Jessica Biel and Michelle Purple

Jessica Biel and Michelle Purple

June 10, 2021
Online Originals

The Female Perspective

Jessica Biel and Michelle Purple have a mission - and they're nailing it.

Tom Knapp

In 2004, Jessica Biel was in Australia to film Stealth, a sci-fi thriller starring Biel, Josh Lucas, Jamie Foxx, and Sam Shepard, when she met associate producer Michelle Purple.

"It was loneliness" that brought them together, Biel recalls. "Loneliness and Pretty in Pink."

"We became friends," Purple says now. "We were two girls working on a big-boy action movie, and we started watching movies together. We started talking about what we like and don't like ... and we realized we had a similar sensibility.

"When we came back from that movie, Jessica wanted to take more control of her career. And now we're stuck together." Biel and Purple are partners in Iron Ocean Productions, which has generated a lot of buzz with shows such as Limetown and The Sinner and, most recently, the young-adult mystery-thriller Cruel Summer, which airs its season finale on June 15.

Both are executive producers of the series, as they were on Limetown (one season on Facebook Watch) and The Sinner (shooting its fourth season now, to be released later this year on USA). The latter two series also numbered Biel among the cast; season one of The Sinner earned Biel best actress nominations from the Emmy, Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards. But they didn't immediately jump into major projects together, Purple hastens to add.

"First we did Hole in the Paper Sky, a short film," she explains. "I wanted to make sure Jessica wanted to do this. I wanted to be sure we worked well together."

So ... it was a test," Biel observes.

"It was fun!" Purple replies. "We got to do something on a smaller level. A project with no money."

The short film was released in 2008, but it wasn't for a few more years that the fledgling company began production in earnest, releasing The Tall Man , a supernatural abduction story starring Biel and William B. Davis, in 2012 and The Book of Love, a runaway drama starring Biel, Jason Sudeikis and Maisie Williams, in 2016. The Sinner launched in 2017.

During a recent conference call, the Iron Ocean partners discussed past and future projects, their successful track record of episodic productions and the qualities that excite them about story pitches that come their way.

Iron Ocean describes itself as a company with "the mission to create original content and a platform that enhances strong female voices." Biel says their mandate "has changed a little bit" as they've refined their approach to new media.

"It's about creating female-driven content that appeals to all demographics," she says. "We like to have females at the helm of these things, or at least a female at the helm. But I wouldn't necessarily describe them as feminine projects in a traditional sense. We walk the line pretty carefully about doing things that don't necessarily feel male or female.

"Everyone has seen so many things, it's hard to find a project where you go 'Whoa, I didn't expect that ending.' Ultimately, we ask if it will be appealing. Do we want to watch it? Will our husbands want to watch it? Our male and female friends?" The pitch for Cruel Summer rang all those bells, they agree. "I think the dual perspectives were really interesting," Purple says. "And the three timelines. It was something I hadn't seen before."

After The Sinner, she says, she and Biel liked the idea of a psychological drama aimed at a young-adult audience.

The series follows two young women: Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), the popular girl in high school who leads a charmed life until her sudden abduction, and Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia), a nerdy classmate who blossoms after Kate's disappearance and who, after Kate is rescued from her captor, is accused of having some involvement in the kidnapping itself.

Episodes are set in 1993, 1994 and 1995, revolving between the two girls' perspectives, as characters and viewers try to determine which of them is telling the truth.

"What made this unique was the nonlinear storytelling," Biel explains. They fretted a bit about viewers being able to follow the plot -- knowing when each scene was set, for instance -- but agree that the technique seems to have succeeded admirably. "It surpassed all our expectations," Purple says.

In fact, the series premiered to record-breaking numbers on the Freeform and Hulu platforms. So far, Biel and Purple have been thrilled with the response.

"You never know, when you complete something and put it out there," Biel says. "Even if it's fantastic storytelling and everything is on point, you never know what's going to cut through all of the amazing storytelling that audiences have access to now.

"But it feels like people are really into it. People are throwing out theories -- and that's great. We couldn't have asked for anything better than that ... seeing people engage into your blood, sweat and tears."

They're glad people are guessing, but Purple assures viewers that the many threads in play will be tied up by season's end.

"You're going to know who's lying and who's telling the truth," she says. "I am so proud of our season finale. ... You can love our ending or hate it, but you're going to know the answers." They're still waiting to see if the series is picked up for a second season. Biel says another season "would be amazing. ... We have ideas on how we could move forward, if we're lucky enough to have that opportunity."

