The Australian-born Hollywood producer putting women’s stories at the centre of film and television. By Donna Walker-Mitchell.

Bruna Papandrea’s journey from Elizabeth to Hollywood

Producer Bruna Papandrea in her Beverly Hills office.
Producer Bruna Papandrea in her Beverly Hills office.

Bruna Papandrea is sitting at a large marble desk in her corner office in the middle of Beverly Hills. Palm trees sway outside the many arched windows that bathe the room in a sun-kissed glow, and Bruna, who runs the production company Pacific Standard with actress Reese Witherspoon, smiles.

Originally from Elizabeth, commonly considered the most disadvantaged area of greater Adelaide, Bruna, 44, acknowledges she has done much more than just traverse the globe. “I often think, ‘Wow, this is completely crazy.’ ” She laughs as she takes a sip of her coffee, but her awe is understandable.

Dealing with Hollywood’s most high-powered studio heads and A-list actors with her sharp-witted tenacity, Bruna has developed a reputation for always telling it like it is in a town where the trait can be rare.

“I always just gave my opinion,” she says. “That’s what people pay you for. There’s no point just following the crowd. You have to say what you really think.”

Her warm and down-to-earth manner is clear from the outset. “I’ve always been very true to who I am,” she says. “Except for one time when I first went to university and decided it was too much effort.”

After attending Fremont-Elizabeth City High School, Bruna studied commerce at Melbourne University, where she immediately knew she was different. “Everyone else studying commerce had been to private school. I remember trying to hide a part of me and just being so young I didn’t realise it was actually a badge of honour, not something to be ashamed of. I remember thinking I didn’t want people to find out where I was from because I needed to become someone else.”

Growing up in public housing with her single mother, Maria, and an older brother and sister who are twins, Bruna knew her community was “very rough”.

“We had less than nothing,” she recalls. “My mum was such a hard worker. She would do any job to make sure we had things. We took caravan holidays when I was a kid. Mum made them amazing and fun. She made the most of the very little we had.”

Despite the neighbourhood and learning how to get by with very little money, Bruna loved school, particularly because Fremont was heavily focused on the arts. While working on and performing in the school’s many plays, the seed for Bruna’s future was planted.

“It was a very artistic school. They did a lot of productions and it gave me access to the arts at a young age in an area where you wouldn’t have had access normally. I got really high marks in my HSC and then I went to Melbourne.”

However, after six months in Melbourne, Bruna knew commerce wasn’t for her and she dropped out, opting to go to Adelaide University, where she started an arts degree. Again, after six months, she left and moved to Sydney. “I knew I wanted to work in the arts, but at that stage, I wasn’t sure where,” she says.

In her early 20s, Bruna’s first break came when she got accepted into a young playwrights’ competition and met playwright Stephen Sewell, who encouraged her to keep writing, even though Bruna herself had doubts.

“The play was about a child-inspired revolution at an old people’s home. Who knew?” She smiles wryly. “I had a very active imagination. Definitely writing was something I thought about, as was acting. But to be totally honest with you, I don’t think I was great at either.”

Everything became much clearer for Bruna when Sewell introduced her to now Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe and his wife, Unjoo Moon. Her first job in film was working for the couple as an assistant, which transitioned into the role of producer for commercials.

While things were going well career-wise for Bruna, she split with her live-in boyfriend when she was 24 and was heartbroken. 

“I loved what I was doing, but when I broke up with him it was heartbreak,” she says. “I just wanted to leave the country and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get to New York. New York is where I should be,’ ” she says, her voice quickening with a sense of emphatic urgency.

Bruna is the first to admit she did not have a plan. “Nothing was ever a goal,” she says.

However, when she landed in the Big Apple heartbroken and with little funds, she called her “super-generous” friends, actors Anthony LaPaglia and Gia Carides, and LaPaglia gave her a job reading scripts for him. “It’s funny,” she says. “You find your people everywhere and you hang on for dear life, particularly us Aussies, don’t you think? I gravitated towards Australians no matter where I was in the world.”

In 1997, Carides began working on an independent film called Lifebreath with Luke Perry and found Bruna a job on the film.

“I ended up being the producer on the movie,” she says. “I basically worked for free and then, at night, I worked in a restaurant.”

Bruna returned to Australia in 1998 where she went back to producing commercials before securing the nod in 2000 as producer on the critically acclaimed film Better Than Sex, starring David Wenham and Susie Porter. 

When the film was shown at the Toronto Film Festival, Bruna met esteemed British filmmaker Anthony Minghella who had Mirage Enterprises, a production company, with fellow director Sydney Pollack.

“He saw something in me,” she explains. “He was looking for someone to run his company in London and he’d been meeting all of these high-powered Hollywood executives. He kept saying, ‘You should see me when you’re in London.’ I blew it off because I thought, ‘Yeah, sure.’ This friend of mine kept saying, ‘He’s looking for someone to produce for him.’ My reaction was, ‘Oh, don’t be silly.’ ”

While at the London International Film Festival that year, Bruna had a meeting with Minghella and was quickly offered a job at the company’s London office.

