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February 09, 2017

Putting Women in the Picture

Producer packs a powerhouse of talent into HBO’s Big Little Lies.

Ann Farmer
  • Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

Even if you haven’t heard of Bruna Papandrea, you’ve likely seen the fruits of her labors, which include two Oscar-nominated films.

On the heels of Gone Girl (she was an executive producer) and Wild (a producer) Papandrea turned her focus to TV: an adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel, Big Little Lies, for HBO.

The limited series, premiering February 19, stars Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern as California moms whose picture-perfect lives — envision ultramodern beachfront spreads and flawless faces — aren’t as rosy as they seem. In the opening scene, in fact, a puzzling murder is disclosed. The story then rears back to the chain of events leading to it.

“It’s about what’s really going on in the lives of these women, and how they connect to each other,” says Papandrea, who also viewed the project as an opportunity to unite Kidman and Witherspoon on screen. “When we find multiple complex roles for women, we get excited,” she adds. “This was a doozy. There’s not one female character that doesn’t resonate.”

Women not only dominate in front of the camera — they were largely responsible for setting the series in motion. Pacific Standard, the production company that Papandrea, until recently, ran with Witherspoon, teamed with Kidman’s production company, Blossom Films, to option the novel.

“It all came together very fast and organically,” says Papandrea, who is a friend of Kidman’s and kindled her interest in Lies. Zipping through the novel in one night, Kidman flew to Australia to meet Moriarty; she, Witherspoon and Papandrea persuaded Moriarty to option the rights before anyone could beat them to it.

In addition to Papandrea, other executive producers include David E. Kelley, who adapted the book and is showrunner; Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed; Per Saari with Blossom Films; Nathan Ross, Gregg Fienberg, Kidman and Witherspoon.

Papandrea has long sought projects that feature juicy female roles. She, along with Witherspoon, Kidman and Dern, understand that their industry favors youth, especially when it comes to women. They’ve taken matters into their own hands, creating opportunities that showcase their talents as producers and mature actors.

“It’s about controlling your own destiny and telling the stories that you want to see told,” Papandrea says.

Big Little Lies also claws into rape and domestic violence. “Anything that shines a light and gets people talking about an issue that is so sadly relevant is incredibly important to me,” she says.

Raised by a single mom in Australia in working-class circumstances, Papandrea always felt drawn to creative endeavors. She took up acting for a time. She dabbled in hair and makeup artistry. She landed a stint in advertising. Eventually, she says, “It became clear that I was really good at bringing other people’s dreams to reality.”

Her first big break was producing Jonathan Teplitzky’s award-winning Better Than Sex. She was next hired as a production executive at Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack’s Mirage Enterprises. She subsequently served as president of Michael London’s Groundswell Productions.

Now that she’s the mother of a young girl, Papandrea feels an even greater urgency to place women at the center of the action. “I don’t think you can quantify the value of girls seeing themselves in pictures,” she says. “I want [my daughter] to see endless possibilities.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2017

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