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Oscar-Worthy 'Devil Wears Prada' Most Enjoyable Film in Long Time: 'The Hollywood Reporter'

June 28, 2006
By Martin A. Grove, The Hollywood Reporter

In assessing this summer's upbeat boxoffice business, insiders are citing the presence of product in the marketplace that's targeted to audiences other than the usual under-25 boys of summer.

This diversity of moviegoer appeal will continue with 20th Century Fox's opening Friday of Fox 2000 Pictures' The Devil Wears Prada, which delivers a devil of a good time at the movies. Produced by Wendy Finerman (Forrest Gump, Stepmom) and directed by David Frankel (Sex and the City, Entourage), its screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna is based on the bestselling novel by Lauren Weisberger. Prada was executive produced by Karen Rosenfelt and Joe Caracciolo, Jr.

The Wendy Finerman production stars Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, along with Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker Emily Blunt and Adrian Grenier. Prada's costumes are designed by Patricia Field, who costumed HBO's series Sex and the City. Earlier in her career, Field created the costumes for the 1995 movie comedy Miami Rhapsody, which starred Sarah Jessica Parker and marked David Frankel's theatrical directing debut.

Prada isn't just the perfect choice for adult and young-adult women, it's so good you can bet the men they drag along to see it will wind up recommending it, too.

Indeed, count me among the guys who are already getting great word-of-mouth going about Prada. It's resonating very well with the critics and already has an 80% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com's Tomatometer (with 12 fresh out of 15 reviews counted at this early point). Frankly, Prada's one of the most enjoyable films I've seen in I-don't-know-how-long and it's the movie I'm recommending whenever anyone asks me what's worth paying money to see. I think it's a likely contender for Oscar and Golden Globe consideration in a number of categories—certainly including Streep, for Best Actress.

I was happy to be able to focus on the making of Prada last Thursday with Finerman and Frankel as they were recovering from the film's June 19 premiere in New York and preparing for its June 22 opening night L.A. Film Festival showing. "Books are very good to me," Finerman observed, when I recalled how she'd originally found Winston Groom's novel Forrest Gump and then spent some nine years developing it and with great difficulty and much arm twisting of studio executives around town finally managed to bring it to the screen. Finerman was as right as she could possibly have been about Gump, which went on to win six Oscars, including Best Picture, and won three Golden Globes, including best motion picture drama. After opening domestically July 6, 1994 to $24.5 million, it went on to gross over $677 million worldwide.

"We had read it as a book proposal," she explained about acquiring Prada. "It was a hundred pages. It was a proposal that Lauren had actually written in writing class and then somebody sent it to an agent. They sent it out and it just sold in a minute. Basically, the first hundred pages just dealt with the setup of this young very eager girl looking for her first job in New York and having dreams and ambitions and ending up working for one of the most challenging people in the town. And that's really where the book stopped. It was set obviously in the world of fashion and we all knew what it was and we all knew the background of the book (stemming from Weisberger's own experiences working at Vogue as an assistant to legendary editor Anna Wintour). We had to wait five or six months to get the other half of the book. We had no idea what happened with the story. But the setup was so great."

The film works not only because of Weisberger's story, but also thanks to David Frankel's directing. "I've been a fan of David Frankel's work for ten years and forever," Finerman told me, "and I always wanted to work with him. David read the scripts that we had that we had bought from many different writers. We had different versions. Some were good. Some were not so good. Some were encouraging. He came aboard and really saw great visions for the movie. We hired Aline Brosh McKenna, who really took great direction from David and wrote the smartest version of the movie I think we could have found."

The project appealed to him, Frankel said, because, "I thought it was a great story (with) a great character in it. And then working with (president) Elizabeth Gabler and (executive vice president, production) Carla Hacken at Fox 2000, they knew Aline's work (like Laws of Attraction, starring Julianne Moore and Pierce Brosnan) and we met. I thought she'd be terrific to write it. We started from scratch on the script and we got a script that everybody liked. We got it to Meryl and she signed on (to play Miranda Priestly, editor of the film's fashion magazine Runway) and then we moved forward. Annie Hathaway was also the only actress we ever met for the role of (Miranda's second assistant) Andy Sachs. So our stars came together really easily. Once we had Meryl it really elevated the whole project and gave it the exact tone of intelligence and wit and depth that we all dreamed of."

"Meryl had a mandate that she really wanted it to be smart and real," Finerman added.

"She read Aline's script," Frankel said, "and I think she really responded to the character of Miranda Priestly. She wanted to play with great depth and with vulnerability and compassion a character who she thought was kind of a monster."

"(CAA's) Kevin Huvane was incredibly supportive," Finerman noted. "I think it was an opportunity (for Streep), as well, because this is something that Meryl had never done before when you think about it—(in terms of) how she looks in this movie and who she is. She's never ever played anybody like this before. These great parts for women in this day and age are few and far between."

