Australian producer Bruna Papandrea of Gone Girl, Wild and Warm Bodies reflects on her career trajectory, emphasising the importance of mentorships for others climbing the screen industry ladder. By Caris Bizzaca.
Long before Gone Girl and co-founding a production company with Reese Witherspoon, Australian producer Bruna Papandrea was at school in Adelaide when her class were visited by a documentary crew.
Papandrea says the documentarians were making a series of movies, one of which was about the impoverished area she lived in and the music program there.
Within that crew (which also included the then-emerging director Ray Argall and cinematographer Mandy Walker) was producer Cristina Pozzan, who would go on to become one of Papandrea’s lifelong mentors.
“I was 12 years old,” Papandrea said.
“I stayed in contact with her and she became a mentor to me.”
Papandrea, who Deadline recently revealed will be ending her partnership with Pacific Standard, spoke about her career at a Gender Matters industry networking event in Sydney. It was one of a number of being held by Screen Australia across the country in partnership with the state screen agencies.
“I think (Gender Matters) is great. Any initiative that brings awareness to this really big issue and (tries) to institute change to move the needle, I think is amazing,” she told Screen Australia before taking to the stage at Giant Dwarf for a Q&A, which was hosted by Screen NSW and WIFT.
She admitted she found the statistics showing the poor representation of Australian female writers, producers and directors in feature films shocking, having grown up inspired by directors such as Jane Campion and Gillian Armstrong.
As Papandrea recalled her journey from growing up in “this very Italian family in commission housing” in Adelaide to her first big break with Better Than Sex, to working with the late Anthony Minghella, co-founding Pacific Standard with Reese Witherspoon, and championing female-driven storytelling, it’s clear her success has come via a lot of determination and hard work – from creating and grabbing opportunities.
But Papandrea is also the first to acknowledge the people that helped her get to that point.
Internationally, that includes the heavy hitters – the Minghella’s, the Sydney Pollack’s – while in Australia, the list includes the names of people who interestingly continue to influence and shape the industry.
Aside from Pozzan (now the Executive Producer/Program Manager for skills centre Open Channel), Argall (director and ADG Board Member) and Walker (cinematographer of Lantana, Love Serenade, and Australia), she recalled the pivotal role filmmaker Robert Connolly played (whose recent work you can read about here).
In the late 90s, Papandrea had returned to Australia from New York on a high, having got her first producing credit on Lifebreath (1997). Her friend Gia Carides had a role in the independent film, and Papandrea told director PJ Posner she would work for free, before doing everything from product placement to driving people around.
“And he gave me a producer credit at the end. I just stuck around and stuck in there,” she says.
Once she was back in Australia, Papandrea worked in commercials to make ends meet and got to know Robert Connolly, who had recently produced The Boys – a film she says had a “great effect” on her.
“He called me one day and said: ‘this guy has this script, Better Than Sex, he wants me to produce it but I don’t have time. I thought you might do it’,” she recalls.
“He just became a mentor for me and guided me through what it was like to make an under $1 million movie. And it was just the greatest experience from start to finish.”
Better Than Sex was also co-produced by Frank Cox, who went on to co-found Hopscotch Films with Troy Lum and Sandie Don in 2002.
When the film was selected for Toronto International Film Festival, Papandrea was funded by Screen Australia’s predecessor the Australian Film Commission to attend – it’s where she met Anthony Minghella, who would later offer the then-broke producer a job at his and fellow director Sydney Pollack’s production company Mirage Enterprises.
“That was my big career break and I worked for them for five years in London,” she says.
After that Papandrea moved to Los Angeles and was president of Michael London’s Groundswell Productions for five years before branching out on her own.
“I couldn’t forge my own path by having someone else making decisions for me,” she says.
Through her company Make Movies she optioned the book Warm Bodies, a zombie rom-com, which was just about to begin shooting with Teresa Palmer and Nicholas Hoult when Creative Artists Agency (CAA) called to set up a meeting with Witherspoon.
“I was always very open, because I think you should be open to opportunity… and I loved meeting her (but) I was about to go shoot a movie and (said) let’s just see if our tastes align,” she says.
“Because the one thing I know about any partnership is you both have to be… wanting to make the same kind of stuff and you can’t really know that until you start exchanging material.”
Papandrea was in Montreal filming Warm Bodies when Witherspoon called to say she had just read this book Wild and would she read it. The book, it turned out, had a profound effect on Papandrea, and very quickly their conversations about it led to a partnership, and to Pacific Standard.
The producer is now working to give back some of the experience she’s gained over the years. “I’m a big fan of mentorships and attachments because really I believe that’s how you start,” she said.
Papandrea herself has put up her hand up to be one of the four inaugural mentors in the Australians in Film (AiF)/Screen Australia’s Mentor LA, where four early-to-mid-level practitioners are matched to mentors working in the US.
She is also developing a number of adaptations. Although Papandrea is parting ways with Pacific Standard, she and Witherspoon will continue to produce the projects they have in development. The company just optioned their second Liane Moriarty book Truly Madly Guilty alongside Nicole Kidman’s Blossom Films (having turned Big Little Lies into a HBO series), as well as Australian Jane Harper’s The Dry.
“And then I optioned a book seven years ago that’s getting very close to being made in Melbourne, Toni Jordan’s book Addition,” she says, which has been penned by Harry Cripps and received development support from Screen Australia.
But her main mandate is clear: to tell stories with complex female characters at their heart.
“Culturally I want my daughter to see women… be dark, be light, be an astronaut, be a soldier, work on Wall Street, whatever it is,” she says.
“Because for me, that has a big knock-on effect of how young women see themselves and what the possibilities are for them, not just in the film business but all businesses.”