Reese Witherspoon's quest to find more 'complex' leading roles for women
The actress and her producing partner, Bruna Papandrea, talk "Wild" and how they're on the hunt for more interesting and challenging stories and scripts.
Reese Witherspoon's new film, “Wild,” is based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir about her search for meaning on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The film is produced by Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard, which she runs with partner Bruna Papandrea. The two have a strong interest in stories with strong female characters. In addition to “Wild,” Pacific Standard produced “Gone Girl.”
The two producers are trying to fill a big hole. Statistically, Hollywood has scant interest in female characters in both supporting and leading roles. According to a recent study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, fewer than 30 percent of all speaking roles in movies are given to women, and women make up the same small fraction of lead protagonists.
We spoke with Witherspoon and Papandrea about what compelled them to start Pacific Standard.
What is the origin of your production company?
WITHERSPOON: It just came out of a time about three years ago that I was not seeing a lot of strong, interesting female leads in film. There certainly wasn't a deficit of parts out there, they just weren't that complex. I went around to each studio, I was pitching [a] comedy, and I just took a minute and said, "What are you developing with a female lead?" And all but one company said, "We're not developing anything, but we want anything that you can bring us. It's not something that we're doing right now."
Why did they say they weren't?
WITHERSPOON: Not to get too much into it, but about five years ago about a third of our business dropped out with the lack of DVD sales, so the amount of development was drastically reduced. If you're going to take the amount of money that you were normally going to develop projects with, it goes into very big summer tentpole movies — big franchise movies that yield a lot of money for these big corporations. You have to remember, they're under mandates that I don't understand and they have [formulas] based on charts and sciences and departments full of people that tell them who to put in what movie and which movies to make. First of all I was upset, but then I [thought], Wait, this is actually a huge white space in a marketplace that there's a huge audience for and nobody is doing this work. I might as well get busy and do it myself.
PAPANDREA: When Reese and I first met, one of the things that we had in common was I have a lot of friends who are very good actresses, and I had read [scripts] for them for years ... It wasn't my core business, but I was always trying to find those women roles and see what was out there. When I sat with Reese for the first time and she was having that issue, I [thought], Well, if Reese is having that issue and these other girls are having that issue, then there really is a big gap that we need to do something about.
Was that the same motivation when you acquired Gillian Flynn's book, "Gone Girl?"
WITHERSPOON: Absolutely. I think we started the company being inspired by companies like George Clooney's company, Smokehouse, or Brad Pitt's company, Plan B. We're just out there looking for great material, primarily with the directive of strong female lead roles that are interesting and complex. So when "Gone Girl" came our way through a screenwriter, Leslie Dickson, we were just blown away by the manuscript.
PAPANDREA: Even before that, actually. I feel like we both had [asked], specifically, Why doesn't anyone make female-driven thrillers anymore? "Fatal Attraction," "Malice" — there was a whole spate, particularly in the '70s. No one was making those movies and we both really liked those movies. So "Gone Girl" came along, I think, literally, like a week after we had that conversation. We were like, Oh, this is a good one.
Were you responding to the "Gone Girl" script as a potential actor, and how much of that was your attraction to the material?
WITHERSPOON: Our main priority was just getting the film made. How that was going to happen wasn't really determined yet. I was always there that if we needed me to do it, but I think ego is absolutely the death of creativity. The most important thing was that we were creating an interesting woman on screen. I have a 15-year-old daughter and all I want for her is to see different kinds of women, you know?
Do you find yourself by default or by luck stumbling into books that are written by women?
PAPANDREA: I think we both just respond to good writing and I definitely find myself responding to books that have female protagonists. It's a very happy moment when I realize it's written by a woman, but I love it when men write these amazing female protagonists.
WITHERSPOON: I do as well. People ask Martin Scorsese why he makes movies about New York, [it's] because he knows New York. They ask Alexander Payne why he makes movies about Nebraska and he's like, I make movies [there] because I grew up in Nebraska. A lot of the material that we gravitate towards are female leads because we're women. Those are the stories I understand, they're the stories I like to explore — that's it. It isn't our only interest.
"Gone Girl" is a story about a very willful woman. Yet when it was marketed, a lot of the advertising made you think it was a Ben Affleck film. Is that the nature of celebrity or were you disappointed that it wasn't sold as a story of this strong woman?
WITHERSPOON: No, I think that was a conscious effort on [director] David Fincher's part and a very smart move. He was absolutely pivotal in controlling the marketing. He does not want to give away any secrets. I think it was actually brilliant because it became something that you had to see. You needed to understand what the twist was. I've talked to so many people who saw the movie and hadn't read the book and they were so surprised about what happened. We give so much away in marketing materials nowadays, there's very little that we discover in theater. Working with David was such an education.
You're both mothers. Does part of being a parent affect the kinds of movies you want to make and the kind of work you want to to do.
WITHERSPOON: Certainly. I'm definitely at a part in my life that I feel like it's about [asking], What are you putting into the world and why? You can make movies and movies and movies and movies, but what are you trying to say? That's why I feel really great about the way "Wild" is connecting with audiences, because I have people coming out and telling me that it reminded them of the grief they felt when they lost their mother or their father. I also have people coming up to me and saying, "Wow, she is unapologetic about her fierce sexuality and her want and desire. She's not embarrassed about it and she's not ashamed." And [my character] also says, "If I could go back and do it again, I'd do the same thing." And, wow, what a liberation for women to say all those experiences that you had are just part of the life journey you're on. Certainly, yeah, I want to put those messages in the world for myself, for other women, but definitely for my children as well.
PAPANDREA: I have a daughter and a son, but I say that as much for my son as well. It's so important. I also want to defy this idea that because a woman's at the center of a movie that it's only for women. That's really the thing that we need to change if anything.