30 October 2020

Saige Walton, Senior Lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of South Australia, overviews the brilliant career of the AFF 2020 Don Dunstan Award winner Bruna Papandrea  in this essay.

In Bruna Papandrea’s breakout Australian feature, Better than Sex (2000), there are a number of intimate, revelatory moments that centre on the depiction of the film’s female lead, Cin (Susie Porter).  “Look at him”, Cin muses from her bed, looking across the room towards her new lover, Joshua (David Wenham).  While the film’s voice-over narration externalises the inner thoughts of both leads, it is Cin, architect of her own desire, who captivates here.  Inside the small-scale space of Cin’s Sydney apartment, the traditional gender dynamics of who gets to look at whom in the cinema are quietly, deliberately reversed.  At one point, Cin’s eroticised gaze together with the active vocalisation of her desire is granted so much precedence that the film itself seems to slow down.  The camera tracks in to a close-up on Cin’s face, holding on her still looking at and still desiring Joshua: “I find that sexy”, she comments.  Two decades on from Papandrea’s early feature and the sensitive handling of female subjectivity, voice and sexuality in film is still far less common than one might think, especially in commercial channels.

Typically, in Hollywood filmmaking, women tend to be spoken for.  They are defined by what they mean in relation to men, rather than in their own right.  The dream of an alternate or ‘counter’ cinema (one in which women occupy a central place, as mobile, active and desiring agents), might only be possible outside of Hollywood, some surmised. [1] Since the 70s, that alternate mode of cinema—the idea of a ‘women’s cinema’—has been a well established concept in art cinema, avant-garde and experimental film circles. Looking back over Papandrea’s production career (some 29 titles to date), one is struck by her commitment to female-led writing and project collaboration within the context of Hollywood.  Across her film and television titles, Papandrea has consistently returned to the depiction of female experience onscreen, cultivating what we might call a ‘popular’ women’s cinema.  Her catalogue of titles is open to genre, critical revisionism, confronting subject matter (abuse, trauma, domestic violence, murder, horror) and ambiguous psychological portraiture.  Rather than operating in counterpoint to Hollywood, Papandrea works within it—optioning and developing female-led content that has spit, bite and backbone.

As Papandrea herself asserts: “I’m … always interested in trying to do something that hasn’t been since before.  I’m always on the lookout for things that are character-driven; it doesn’t matter what the genre is”.[2] In 2012, she established Pacific Standard with actress Reese Witherspoon—the company responsible for major Hollywood titles such as Wild (2014), Gone Girl (2014) and the HBO TV series, Big Little Lies (2017-2019).  In 2017, she went on to found her own production company, Made Up Stories, with offices based in Sydney and Los Angeles.  It is one step at a time for this Adelaide-born, Hollywood producer, whose efforts to foster a commercially viable women’s cinema and create greater opportunities for women in film are no small feat.

Setting Out

Towards the beginning of Wild, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) prepares for her famous trek along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  Having packed her backpack with all manner of provisions (from reading material right down to filled-to-the-brim water bottles), Cheryl stands back, contemplating a loaded backpack that stands at nearly half her height.  In the next shot, Cheryl’s arms and torso strain with effort, barely able to lift the bag inches off the floor.  Undeterred, she persists, re-locating herself to the ground.  She straps the immense bag to her chest and shoulders, rocking back and forth.  Falling forward, she carries its full weight on her back like a turtle, using a nearby table to hoist herself upright.  Her legs shake.  When we next see Cheryl, she is outside, walking in the sunlight.  The huge shadow she casts on the pavement merges her body with the backpack: inseparable.  Later on, other hikers she meets along the PCT will joke about the size of the bag (‘monster’) that she carries on her back.  Later still, a kindly, seasoned camper named Ed (Cliff De Young) offers to help her shed some of her backpack weight, advising Cheryl what to keep and what to lose, alerting her to the fact that her hiking boots are too small.  That’s why she has been losing toenails.

