For me, it’s always character-driven, kind of genre-agnostic, but it has to feel unique. When we can compare something to something else, it’s not as interesting to us. The worst question you get asked is, “What’s it like?” For me, the biggest success is when you can make something that feels distinctive in terms of the world, the characters, and the filmmaking. I don’t use a book scout like most people. The writing either holds me or it doesn’t. Wild was such a great example of this, because Cheryl Strayed is such an extraordinary writer. She just captivates you with her words. Lots of people could have written that story, but it wouldn’t have been the story she told. For me, it’s all about that. I definitely have a strong instinct as to what to pay attention to. Recently, we lost a book that I didn’t read myself, and I was kicking myself because I was very busy and something in me said, “You should have read it.” And I didn’t listen to that instinct. But you win some and you lose some.

DEADLINE: I hear you’re quite a ferocious and fast reader.

PAPANDREA: More so before I had two children. But yes, I am. I certainly don’t read as much as I did in my twenties. But, again, if I love something, I can’t stop. I don’t tend to read as much for pleasure anymore, but I do find that I get a lot of pleasure from reading the stuff we get sent.

DEADLINE: What about genre? You seem to have recently gravitated to a lot of thrillers. What do you think is it about these types of stories that draws you to them?

PAPANDREA: I gravitate more towards things that I want to watch as I get older. I love a mystery. I grew up on Fatal Attraction, Malice,The Parallax View, lots of thrillers. I love that genre. Someone said to me recently, “You’re such a crime buff,” but I don’t really listen to crime podcasts or anything like that. I have a bit of an aversion to very violent things. I try not to do things where children are in too much jeopardy. There are certain things that I don’t want to explore myself. But there are areas that I’ve targeted. I love grounded sci-fi. I loved Arrival, for instance, I thought it was just extraordinary, and I wished I had made that movie. So, we’ve been searching and searching, and finally we found this book To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini, which we’re developing. It ticked all the boxes: young female lead, big sci-fi world, but also incredibly moving.

DEADLINE: Has making stories with strong female leads always been intentional or is it just what you’re drawn to?

PAPANDREA: When I started Pacific Standard with Reese, we were very determined to put women in front of the camera. Then when I started Made Up Stories, I really thought about extending that mission. It doesn’t have to be a female lead, but I just want the females to have great roles. It can be a female author or someone behind the camera. We’ve definitely focused on female novelists, writers and filmmakers being able to tell any story they want. But as much as there’s been a groundswell for female stories, it’s still hard. I don’t care what anyone says, it’s still harder to sell a period piece with a woman at the center than it is with a man at the center. Apparently, men can still do anything they want! I’m very lucky and I’m very optimistic, but I have sensed myself in the last year getting more and more agitated when I see another World War II movie with a man at the center, or something like that.

There is still this perception from studios and networks that female-driven projects are an anomaly. If you look at The Queen’s Gambit, it’s an anomaly. If you take Wonder Woman, it’s an anomaly. Every time it happens it’s still as hard to get the next thing up and going as it was before— and I’m not sure when that will change. But the good thing about us is that we don’t give up. For instance, I’m here in Toronto, and part of the reason that I’m here is because there’s a movie that I’ve been developing for seven years—probably the longest thing I’ve ever had—called Luckiest Girl Alive that is shooting out here. Then I have another show going in Atlanta that’s taken six years to get off the ground—Long Slow Exhale— which is an incredible show from showrunner Pam Veasey. Now, these two things did not have the train that Big Little Lies or The Undoing had—a lot of things do happen really fast for us—but they’ve really restored my belief that the landscape can shift. Sometimes you need another piece, or an actor comes in—in this case it’s Mila Kunis, who has been an amazing producing partner, and a real force of nature to help get Luckiest Girl Alive into production. So, I feel quite emboldened right now because I have these two things that I’ve lived with for so long and it’s hard because you feel such a responsibility to the novels. There have been things I’ve given up on, but there are some things I won’t give up.

DEADLINE: What’s the landscape looking like out there for female-driven content?

PAPANDREA: There’s still an amazing double standard in the business when it comes to women. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “Well, we have one of those in development anyway.” I always say, “So?” But it’s a good reminder, because that’s my job to find a way to produce it. We all need reminders, but it’s quite disheartening at times.

