The Hundred-Foot Journey is currently enjoying both critical and commercial success and marks the producing debut of Juliet Blake.
Blake has made the leap from television to film for this project, which has taken a number of years to bring to the big screen.
We caught up with her to chat about the film, what drew her to the story, and what lies ahead.
- The Hundred-Foot Journey has just been released, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
The Hundred-Foot Journey is a book that I optioned five and a half years ago after reading and falling in love with it. At the time, I worked in television and I was looking to move from working in television to putting my first film together.
I read the book and just thought that it would make a beautiful movie. I set about on my own journey trying to get the film made.
I am really happy with the way that it has turned out because when I read the book, I always imagined Helen Mirren playing Madame Mallory; I had no idea that I would end up producing with Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. It has been the most fantastic experience for me it really has been great.
I am really happy with the way the film has turned out and we had a really great year last year. I usually work in New York for TED Talks, but I took six months off to go and make this film.
We didn't really know it was happening until May 2013, but by June/July I was already going to look for locations in France, which was amazing; I never knew that parts of France were so incredibly beautiful.
I just had this magical experience where I was on set for every... I had produced hundreds of hours of television but there's a big difference doing a feature film. I was on set for every single shot of the movie and worked very closely with the director Lasse Hallström and with the actors. It was just a great experience.
- You are clearly a big fan of the book and I was wondering what it was about the story that was the huge appeal for you?
Growing up near Preston and going to college in Preston, we grew up with many Indian communities around us, and I really felt that the book was a great way of telling a story that was about racism and immigration, but using food as metaphors.
The ability of unite people with a good meal was something that was very appealing to me. I just thought it was a really beautiful way of telling a story about different cultures and how different cultures can be very suspicious of each other; actually, we are more alike than we are different.
I felt that this book and the film was a great way of covering subjects like that, but is a meaningful and beautiful way.
- Can you talk a bit about the process that you go through from optioning the book to getting it to the big screen. Just how difficult a task has that been?
This project feels like it has had quite a charmed life. I don't know what the statistics are but I think it is one in several thousand books that are optioned that actually are made into films.
It is a long journey. I went to meet the author if Philadelphia and he agreed that I could option the book; that took time with lawyers and spending money on that. Once I had the rights to the book, I had to set about trying to find the right people to make the movie.
I am a very big fan of Steven Spielberg; I have seen all of his films, but Schindler's List is deeply meaningful to me as I am the daughter of a family that came from Nazi Germany. I did take it to DreamWorks and they were a little bit interested but not interested enough to say 'yes let's do this.'
I went on to get rejected for several different places; it was a really long journey. Then I found this young executive at DreamWorks who loved the book and it really does only take one spark to start a fire. If you can get one person who is passionate and joins you, then you have someone who can help you make it happen.
So there was this young executive who loved the book as much as I did and she said 'look, why don't you take it to some other places? If you get a bite and the like it, then you should bring it back here.' That is what I did. I took it to various other places, including Oprah Winfrey's film company.
They read the book and thought it was great, Oprah read the book, and then they decided to make is a summer reading book in the Oprah Winfrey magazine; this is going back to 2012.
This really helped the book sales. The book hadn't come out in America at that time - I had read it early because I had got hold of a copy of it. That really gave me a fire in my belly that I could make this happen. So I took it back to DreamWorks and they came on board.
It took a long time to find the writer as we had a long list of potential people. I had always wanted an English writer because I felt that an English writer would really understand what it was like for Indian communities settling in the cold of Britain.
A third of the book follows them coming from India to England, where they spend much more time that in the film. They have a miserable time when they come to England because of the cold and they are not as well off as they were in India; sadly, we had to cut all of that out of the film.
When Steven Knight’s name came up, I thought he would be perfect because he comes from Birmingham, he has done all these great films before, and I thought that he would really understand this story.
He read the book and just loved it. Having DreamWorks and Harpo Film on board was amazing, but when Steve Knight really liked the book, that was another validation. Because he is such a successful writer, we had to wait a very long time for him to deliver us a script as he has so many other things in the hopper.
When he did deliver the script, it was just so good. That is the bit that happens so rarely; that you get a script and it attracts the attention of Steven Spielberg. The film had been developed internally for his company, he had read and loved the book, but it is not until a script comes in that people get truly excited.
I am just developing one film, but these film companies are developing so many projects. The script came in last February; it has taken us four and a half years to get to that point. Once the script came in and people read it, they were like 'ok let’s make this film.'