“I love Australia like nobody’s business, but this was the big, life-changing career moment for me. Four weeks later I was working in London, working for these two amazing men, earning real money,” she says.

Although she worked with Minghella for five years in a close-knit family environment, Bruna says the talent she was surrounded by always amazed her.

“I was constantly intimidated,” she laughs. “I sat with him in London once and said, ‘Why did you hire me? You could have hired anyone.’ He said, ‘Honestly, I knew we would have fun. I knew you would make me laugh every day and you’re smart.’ He was incredibly intellectual. He would have been a college professor or a priest had he not been a director. I really credit him with my career completely. It’s where I discovered my love for adapting novels to film.”

After five years in London and a broken engagement, Bruna moved to Los Angeles to be as close as possible to the industry.

“You know what I’m starting to realise?” she asks. “’Relationship break-ups have dictated where I go in life. What a great message to send,” she adds drily, her Australian accent very much intact. “I always leave a country based on break-ups. Love it.”

After working for Groundswell Productions for five years, Bruna left to start her own production company. Her motive was simple – she wanted to tell more female-driven stories. 

“I knew I wanted my decision to be the final one. The first thing I optioned was Warm Bodies and that was a big success story,” she says.

Starring Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer, Warm Bodies (2013) made more than $US116 million worldwide, with a production budget of $US35 million.

Around the same time, Reese Witherspoon was looking to start a company and her sights set on Bruna as her partner. Reese, who also shared Bruna’s strong desire for female-driven content, suggested a business partnership. But instead of jumping at the offer, Bruna did something extraordinary. She told Reese she would have to think about it.

“Reese jokes how I played hard to get, but I’ve really learnt you have to be true to who you are. I was always prepared to bet on myself. I wanted to see if she was someone who actually did the reading, did the work and really was a producer as well as being an actor. She sent me Wild and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I would die to produce a movie like this.’ The more we started to exchange material the more it became clear that we were very aligned in our taste. All we ever wanted to do was put women at the centre of films.”

Based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir, The New York Times described Wild as “audacious” with “a thrilling disregard for the conventions of commercial cinematic storytelling”.

Following the critical and commercial success of Wild, Pacific Standard went on to release Gone Girl, Hot Pursuit and is also producing the HBO television series Big Little Lies, which stars Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Witherspoon.

A few months after starting the business in 2012, both Reese and Bruna announced they were pregnant – Bruna with twins.

“That was crazy, and we’re not good pregnant people either,” Bruna tells me, laughing. “We just complained about it the whole time.”

Bruna gave birth to son Roman and daughter  Avalon (named after Sydney’s Avalon Beach) in early 2013. She lives in the beachside community of Venice with husband, producer Steve Hutensky, a man she had “an immediate spark with. I remember every detail of the first moment we met.” 

Of family life, Bruna is philosophical.

“Children put everything into perspective for me. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I still get stressed occasionally if I’m under a huge amount of pressure, but I look at them and I think, ‘Nothing else matters.’ I’ve never cared about anyone else’s wellbeing as much as I do about my kids. Having a daughter has changed it for me, too. It really makes me more passionate about my mission, which is making girls believe they can do anything. Whether it’s putting women behind the camera or putting them into our stories, it’s such a big deal for us.”

Spending weekends relaxing at one of their favourite Venice cafes such as Superba for breakfast, Bruna says family time is what matters most and she especially loves it when her mother comes to visit from Melbourne. “Mum is the perfect grandmother,” she says, smiling. “She comes and stays for six to eight weeks and she’s always there to help out and cook around the clock for us.”

Reese also reaps the benefits. “Mum is an amazing cook and Reese loves it. She particularly loves my mum’s cheesecake and her lasagna.”

As a single mother who raised three children, Maria, says Bruna, is “very proud” of what her daughter has achieved. 

“She was always proud of us, no matter what we did. I always felt like she allowed us to be who we were. There was never any pressure. She’s a survivor. When I see kids being given too much it just–” Bruna stops herself mid-sentence. “I heard a story the other day of someone buying their 20-year-old a very expensive house here and it makes my stomach turn to be honest because I remember the day I had to loan money to buy my first $500 car. I remember how it felt to buy my first new car. I remember buying my first house and the feeling of accomplishment that gave me. I got that from my mother.”

It’s that pragmatism that fuels Bruna with an innate sense of self-assuredness.

“It was always clear to me where I needed to end up,” she says. “I had to earn a living because I had no choice. Even now, if everything fell apart, I’d go work in a restaurant. I’m not afraid of it because I’ve had the worst jobs known to man, including cleaning the supermarket in Elizabeth at night when I was a teenager.”

As she gathers up her handbag, phone and keys to go meet Nicole Kidman on the Culver City set of Big Little Lies, Bruna pauses momentarily.

“It has certainly been one wild ride.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2016 as "Bruna rising".

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Donna Walker-Mitchell is an Australian journalist based in Los Angeles.

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