David Frankel '81 (Screenwriter, Director, & Executive Producer, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, MARLEY & ME)
By Kim Bendheim '81
David Frankel, an ‘81 Harvard graduate, is now a Miami-based writer-director. His films include Miami Rhapsody and Dear Diary, the latter of which won him the Academy Award for Best Short Film. He directed several episodes of HBO's From the Earth to the Moon, which won the Emmy for best mini-series. He also directed two hours of HBO's Emmy-winning Band of Brothers, wrote an episode of Rome and has directed numerous episodes of Sex and The City and Entourage. His current feature, The Devil Wears Prada, is playing in theaters around the country.
Frankel began studying film and writing while in college. He got sophomore standing in government, finished all his requirements and spent his last year studying film. His thesis was on the novels and the films of the Vietnam War. Frankel later directed two episodes of Band of Brothers; he says there was a direct link between the hours he spent in college watching Apocalypse Now and other great Vietnam War films and directing the Emmy winning HBO series.
Frankel began as a writer. At Harvard, he spent two years as the movie critic for The Crimson. The Crimson lead to his first job in the entertainment industry. “In 1980 Michael Garin, President of Telepictures, came to The Crimson and said if any of you want a job in film after you graduate, you should talk to me. He’d gone to Harvard. My friend Bob Boorstin, then president of The Crimson, told me and Garin hired me right out of college.” Frankel started writing nights and weekends and sold a movie to Warner Brothers while he worked at Telepictures. They transferred him to their LA office. Norman Steinberg saw one of his spec scripts & asked Frankel to write a script with him. Frankel remembers them as “super funny people -- one of the joys of my life was working in TV comedy. I learned the guts of the TV business.”
After 2 years at Telepictures, they started a production company and asked Frankel to edit a film. “It was like being invited to go to film school.” For Frankel, everything was an opportunity to learn. That first job was, to him, a “real example of the old boy network.” While in LA, Frankel gave his friend and classmate, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Paul Attanasio, his first writing credit on a sitcom he produced with Norman Steinberg called Doctor, Doctor. That was another example of how his Harvard connections came into play.
In college, Frankel knew he wanted to get into the film business. Summer of sophomore year, his ambitions lead him to Hollywood where he lived in a sorority house at UCLA with his best friend, who was giving tennis lessons to Alan Alda. Alda was “then the biggest TV star in the world, on MASH,”said Frankel. While he was in LA, Frankel got a meeting with Robert Evans, the biggest producer in Hollywood. “I told him I wanted a job and he said why would you want a job getting coffee for people when what you really want to do is write?” Frankel took Evans’ advice and spent the summer temping, writing, hanging out with friends and Alan Alda and his family, “sampling the highs and lows of LA.”
Frankel’s father is Max Frankel, former Executive Editor of The New York Times. It seems fitting that for Frankel the son, “My most formative experience at Harvard was writing for The Crimson.” In college, aside from The Crimson, two courses inspired him as a writer. One was playwriting with William Alfred, which he took twice. “He was enormously influential, and then I took a film history course with Vlada Petric. He was an actor and filmmaker. We broke down films and we learned the language of filmmaking.” While at Harvard, aside from studying films, Frankel “made tiny little films at MIT.”
Miami Rhapsody (1995) was Frankel’s first feature film as a director. The film is about marriage and how the bride to be, played by the superbly comedic Sarah Jessica Parker, discovers that everyone in her family has a secret. They’re having affairs. When Frankel wrote and directed Miami Rhapsody, a lot of his friends were getting married. Frankel explains, “Everyone in the movie is questioning it. The movie asks, ‘Is marriage all it’s cracked up to be?”
Frankel’s personal life, like his first film, led him away from Hollywood to Miami. Miami was where his college sweetheart, Jennifer Beber, lived. Frankel wanted to spend more time with her. “Paul [Attanasio] called it the off-again off-again romance. But we always stayed in touch.” Frankel, created, wrote and directed the series Grapevine 15 years ago, in order “to create an opportunity to move to Miami.” He told the producers he wanted it shot in Miami. They agreed. More than a decade later, Frankel remains pleased that he lives away from Hollywood and can still get work. “I made the effort to move and it worked out.” He and Jennifer Beber married in 1998 and have 4 year old twins named Phoebe and Jake. Beber is the president of Beber, Silverstein & Partners in Miami, an advertising agency, founded by her mother. “It is great to live with someone with whom you have a history,” said Frankel. He and Beber have known each other for 29 years.
