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'Big Little Lies' producer determined to tell stories about women

Producer Bruna Papandrea co-founded the production company Pacific Standard with Reese Witherspoon to promote female-centric storytelling.
Producer Bruna Papandrea co-founded the production company Pacific Standard with Reese Witherspoon to promote female-centric storytelling.
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

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When producer Bruna Papandrea read Liane Moriarty's novel, "Big Little Lies," she knew she wanted to adapt it for the screen. 

I had a really big reaction to the fact that, here's this amazing book with this mystery at its center that had five complex women also at its center. That was really exciting to me given what the mandate of my company is.

That mandate is to make movies and TV show with complex women characters in significant roles. It was a mission she shared with Reese Witherspoon when they ran the production company, Pacific Standard, and produced the movies "Wild" and "Gone Girl." And it's a mandate Papandrea has carried into her new company, Made Up Pictures.

Actress  Nicole Kidman, author Liane Moriarty, actress Reese Witherspoon, and executive producer Bruna Papandrea attend the premiere of HBO's
Actress Nicole Kidman, author Liane Moriarty, actress Reese Witherspoon, and executive producer Bruna Papandrea attend the premiere of HBO's "Big Little Lies."
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

"Big Little Lies" stars Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and Zoe Kravitz. It's really rare to find a project with five parts for women. And it reminded us of a recent comment by Natalie Portman on The Frame:

One of the most beautiful things about going through awards season is it's the only time I get to spend with other actresses, because we never work with each other. So when we do roundtables or whatever, it's the only time in my life that I get to sit with women who do the same thing that I do and talk about it together, and it's the greatest joy.

Papandrea responded to Portman's quote:

She's identified exactly the big problem. It is cultural. It's not just our business. Women are not represented anywhere in the numbers that they should be, not just in our stories. You only have to look at Wall Street to see how many women sit on the boards of Fortune 500 companies.

People always say to me, How did you gather such an amazing group of women? These women were so excited to work together. They fed off each other, they helped each other. And what I just heard Natalie say, I've heard many actresses say. I have a reaction like, How many times can we see another story about history with seven men at the center of it? I'm very conscious of it and am always looking for [projects] that have, not just multiple women, but to see stories that have historically been about men told by women and to put women at the center of those. 

While "Big Little Lies" is populated by complex female characters, both the writer and director of the miniseries are male. All seven episodes were directed by “Dallas Buyers Club” director Jean-Marc Vallée and written by “Ally McBeal” creator David E. Kelley.  This is what Papandrea said when John Horn asked her about this:  

This obviously was written by Liane [Moriarty] and David [E. Kelley]. Her book is completely a blueprint for this series and David would say the same thing. He was someone that approached us and I had long been a fan of his. And, really, he understood the material deeply. That was the reason for that choice. Jean-Marc Vallée, of course we had a relationship with because he had directed "Wild." And we had an amazing experience with him and really wanted to have a repeat experience. 

Papandrea admits that she hasn't always hired women directors, though she is working with Jennifer Kent ("The Babadook") on a feature film that Kent wrote and directed called "The Nightingale." She's also working to get more women hired as writers, directors and producers across Hollywood as an ambassador for the initiative by Women in Film and the Sundance Institute called ReFrame

The way that Women In Film and Sundance have gone about gathering this group of men and women — really we've had a lot of different summits and get-togethers — is to try and identify what some of the core issues are. [Such as], What's stopping female directors from making that jump from Sundance movie to studio movie? What are some of the perceptions in the business about women?

I heard Cathy Schulman talk about it on this show — there is a perception that women cannot handle big budgets as producers and as directors. There is a perception that if a woman acts out or raises a voice, she's a bitch. So what we're really trying to identify with ReFrame is: What are some of the perceptions? How can we change them? One of the pieces of research that I found so interesting through ReFrame is — using the NFL as an example [with] The Rooney Rule — it's not about mandating hiring. It's about mandating at least putting [diverse] people in front of you for the job. And the hiring practices changed dramatically when [the NFL] instituted that policy. I think what a lot of people are doing — I know J.J. Abrams is doing it — is starting to mandate: When you give me a list for writers, make sure it represents the world we live in. Make sure it's inhabited by women. Make sure there's real diversity there.

And Papandrea admits that she herself needs to be reminded of all the women directors that are out there. In fact she credited's Kyle Buchanan (John Horn's co-host on The Awards Show Show) for opening her eyes last year with his list, 100 Women Directors Hollywood Should Be Hiring.

It was amazing. It triggered my memory of these amazing filmmakers that I had grown up with that kind of get forgotten if they make an indie movie and they don't make another movie for a few years. One of the problems I really see is the mid-career woman. It's the woman who made a movie or two and maybe the second didn't do well at the box office and no one is giving them another shot. Whereas I do think men get to maybe have a few more failures and it's still, Well, we'll hire that guy because ... So I think ReFrame is an amazing initiative and I think the way that we're going about is actually going to shift things in a real way and really shift hiring practices. 

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