"What she also responded to was the opportunity to play a character in a movie that both celebrated the world of fashion and indicted it," Frankel pointed out.

The movie's Miranda Priestly character, however, is clearly not patterned after Vogue's Anna Wintour. "We did a lot of research," Finerman explained. "We had these research books (prepared) and I remember giving Meryl one of these books (in) a four-inch binder. She read all the information cover to cover and said, 'What else do you have?' What we kind of discovered was that often the case with women in fashion when you look at many of them (such as) Polly Mellon, Liz Tilberis and Diana Vreeland is that they all had a distinct look. They chose their look and they never changed it. That was their signature and they realized what was classic and what was good with them and what would carry them anywhere for years to come."

"Meryl's built a career on surprising people and making the unexpected choice as an actress," Frankel pointed out. "To play this part is an unexpected choice and in playing the part, I think, she felt like doing an imitation or an impersonation of Anna Wintour would be completely expected given the history of the book. What she wanted to do was take it away from Anna Wintour and make it a more iconic character and someone who represented all tough bosses and demanding bosses and all the people she knows and I know and Wendy knows and everybody in the audience knows—people who have sold bits of their soul to achieve success. Not just bits of their soul, but who deny the people around them their little bit of humanity. I think she wanted people not to actually confuse the character of Miranda Priestly with Anna Wintour at all. And that's why early on in the process she decided on a very different look for her and a different approach to the character. She doesn't play her English. There are so many differences.

"Meryl wanted us to make the character meaner. You know, we had pulled no punches in the script wondering how we're going to attract a big movie star if she's so mean. We had toned it down a bit and Meryl said, 'No, no. Give her more fangs.' "

"It was so easy (to do that) because we had had it there beforehand," Finerman recalled.

"It was just a whole new layer of confidence that we gave Miranda," Frankel said. "And then the other element that Meryl wanted was that she really wanted to see Miranda at work. She really wanted to see what she did and how she did it and what made her excellent because it's one thing to say, 'Oh, she's the best,' but it's another thing to get a sense of someone who really does choose every single detail on every single page of every single issue. So from the very beginning we find the character dealing with a crisis at the magazine and she's pulled a photo shoot and she's doing something overnight to replace it that's costing $300,000. Later in the film, there's a scene in a conference room where you see her actually editing and making choices for an issue. It's a scene that really doesn't advance plot. It only reveals character, but Miranda's character in many ways is the plot. So all those scenes of Meryl as Miranda remain really compelling."

"If you look at the scene where she's (focusing on choosing between) two blue belts," Finerman said. "It was so well-written. In a medium size scene it explains to you her brilliance, her talent and it explains to you the world of fashion in a layman's way of why it's important."

"That was the tonal thing that we really worked on," Frankel added. "You know, fashion is a really easy world to satirize because it's almost self-satirizing. You know, people have to choose between pointy shoes and straight shoes and four inch heels and five inch heels. On many levels, it's very superficial and very silly, but in that world it's very serious and it's a huge business. The people who do it have to take it seriously. And it was important, I think, for the film to take their jobs seriously and to be respectful of what they're accomplishing.

"I think in that speech and in the speech that Stanley Tucci gives Annie in the art department about the history of Runway magazine and the brilliant designers who have worked on it and why people would kill to work there really conveys the passion for their jobs. I think that gives you respect for the characters and it ennobles them and it also helps you understand why Andie would get seduced (by the fashion world) and why she would make some moral sacrifices to follow in their footsteps."

Asked about Patricia Field's awards worthy costumes for the movie, Finerman told me, "One of the first things David said when I met him was, 'I have the perfect person.' Apart from having done Sex and the City, they had gone way back to Miami Rhapsody.

"In Miami Rhapsody, I would have Sarah Jessica Parker show up in a costume and it would just look odd to me and I would say (to Field), 'What is that? I've never seen that before.' And Pat would say, 'Don't worry. In a year from now when your movie comes out everybody will be wearing this.' And I would just laugh. I'd have to take it on face value. And sure enough, a year later, there's everybody with their cuffs dangling out of their sleeves. She just has an uncanny knack for anticipating trends in fashion and also (has) a wonderful ability to combine genres and eras and fabrics and colors in a way that almost obscures trendiness and creates its own look. So she was able to do that really successfully for Meryl and just make Meryl look elegant and rich. Her clothes were very expensive, but also (were) very timeless and stylish without being able to put a label on it.

"And for Annie she was able to pull together couture clothing from the top designers in the world that would presumably be hanging in the closet of Runway. Annie looked fabulous in Chanel and Dolce and Calvin Klein and all this stuff that Pat put together for her. So it was a great combination. And then with Emily Blunt (who plays Miranda's first assistant), there's also a great wardrobe. For Emily and Stanley, also, I think there was a brilliant wardrobe that really helped define their characters."

