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Sean P. Means: Producer finds she has major partners on ‘Hundred-Foot Journey’

By Sean P. Means

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Aug 07 2014 10:29 am • Last Updated Aug 07 2014 04:12 pm

You can forgive Juliet Blake for name-dropping. After all, the names that crop up when discussing the producer’s first feature film, "The Hundred-Foot Journey," are pretty heavy ones.

"Can you imagine? My first film and my first credit, and I share it with Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg?" Blake said in a recent phone interview from her Brooklyn home. "I just feel honored to be in their company."

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The movie (opening Friday) is an adaptation of Richard C. Morais’ novel that follows the fates of two restaurants in a small Provence town. One is an established shrine to French haute cuisine, run by the perfectionist Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). The other is run by a recently resettled family of immigrants from India, bringing Indian flavors to Provence.

Blake discovered the book while it was still in galleys. "I was staying with a friend who was a publisher in New York," she said. "She was always giving me books to read."

Blake, a producer whose TV work includes hundreds of hours of programming for the National Geographic Channel, secured the film rights quickly. Turns out she wasn’t the first one to recognize the movie potential of the material.

As Blake tells the story, Morais’ book developed out of conversations he had with his friend Ismail Merchant, the Indian-born producer most famous for his collaborations with director James Ivory, such as "A Room With a View" and "Howards End." Merchant was also a gourmand who had written a cookbook of Indian cuisine.

"He asked [Ismail], ‘Why have you never done a food movie?’ " Blake said. Morais and Merchant apparently discussed such a project before Merchant’s death in 2005.

The book "is written in quite a filmic way," Blake said, though she added that the movie’s narrative is quite different — in part because the movie makes short work of the book’s opening third, which puts the Indian family in the United Kingdom before moving to France.

"We’ve taken all the themes of the book — the themes of love and how food can cross cultures — and taken them very seriously," she said.

In shopping the project to Hollywood, Blake started attracting some names. A young executive at DreamWorks, the company to which Spielberg is attached, suggested Blake needed a bigger name. So she went to Harpo Films, Winfrey’s production company, and Winfrey’s crew loved it.

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The book had not yet been published in the United States at this point, but had come out in India. "Oprah had read it and thought it would be good for her summer reading list," Blake said. The list appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine, and the book — as Oprah-endorsed books tend to do — shot up the best-seller chart.

Blake is one of the movie’s three credited producers — Spielberg and Winfrey are the other two — but, being the least famous of the three, she’s the one who was on the set in France every day.

"I was the person on the ground, and that’s really wonderful for me," she said.

She lobbied that the film’s screenwriter should be, like her, British. "We all grew up with pockets of Indian communities around us," she said. "We grew up understanding that Indian experience." (The screenwriter is Steven Knight, who wrote and directed Tom Hardy’s one-man drama "Locke.")

Winfrey showed her support by visiting the set in France. "It was so exciting for us," Blake said.

Spielberg didn’t visit the set, but Blake said he was involved with casting and worked closely with the film’s director, Lasse Hallström ("Chocolat," "The Cider House Rules") — watching the dailies and looking at Hallström’s edit of the film.

"On a daily basis, my job was to be at Lasse’s side," Blake said. She was involved with changes made on the set, to make sure the story felt organic.

She also wanted to ensure the movie retained a clear voice. "So often, with too many writers, movies become minestrone," she said, employing a food metaphor.

"The Hundred-Foot Journey" joins a long list of movies about food — a list that includes beloved titles such as "Babette’s Feast," "Like Water for Chocolate," "Big Night," "Eat Drink Man Woman" and "Ratatouille." Blake says she understands why we like movies about food.

"I think food equates to good will," she said. "When you’re around the dinner table with friends and family, that’s when you have a really good time, and good communication happens."

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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