ON THIS PAGE: SOMETIMES, LIFE ISN'T MADE TO ORDER; CASTING: HOW MANY COOKS IN THIS KITCHEN? MAY I TAKE YOUR ORDER? CULINARY TRAINING FOR THE CAST AND CATHERINE ZETA-JONES MASTERS THE INFAMOUS TABLECLOTH TRICK
READ MORE: PRODUCTION DESIGN, AND PROPS GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT; CREATING A FICTIONAL RESTAURANT
READ MORE ABOUT DIRECTOR SCOTT HICKS, SCREENWRITER CAROL FUCHS AND COMPOSER PHILIP GLASS
SOMETIMES, LIFE ISN'T MADE TO ORDER
For "No Reservations" director Scott Hicks, it was not only the story itself that first attracted him, but the way in which it offered touching glimpses of human interaction at its most intimate and relatable level. "It's a heartfelt, contemporary drama that strikes an interesting balance between deep emotions and moments of natural humor and lightheartedness, which is how most of us experience life," he says. "It's about loss, but also about learning to change and finding real love out of loss."
Hicks earned international acclaim for the powerful 1996 drama "Shine," which received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Director and a Best Screenplay nomination for Hicks. As a filmmaker, he says, he is drawn to "character-driven stories of real emotion," and saw in Kate's dilemma an opportunity to explore how a person with an extremely well-ordered life might deal with unexpected events that change all of it in an instant. More importantly, "how that person might find, through challenge and adversity, the gifts of love, purpose and a fresh perspective on life."
Catherine Zeta-Jones, who counts herself among Hicks' biggest fans, offers a similar assessment. "It has so many facets. There's a wonderful love story, there's the poignant relationship between Kate and her young niece, there is Kate's passion for her work and then there's the fascinating theater of a professional kitchen and seeing how that fast-paced world operates.
"When I heard that Scott Hicks wanted to direct it, I was thrilled," she continues. "I knew from his body of work that he would bring to it the right sensitivity and texture."
"No Reservations" is based on the 2001 European feature "Bella Martha" (or "Mostly Martha"), a film that charmed many of the "No Reservations" cast and filmmakers prior to their collaboration. Says producer Kerry Heysen, "It was both a stylish and very tender film. We thought that by relocating it to America we could bring it to a larger audience. Setting it in New York--a city with such a rich relationship with food and restaurants--was the perfect choice and I knew it would add its own zest to the film. You can't walk down a street in New York without passing little cafés of every description and taking in all that aroma and activity."
"It was a love story that celebrated the universal joy of making and sharing great food," says producer Sergio Agüero. "I was tremendously excited about its potential worldwide because both of these subjects strike a familiar chord in every culture."
The filmmakers needed to reinvent the story in its new context but were fully committed to retaining what everyone loved best about "Mostly Martha"-- its heart and its flavor, as well as its heroine, a successful and single-minded master chef who runs her life and her kitchen with equal measures of disciplined efficiency.
The arrival of sous-chef Nick changes everything--dramatically. "He's flamboyant; he fills the kitchen with the sounds of opera and singing, and the staff is laughing at his jokes. It's a completely different atmosphere with his presence and Kate doesn't like it," says Heysen, who concedes that, from Kate's point of view, there could also be another, more insidious nuance in play. As a woman who has achieved a level of success and autonomy in a highly competitive field with few plumb positions, Kate considers Nick a potential threat to her professionally. In truth, Heysen explains, "Nick has taken this job because he's a great admirer of Kate's work and wants to learn from her, but she doesn't see that. She is immediately distrustful."
While Nick challenges her domain at the restaurant, the arrival of Kate's newly orphaned niece, Zoe, seriously disrupts her home life.
Says Hicks, "The child turns everything upside down, not only emotionally but on a practical level. There's simply no room for a nine year old in the world of a busy chef with a tight schedule, late hours and such precise habits. Kate is not maternal. Her heart is in the right place, but she has absolutely no idea what to do with this child who won't even eat her food. Meanwhile, at the restaurant, this new chef in the kitchen is making sparks fly."
But sparks aren't necessarily a bad thing…
Aaron Eckhart, who stars as the gregarious Nick, notes that, "It's through these conflicts that Kate will find the joy in life. Zoe and Nick change everything and really start breaking her down. But it's up to Kate where she's going to go from there to overcome her problems and find growth and new life."
And what better medium than food for nurturing romance and bringing people together?
Food and everything related to food--the preparation, presentation and sharing of it, not to mention the aroma, the texture, the look and the taste of it--has undeniable romantic and life-affirming elements, which Hicks weaves throughout the story. That intention began with the screenplay, of which screenwriter Carol Fuchs says, "The element of food serves in both a literal and a figurative sense. It's not just about what we eat but how we feed ourselves emotionally."
"Food has its own power and symbolic presence in the film," the director offers. "All the communication and seduction begins with food. The connection between Kate and Nick begins with their shared love of cuisine, and it also plays a role in bringing Zoe out of her shell. In Zoe's case, as a child whose grief has suppressed her appetite, the fact that she finally takes the spaghetti Nick offers her is a sign that she trusts him and is warming up to him. In the case of Kate and Nick sharing their first meal together, there is a more erotic charge to it."