The script of The Devil Wears Prada expresses some of Frankel’s own views about visibly strong women.” I think it's true that if a man were in Miranda’s job they’d get judged only for their performance, never for their personality. Strong women take more heat for their personal idiosyncrasies." Frankel clearly enjoyed working with Meryl Streep, another outstanding, creative, surprising woman. “Who wants to play a bitch on wheels? No one wanted to make her meaner. Except Meryl. Meryl wanted to show Miranda at work, what makes her excellent. It is hard to convey magazine editing in a movie, but when you have Meryl, you can manage. She is really used to working with directors, she wants to deliver what the director wants. But she decided on the white wig without consulting anyone. That was our first hint of her turning into Miranda.” Frankel said Streep hated playing the cold, aloof character of Miranda Priestly because “she’s got a big family. She’s a devoted den mother and brings cookies to the set. In this case, she wanted to maintain her distance, particular with Andy and Emily. She never wanted them to lose their sense of being intimidated.” For the part of Andy’s boyfriend, Frankel imported Adrien Grenier from Entourage. “Both actors, he and Andy, had to be sexy and heartfelt. I felt he wasn’t showing all of himself in Entourage. There was more to him than that role.”
At first, Frankel found balancing comedy and drama in The Devil Wore Prada hard, because “it seems like an almost self-satirizing world.” His inspiration was Unzipped, the documentary about Isaac Mizrahi. “Mizrahi is aware that what he does is silly, yet he takes his work seriously and considers himself an artist,” said Frankel. Frankel didn’t want to mock fashion. “When Miranda says, ‘This is a billion dollar industry and this is where it starts,’ that speech means a lot to people. My personal schizophrenia about fashion is I adore it, but don’t judge by what I’m wearing.” Frankel was wearing dri-fit t-shirt, jeans, sneakers and black glasses. “Lauren Weisberger [the author of “The Devil Wears Prada,” who worked at Vogue for Anna Wintour] filled me in on details, as did my sister, who’s been an art director at magazines for 20 years, including Vogue.” Asked if familiarity with his father's position at The New York Times helped Frankel create the high-octane atmosphere of the world’s most famous fashion magazine, Frankel answered, "To do excellent work of any kind, you have to take it seriously; and of course to be taken seriously, you have to meet deadlines.”
To soak up the fashion world, Frankel went with Patricia Field to the Paris Couture show last July. He’d worked with Field on Sex in the City, Miami Rhapsody and Grapevine. “Strange as it may seem,” said Frankel, poking fun at himself again; “I have some knowledge of fashion from working with Pat over the years.” For the soundtrack, Frankel “wanted the music to give you the sense of drinking champagne.” He wanted to make the audience feel the way he did listening to the soundtrack for the film Sliding Doors. “It will make you smile the entire hour you listen to it.” He used a variety of music, including U2.
Frankel explains that the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada originated with Rupert Murdoch, who walked around Fox Studios saying to executives that the book had to be a film. Then Wendy Finerman (best known as the producer of Forrest Gump and Stepmom) called Frankel to see if he wanted to do the film. The studio suggested Aline Brosh McKenna, another Harvard graduate, to write the screenplay. Frankel worked on the screenplay with McKenna, and they were able to get Meryl Streep to play the book’s devilish boss, the infamous Miranda Priestly. As Frankel explains it, Streep’s presence was “shorthand for the audience for a legendary, important woman. With Meryl, we were able to get the movie made. She was only one of three actresses that could have done that.”
Frankel happily shot the film in NYC in 57 days. “Joe Hartwick, head of production at Fox, used to produce Woody Allen movies, and he supported the films being made in NYC. NYC is a spectacular place to shoot. Every corner is a great location. I’ve worked a lot in NYC in my limited career & I’ve loved it every time.”
When Frankel wondered how to begin and end a scene in Devil, he decided to use clothes. Early in the film, there is a montage depicting Andy’s daily journey from home to work, as all of her clothes change. “There were an enormous amount of costume and hair changes,” said Frankel. Asked at the Q&A after the film if anyone got to keep the shoes, Frankel deadpanned: “I did. I own them all.” In fact, the shoes were auctioned off to benefit breast cancer research, Equality Now and Dress for Success.
Next up for Frankel is another collaboration with Aline Brosh McKenna, his The Devil Wears Prada screenwriter, on an adaptation of Allison Pearson’s darkly comic novel I Don’t Know How She Does It. It is the tale of a hard working London hedge fund manager mom lying to everyone at once, or rather sequentially, in her effort to keep all her balls up in the air. You just know a novel that closes with a women’s group meeting in a lap-dancing club has to be good.
Asked what he was most proud of, Frankel answered: "I’m very proud of everything I’ve directed. If you go back to the early days in my career at HBO, filming the Apollo missions, Entourage, they were all really really fun, challenging, really satisfying.” Frankel also directed two episodes of Band of Brothers. “The first Band of Brothers, the liberation of a concentration camp, no combat it in it. It was a great responsibility to make it.”
The advice Frankel would give to someone starting out is “the same advice Robert Evans gave me 20 years ago: Just do it.” Frankel admitted: “Serendipity and luck help. The chain of events, what you wind up with, how you connect [are important]” and certainly the interests sparked in Frankel in college have fanned his career in the entertainment industry ever since. The Devil Wears Prada has taken in $83.5 million so far at the box office. Not bad for a chick flick about fashion and negotiating one’s way through one’s first job in the big bad city, with a devil of a boss. Whether or not you agree with Frankel that a strong woman is often perceived as a bitch in our society, regardless of what they do, you can still enjoy the movie. This interviewer did.