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‘The Devil Wears Prada’ At 10: Meryl Streep and More on How Their Risky Project Became a Massive Hit

On the 10th anniversary of the Fourth of July weekend opening of "The Devil Wears Prada," we go behind the scenes with Meryl Streep and the key players for a play-by-play of how the movie got made.

The Devil Wears Prada

Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada”

Fox 2000

Casting

David Frankel: My first choice was Meryl. We had a couple of big movie stars we talked about but only one we approached. She said “yes” immediately. She just saw the riches of the character and the opportunity to skewer the doyennes of the fashion world. She has three daughters. In her mind, fashion magazines twisted the minds of young women around the world and their priorities. This was an interesting way to get back at them.

Elizabeth Gabler: When Meryl agreed to do the movie based on conversations with David, she trusted us to give her a fully dimensional character. She didn’t interfere. She waited until he was ready. He gave her the draft and it was great. We really got over the hump in the time period that she was waiting to see another draft of the script.

Aline Brosh McKenna: This was first big gig I’d had. I hadn’t dared to dream of Meryl. I got to meet her, in the living room of her town house, for her feedback on the script. She felt it was important to explain to the audience what fashion means. She came up with the speech about the blue sweater, smart things like that to make it better. She obviously wanted no version of her playing a cartoon villain. She was willing to explore the vulnerability of her character, in a scene with no makeup. It wasn’t pandering; she maintains her edge and sharpness.

David Frankel: She was not thinking about Anna Wintour. It was very clear she wasn’t doing an Anna Wintour impression. She asked, “How can we make it real, how can we make it feel even to fashion aficionados that we got it right?” We wanted it to be as real as possible. It seemed fun to really in that sense make it as documentary-like as possible.

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep at “The Devil Wears Prada” photocall at the Venice Film Festival

Photo by David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

Meryl Streep: The most interesting piece to me was the responsibility lying on the shoulders of a woman who was the head of a global brand and fashion empire. In business terms, I wanted to know what that was like. We punched out the beginnings of that cerulean blue sweater scene. That would be interesting to people, not just, “your boss is a bitch,” but, “What are the pressures and the responsibility of what it is to be a boss?”

Annie’s character thinks fashion is frivolous, but it’s an industry that employs people and spreads the network of its influence across a lot of different industries, and people’s lives. That scene wasn’t about the fun of fashion, it was about marketing and business, the fun of it is what we always think of.

The book was written about Anna Wintour from the point of view of someone who worked for her. It’s a version of her, not necessarily accurate or whatever, a piece of fun fiction, “chick lit.” Embedded in it… is what the perceived deficits are of women in a leadership position. Chief among them is to expect women to be endlessly empathetic, a sense of employees’ discomfiture that she doesn’t give a shit, all the things that they would not ask of a male boss.

Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada”

I’ve thought a lot about these issues of empathy, what you have to do if you’re a pediatric brain surgeon. You put aside the fact of the enormity of the task you are about to embark on, lifting the edge up of the child’s skull. With certain professions you put aside your feeling gene, your tendency to feel the other’s pain, in order to be efficient and get the day’s work done. A certain amount of work has to be achieved during the day, you want a direct order and follow through on that order. There’s that expectation that hurts women more in leadership than it does men. I’ve seen that in so many different places.

It interested me that Anna Wintour was expected to be smilier, nicer, sweeter…what we wish women to be is nicer. I thought “Well, hell, what is her job? What does she have to do? What are her deadlines? What do we have very little time for, even though the dress and heels have to have the outward accoutrements of being appealing, womanly?”

It’s a fairy tale. I like Annie, the way she looked at the beginning. I liked her tragic blue sweater and her scruples about all of it. Maybe I’m not the target audience.

Right in the beginning, reading the script, I thought, “Nobody’s seen this before and the girls are going to like this!” I didn’t have any doubt about it. It’s very rare and you know it when it’s happening. People knew. You never know how it’s going to go. It’s a collaborative thing. Chemistry comes from the director’s particular desire to tell the story. But even with the silly scenes that are comic, everything has a subversive point.

The Devil Wears Prada

Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada”

Fox 2000

Elizabeth Gabler: Anne Hathaway wanted this part so badly, but it was a little harder to get her approved, because the powers up at the studio did not realize what a strong audience she did have behind her [after the princess movies]. They weren’t that audience. They didn’t know. She campaigned for this part. She knew she wasn’t the first choice. She didn’t just wait for it. She came in and gave notes on the script about the third act. She’s really smart, she knew she would be great in it.

Aline Brosh McKenna: The Anne Hathaway part is that person who is intelligent, the best student in the class who writes these pretentious pieces. Anne gets across that sense of a super-smart books/art person, which is a difficult thing to fake. She nailed the smugness, that slight you feel when you come out of the school world which was your oyster because you got As in college.

Elizabeth Gabler: We were casting “Eragon” at the same time and Emily really wanted to play the female lead. And David Frankel said, “Well, I want Emily Blunt.” And I said to Emily, “Listen to me, you get to go work in New York in this gorgeous movie in these gorgeous clothes. Or you can be in a field in Budapest with a sword. What do you think is a better thing that could’ve happened to you?”

Aline Brosh McKenna: For Stanley Tucci’s character, Nigel, we stuck a few characters in the book smushed into one person. He had been written as a more conventional mentor in the Hector Elizondo [“Pretty Woman”] vein, which was too tried and true, which popped off the page as amiable and shopworn. I did a rewrite, talked to someone fashion business who didn’t want to talk to me, because Wintour was not liking the book, so it was hard to do research. I did a rewrite with insults coming from Nigel. He does come around, but I did a rewrite to make him more skeptical of Andy, which made a huge difference.