Speaking of her own career path from Australia to Hollywood, Papandrea has never shied from crediting her own mentors and other inspirational figures. The Australian director, writer and producer, Robert Connolly; British director, Anthony Minghella, and the legendary Sydney Pollock (co-founders of Mirage Enterprises) and her mother.  After starting out making commercials, Papandrea produced the Australian short, Three Cords and a Wardrobe (2000), financed by her previous efforts.  It was through commercials, also, that she same to meet Connolly.  In turn, it was Connolly passed along the script for Better Then Sex – the film that was to become Papandrea’s international calling card – also recommending her for the role of producer.  Co-produced by Papandrea and Frank Cox (co-founder of Hopscotch), Better than Sex was an early, formative experience for Papandrea.  Speaking to Screen Australia, she tells of how Connolly “guided me through what it was like to make an under $1 million movie… it was just the greatest experience from start to finish”. [3] During the film’s tour of the international film festival circuit, Papandrea then met Minghella at the Toronto International Film Festival.  He offered her a job working at Mirage in London, where she worked for Minghella and Pollock for five years.  That “was a huge career shift for me” as well as her own version of film school.  Being at Mirage, “exposed me to Hollywood agents and a world that I had not been exposed to before”. [4]

Raised by her single mother in the commission housing of the suburb of Elizabeth, Papandrea speaks proudly of how she began with ‘humble’ means.

For Papandrea, her youth in Adelaide and her close bonds with her mother helped her forged character as well as career-defining traits.  In 2018, at a G’Day USA Gala, she observed that “while coming from very little can seem like a liability to some people, it can also be used as a superpower… It certainly gave me incredible drive and the fearlessness to take big risks”. [5] Little wonder that the real-to-life Strayed (the women who hiked around 1,100 miles of the PCT, alone) might also be a source of inspiration for Papandrea, as well as a friend.  (Strayed herself makes a cameo appearance in Wild, giving a ride to her fictional self).  “You can quit anytime,” Cheryl’s inner voice tells her, as she begins her trek.  Then: the sun, the wind and the scent of sagebrush call her back to path and the task ahead…

Tales of Walking and Surviving

Write with the body, the philosopher Hélène Cixous once pleaded.  “More body, hence more writing” and use that to write women into movement, propelling them forth “into the world and into history”. [6] In line with Cixous’ physical call to arms, Papandrea’s women are written and enacted as fully fleshed-out beings.  If female agency in Hollywood is all too often delimited to the choreographed movements of a female superhero or a glossy-lipped action heroine, Papandrea’s women tread alternate, unpredictable and often uncomfortable paths.

Frequently adapted from the work of female authors, Papandrea’s women inhabit and are seen moving through particular environments.  Think of the long shots of mountains, valleys and rocky paths that dwarf Cheryl in Wild; the ragged sounds of her breath that dominate the film’s soundscape or the close-ups of her bloodied feet and skin, rubbed raw by the trail.  More recently, think of the Irish-born female convict, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), in The Nightingale, the result of Papandrea’s bold collaboration with Australian director, Jennifer Kent.  In one of the film’s earliest scenes, Clare can be seen gripping a knife in one hand while holding her baby close.  As she moves through the wilds of 1825 colonial Tasmania, she croons a soft lullaby.  Later, after the horrendous crimes that have been committed against her go ignored, the force of Clare’s fury affectively engulfs the screen.  “Should I stay home and do needlework?” she cries out, her face visibly, justly contorted with rage.  Hell bent on seeking vengeance against the English officers who murdered her husband and child, Clare (the ‘nightingale’) chooses the more difficult path through the bush that is pointed out to her by tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr).  That path steers her towards the conclusion of her own rape-revenge narrative, faster.  Clare’s forward momentum and her desire for vengeance does not stop.  Legs covered in leeches, near drowning from a frozen river, literally falling asleep while riding her horse… she moves on.

Time and again, Papandrea’s women are filmed as women on the move.  They are filmed walking, riding, running, driving, dancing, fleeing.  These female protagonists move forward, relentlessly, with a final destination or a goal in mind, using whatever means is necessary.  In this regard, Papandrea’s women may not be empathetic or likeable to all.  They are unforgettable, however, because we know how they came to be.  Think of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) in Gone Girl and the delivery of her ‘cool girl’ monologue, adapted from the sharp, savvy words of the American novelist, Gillian Flynn: “Nick loved a girl I was pretending to be… a cool girl… cool girl is hot, cool girl is game, cool girl is fun, cool girl never gets angry at her man”.  Having happily framed her husband for her disappearance, Amy drives away, scarfing a hamburger and junk food with glee.  “I made him smarter, sharper, I inspired him to my level… I forged the man of my dreams”, she coolly intones.

Oftentimes, these women are survivors of their own painful past.  They come to us bruised and bleeding, physically and psychologically.  Think of Cheryl Strayed, intent on losing herself in anonymous sex and drugs following the death of her beloved mother.  Think of the characters of Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) and Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) in Big Little Lies.  These women find mutual understanding and solidarity in each other as well as a shared touchstone (both share the trauma of the same male abuser).  There is a reason why the female friends of Big Little Lies return so often to the beach: the ocean is a site of solace and hope.  Eventually, Cheryl, too, will heal her inner scars by way of movement and by putting herself “in the way of beauty”, as her mother once suggested.  Her long suppressed grief seems to break the world wide open as she walks, until her screams rent the air.

