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Made Up Stories: The Dry, Penguin Bloom & more

Producers Steve Hutensky and Jodi Matterson of Made Up Stories talk through shooting and releasing titles in the midst of a pandemic.

A group of six people stand together smiling at the camera. Behind them is a film crew. They are in the Australian country.On the set of The Dry (L to R: Ricci Swart, Jodi Matterson, Jane Harper, Peter Strachan, Steve Hutensky and Eric Bana)

When COVID-19 hit, production company Made Up Stories had multiple projects preparing to go into production and adaptability became key.

In fact, Netflix series Pieces of Her was just a week away from principal photography in Vancouver when it was shut down.

Producer Steve Hutensky, who runs Made Up Stories with producers Jodi Matterson and Bruna Papandrea, says they looked at restarting in Vancouver, but it ultimately came down to weather. “It gets colder quicker in Canada and we're filming for Georgia, in the south part of the United States, so it just didn't make sense,” he says.

“But because of our deep connection to Australia, we said to the filmmakers and to Netflix ‘let's pivot’.”

They knew in terms of weather, actor availability and timing that Australia could work. The same happened with another Hulu-backed title Nine Perfect Strangers, an adaptation of the book from Australian author Liane Moriarty (who also wrote Big Little Lies), which wrapped filming in late 2020 in the NSW Northern Rivers.

“It wasn't as far along in pre, but we were looking at filming elsewhere and again just because of COVID, we had to pivot,” Hutensky says.

“Australia made a lot of sense based on the book and people involved: you already had Nicole (Kidman, producing and starring), who's obviously deeply connected to Australia, and Bruna, and the author Liane Moriarty, so a lot of pieces were in place where it made it a lot easier to move to Australia.”

Producer Jodi Matterson adds: “It made it easier, but it still wasn't easy.” (More on their approach to filming in the pandemic in the Q&A below)

If 2020 wasn’t busy enough, in midst of this Made Up Stories was juggling a number of releases: HBO TV series The Undoing with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant released on Foxtel, another TV adaptation Anatomy of a Scandal went into production in London; and two Australian films – Jane Harper adaptation The Dry starring Eric Bana, and Penguin Bloom with Naomi Watts – were gearing up for their Australian release through Roadshow Films.

The Dry, originally slated for an August release, was shifted to April 2021 and then again to 1 January 2021, where it pulled in $6.8 million within its first two weeks, while Penguin Bloom releases nationally on 21 January.

Hutensky says distributor Roadshow Films has had their back from day one.

“It's continued not just from the script stage, but they've been humongous fans of both movies and real great partners. They've always been committed to doing a wide release for both movies and [asking] ‘when is the opportune time for both movies?’,” he says.

Naomi Watts and director Glendyn Ivin sit together at a table on the set of Penguin BloomNaomi Watts and director Glendyn Ivin on the set of Penguin Bloom

“Obviously disappointed when COVID hit that we couldn't release [The Dry] in August, which seemed like a great date, but the truth is, the silver lining has been that now that theatres are back open in Australia, that the January 1st date, it's one of the best dates of the year. And the same with Penguin Bloom, [right in] the middle of summer: we feel like we've got two amazing dates for the movies.”

He says they also don’t have the international competition they normally would in a theatrical release, because nearly all of the studio films have been pushed back to later in 2021.

“And what excites us,” Matterson says, “is they're such different movies. You have this great crime drama with The Dry set against the Australian outback and with Penguin Bloom, it's a beautiful family story of tragedy and hope.”

That kind of variety is evident across all the feature films Made Up Stories has made to date, which also include the critically acclaimed historical drama The Nightingale (with Causeway Films) from director Jennifer Kent and zombie horror comedy Little Monsters, starring Lupita Nyong’o and directed by Abe Forsythe.

Matterson says film remains an important part of the Made Up Stories slate. 

“But independent film is hard, there's no way around it,” she says. “It's hard to finance. It's hard to get out there. I think what we try and do is look for a unique story that feels universal, cast it with the best possible cast and do the best possible job and hope that we can find the channels, so it does connect with big international audiences.

“That's always the goal. And you know so far, touch wood, people are really responding to the material that we're making. We just want to be able to keep making it.”

Made Up Stories has also embraced the world of television and working with the streamers, with The Undoing made with HBO, Nine Perfect Strangers with Hulu, and Pieces of Her and Anatomy of a Scandal both with Netflix. But Hutensky still believes people are craving that cinema experience – and they will keep making movies while people continue to do so.