Field's costumes for Tucci's character Nigel, the magazine's art director, include "very vibrant shirt colors and tuck-in sweaters and the belt and the vest and a big ring and really complex jackets," Frankel said. "And then for Emily, (she used) a lot of Vivienne Westwood and a real military edgy look for her. And the hair and makeup obviously combined to complement all of that. There were so many clothes in the movie. That certainly was something I learned on Sex and the City—how much the audience really wants to see the clothes. So we really worked hard to put as many clothes into the movie as possible. All the montages are about clothes. All the passages of time are depicted through clothing—(like) Meryl throwing down coats (walking into the office each morning) and she has 12 coats in that scene.

"And when Annie has her makeover, she goes through six outfits on her way to work. And even later, when we go to Paris, we sort of convey passage of time (through clothing). Even the models are in different clothes and Meryl and Annie again are in fabulous clothes. The other thing I learned on Sex and the City is that once in a while you do have to shoot the shoes, which is really tricky because movie stars have great faces and what are you doing shooting their shoes? You have to find ways. You have to do a lot of tilt-ups from the shoes or tilt-downs to the shoes or wide shots that show the shoes."

"Fashion today is immediate," Finerman observed. "People know what fashion is across the country. They're so up-to-date with it. They follow it. I was surprised that some of these young girls really were aware when they would see the movie at these assistant screenings of (the cutting edge designer clothing worn in the film by) Emily Blunt. Five years ago, people wouldn't know who those names were. Fashion used to be covered in (only) four or five magazines. Now, in People magazine every week, they have who's wearing what and it's become more universal or global."

"One of the nice things about the story is that a character like Andy comes to New York not knowing anything about fashion and not caring about it," Frankel noted. "It's really easy to ignore fashion, but it is out there. There are a million fashion web sites and people like Anna Wintour are in gossip columns and the models become famous and celebrities. We obviously live in an era where a lot of people are famous for very little talent. It's into that world that Andy stumbles."

New York is really another of the movie's principal stars. "Once again, our hats are off to Fox and their production department for, first of all, encouraging us to shoot in New York and then finding the resources to make it possible," Frankel said. "We were lucky enough to be launching the production right around the same time that the state and the city had enacted these tax breaks that made shooting there affordable."

"Joe Caracciolo, our line producer, was one of these guys who had come up through the Joe Hartwick 'school.' Joe Hartwick runs Fox's physical production (and) knows New York so well that he introduced us to Joe Caracciolo. He took what we were given in our budget and made things accessible to us that (were) just amazing."

"I was lucky enough to be working with Florian Ballhaus, who's an unbelievably talented cinematographer who also lives in New York," Frankel told me. "And we had Jess Gonchor, the production designer, who also lives in New York. So everybody was laboring (with love) in a city that they had made their home and (where they) knew how to celebrate and knew exactly how much glamour and sex appeal we were trying to capture about the city in every frame in the movie."

"And David made a really, really concerted effort," Finerman pointed out, "to show not just the New York that we've all seen before, but different versions of New York (like) the Lower East Side, the subways and not just (hotel) lobbies and fancy apartments to really get a feeling of what is real New York versus what often is the glamorous New York."

"You know, it was really important," Frankel said. "Andy comes from the Lower East Side and (originally) comes from the Midwest and she ends up in this unbelievably glamorous world. She's in it as an assistant. She's running errands wherever she goes. But even Miranda's townhouse, as scary as it is to visit there, is a spectacular home. There's a benefit where she meets Chris (journalist Christian Thompson, played by Simon Baker) on the steps of the Natural History Museum. There's all kinds of glamorous locations. It was really important to gain access to all those places, the same way it was really important for us to go to Paris and really capture Paris in as glamorous a way as we good."

How was shooting in Paris compared to shooting in New York? "Much briefer," Frankel sighed. "We were there for two days."

"There's a scene that David shot when (Hathaway) leaves Meryl," Finerman said, talking about a scene near the movie's end.

"That scene actually was shot in three locations," Frankel revealed. "The interior of the car was basically half a car shot (in front of a) green screen on a stage in Queens. Meryl's side when she gets out was shot at 77th Street and Central Park West. And Annie's side was shot in Paris. It's pretty seamlessly molded together. The St. Regis Hotel (in New York) doubled for a lot of our scenes in Paris. Meryl never went to Paris."

"I think it was the first time that she really got to have fun (while) looking just great," Finerman said. "You know, she is such a beautiful woman. I think she really enjoyed kind of dressing up."

