BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — If you're going to make your first foray into producing feature films, you can do a lot worse than to have Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey by your side. That's just how things turned out for Juliet Blake, a content producer for TED Talks who has been with "The Hundred-Foot Journey" since before the book was even published.
"I loved the title," she says of the first time she came across Richard C. Morais' novel. "I thought, 'What could be a hundred-foot journey?' I was intrigued."
The film tells the story of Hassan (Manish Dayal), an Indian teenager who relocates to the south of France with his family after growing up learning the secrets of Indian cuisine and enduring the tragic loss of his mother. They set up shop across the street from a Michelin starred destination restaurant run by the forthright Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who senses Hassan's culinary gifts and takes him under her wing, training him in classical cuisine. It becomes a culture class fable, with food and drink at its center, and those were the elements that shot out at Blake when she first read it.
"The book is quite different in many ways. There's a suicide of a Parisian chef, who under the pressure of Michelin stars, commits suicide, and I knew we wouldn't put that in the book. But I think what we've managed to do quite successfully is take all the themes of the book and turn it into the film."
She took the book to Oprah Winfrey, who turned around and made it a selection in her well-regarded Book Club, which of course helped turn it into an international bestseller. With Oprah and her Harpo Productions shingle on board as a producing partner, that made catching the eye of DreamWorks that much easier.
"Steven read the script and is a huge fan of [screenwriter] Steven Knight's," Blake says. "He at one point dabbled with the idea of directing it himself. He's so clever and obviously he's a brilliant filmmaker himself, but he's so strong on material. He worked very specifically with [director] Lasse [Hallström]. He, I think, gave Lasse a level of confidence. He likes to keep his distance from directors, but he's there for them when they need him. He watched dailies every day and he spent some time in the edit with Lasse."
Production took place mostly in the sleepy Southwest France town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, and Blake was there on set every day, working with Hallström, further developing the script with Knight, who was in London. She has been there every step of the way, so while she might have titans at her side, the, well, journey of "The Hundred-Foot Journey" has largely been hers.
"What was important to me were the themes of family, immigration, how food can be the great uniter of people, race," she says. "I do think food is a great cultural leveler of people. People love food and it reminds you of home."
For more on the upcoming release, check out the featurette above with insights from Spielberg, Winfrey and Hallström throughout.
"The Hundred-Foot Journey" opens in theaters Aug. 8.