GIRL GONE WILD
FROM DOUBLE UNI DROPOUT TO HOT PROPERTY WITH HOLLYWOOD STARS BEATING DOWN HER DOOR, BRUNA PAPANDREA TELLS US HOW SHE GOT FROM ADELAIDE TO L.A.
Sydney Pollack was sitting in his office in a Hollywood studio lot, expecting a visit from Bruna Papandrea. She was a broke 29-year-old Australian producer who had had to borrow a $1000 off a friend to fly to Los Angeles to meet the legendary director about a job. The job would be her first proper paying gig in the world of film. Talk about life imitating art — it was a moment that almost deserved its own dramatic violin score. “I literally felt like I was in a movie,” Papandrea tells WISH of that life-changing job interview with Pollack to run the London branch of his film production company. “Firstly, he has just made movies that I love, but even driving on to the studio lot, I had never done that, my only experience of Hollywood was what you see in the movies, so it was pretty amazing. I got back to Australia and got a phone call — I will never forget that phone call for as long as I live — he said ‘we would like to offer you the job’. It was probably $100,000 a year and I had never had a job, a paying job, not a paying job like that. Four weeks later, I was living in a different country, earning a living and it was crazy. It was a big dream come true.”
Fifteen years later and Papandrea is now making movies with actress and business partner Reese Witherspoon. They have just been placed at 47 on the Hollywood Reporter 2014 Women in Entertainment Power 100 list after the release of their first two films, psychological thriller and box office smash Gone Girl and critically acclaimed Wild, which netted Witherspoon and co-star Laura Dern Oscar nominations. Papandrea also reads scripts as favours for Naomi Watts and Nicole Kidman, whom she counts as friends. So how did this girl from Adelaide, a university dropout at that, become one of the most influential Australians in the film business?
As in all good stories (and good movies), it is best to start at the beginning. Papandrea, the daughter of an Italian mother, grew up in the suburbs of Adelaide and did pretty well at school but took a while to figure out what to do next. “I am one of those people that always believed if you expose yourself to different things, it will become clear what you want to do,” she says. “I started a law degree at Melbourne University, and I lasted six months, and then I went to Adelaide University, where I started studying languages and lasted six months. I always liked to write and I always liked the theatre so I volunteered in the theatre in Adelaide and worked on a couple of Adelaide Festivals. That was my entrée to the entertainment business.”
By age 21, she was on to her third city, having relocated to Sydney to work as an agent for photographers and make-up artists (she had already moved on from aspirations to become a 60 Minutes journalist like Jana Wendt). It was there, through a playwright, that she met a producer who made commercials. “My first start was assisting at a commercial production company. But within a year I was producing commercials,” she says, citing Coca-Cola and KFC as clients. “I only did it for a year or two but it was a great way to realise I loved that world. I then went on to make a short film with a director I was working with in commercials. It was a fantastic experience and we made it with our own money. I think that is what gave me the bug.”
The first-full length movie she produced was the Australian romantic comedy Better Than Sex, with colleague Frank Cox, where she “literally did everything” on the film including making the curtains for their office in inner-city Sydney. Starring David Wenham and Susie Porter, it toured the film festival circuit, and that is how Papandrea met Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning British director of The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley. Minghella and Pollack had a production company together called Mirage Enterprises and they were on the lookout for someone to run their London office. “I had only made one movie and he was meeting people who had years of experience and had five-year business plans,” Papandrea recalls. “I asked, years later, ‘Why did you pick me? I mean, thanks, but it was pretty shocking’, and he just said ‘I thought you were smart and I knew we would have fun’.”
After Minghella gave her the go-ahead, he told Papandrea “to go and meet Sydney Pollack in LA” and off she went with her borrowed airfare to meet the Hollywood legend. “I think that was the opportunity that gave me so many opportunities,” she says of her career break. “I was only 29 when it happened. I was given an opportunity with two amazing filmmakers — that was the biggest thing. I always make jokes, because I have worked with other people since then, that it is kind of impossible to work for someone again if you have worked with two people like that because the bar has been set so high. I don’t think I could work for anyone again and that is why I started my own company.”
Papandrea spent five years at Mirage Enterprises in London, working on movies like The Quiet American in Vietnam, The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Africa and one of the last movies Pollack developed before he died, called Breaking and Entering, which was shot in Bosnia. “At a certain point I knew I didn’t want to be in London any more. I knew it was about being in America,” Papandrea says of her decision to leave, also citing a
‘I always believed if you expose yourself to different things, it will become clear what you want to do,’ says Australian film producer Bruna Papandrea