Whether that means turning Cruel Summer into a traditional anthology series or starting fresh with an entirely new storyline, they don't know. "We're playing around with all kinds of possibilities, just in case," Biel says.

Meanwhile, they have plenty of other irons in the fire. In 2020, Iron Ocean signed a two-year first-look deal with Paramount Television Studios for scripted projects "that we're super excited about," Purple says.

"We have like eight TV shows in the works, although not all of them have been announced yet," she says. "We also have a couple of features brewing."

Looking at potential projects can be a painstaking process, they agree. Just look at some of their recent work.

"The Sinner was really character driven," Biel says. "The story was so surprising, and I really didn't know where it was going. But the character for me was the most exciting. 'Yeah, I did it, but I don't know why. Just lock me up.' I was really taken by those elements."

Limetown, on the other hand, "was also a big surprise," she says. "I thought it was a true story. It's embarrassing -- I was Googling it. I mean, how did I miss this in the news? It's so well thought out -- it's terrifying. I got really excited about the idea, and I didn't know how it was going to end. The end was so shocking for me -- I was salivating for that kind of thing."

It's hard to say what projects might appeal to them next.

"You just want your hand in everything," Biel says. "You really want to be doing all types of genres. We'd love to step into a dark-comedy role. As an actress, definitely, but if a project doesn't suit me to be in it, fine, we just want to be doing cool content.

"Maybe a romance - a big, sweeping romance," she adds. "Or ... are we going to tap back into our old days of making 20-something-year-old action movies? I think Michelle and I are both at the point that, yeah, we could do that, but we'd want to do it on our terms."

"Our deal with Paramount has been amazing," Purple says. "They've been super supportive. "

Other projects that are reportedly in the works include Where They Found Her, based on the bestselling book by Kimberly McCreight, Bohemian Grove, a period musical with Martin Scorsese, and a reboot of The Facts of Life with Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way.

Purple says they're always looking for "that one project that makes you feel butterflies in your stomach."

"We don't take on anything that we're not both 100 percent behind," she says. "When a project comes along where we both have that feeling, then we're willing to invest the time and energy into it. But we're open to a lot of genres and types of storytelling."

Biel, who was 14 when she landed the role of Mary Camden in the long-running series 7th Heaven, launched her film career just three years later in the Peter Fonda's 1997 drama Ulee's Gold.

She began working more on the production side of the industry, she says, "because I wanted to have more control over my own opportunities and my own career. I was tired of sitting around, waiting for the telephone to ring. ... I felt so out of control, I felt like I was misunderstood as an artist, and I wasn't getting the opportunities I was hoping to have.

"It's cool, that's how the cookie crumbles in this business, but I had to do something different. I had to take control in my life." Still, she says her extensive acting career doesn't necessarily make her any better at gauging the merit of a project from the production side of the camera.

"No, because I don't always know, because sometimes things just don't work," Biel says. "Even if I love a character or something creative about the idea, my experience as an actor doesn't always make me pick the right projects."

Sometimes, she says, "I step out of it and put on a producer hat, and I ask Michelle. She might get it. Maybe the character is interesting, but it feels derivative. It's something we've seen before. Is it something we want to make, or just something we want to watch? Wearing both hats, sometimes I get a little muddled."

Working more as a producer, she says, "gives me more opportunities to build up that muscle, to know that something will cut through the noise."

Purple, on the other hand, earned her stripes working for three years with Steven Spielberg at DreamWorks/Amblin Entertainment, beginning in 1996. She later joined Team Todd, working with producer Suzanne Todd on films including Boiler Room, Memento, and If These Walls Could Talk, followed by collaboration with Rob Cohen on The Fast and the Furious and xXx.

"What was nice about where I came from is, I got a piece of everything," she says. She worked with "amazing directors" and "amazing female producers," among others, and "dipped my toes into a lot of different areas.

"My journey has made me who I am today," she adds, and it's given her "a tool belt for how to manage things."

Together, Purple says, she and Biel "know our roles, and we're really comfortable with them. ... We know our strengths and weaknesses. We know when one of us needs the other to take over in certain areas. I think we complement each other that way."

Asked if there's anything else they'd hoped to discuss, Purple quickly asserts "how lucky Jessica is to have me as a partner."

"I agree," Biel says.

The season finale of Cruel Summer airs June 15 on Freeform.

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