There is, however, one scene in which Streep as Miranda has just gotten some terrible personal news and looks anything but glamorous. "That was all Meryl," Frankel explained. "I had no idea what she was going to do with that scene. She just came in with no makeup and wearing a robe and said, 'I'm ready to go.' It was unbelievably brave (of her) and it was brilliant. That's why she's so great and why her consistent choice to be unpredictable is so exciting."

Asked how he likes to work while shooting, Frankel told me, "I do not do a lot of rehearsal before we start. We had two table readings. I do a lot of takes. I am not so much a rehearser as a shaper on film, so it ends up being a lot of takes. And that was really fun. Far from feeling overworked, I think the actresses generally felt it was a great opportunity to constantly adjust their performances and try different things and show different colors and ad lib different dialogue, a lot of which ended up in the film. So it was a very free, fun atmosphere."

"Stanley and I were talking about David and exactly what he (just) said," Finerman added, "and what Stanley had said was so refreshing about David is that David let the actors try what they wanted to do. He always let them try something. Stanley was saying how comfortable that made him feel because he felt David was just open to everyone and anything (and) you see what happens when that can really work. He did a great job."

"When you're working with really, really talented actors, which we all were, they inevitably know their characters much better than anyone else and it's really important to let them feel the freedom to be the character and not be dictated to," Frankel said. "I think it was inspiring and once they realized their freedom they really took advantage of it, which was great."

Looking back at his biggest challenge during production, Frankel said it was "maintaining the tone—making sure that we were making a comedy (and) that it was funny and as consistently as possible, but also real so that we didn't mock the characters and we didn't lose touch with their emotions. At the same time, we didn't let emotions take over and let it drift too deeply into drama. It's a really fine balance of something that is dramatic and then at the same time puts a smile on your face consistently. I think that was the biggest challenge I had. Everything else about the production was, honestly, enchanted. I mean, I had enormous support from the studio, I had brilliant producers in Wendy and Joe and Karen Rosenfelt and I had a dream team of cast and crew. So the challenges were limited."

How did it compare to shooting episodic TV like Sex and the City? "I thought I was working with great actresses then and with a great crew and, I've got to say, by the last two years of Sex and the City, they were basically shooting on a feature schedule," he replied. "So it wasn't even (that we now had) more time. In a way, it's a slightly bigger canvas and there's just that extra detail paid to every nuance. And certainly, I think, (there was) the opportunity to do more takes and to really fine tune the performances."

Reflecting on how nicely things turned out, Finerman noted, "We've done this enough to know that sometimes you just get magic. You get the right team and magic happens, you know. We were lucky that from the studio to David to the crew and to the cast we were lucky enough to get that little magic in a bottle."

"I cannot emphasize enough the contribution of Elizabeth Gabler and her whole team at Fox 2000 made," Frankel observed. "She was immensely important in shaping the script right and then really, really supportive in the production. We added scenes to the production. We added shooting days as we were going along and then she somehow found the resources to pay for a fantastic soundtrack. When I say that it was an enchanted production, I really have to credit Elizabeth and Carla Hacken and (Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chairman and CEO) Tom Rothman with their tremendous support of the film, which could have been a much smaller scale enterprise and ended up (so that) there was just nothing that I wanted to do with the film that I didn't have the opportunity to do."

On the marketing front, Finerman is completely enthusiastic about the support she's had from the team at Fox: "Pam and Tony (Fox co-marketing presidents Pam Levine and Tony Sella) are fantastic and (so is domestic distribution production) Bruce Snyder."

"The boldest move they made is, first of all, they came up with an iconic image for the poster—the red shoe with the Devil's trident (as the heel)," Frankel pointed out. "And they stuck to it. It was originally designed as a teaser image and they stuck to it. And then, even bolder, they came up with a trailer for the film (that's unique). It's the first three minutes of the film, which is shocking to people in theaters when they first see it."

"And, by the way," Finerman added, "it was shocking to us, too, when they showed it to us."

"It's a really effective marketing tool," Frankel said. "It was discovered as they were showing clips of the movie at ShoWest and people were responding to the first few minutes of the film and they realized it could be a really effective selling tool to just convey the comedy and the intelligence and the wit and the beauty of the film and introduce all the characters in a way that gives away three minutes, but doesn't give away a frame of the other 103 minutes."

"They also did something that I think was really smart with the whole shoe (icon)," Finerman noted. "They approached this almost like a tentpole movie in a way (where) you have a branding. (They said) let's figure out what we can make our symbol. What is our thing so that when you (see it) it says Devil Wears Prada? I think they achieved everything they set out to (do). You know, you see the bus stops now with that shoe on it. See—shoes matter!

"Everybody knows somebody who's been in a challenged position in the workforce—whether it be you or somebody else. I think David went out of his way not to make this what would be expected. He really achieved that. The first thing he said is, 'I don't want to do Cruella De Vil. I don't want to make a one-dimensional boss from hell.' Otherwise, he wouldn't have signed on."



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