Production

Elizabeth Gabler: We had this cast read-through in New York where Meryl and the cast was there. You got to see what it was going to be like. So everybody’s sitting around at a table with their scripts. It was the first time. I was nervous. I remember looking across the table at her and she already was giving Annie these looks that were, “You little dimwit.” Annie would say a line or pronounce something a certain way and you would just get this look from Meryl. She was getting into character. It was great.

Meryl Streep: They were such a jolly group, they had so much fun. I would come in and everything would tighten up, that was sort of my job. There’s no more fun person than Stanley Tucci, and Emily Blunt is a close second, Anne was divine. Which was such a bummer — it was a happy happy place until I walked in, then a chill came over. I couldn’t joke around. I was a little isolated, it was a little rough, and it made me understand that position she was in.

Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada”

Elizabeth Gabler: I remember the day that we shot the scene where Miranda is in the hotel room in Paris and she’s admitting that her husband has filed for divorce. We would go up and down the stairs of the hotel to this big huge suite at the top of the St. Regis. And I remember walking past her and you didn’t even look at her. You’d give her her space. It was a really quiet day and they had the monitors far away in another room way in the back. We sat in there. You didn’t talk. You didn’t say a word. You just let her do what she was going to do.

Meryl Streep: It was really important to have one unpeeled moment where it was just the human being. Anybody who’s a woman in public life knows the armor you put on to go out into the public world, and confront it all, and so it was important that that be all scraped raw, just for a glimpse of who she was, without the armor, that was cool. I thought Aline’s screenplay was wonderful, kind of unsentimental. She’s a bit of an empathetic writer. It passes the Bechdel test.

David Frankel: It was hard for us to talk to anyone in the fashion world at the time. They were still all a bit cowed by Ms. Wintour, the project had a profile that made people nervous about talking to us. That affected us down the road, even the location options, which were initially zero—no one would talk to us.  The clothes came much later. A lot of designers said no to our costume designer Patricia Field [“Sex and the City”]. The minute one designer came in it got easier.

Meryl Streep: We had many fittings. Pat’s got a great eye for the person’s type early on, she figured out what I gravitated toward, what looked good on my body—style and restraint— she had a lot of stuff, she had relationships with people, she begged and borrowed from everyone, people were very generous, they wouldn’t give us anything, so the studio owns nothing! It all went back to the makers and designers. People lent us everything. Prada. Valentino. Everybody worried, “What would Anna think?”

Anne Hathaway in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada”

I wasn’t at all doing some sort of thing on Anna Wintour. I’ve played so many real people, living and dead, when I’m going to try and approximate something of the same essence of that person. That’s a big responsibility.

What I wanted to do with the script was different, so I had to create my own sui generic, iconic, scary, formidable, stylish interesting, complex woman.

Elizabeth Gabler: The fashion world did not embrace the movie, in defense of Anna Wintour, and other people in this business who were friends of Ms. Wintour, too. We had to buy a lot of the clothes and Pat just created these outfits that were just amazing. We went to her atelier, her wardrobe department. It was in New York in the meatpacking district. We would sit there in a little row and have our little displays of the outfits and the bags. The room had bags and bags and bags and all the stuff.

Meryl was pretty set on the white hair. It was a very signature look that she and Roy [Helland] created. At first I said, “What’s that going to look like?” But of course when I saw her, it was great.

David Frankel: It was controversial at the studio, it wasn’t what they were expecting. They needed to be persuaded. Fortunately, Meryl was staunch.

The Devil Wears Prada

Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada”

Fox 2000

The first six weeks were nightmarish. The studio was very threatening us because we were not making our days. I saw the budget potentially go out of control. We got the green light at $35 million but that only gives you New York. They said: “You will not be shooting in Paris, don’t ask, as long as you’re on this lot, never mention the word Paris.”

In the end, they granted us some weekend days to scout Paris, midway through production, turning the schedule into a four-day weekend. I wrapped set at 8 p.m., flew from Newark airport to Paris, took two-and-a-half days to scout, flew to set and by 6 a.m. Monday we were shooting again.

We were not allowed to bring Meryl to Paris. She never went to Paris. We used green screen of her in the Mercedes, half shot on stage and using plates for Paris; she steps out of the Mercedes onto the steps of the Museum of the City of New York, and we used wide shots of her double in Paris.

Annie was having health issues with a cyst and surgeries and living with a world class felon at the time. After all the six weeks of strain and struggle and doubt, we felt like, “Wait a minute, we got something here.” There was chemistry between Annie and Meryl and Stanley and Emily working in the office and everything was firing on all cylinders. That was very inspiring.

The Devil Wears Prada

Emily Blunt in “The Devil Wears Prada”

Fox 2000

Elizabeth Gabler: It was a pretty reasonable schedule and healthy above the line. The final budget was $41 million. We paid Meryl maybe $4 million. Anne was below $1 million. We had to spend a lot on writers. Adrian Grenier, Emily Blunt, Simon Baker, the movie broke all of them. But we did have a big wardrobe budget. 55 days, now? We would never make it. We would’ve said 45 days, we would’ve taken 10 days out of it. Because of the challenges of the home entertainment industry now, we don’t have DVDs the way we did in those days, we have shorter release windows, there’s just too many movies coming, one on top of the other.

But here, everybody was getting the whole production going, getting their rhythms. David is one of those directors that has such a happy set that people are treated fairly and supported well and you can have a great team effort.

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