DEADLINE: Do you think the needle is moving?

PAPANDREA: Yeah, I think it is moving. It’s moving a lot more in television than it is in film. Television has always been slightly more groundbreaking. Even going back to David E. Kelley’s show Ally McBeal. I think you can make and discover people in TV, you can reflect more of the world we live in on TV. But even in TV it’s getting harder, because there is this slight corporatization going on, obviously, with all these brands aligning. We’ve stayed agnostic in terms of being able to work with everyone, because you need to. We have a big and diverse appetite, and we want to be able to work with lots of different people.

DEADLINE: You’ve spoken a bit about recent challenges in the business, but what about earlier on in your career? Did you have any moments where you felt things weren’t happening because you’re a woman?

PAPANDREA: I get asked that question a lot. No, because I think it’s the Australian in me. We have a woman who’s our producing partner in Australia called Jodi Matterson, who is unbelievable—she’s just good at everything. When you come up through the Australian system, you have to understand how to finance and how to find material, and you have to understand how to make it, because there’s no system of development, there’s no big U.S. hierarchy. But I’m very scrappy. I still book my own travel, set up email accounts for the company, that kind of thing. I’m not afraid to not succeed, because I come from a very working class, very poor family. I’ve always worked. I’m not afraid to take risks, because if it all went away, I’d be fine. I don’t tend to let financial decisions dictate my choices, and I think that liberates you, in a way. I’ve never let anyone else make my decisions for me.

But one thing I did find early on in my career is there was still this idea of jobs for the boys. No one was gifting me a movie, but when I was on movies that men got put on, they somehow felt I wasn’t experienced enough, or it was a favor. You still feel a lot of that kind of ‘club at work’ situation, particularly in the film business. The business I really want to be in is making really big movies. I’d make a Marvel movie in three seconds. That would excite me as something I haven’t done.

DEADLINE: You’re employing women, you’re working with women, you’re empowering female stories and creating jobs for all these women in the industry and you’re also an ambassador for ReFrame. Why is it important to you to be involved in something like this?

PAPANDREA: ReFrame is a think tank that was started by Women in Film and Sundance Institute, where a bunch of us identified core problems with women in the industry, such as female directors who couldn’t get their second feature off the ground. It’s those female filmmakers who made one great movie, and then were lost because they didn’t get the studio movies. A group of us women are also mentoring one of the schemes. It’s a great organization that developed the ReFrame stamp, which demonstrates gender-balanced hiring, and people feel this sense of pride if they can get that stamp. Where I’m very passionate is trying to find women roles not just in directing, but other roles, like a female transport captain, or a female gaffer. It’s not just about the directors.

DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the impact Covid has had on your business in the last 18 months. You guys were about to shoot several projects in North America and the UK and then had to relocate to Australia.

PAPANDREA: We were actually three days from shooting Pieces of Her in Vancouver. We were eight weeks from Anatomy of a Scandal in London, and about three from Nine Perfect Strangers—three different shows on the precipice. And pretty early on, in March or April [of last year], we all saw this wasn’t going to be great. I was talking to Nicole [Kidman] one day and was like, “What are we going to do?” Then, because we both have such deep roots in Australia, it felt like the perfect show to keep people safe, because it was essentially shot on one location. We sent a location scout out to Australia to see what was there. Then it became about convincing this entire cast to go to Australia for six months, because, once you’re there, you can’t just run off and do other things.

People were either bringing their families with them, or leaving people behind. We had no resistance at all, because people just saw this as a great blessing, to be able to work again. But it was very stressful all the same. We were very determined not to lay anyone off in our own company or reduce wages, so we were focusing on how to keep the company afloat. Thank god for our business—people that obviously kept watching content during lockdown, so there was a necessity for this pipeline. Once we were firmly established there, we started the conversation about shooting Pieces of Her in Australia, which Netflix helped us pivot to do. With Anatomy, we finished that show in London, although it broke my heart not to be on set and work with my lifelong producer friend Liza [Chasin]. I’m just happy that things kept moving really fast.

DEADLINE: You’ve worked with Nicole Kidman on Big Little Lies, The Undoing and Nine Perfect Strangers. Why do you two work so well together?