In a general sense, says Heysen, "Food here is a metaphor for life and the life force or, if you like, love."
Eckhart agrees. "It certainly engages all the senses. With the cooking itself, especially at this level where it's practically an art form, there's a heightened awareness of incorporating ingredients and layering tastes to stimulate the palette… Oh yeah, it's very romantic."
"I never thought I could get excited about scallops," declares Zeta-Jones, "but when you really focus on them, you get a whole different perspective."
CASTING: HOW MANY COOKS IN THIS KITCHEN?
"My husband said that this role was the biggest stretch I've ever had as an actress, because it puts me into the kitchen," Zeta-Jones jokingly reveals, before going on to admit that, prior to her culinary training for the film, she was unsure of her ability to properly cook an egg.
In fact, says Hicks, not only did Zeta-Jones quickly learn her way around the kitchen to authenticate her performance in the weeks before "No Reservations" began shooting, but the film depended greatly upon her formidable range throughout. "The story absolutely rests on her shoulders. She's in nearly every scene and the whole thing revolves around her. She has great subtlety and amazing timing, which, when you consider her background as a dancer, isn't surprising. That timing plays so well into her sense of drama, because there are scenes of strong emotion here but also breakthrough moments of fun."
"Kate runs a tight ship, to say the least," says Zeta-Jones. "She knows her business and tends to get a little defensive when a customer questions the taste or presentation of any of her dishes. But when she brings that strict perfectionism into her private life it keeps her from having real relationships with people. It keeps away the insecurities and fears and the potential pain, but also the joy and the fullness of life that only exists when you can open up to people, let go a little and let things happen."
Citing their characters' first encounter in the 22 Bleecker kitchen, Aaron Eckhart says, "Kate takes one look at this casual, easygoing new chef, playing opera and telling jokes, and she thinks he's not taking the job seriously. It would appear that way but, in truth, Nick just has his own style. Once he feels Kate's blast of hostility, he assumes the rubber band theory of 'don't break, just bend,' and tries to be as nice and charming as possible in the hope that she will eventually let down her guard."
Nick takes the sous-chef job as an opportunity to work with, and learn from, master chef Kate, whom he admires. "The romance is as much a surprise to him as it is to her," Eckhart offers. "The difference is that once he recognizes it, he's ready to embrace it, but she isn't quite there yet, which means he has to be exceptionally charming and very creative. When he can't get through to her any other way, he uses the language she understands best: food."
"This role shows a wonderfully light side of Aaron, which we don't always see. A lot of his roles have been quite intense," observes Zeta-Jones.
"Not only is Aaron the romantic leading man here," says Hicks, "he also has to have the ability to genuinely connect with a little girl and bring out the emotion in that as well, which sounds easier than it actually is."
"As Nick, Aaron approaches young Zoe the way you would approach a pony in a paddock," says Heysen, drawing on her experience working with horses on the Australian property she shares with husband and 30-year filmmaking partner Scott Hicks. "If you have a shy pony that won't come to you, you cannot pursue it. You must sit and wait with gentle overtures and eventually it will come to you. It requires a great deal of sensitivity."
Eckhart enjoyed his scenes with Abigail Breslin, who turned 10 years old during production. "It's fun to have that kind of youthful spirit around. She taught me some cheerleading cheers, and we would practice together in the kitchen between takes."
Unlike her buoyant personality off-camera, Breslin's portrayal of Zoe--at least in the film's initial scenes--was necessarily more subdued. As the young actress describes her, "Zoe is sort of quiet in the beginning. She's not really hostile towards Kate, not mean to her or rude, but just not really friendly or open either. She doesn't know how this living arrangement is going to work. She's feeling kind of lost and on her own."
Hicks, who proclaims Breslin "delightful," says, "She's not caught up in the business of it all; she simply enjoys acting. I love working with children. Although they may not bring a wealth of experience or technique to a role, they can, like Abigail, bring tremendous honesty and access to their emotions. If I explain the context and situation of a scene to her, Abigail can sense precisely where to take her character. She's extremely resourceful and absolutely the real deal as an actress."
Illustrating this, Heysen relates a scenario that Breslin's mother offered. "It was right before we shot the scene in which Zoe first sees where she's going to live with her aunt after her mother has died. Abigail's mother said that she had been preparing for the scene at home and had remarked to her, 'When that little girl walks up the steps into that house her life is never going to be the same again.' She really thinks it through and that's why she is so convincing on screen."
Meanwhile, Kate has another confrontation brewing with the owner of her restaurant, Paula, played with authoritative panache by Patricia Clarkson, who notes that the two women are very much alike. "Paula has her own control issues. She's a very can-do person and runs every aspect of this restaurant. She's the host, the maître d', the manager, the owner, not to mention head of personnel and wine selection. This is her baby; her whole life is wrapped up in this restaurant.
"Paula respects Kate for her talent and work ethic and so tolerates her fits of temperament," Clarkson continues. "They are friends and they have history but it's not an easy relationship. Like Kate's relationship with Nick, this one generates its own sparks."
