At a recent screening of “The Hundred-Foot Journey” hosted by the Boston-based tolerance-building organization Facing History and Ourselves at the Coolidge Theater in Massachusetts, the film’s producer Juliet Blake thought it would be appropriate to bring a special box of belongings to show to the crowd. Having just seen the film, perhaps the audience could expect to lay eyes on the collection of spices carried around by the film’s lead character Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), a burgeoning chef who discovers his family’s generations’ old mixtures of cardamom and fenugreek can shake up French cuisine in pleasing ways. But instead, they got something even more meaningful when Blake pulled out the box that was passed down to her from her parents, containing the concentration camp papers of her grandparents and her father’s passport from when he was a young man before he was exiled out of Germany.
“I got terribly emotional when I saw how that spice box is handed down from generation to generation in the movie,” says Blake. “It wasn’t in the book, but when I read the script, it was the one thing that made me feel there’s something magical about this experience for me and this movie happening.”
Perhaps it was fate intervening when Blake came across a galley of Richard C. Morais’ novel in 2009 about an Indian clan that opens a restaurant in the French countryside where their middle child can achieve his destiny of blossoming into a top-tier chef. But having the experience of giving some of the world’s great movers and shakers a platform for their transformative ideas as the content producer for TED Talks, she was also ready to put in the work required to share some close to her heart on the biggest screen possible, ultimately pulling in the likes of Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey to bring “The Hundred-Foot Journey” to fruition. Shortly before treating the world to this summertime feast, Blake spoke about making her first film as a producer after a long career in television and devoting herself to a single production, as well as her work for TED.
What got you interested in the book initially?
When I read the book, I was really entranced by how food is used as the way of communicating cross-cultural interest. It’s about love, it’s about food, it’s about culture and it’s about immigration, all areas that are very close to my heart. I grew up as the daughter of German Jews and my grandparents died in Auschwitz. And my parents did a lot of German cooking and [I was always interested in] the notion of food being foreign, which it used to be to all of my school friends growing up in the north of England. I’d go to their homes and have very English food and they would come to my house and eat very German food. As a child, I used to be quite embarrassed about that, but I think food and the cultural references of food are quite important.
I also was a senior executive at the National Geographic Channel and the thing that I was most proud of being involved in was a series called “Border Wars” which is really about the immigration issues on the Mexican-American border. It ran for five seasons. I read “The Hundred-Foot Journey” when I was deeply concerned about [the issue] and when I read about the immigrant experience of the Kadam family and what they were experiencing leaving India and trying to find a new home somewhere in Europe, it really spoke to me that it’s a story about any immigrant’s experience. My parents were immigrants. I’d been working on these TV series about immigration, and in some ways, “The Hundred Foot Journey” felt like an expansion of the work that I had already been involved in.
Is it true you called Oprah Winfrey right after reading it?
The story’s got a little bit mangled in translation, but when I optioned the book, it took me three years to really get any interest from anybody. DreamWorks was one of the first places that I took it to because I’ve always absolutely had the utmost respect for Steven Spielberg as a filmmaker and I was particularly moved by “Schindler’s List” — I felt that I was seeing my relatives on the screen. It’s the one film that really made me believe that filmmaking can change lives.
DreamWorks basically said to me, “We love the book, but you should bring another partner in.” That’s how Oprah became involved. I took it to Harpo Films, who really responded to the material. I’m very grateful that they did because the book had been published in India, but not yet in the United States and what happened was really quite magical. Oprah’s team persuaded her to make it part of her summer reading list as part of Oprah’s Book Club in 2010. As a result of that, the book sales went up and Oprah, Harpo Films and I took it back to DreamWorks. That’s when it was put into active development.
That would seem to be around the same time studios really began cutting back on this type of drama to make blockbusters. Because you were coming from television, were you intimidated by that or were you able to be blissfully unaware?
My plan was to leave television because I’d worked in television for a really long time and I didn’t want to work in reality TV. I’ve done a lot of different genres of television, but I really was looking to find a book to turn into a movie and when I read “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” I really felt I want this to be my first movie project.
I was living in Washington DC [at the time] and working at National Geographic when I went to meet Richard Morais, who was living in Philadelphia. I had lunch with him, and I said, “Look any other producer will have 20, 30 projects. They may just buy books to take them off the market. I will have one film project and I will nurture it like it was my own child and I’ll keep you involved every step of the way.” I have kept him involved every step of the way — every time I went to Hollywood for meetings, whether they worked out well or badly or any time there was news on the project, I would call him and keep him involved. We’ve really grown to be great friends.
What was it like to arrive on the set of your first film?
I was there for every single shot of the movie. It sounds rather vain, but I didn’t ever feel that I didn’t know what I was doing. I lived with this book for such a long time and I knew the script backwards, forwards, and inside out. I knew the story that I wanted to be told and Lasse Hallstrom, who did a really wonderful job with the movie, was very inclusive with me as were the actors. They were very embracing of my position and everybody made me feel incredibly welcome.
On the first day of shooting in Southwest France, I was driving to the set and you start to see those arrows pointing to where the location is, and the first time I saw an arrow that said “HFJ” — “Hundred-Foot Journey” — on it, I stopped the car and had a little weep. I just couldn’t believe that it was really happening.
Now your name is on the poster alongside Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. How surreal is that?
[laughs] It never gets old, as my daughters say. But I have this other life. I work for TED Talks and I have this amazing job where I meet the most incredible people every single day of my working life, producing TED events and curating special projects for TED. Actually, I knew “The Hundred-Foot Journey” was greenlit in May and in April of last year, I produced TED’s first television special for PBS. I took a six-month sabbatical, but I worked for TED all the way through the movie. I was getting up in the middle of the night working with speakers in India and all over the world. I think that really kept me grounded.
Has producing those TED Talks had an influence on you? As a storyteller, it must be interesting to see no matter where a speaker comes from how compelling those talks are, and I imagine you can’t watch all those people talk about changing the world without wanting to do so yourself.
If you are a good storyteller, you can be a good storyteller in every genre. I started my career doing some print journalism, then I moved to radio, then television. This is my first film and I hope to do more, but I don’t want to be a full-time film producer and I get so much satisfaction from the work that I do for TED.
I’m not going to be making a “Fast and the Furious” movie. The films that I want to make will have a social conscience. I’ve wanted to find a way of telling a narrative about the poverty gap in America and I think I’ve found a great project to do that with, but I haven’t pitched it anywhere yet, because I’m not in a hurry. There are certain things that I care deeply about and those are the films that I would like to make. If they happen great, but if they don’t then I’ll find a way of telling them with the brilliant speakers at TED.