PAPANDREA: You know how if you have one really good experience then you want to do it again? Well, that’s the first part. We had known each other for 20 years. We tried to work together, and came close a couple of times. I almost got involved in Rabbit Hole years ago. Then Big Little Lies came along, and when I found out the book was Australian, I thought, “Oh my God, this is it.” And then she read it, and loved it, and we had two seasons of that show. Then David [E. Kelley] wrote The Undoing for her, and they invited me onto it because we’re a bit of a team. When Nine Perfect Strangers came along, we decided to align with Lianne [Moriarty] again. There’s an ease to it all. But, yes, I think we’ve pretty much worked consistently for five years together at this point. We’re producing Roar for Apple TV+ together, and we have other things, so let’s see what happens.

I have the same thing with Naomi Watts, who has been my friend for even longer. We looked for a long time for something to work together on. We came close so many times, and then, finally, we made Penguin Bloom last year together. But I want to do more with her. It’s becomes that repeat business. You know, we feel like we haven’t been successful people if people don’t want to work with us again.

DEADLINE: Penguin Bloom was a huge success in Australia earlier this year. As well as The Dry, which you produced, starring Eric Bana. They both topped the box office there.

PAPANDREA: And The Dry is the most male movie I’ve ever made! I did laugh. But that goes to Jane Harper [author of The Dry], whose stories are mostly very male-driven. She writes incredibly, and that’s the big factor for us when we meet voices like that. The whole thing was an incredible experience.

It’s been incredible to watch people embrace The Dry outside of Australia as well. The media and the critics have embraced it. That movie is particularly special to me, because Robert Connolly, who wrote and directed it, gave me a big break when I was starting out. He was an amazing producer in Australia—he made one of my favorite movies, The Boys—and he got offered Better Than Sex to produce, but he was too busy. So, he told me to go and make it, and that movie was my career-starter. It’s nice to come full circle, 20 years later.

DEADLINE: Is it important for you to keep making these Australian stories?

PAPANDREA: Yes, for sure. Jennifer Kent’s movie, The Nightingale, was one of those. Even though it was very tough, she is obviously an extraordinary filmmaker, and that story is hugely important to Australian history.

I definitely want to make them, but in a way that will capture international audiences. We’re doing one of Amazon’s first global originals for TV—The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart. This book, written by Holly Ringland, is one of the most beautiful pieces of literature I’ve ever seen come out of Australia. Sigourney Weaver is going to star in it and it’s just going to be amazing.

DEADLINE: You’re working with all the major streamers— Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV+, Hulu, Peacock. Would you ever consider signing an overall deal with one of them? Many of your contemporaries have done this.

PAPANDREA: Never say never. I take every year at a time, but the way that I’ve always wanted to set up our business is with as much autonomy as possible.

And, for us, the relationship with Endeavour Content has been really good, because they believe in us. Together, we have financial skin in the game, and we match them cent for cent. When it’s your responsibility and you think hard about decisions, you’re able to pursue your passion. So, that partnership has been good. Yes, we’ve been approached over the years, but it hasn’t felt right, because right now we’re working with all of these amazing companies. What I don’t want to ever happen is that the pressure to have a volume of content that trumps the quality.

DEADLINE: Who inspires you in this business?

PAPANDREA: I saw the documentary on Jane Fonda recently and she’s had, like, five lives. She was an activist before anyone was an activist. She was producing, she was acting, she did loads. I am really inspired by women who use their voice for change.

Julianne Moore is one of those women, she stood so firmly against gun violence. Laura Dern has been an activist her whole life. I love the women who have been self-starters, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, because, where I come from, I didn’t have the easy path, and it’s hard to find those access points to the industry.

The women that rise to run those corporations, NBCUniversal’s Susan Rovner or Amazon’s Jennifer Salke, they inspire me because it’s hard to get to those positions, because it has traditionally been a very male-driven business. Sherry Lansing has always been what I see as one of the first women to do it. Kathleen Kennedy, of course, is an inspiration. My dearly lost friend Alli Shearmur was probably one of my greatest inspirations. She showed me that you can be a great human being, have a family, do all of those things and run a studio. To this day, I often think of what she would say to me.

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