A longtime admirer of Clarkson's work, Hicks remarks, "She gives a smart, sophisticated razor-sharp wit to the role."
Adds Heysen, "Patricia brings all the many facets of Paula to the fore--good, bad and complex--but above all conveys the feeling that, ultimately, this is a woman you don't want to cross. And Kate is often dangerously close to crossing her."
Rounding out the main cast are Jenny Wade ("Rumor Has It…") as Kate's loyal but very pregnant sous-chef Leah, whose imminent due date and leave of absence prompts Paula to hire Nick as her replacement; Lily Rabe ("Mona Lisa Smile") as waitress/actress Bernadette, who likes to run lines for her next audition in the kitchen's walk-in refrigerator and is Nick's biggest fan; and Brían F. O'Byrne ("Bug" and Broadway's "Doubt") as Kate's downstairs neighbor Sean, a divorced dad who has been futilely asking her out for years.
Academy Award nominee Bob Balaban (producer, "Gosford Park") is featured as the therapist Paula forces Kate to see, a man who resorts to slightly unorthodox methods when traditional therapy has no effect on the highly guarded chef who, clearly, would rather talk recipes than repression.
MAY I TAKE YOUR ORDER? CULINARY TRAINING FOR THE CAST AND CATHERINE ZETA-JONES MASTERS THE INFAMOUS TABLECLOTH TRICK
With so many scenes taking place over a hot stove at 22 Bleecker--pots clanging, waiters rushing in and out, and Kate and Nick's personal drama unfolding amidst the fast-paced routine of preparing dinner for a restaurant full of patrons--Hicks wanted the actors to be at ease with the tempo of a professional kitchen. "I always strive for realism. In this setting, it was especially important for the actors to feel as though they were really preparing these dishes and coping with the stresses of their environment. It was essential that their actions be fluid and natural in order to keep the emphasis where it belongs--on the story," the director says.
Just as important, Heysen points out, was that shots of Nick chopping onions and Kate garnishing plates ring true, because, "with everyone around the world watching The Food Network, audiences are extremely savvy and would know if someone was faking it."
Toward that end, Hicks cast professional line chefs to serve as 22 Bleecker's onscreen kitchen staff, hired numerous culinary and restaurant consultants and arranged hands-on training with genuine masters for his stars.
Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart spent two weeks with celebrity chef Michael White, who tailored his instruction to their characters' specialized roles: for Zeta-Jones, as head chef, an emphasis on preparing sauces, pan-tossing small items, plating and preparing garnish; and for Eckhart, as sous-chef, the more practical aspects of chopping vegetables and sautéing, cleaning and butchering fish and meat. Following the edict that the mark of a good chef is not only a flair for food but a command of his domain, both learned safety basics and the fine points of handling knives, grasping superheated pot handles with towels and deftly navigating the cramped space while simultaneously working, talking and cooking.
Eckhart, who has worked as a waiter and bartender but never a chef, found the curriculum fascinating, although, in addition to onions, carrots and mushrooms, he cut his fingers numerous times during his two-day practice with the knife. This was par for the course, he was assured by White, who, after 16 years of cooking professionally, still lives by the rule of assuming that every surface in a kitchen is hot.
Even Abigail Breslin learned to flip pancakes and pare vegetables under the tutelage of French Culinary Institute chef Lee Anne Wong and recounts how, during one scene, she got a little carried away with her newfound skill. "I was peeling asparagus. I got down to the part where it becomes white and just kept going until it got really skinny and Scott started laughing. He said, 'You don't have to turn it into a toothpick; it's still asparagus.'"
Outside the kitchen, Patricia Clarkson took a crash course on how to handle front-of-house duties with aplomb from Daniele Sbordi, then general manager of New York City's renowned Fiamma Osteria, and likens it to managing a theater. "When you're running a restaurant, you have to be on top of everything: reservations, stock, orders, staff and the wine selection, not to mention the preferences and personalities of the VIPs coming in, and be ready to diffuse any potential situation. You get there early to prepare and coach the waiters on the day's specials, and when that door opens and people start coming in, it's like the curtain going up."
Speaking of theater, one confrontational scene between Kate and an ill-mannered customer afforded Zeta-Jones the opportunity to add a neat trick to her professional repertoire: the classic tablecloth pull, in which a cloth is yanked cleanly out from under a full load of place settings with minimum spillage. Its success depends largely upon confidence and timing. "It was one of the best shooting days of my life," she declares. "I didn't get it straightaway, but once I did, I had so much fun I wanted to do it all the time. Now I can bet people at parties that I can whip out a tablecloth from under a stack of plates and glasses and not break anything."
Zeta-Jones additionally went above and beyond any restaurant training Hicks had anticipated by volunteering to work the dining room one night during the busy dinner shift at Fiamma Osteria, an experience she calls "terrifying and a real learning experience." Even in that atmospheric lighting, several patrons remarked on their server's striking resemblance to the actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, to which she casually replied, "Yeah, I get that all the time."
THE ART OF REMAKES
THE ART OF ROMANCE