Director Lasse Hallstrom, who made the acclaimed 2000 film “Chocolat” has a new movie coming out Friday — again turning to a culinary topic. “The Hundred Foot Journey,” based on Richard C. Morais’ bestselling novel, stars Helen Mirren as the haughty owner of an acclaimed restaurant in the South of France. Mirren’s Madame Mallory character is horrified when a family of Indian immigrants opens a restaurant featuring their native land’s dishes — directly across the street.
Q: Clearly your film’s central theme is about learning to accept people from different cultures. How do you feel about that?
A: Well it’s not a revolutionary new idea, but it’s something I believe still resonates and is something we constantly need to be reminded of — that we can learn a great deal by exposure to people from different cultures and experiences.
Q: Of course, as you show in your movie, food is the great equalizer, isn’t it?
A: Yes, it goes directly to the core of things. It’s the best way to overcome differences. Great cooking and wonderful dishes assault the senses — first the nose and then the tongue — the senses of smell and taste, which are so important to life itself.
Q: You had two very important people as among your executive producers — Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. What was that like? It was the first time for you working with them, yes?
A: It was really a gift to get to work with Steven Spielberg. I’ve been admiring him and his work for many, many years. I was supposed to work with him as a producer on “Catch Me If You Can,” which he directed, but for a number of reasons that didn’t happen. So it was great for me it was great for me to finally have this chance on this film — of course with the roles reversed: Me directing and he as an executive producer. He was in the editing room a good deal, giving me great notes as we finished the film. It actually started out much earlier, before we even began filming, with him giving me some great ideas about improving the script. His comments on the dailies were very important too.
Oprah Winfrey was more involved in supporting the project and helping us getting the rights to the novel. But she was hugely helpful.
Q: You’ve said about your lead actress, Helen Mirren, “Even though she’s half Russian and half English, she’s also perfectly French.”
A: She has a great understanding of what I’d call the French experience. When she was younger, though she was raised in England with a Russian father and a British mother, she wanted to move to France and become a French-speaking actress. So this role for her was a bit of a belated dream-come-true.
She doesn’t speak that much French, but it was wonderful to work with her, because she completely understood who this woman was that she was playing.
Q: You did ‘Chocolat’, now you did this. Can I assume there was a lot of good eating on the set of “The Hundred Foot Journey” — both French and Indian cuisines?
A: Yes, it was great fun to see it all being made and having the opportunity to talk to the chefs — and tasting what they were cooking up. It was great in ‘Chocolat’ also. But in the background for those scenes, the chocolates were plastic. In this film nothing was plastic — it was all real — and delicious! Not so good for the waistline, but it was heaven to work in that kind of environment!
Q: In many ways it seemed the village setting for the film was almost like another character in the movie. Would you agree?
A: It’s a compilation of things. It was kind of like a fairy tale in the sense we merged different villages and scenes together to make it appear all to be one place. It’s all a digital compilation of two different places in the South of France. But I think it came together quite nicely.
Q: Is it also true that many of the village residents we see in the background in the marketplace and town’s cafes were actual residents of the area.
A: I love to mix amateurs and professionals. I think it adds authenticity. The vendors in the marketplace were all real. They actually do that for a living. So when they are handing fruits and vegetables or seafood to Helen and the other actors, I think it made it seem much more authentic.
Q: Helen Mirren and Om Puri — who initially plays her nemesis as the the patriarch of the family opening the Indian restaurant — had great chemistry together, didn’t you think?
A: Yes they did. We improvised a lot of those scenes they had together, and they came up with some great lines and good banter back and forth, which we left in the finished film. Frankly, all our actors were very adventurous and offered up good improvised ideas and lines. We all collaborated on the scripts quite a bit.