'Hundred-Foot Journey' Premiere: Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey on Eclectic Tastes and 'Being French'
"To survive here, we have to adapt — we need to make use of what is close to us, and then we pray to god that it works," says Manish Dayal in The Hundred-Foot Journey, Dreamworks Pictures' culinary dramedy about resolving cultural differences and realizing individual identities through food. The same could be said about releasing the social change-charged film itself as the cast and creatives celebrated its premiere at New York City's Ziegfeld Theatre on Monday night.
Based on Richard Morais' 2011 novel, the film traces the rivalry between two competing restaurants — a Michelin-star French spot and a family-run Indian restaurant — in the south of France. "I just thought this particular Indian family was representative of themselves, of who they are," producer Steven Spielberg told The Hollywood Reporter of the onscreen Kadam family, who struggle to find acceptance after migrating to a foreign country. "We're all representative of the melting pot we exist in, but you can't melt a family into a generality of where they're from. That's the message of the movie: We're all independently individual, we all matter, and this movie doesn't invalidate anyone."
Helen Mirren, who stars as French restaurant head Madame Mallory, told reporters of her character's feud with Om Puri and his family, "Any restaurateur would be upset if a restaurant opens immediately opposite. And also the type of restaurant is very offensive to her French sensibility of what a French restaurant should be — it's noisy, it's smelly, she thinks it's lowering the tone in general. You know, the French do take being French very seriously!" Still, she added of production, "Being in France and playing a French character, I felt like I was in a French movie, and I'm a big fan of French movies.... In the end, we do love each other's food, we enjoy each other's food, and that is the glue that very much holds people together."
Director Lasse Hallstrom told THR that his biggest struggle was "trying to present food in close-up in a way that hasn't been done in TV commercials" and noted that the cast "makes the truth of the film come alive — the tastes and smells, and all those good things." He particularly enjoyed collaborating with Spielberg: "It was wonderful to have him around — he was supposed to work in a producer-director capacity ten years ago but it didn't happen, so I'm so happy it happened now. He gave great ideas for the script and great notes in the editing room."
Screenwriter Steven Knight adapted Morais' novel independent of the author's input. "It's very difficult to write the direction that says, 'This food looks amazing,' but it has to," he explained. "The food really has to tell the story — it has to be seductive, almost in a sexual way, which is why I think food is so interesting. It's beyond sex, beyond music; it's a different sense that doesn't really get dealt with in film. [In the script,] you have to be specific; otherwise it's a cop-out and you're leaving it to everyone else. You have to say, 'It' s a sea urchin that looks like this; it's beautiful but it's smelly and sort of ugly, but it's lovely.' You have to be brave enough to be specific."
Besides feting the film, much of the conversation on the red carpet circled around preferred menus. Oprah Winfrey, who said she had "no difficulties" being a producer and enjoyed the experience alongside executive producers Jeff Skoll and Jonathan King of Participant Media, noted that she eats more Indian than French food, but that her culinary obsession is truffles. "I'm a truffle fiend! I walk around with truffle salt; whenever I arrive at a hotel, I bring truffle salt and truffle oil. I want to go do the truffle hunt with the pigs." Spielberg said of his favorite dishes from around the world, "The same way all my movies are different from the next, I eat the way I film — it's very eclectic!"
And when asked which dishes trigger healing in their own lives, producer Juliet Blake recalled, "My mother's matzo ball soup — I remember when I was living alone as a student in London and being kind of miserable, and I'd go home and it would make me feel better." Charlotte Le Bon, in Elie Saab, praised her grandmother's comforting dessert. "She bakes raspberries with white cake, so the raspberries get 'confit,' and then she puts cream on it. She made it whenever I wanted — she's a very nice grandmother!"
Amit Shah smiled when he said, "I love porridge with lots of golden syrup and chopped strawberries — it just really reminds me of being a child on the weekend, and having the time to have porridge with my family." Quoting the film, he said, " 'Food is memories,' and that's definitely the case for me."
The Hundred-Foot Journey hits theaters Aug. 8.