New Directions

Made Up Stories is really the “company I was always meant to start”, according to Papandrea.  It was established with the explicit intention of not only portraying complex women but supporting young female makers, from female writers and directors through to every facet of production.  At “Pacific Standard, Reese and I put women in front of the camera” Papandrea reflects, “but given how few women were behind the camera… [it’s] just as important we are hiring female cinematographers and production designers” because “that’s how you shift the culture”.[7] Tellingly, the logo for Papandrea’s recent company features a young girl, dressed in a hard hat and a tutu.  In effect, the logo brings together a mixture of gendered tropes as well as the creative influences that have shaped Papandrea herself.  I “don’t want to alienate men”, Papandrea comments of Made Up Stories.  In point of fact, one of its forthcoming features is an adaptation of Jane Harper’s novel, The Dry (shot across over 15 rural townships), starring Eric Bana and directed by none other than Papandrea’s own mentor, Connolly.  The Dry is “a pretty male movie”, although “Jane Harper also created it from scratch”.

Recalling the beginnings of her career, Papandrea has previously pointed to Connolly’s Australian film, The Boys, as having had a “great effect on her”, in part because of its gripping, often confronting depictions of male violence and physicality. [8] Despite the recurrence of the psychological thriller in her work as well as her return to similarly intense or emotionally dark subject matter, Papandrea insists that, ultimately, her productions are all about “the stories that we gravitate to”.  At the same time, developing more complex character portraits and story arcs for women in Hollywood has meant “putting a different representation of women [forward].  And that can be dark and complicated… it’s about putting every type of woman on screen”, she maintains. [9]

As Papandrea tells it, the best advice she ever received came from the late Anthony Minghella.  As he once told her, you “enable or disable creative people with your words, so be careful how you use your words”.[10] When the logo for Made Up Stories animates, its little girl springs into action.  She climbs up a rope to shift a letter in one key word: ‘stories’.  For Papandrea, that gesture reflects her own commitment to making sure that women and young girls can tell the kind of stories that they want to, behind and in front of the camera.  Fittingly, Papandrea’s words and her actions resonate well with the name that Cheryl Strayed chose for herself, following her divorce.  We see that spirit reflected in the excerpts of printed text that open Wild: stray-ed… to not only walk but be brave enough to veer from the path… to become wild.

Author Biography: Saige Walton is a Senior Lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of South Australia.  She is the author of Cinema’s Baroque Flesh: Film, Phenomenology and the Art of Entanglement (Amsterdam University Press, 2016).

[1] See, for example, feminist film scholar and theorist Laura Mulvey’s seminal call for the destruction of visual pleasure and the development of counter-cinema.  Mulvey, Laura, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen, 16:3 (1975): 6-18.

[2] Papandrea cited in Vogue Australia, “How Australian Producer Bruna Papandrea is Championing Women On and Offscreen”, Vogue Australia, 18th December 2019, https://www.vogue.com.au/culture/features/how-australian-producer-bruna-papandrea-is-championing-women-on-and-off-screen/news-story/da4bfe6ae2f812de9fc0f23431c57c4e (last accessed: 7th September 2020).

[3] Papandrea cited in Caris Bizzaca, “Gender Matters: Bruna Papandrea”, Screen Australia, 26th August 2016, https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/sa/screen-news/2016/08-26-gender-matters-bruna-papandrea (last accessed: 7th September 2020)

[4] Papandrea cited in Bizzaca.

[5] Papandrea cited in Screen Australia, “Gday USA Gala 2018: Bruna Papandrea’s Speech”, 30th January 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqOJfsouW0s&t=304s (last accessed: 7th September, 2020)

[6] Cixous, Hélène.  “The Laugh of the Medusa”, Signs 1: 4 (Summer 1976): 886.

[7] Papandrea cited in Vogue Australia.

[8] Papandrea cited in Bizzaca.

[9] Papandrea cited in Vogue Australia.

[10] Papandrea cited in Alex Aster, “How I Landed my Dream Job: Bruna Papandrea of Made Up Stories”, The Newsette, October 3rd 2019, https://thenewsette.com/2019/10/03/how-i-landed-my-dream-job-bruna-papandrea/