“There’s this opportunity for more people to see your TV shows and films through the streamers [and] those companies are all amazing,” he says. “But there's also a view that I think people have enjoyed for a long time, which is the communal experience of being in the theatre and sharing something with complete strangers, but having an emotional connection. And I'm certainly thirsting for that again – to go back to that and have that experience. I think a lot of people [are] in Australia as well.

“I think if you can create content that engages people, that's an experience that people are going to embrace for a long time.”

Read on to hear from Hutensky and Matterson as they break down how Made Up Stories builds their slate, and how they juggled filming Nine Perfect Strangers throughout 2020.

Also listen to our interview with producer Bruna Papandrea when it releases on the Screen Australia podcast on 15 January 2021.

HOW DID MADE UP STORIES START?

Steve Hutensky (ST): Bruna had a producing partnership with Reese Witherspoon (called Pacific Standard), where they had done Wild, Big Little Lies and Gone Girl, so a very successful partnership together. Towards the end of 2016, Reese had different visions, Bruna had different visions, and they decided to part amicably. And Bruna was trying to figure out what she wanted to do next. And she and I - we're husband and wife - had always helped each other out, but never partnered together. And we decided to come together towards the end of 2016. Jodi and I had produced a movie back in Australia together a year or so earlier (called 2:22), and Bruna had executive produced a movie with Jodi (the 2012 feature Not Suitable For Children). So we knew Jodi and we were always into the idea of keeping a strong hold in Australia as well as in the US. So it made sense to come together to partner up.

Jodi Matterson (JM): And so we were all kind of mates at that point, and it was interesting because a friend of mine who works in publishing said there's this book [The Dry] being published that you have to read. It's so cinematic. It's amazing. So I read it the second day that it was released and enquired about the rights and of course, it was a book that Bruna had already optioned. I called her at the time and said, ‘you have to stop optioning all this stuff because you're never going to make it all.’ At that point, we started talking about me coming on board The Dry and a few other projects... so when Bruna and Steve were telling me that they were going to start this new company Made Up Stories, I essentially pitched to them that it would make sense for me to partner with them and be the Australian arm. And so that's how it started. I keep saying to people we're a start-up, it's been four years, but it feels like it's gone so quickly because it's been such a busy time and we feel like we're just getting going.  

Eric Bana and Miranda Tapsell sit together at a dinner table in The Dry.Eric Bana and Miranda Tapsell in The Dry

SH: It's been great because we've made four movies already in Australia with The Nightingale, Little Monsters, The Dry and Penguin Bloom and have built up quite a slate both on the film and TV side with Jodi. And then, it just worked out with Nine Perfect Strangers and Pieces of Her, to bring - which has always been our goal - to bring international projects that might have originated in Australia, to Australia. It feels like it's like the next step in the evolution of our company. But all the stuff we make in Australia, it's with an eye for an international audience. For us, it's about making stuff, even if it’s quintessentially Australian, that can translate universally as stories.

HOW BIG IS THE COMPANY NOW?

SH: There's an office in LA and an office in in Australia. And it's me, Bruna, Jodi and eight other people. I'm the only guy in the company. And ultimately for us, the material decides where we're going to shoot. So we're doing a show in London right now (Anatomy of a Scandal) that one of our senior people is there producing that for us. We have something that's supposed to start in Atlanta next year, if all goes well. We've got Pieces of Her that's going to film in New South Wales in January. So as producers, we're all kind of, 'have bag will travel'.

NINE PERFECT STRANGERS FILMED IN THE NSW NORTHERN RIVERS FROM AUGUST TO DECEMBER. HOW DID YOU MANAGE FILMING IN THE MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC?

JM: There were many, many, many sleepless nights. But we've had to have such incredible cooperation from every level of the Australian government, from the Prime Minister's office down and also the state government in New South Wales being extraordinary in the fact that we were the first international production to pick up and come to Australia in this time. So everybody banded together. And obviously we needed all the cast who were already attached to the project to agree to pick up their lives and come to Australia during a pandemic. So it was a big deal all around.

SH: There was a lot of anxiety obviously and still is, but especially this was like March, April, May, June (during pre-production). No one knew what a COVID shoot was going to look like or how you're going to do it. It was a brave new world kind of thing. And a lot of people were talking about it and planning, and we kind of looked at everyone's different plans and made our own plan off of that.

DID YOU CREATE A ‘BUBBLE’ IN THE NORTHERN RIVERS FOR FILMING?

