No Reservations: Interview with Director Scott Hicks

The romantic comedy No Reservations, starring Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago) and Aaron Eckhart (Thank You for Smoking), is directed by Scott Hicks (Shine) from a screenplay by Carol Fuchs.

For Scott Hicks, it was not only the story that attracted him, but the way in which it offered touching glimpses of human interaction at its most intimate and relatable level. Its 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. Its 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 Screenplay nominations for Hicks. As a filmmaker, he is drawn to character-driven stories of real emotion. He saw in Kates 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 offers a similar assessment: It has so many facets. Theres a wonderful love story, theres the poignant relationship between Kate and her young niece, there is Kates passion for her work and then theres 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.

New York Setting

No Reservations is based on the 2001 European feature Bella Martha (or Mostly Martha), a film that charmed many of the cast and crew. 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 restaurantswas the perfect choice and I knew it would add its own zest to the film. You cant walk down a street in New York without passing little cafs of every description and taking in all that aroma and activity.

Universal Joy of Food

It was a love story that celebrated the universal joy of making and sharing great food, says producer Sergio Agero. I was tremendously excited about its potential 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. Hes flamboyant; he fills the kitchen with the sounds of opera and singing, and the staff is laughing at his jokes. Its a completely different atmosphere with his presence and Kate doesnt like it, says Heysen, who concedes that, from Kates 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.

Heysen explains, Nick has taken this job because hes a great admirer of Kates work and wants to learn from her, but she doesnt see that. She is immediately distrustful. While Nick challenges her domain at the restaurant, the arrival of Kates newly orphaned niece, Zoe, seriously disrupts her home life.

Child Impact

Says Hicks, The child turns everything upside down, not only emotionally but on a practical level. Theres 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 wont even eat her food. Meanwhile, at the restaurant, this new chef in the kitchen is making sparks fly.

But sparks arent necessarily bad thing. Aaron Eckhart, who stars as the gregarious Nick, notes that, Its through these conflicts that Kate will find the joy in life. Zoe and Nick change everything and really start breaking her down. But its up to Kate where shes 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 foodthe preparation, presentation and sharing of it, not to mention the aroma, the texture, the look and the taste of ithas 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. Its not just about what we eat but how we feed ourselves emotionally.

Food Power

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 Zoes 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 its practically an art form, theres a heightened awareness of incorporating ingredients and layering tastes to stimulate the palette. 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: Many Cooks in the Kitchen

My husband (actor Michael Douglas) said that this role was the biggest stretch Ive 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. Shes 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, isnt
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, Eckhart says, Kate takes one look at this casual, easygoing new chef, playing opera and telling jokes, and she thinks hes not taking the job seriously. It would appear that way but, in truth, Nick just has his own style. Once he feels Kates blast of hostility, he assumes the rubber band theory of dont 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, hes ready to embrace it, but she isnt quite there yet, which means he has to be exceptionally charming and very creative. When he cant 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 dont 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 wont 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. Its 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, Breslins portrayal of Zoeat least in the films initial sceneswas necessarily more subdued. As the young actress describes her, Zoe is sort of quiet in the beginning. Shes not really hostile towards Kate, not mean to her or rude, but just not really friendly or open either. She doesnt know how this living arrangement is going to work. Shes feeling kind of lost and on her own.

Abigail Breslin

Hicks says, Abigail is 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. Shes extremely resourceful and absolutely the real deal as an actress.

Illustrating this, Heysen relates a scenario that Breslins mother offered. It was right before we shot the scene in which Zoe first sees where shes going to live with her aunt after her mother has died. Abigails 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 thats why she is so convincing on screen.

Patricia Clarkson

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. Shes a very can-do person and runs every aspect of this restaurant. Shes the host, the matre 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 its not an easy relationship. Like Kates relationship with Nick, this one generates its own sparks.

Hicks remarks, Patricia gives a smart, sophisticated razor-sharp wit to the role.
Adds Heysen, Patricia brings all the many facets of Paula to the foregood, bad and complexbut above all conveys the feeling that, ultimately, this is a woman you dont want to cross. And Kate is often dangerously close to crossing her.