In a series of top-level meetings Reese Witherspoon had with studio executives in 2012, she grew increasingly frustrated by the answers she got to her question, ‘What are you developing for women?’”
As one might imagine, it was slim pickings. “I think it was literally one studio that had a project for a female lead over 30,” the actress recalls. “And I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get busy.’ ”
Busy indeed. Two years after launching Pacific Standard with Australian producer Bruna Papandrea, the company boasts two high-profile films being released within weeks of each other. First up was “Gone Girl,” based on the blockbuster Gillian Flynn novel, which debuted Oct. 3. Hitting theaters Dec. 5 is “Wild,” an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir, which stars Witherspoon as a woman seeking to reinvent herself by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail alone. The actress’s raw, fearless performance is stirring early raves and Oscar buzz.
The production company also just wrapped an action-comedy starring Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara titled “Don’t Mess With Texas,” a buddy movie about a police officer and a prisoner on the run. The film will be released May 8.
Known for her portrayals of strong women in movies such as 1999’s “Election” and her Oscar-winning turn in 2005’s “Walk the Line,” Witherspoon had served as an exec producer on “Legally Blonde 2” and a producer on “Penelope” under her now-defunct Type A Films banner. Returning to producing was born of necessity, she says, after those initial meetings came up empty. “My daughter was 13, and I wanted her to see movies with female leads and heroes and life stories,” Witherspoon says. “I called my agent and said, ‘I need a producing partner, and I really want someone who is well-liked, has development experience and on-set experience.’ And that’s a tall order.”
Papandrea, who recently shepherded the Summit hit “Warm Bodies” to the bigscreen, and whose other credits include the Oscar-winning “Milk” and “All Good Things,” fit the profile. The two had crossed paths socially, and Witherspoon reached out to set up a business lunch, which essentially became the best blind date ever. “I knew immediately,” Witherspoon says. “She had a great attitude, her track record with material is fantastic, and she reads as voraciously as I do.”
It was Strayed’s story that truly sealed the deal on their partnership. “After our first meeting, we agreed to send each other some material,” Papandrea recalls. “And the first thing Reese sent me was ‘Wild.’ It was exactly the kind of movie I wanted to make. At that point, I knew we were going to be a good match.”
Sitting together in the company’s Beverly Hills office, the two women — cliches be damned — really do finish each other’s sentences. Both are working mothers; Witherspoon has two teenagers and a two-year-old, while Papandrea is the mother of 20-month-old twins. And the partners are, in Papandrea’s words, “huge book nerds” who share a deep respect for authors.
From the beginning, the pair agreed on a mission. “We share the same goal in terms of focusing primarily on developing roles for women,” Papandrea says. “And we are open to all genres at this company. What attracts us is character and a funny, unique voice, regardless of genre.” Echoes Witherspoon, “We just want to see different, dynamic women on film.”
They also agree on a mantra: Lean and mean. Pacific Standard is made up of only three employees, including the two principals — though Witherspoon jokes that her 15-year-old daughter Ava, who often recommends material, is their fourth staffer. “We read everything ourselves,” Witherspoon says. “We call the filmmakers. We call the studio heads. We keep it small, because it keeps things much more containable.”
They wound up in their Beverly Hills location thanks to mutual friend Liza Chasin, president of production at Working Title Films. “We had some extra space, but we were very conflicted about renting it out,” Chasin says. “It was going to take a very special tenant to convince us. So when Reese called and said she was looking, I knew it would be a perfect fit.”
Witherspoon and Papandrea refer to Chasin as a mentor; Chasin notes that having them close by has been beneficial to her, as well. “We share thoughts on different projects, on writers and directors, on the business in general,” she says. “It’s great to have people to bounce ideas off. It’s always honest, and never competitive.”
Papandrea adds that she and Witherspoon don’t want to be beholden to another company. As an example, she cites finding the right studio for “Wild.” “There’s this pressure for you to say
yes to the first person who asks you to marry them,” she says. “But we didn’t do that. We looked for the right home. We took less money than we could have, because it had to be made with exactly the right people. And we very carefully chose Fox Searchlight.”
For her part, Fox Searchlight production president Claudia Lewis says backing “Wild” was a no-brainer. “It was clear from the outset that they wanted people who would not soft-sell the material or dumb it down, or weaken the strength, foibles, intelligence and insecurity of this complicated woman,” Lewis explains. “ ‘Wild’ spoke to our interest in women’s stories and dramatic narratives about unusual people in complex circumstances.”
Witherspoon and Papandrea say that so far, their business strategy has paid off. They were warned that it takes two or three years just to get one movie off the ground, but they’ve defied the odds by having just completed their third production at the close of year two.
The producers pride themselves in pouncing on material early. “Wild” and “Gone Girl” were acquired before being published and going on to become bestsellers. Witherspoon says it was simply a matter of throwing her hat into the ring. “I let it be known I wanted to see material,” she says. “And because we’re specifically looking for female-driven properties, I don’t think a lot of other companies were out there doing that.”
In the case of “Gone Girl,” the book was brought to Witherspoon by screenwriter-producer Leslie Dixon, who had written the actress’s 2005 romance “Just Like Heaven.” Witherspoon was already familiar with Flynn’s work; at one point, she was attached to star in an adaption of the author’s debut novel, “Sharp Objects.” Though it didn’t work out, she followed Flynn’s career. “Like me, she’s from the middle of the country, and doesn’t write about the slick urban lifestyle you usually see in films,” Witherspoon notes.
Papandrea adds that good work begets good work. “When people realize you have good taste, it brings more material — they know you can look after it,” she says. “And when you also have an actress who can star in a lot of the material, it’s a huge, huge asset.”
But Witherspoon says her goal is not simply to find herself starring vehicles. While she was interested in headlining “Gone Girl,” the role eventually went to Rosamund Pike after David Fincher signed on as director. “We just wanted the material,” Witherspoon says. “It didn’t matter if I was in it or not. And when you get someone like David Fincher to agree to do you movie — one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time — you basically go, ‘OK, whatever you want!’ And get out of his way.”
Consequently, Witherspoon and Papandrea had little to do with the production of “Gone Girl,” but were heavily involved in the making of “Wild” (both films had the same start date). “Every director’s process is different,” Papandrea says. “David has his own people,” whereas “Wild” director Jean-Marc Vallee “wanted his producers involved in all aspects, from casting to location scouting.”
When it comes to Pacific Standard’s productions, Witherspoon readily admits she’s not right for every movie. “Ego is the death of creativity,” she says. “The most important thing is to get the right person for the role.”
But she’s excited to star opposite Nicole Kidman in an adaptation of the novel “Big Little Lies,” one of Pacific Standard’s next projects. The producers have also optioned “The Engagements,” based on J. Courtney Sullivan’s book, and feel strongly about a draft of the script they just received. “It’s an international ensemble,” Papandrea says. “Reese can play a role if she chooses — I hope she does.”
The duo also has acquired a pair of books aimed at younger audiences; “Pennyroyal’s Princess Boot Camp” and “The Outliers,” the first in a trilogy that is being compared to “The Hunger Games.”
While the company appears to favor adapting great literary properties, “Don’t Mess With Texas,” an original story, and a new comedy at Paramount are in the works. The producers also have creative plans beyond the bigscreen.“We’re about to announce a big TV project with another inspiring female lead,” Papandrea says.
Asked to sum up the partnership between the two women, Fox Searchlight’s Lewis says, “It’s not yin and yang, it’s yang and yang. They’re like whirling dervishes, juggling their creative passions with their work and their families. They are both 100% committed, and profoundly respectful of each other’s intelligence and drive.”