JM: Not in the sense of the kinds of bubble set that, say Tyler Perry [did on Sistas] or what they're doing with the Jurassic movie where everybody literally stays in the same hotel and nobody leaves from that bubble. Because of Australia's amazing response to COVID, we've had more freedoms, so people don't all have to be confined to the one hotel. But because we are an international production and we have so many actors who are SAG actors and our director is a US director who works under the American Directors’ Guild, we work largely under the Safe Way Forward protocols, which means that we have a lot more stringent things we have had to put in place than a local domestic TV show or film would. So all cast and crew are tested three times a week for COVID. We have our zones set up: our A zone, or our B zone. We have mandatory mask wearing for everybody. So even though there hadn't been a case in the Byron Shire since April, we acted like it was. So we took it incredibly seriously. We're just so thrilled we were able to keep going so early, and getting literally hundreds and hundreds of people back to work at this time where it was so uncertain was amazing. And for us as a company, this was always our goal to do not only Australian stories for an international audience, but also bring international stories here and make enormous studio productions of scale. So we're feeling very excited about the path of Made Up Stories here in Australia.

MADE UP STORIES HAS MADE FOUR FILMS AND PIECES OF HER WILL BE THE FOURTH TV SERIES – DO YOU TRY AND FIND A BALANCE BETWEEN YOUR TV AND FILM SLATE?

JM: It doesn't really work like that for us. I think we look at material that moves us and filmmakers that we want to work with. And then you look at that and you say, ‘OK, is this a film or is it a TV series?’ It's really the filmmakers and the material that drives us more than saying, ‘oh, we've got a slot, we need to be making two TV shows now and we need to make one film now’. It's much more emotional than that. We find a book that we all fall in love with and then we go into developing that and things happen on their own timeline.

SH: We're not deciding when stuff gets made: it's the marketplace. Clearly the TV market is the more vibrant market right now, especially during COVID with theatres having been shut down largely throughout the world. That's been a blow to the film business, but there's still a market for that as well. Ultimately, projects come together on their own timelines and we're always trying to move things forward.

DOES WORKING WITH CERTAIN CREATIVES DRIVE WHAT PROJECTS YOU’RE DEVELOPING?

SH: So much of it is talent driven, writer-driven, director-driven. Even when we option a book that resonates with us, we'll send it out to writers and writers/directors. Because ultimately what we're doing is realising the vision of the writers and directors that we work with and supporting them. We would love to partner with other producers as well. Often we partner at the material stage or later on and for us it's about, how do we realise the vision for the show in the best way possible? As producers, you have to have the flexibility to go where you need to go and make it when it's ready to be made.

JM: We have three projects in development with Abe [Forsythe] at the moment, and we have other filmmakers who will come to us at the idea stage. Otherwise, it's a book or it's a script that already exists. So there's no rhyme or reason how things come to us or at what stage – it can be at all different stages. But the key is that we all love it; it makes us excited; it feels like we're not repeating ourselves; we feel like it has the potential to reach an international audience; and we feel like we can get it made too, because we're not just in the development business. Everything that we decide that we're going to put our hearts and soul into, we want to see it come to fruition and be made.

ARE YOU THREE (JODI, STEVE AND BRUNA) DRAWN TO DIFFERENT ASPECTS OF PRODUCING OR IS THERE OVERLAP?

JM: We do different things, but then there's a lot of crossover as well. All three of us would be working with the writers from the development stage, probably Steve and I are more sort of finance-focused than Bruna, but she gets involved on key things on that side as well. And then we're all just very hands on. I do know that there are other companies where there's less hands on producers, more kind of business producers and more creative producers. But I feel like the three of us straddle everything. And we're there, we show up, and we're very involved in every aspect of the film or the TV show that we're making.

SH: We each have different relationships and whether it's actors, directors, it depends on certain projects who's taking the lead at certain times. And Nine Perfect Strangers is a great example, where we're doing different things and there's stuff in the middle that we're doing together as well.

JM: And I think what we always try and do is say, ‘OK, how can we be additive?’ That we're always individually adding value to whatever it is that we're working on. I think the key is also just liking spending time with each other, because you ultimately work around the clock. So you want to be having fun with people you enjoy spending time with.

SH: Like in any business, you have lots of highs and lows and stuff in between. And just the fact that we really love what we're doing and respect each other's abilities and all have the same goal - to make great things for people to enjoy… It's just it's a great sort of natural rhythm between us, very lucky.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

  • The Dry is out in Australian cinemas now
  • Penguin Bloom releases in Australian cinema on 21 January through Roadshow Films
  • The Undoing is on Foxtel now
  • Watch out for Nine Perfect Strangers (Hulu) as well as Pieces of Her and Anatomy of a Scandal (Netflix) in the future