"My surreal journey into the world of movie-making started long before my family and I walked down the red carpet two weeks ago. That was the night producers Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, and Juliet Blake showcased their beautiful film of The Hundred-Foot Journey, my novel about a young Indian chef who becomes a three-star chef in Paris."
“One of the most memorable moments actually happened last fall, when my wife and I visited the film set an hour outside of Toulouse, the mud fields where director Lasse Hallström and a long list of major-league talent, including actors Helen Mirren and Om Puri, were miraculously turning my little tale into a big-screen fable. Oprah Winfrey wanted to meet me, and so my wife and I nervously made our way to the producer’s tent, near the old farmhouse that had been turned into an Indian restaurant. Inside the tent, which was filled with lush platters of fruit, Oprah strode forward, shook my hand, and told me how much she enjoyed the book and how surprised she was to learn I wasn’t Indian. It was a bit like being summoned by the Queen—I babbled like an idiot.
But then I heard the voice I have had in my head for 17 years. It was my character, Madame Mallory, and I looked around for the source. There, on a small monitor in the tent, was a close-up of Helen Mirren, perfectly channeling my creation. I became a little emotional. “You must forgive me,” I stammered, “but it’s a bit overwhelming. This is my 100-foot journey.” Oprah fixed me with her leonine stare for a moment and said, “Richard, let’s face it. This is a lot more than a 100 feet.”
Oprah was right. The next night, I sat down in the catering tent alongside a costumed Mirren and Puri, in effect dining with the characters I had created. I marvelled at how I had started writing The Hundred-Foot Journeyin the late 1990s, and how, for a good decade, I was simply unable to get published anywhere in the U.S. or Britain. My break came in 2008, when HarperCollins India first published my little book. Soon afterward, Juliet Blake optioned the book’s film rights, and as the book went on to become an international best seller, published in 30 territories around the world, my persistent producer got Spielberg’s DreamWorks and Oprah’s Harpo Films on board.
One day, Juliet called me up and said, “Richard, we have a draft of Steven Knight’s script. But I am not going to show it to you.” She was trying to protect me, but the reporter’s instinct kicked in, and I got my hands on the script in progress—only to freak out. I was upset by the plot changes and liberties taken with my story, and contacted my old friend in London, the writer Kazuo Ishiguro, for advice. “Hold on, Richard. Look at the names involved in your film,” Ish said. “You know that sort of talent won’t make a truly bad film of your book.” Well, OK, I could accept that. “If they make a film that isn’t as good as your book, every review will say, ‘Go read the book, it’s so much better than the film.’ And, if it’s a really good film, everyone will go read your book, anyway. So, you’re really in a win-win situation.” Ish was of course right. I chilled out.
On the day of the premiere in New York, a black Mercedes whisked my wife, daughter, and I to the Ziegfeld Theater for our red-carpet strut. Lights flashed as we had to look this way and that; reporters from Vanity Fair to Mexican television thrust microphones into my face. I adored the attention.
The hand-picked Ziegfeld audience was very generous, breaking out in raucous clapping as names scrolled during the credits, my posse of boisterous brothers and sisters-in-law taking up a row. I was deeply touched by Hallström’s film and what everyone from production designer David Gropman to composer A.R. Rahman had created. Yes, the film’s plot was somewhat different from my book, but they nailed the book’s spirit and characters.
There was, briefly, a tense moment when A.O. Scott of The New York Times shredded the film, as my other hometown critics at The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Daily News, and the Village Voice generally gave a thumbs up. The Scott review reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who said watching a critic tear apart a novel is like watching a person “put on full armor” to attack a “banana split.” Luckily, audiences took issue with Scott’s assessment. The film’s opening weekend box office of $11 million surpassed expectations, and it was the only just-released film that earned an A in audience exit polls.
My lesson from all of this: Don’t micromanage real talent. Let them own the project and make it theirs. They’ll generally rise to the challenge and make you proud—as I am.”
First published on August 15th on Barrons.