In light of Kodak’s decision to continue producing film stock and the vigorous support by Martin Scorsese and a host of other prominent directors, it’s ironic that Lasse Hallstrom had to be forced into using film again for “The Hundred-Foot Journey.” What’s stranger is that it took Steven Spielberg, the film’s producer, to pair Hallstrom up with Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“American Hustle”), who insisted they shoot on film.
“I didn’t even know that he existed until Steven recommended him,” Hallstrom laughs. “He’s tall and relaxed and comes from the North of Sweden. And his aesthetic is identical to mine. Instead of doing cuts, we did two long takes. But I like the fact that you can keep rolling and rolling with digital until we get it. Otherwise, I cut and talk.”
But the acclaimed director of “Chocolat,” “Cider House Rules,” and “My Life as a Dog” resisted film until Sandgren showed him side-by-side comparison of some greenery. “The subtleties of color on film was not there at all on digital,” Hallstrom admits. “He proved it’s still better in that way. But we did the same thing with film [keeping it rolling] because I’m interested in the details of the story, the millisecond of a moment that rings true to help actors or to fool them even within the confines of a fable.”
(Even so, they shot the Paris sequences digitally to give it a colder atmosphere and because digital arguably captures night better than film.)
Despite the similarity to French-set “Chocolat,” this fable about the power of food to unite people appealed to Hallstrom. Well-matched Helen Mirren and Omi Puri play competing French and Indian restaurateurs located across the street in the sleepy Southwest French town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val.
But then Hallstrom has an affinity for immigrants who are fish out of water: “Even though I have an American passport, I still feel like an outsider serving Swedish meals in America. This accent doesn’t go away, my culture doesn’t go away. I’m still an outsider in America. And that certainly brings a familiarity to this story.”
DreamWorks chief Spielberg and Hallstrom share history. Hallstrom passed on directing Leonardo DiCaprio hit “Catch Me If You Can,” which Spielberg went on to helm in 2002. This time Spielberg intended to direct “The Hundred-Foot Journey” (co-produced by pal Oprah Winfrey, who championed the Richard C. Morais bestseller), but when he change his mind, he offered it to Hallstrom.
The Swedish filmmaker enjoyed collaborating with the famed Hollywood director, who view dailies every day and offered notes in the editing room. More than anything, though, Hallstrom wanted to draw us in by observing life. So he toned down the broad comedy in Steve Knight’s script: “I know that comedy has a price because it pulls the audience out of the story.” Then again, the comedic aspects of irrational behavior turn out to be responses that we all have in common.
“The Hundred-Foot Journey” is filled with cinematic allusions: crafting fine cuisine is like conjuring a great story: it needs to be familiar yet innovative — but not too innovative that it takes you away from the roots of your passion. The rivalry between the icy Mirren (obsessed with adding another Michelin star to her destination restaurant) and the obstinate Puri (obsessed with local success and acceptance) clashes with the personal artistry of Puri’s talented son, played by Manish Dayal, who’s torn in his quest to become a world-famous chef.
“I encourage actors to improvise,” Hallstrom explains. “I told Manish that Hassan is a genius so do whatever you want. It’s all about helping create faith having the actors trust their instincts. Helen knows everything about filmmaking and offers 10 valid options on each moment. Monish is very clever and I like watching them work together. Monish claims he forgot about the camera when focusing on her and there’s no vanity to her.”
Hallstrom’s favorite moment occurs when Manish prepares a unique French/Indian omelet for Mirren as an ice breaker. But the sensory explosion reawakens her love of food and life, recalling the reaction Peter O’Toole’s bitter food critic has when he tastes the eponymous dish concocted by the culinary rat in “Ratatouille.”
“I don’t think it’s about the close-ups of the food because they’re pretty ordinary to me,” Hallstrom confirms. “I think it’s about the sensuality of the performances. Another attraction with this story was that I could play around with merging the sounds, the languages [and the tasty hybrid score by composer A.R. Rahman]. There’s a lot of different languages that are not translated, so it’s another spice, another color of the film that I appreciated.”