I was just beside myself as I had no idea that it would be done so quickly, as so often it can take ten years or seven years, or never happen. That is really when it kicked off.
- Lasse Hallström is in the director's chair for the film, so did he get involved in the project?
I like his work very much and so does Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. Again, when you are coming up with lists of writers, you put a list together of people's films you like and you go out to their agents and approach them.
Lasse read the book, his agents talked to DreamWorks, and he decided that he would like to make this film. He and Steven Spielberg had tried to work together about ten years beforehand and for some reason it didn't work out; Lasse has always been very upset that they had never worked together. They just had a wonderful working relationship on this film.
Steven Spielberg is great with other directors and he really couldn't be more supportive. He is so embracing of other talent, which is just amazing.
He is really so brilliant with his visual ideas, script ideas, and casting to have him on my first film was amazing. To be in the company of Steven and Oprah was such a gift.
- I was actually going to ask you about working with both Steven and Oprah, how did you find that experience? It seems to be a partnership that has worked really well.
You know what? It was great. Oprah came to visit us in France for one day, and it was like an injection in the arm for everyone.
When you are working on a film and are forty days in, no matter how beautiful the sets are and how great the cast is, it is exhausting as it is long days making sure that you have got everything that you need for the film. She arrived and it was like a breath of fresh air and everyone was just thrilled to have her there.
She has people who work in her film company including Carla Gardini, who was an executive producer on the film, and she was very involved with me in the development of the script. So Oprah's team was very involved with the film as Oprah is just so busy. However, she has been a big supporter of the project and was involved at various stages.
Steven Spielberg was involved...he has such a brilliant visual eye. The first meeting that I was at DreamWorks he was at - it was the kick off meeting with Lasse Hallström, the production designer and other production people - and I just sat there with my mouth open listening to him talk.
At one point, someone else in the room looked at me and was almost laughing at me because I was so gobsmacked that he was talking about this project that I had been involved with almost on my own for so long; it really was like a dream.
He is so clever, he has such good ideas, and thinks very visually; when he was reading the script, he had wonderful ideas as to how to make it all come alive.
- You have mentioned a couple of times that this is the first feature, so how have you found the transition away from television?
I have loved every minute of it; I have got the bug now (laughs). I don't think everyone has such great experiences. It is a very beautiful story to be able to tell and at the same time, to be surrounded... it wasn't just Steven and Oprah, we had the production designer David Gropman, who did Life of Pi. We also had a wonderful lighting guy who was someone that Steven had recommended. And the director of photography Linus Sandgren is also so talented.
I felt that I was surrounded by really brilliant people. On the first day I was driving to set and seeing arrows point me in the direction of the film set, I had to stop and have a little weep (laughs). It was very emotional because it was such a major thing to have done.
For me, I am very proud of the film. What is also wonderful is that Richard Morais, the author of the book, is really happy with the movie; that was nerve-racking, as I wanted to do the right thing by him.
He loves the film and couldn't be happier with it - and that doesn't always happen either. All around it has been a really good experience.
- You said when you read the book for the first time you did envisage seeing Helen Mirren playing the lead role...
- There she is on set playing Madame Mallory...
She was great; she was so great to work with. First and foremost, she is a brilliant actress but she is also a real human being; she is not grand.
The first day that she was on set and working, it made me truly understand that acting is not just about embodying a character and learning the lines, there is so much more... obviously, I know that is not the case, but she embodied this really interesting physicality of the character.
She had though so hard about who Madame Mallory was, not just what she would look like and how she would sound, but even how she would move across the market. She created this character that I felt was very very real.
- How are you finding the response to the film so far? It does seem to be doing well.
Amazing. I can't keep up with the number of emails from all over the world telling me that they film got a round of applause at the end. The response to it has been just amazing.
- Finally, what's coming up for you? I was reading that you are developing a live action Hansel and Gretel film.
I am yes. I use to work for the National Geographic, but I now work for this company called TED.com. They have these conferences called TED Talks, which are these eighteen-minute talks that are online.
I work for a company that spreads the most amazing ideas all over the world online with these short talks; it is a great experience.
I am developing a couple of other feature films now. I know that they will take a very long time to happen. My passion is storytelling, it doesn't matter if it is in film, television, or on the web, I feel that I am a storyteller and I want to tell good stories. I am developing a couple of films, but I am doing other things as well.
The Hundred-Foot Journey is out now.