How a Doughnut Truck Became Denzel Washington's Co-Star in 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.'
Johnny Doughnuts founder Craig Blum details the behind-the-scenes work that went into appearing in the Oscar-nominated film.
That last part is more of a blip in the story, but don’t let the baked good’s limited screen time undersell its role. In fact, the movie’s dramatic turning point hinges on a scene between a beachside food truck, a maple turkey bacon doughnut and the overworked, underpaid and recently unemployed defense lawyer Israel (Washington).
Defined by his acute black and white view of justice, Israel has spent most of his life behind the scenes at a small firm focused on low-income clients. But when his long-time partner passes, Israel is suddenly in need of a new place to earn a paycheck and focus his energies. Enter Colin Farrell’s lightly greased, sharply dressed defense lawyer George Pierce, who sees Israel’s unparalleled knowledge of the law as a bankable asset. Despite Pierce representing much of what Israel is against, the highly moral man of modest means (reluctantly) takes the position Pierce offers him.
Upon entering the flashy, cut-throat world of high-priced private criminal defense, Johnny Doughnuts’ maple turkey bacon doughnut becomes Israel’s moral metaphor. The salty and sweet treat is first mentioned while Israel is still at his unprofitable two-man practice, where it’s treated as a longed-for decadence. But when Israel’s financial situation makes a swift turn, he’s suddenly able to joyously indulge, turning the food into a subtle commentary on the perceived importance of moderation. On the film’s darker side, the doughnut is the first step in a character’s moral spiral. But it also serves as a reminder of life’s small, infrequent, yet meaningful comforts.
“When you look at Denzel Washington’s character, it’s indicative of how people respond to doughnuts,” Craig Blum, the owner and founder of the very real California-based bakery Johnny Doughnuts, tells Food & Wine. “It’s such a part of our American culture, the doughnut. It touches that really soft spot inside of us where we take a moment and have a little mini vacation from our basic experience and indulge in something wonderful.”
Blum’s shop doesn’t actually sell the film’s featured maple turkey bacon doughnut, which was originally a maple bacon doughnut before it was adjusted to meet Washington’s dietary restrictions. But the five-year-old operation with two locations and three trucks does offer a locally-sourced and seasonally influenced approach to doughnuts that exemplifies Blum’s attitude about the simple, but tasty breakfast item. After two years of recipe research, Blum chose a 1920s approach to launch his new doughnut endeavor, which he says speaks to the world’s “treat-seekers.”
With the help of pastry chefs, Blum baked up a doughnut using fresh potato in the dough and high-quality oil, crafted to be indulgent without being loaded with sugar. Johnny Doughnuts now offers everything from old fashioned, traditional and vegan raised doughnuts to bismarks, fritters, and crodoughs.
But how did the Bay Area doughnut makers get involved in a film about the rise, fall, and legacy of Washington’s fictional defense lawyer? According to Blum, his sweet enterprise was spotted by the daughter of Roman J. Israel Esq.’s production designer Kevin Kavanaugh, who had been “scouring the web” for a truck that would embody the emotional tone of the scene and its bright, airy oceanside location.
“They found us and they fell in love with our truck,” Blum tells Food & Wine. “There is no other truck I would say in the [California] Bay Area or the country that looks like our trucks do. We have custom-made display cases that are floor-to-ceiling glass. We’re very much into the aesthetics and the attention to detail.”
Initially contacted through email sometime between February and March 2017, Johnny Doughnuts agreed to its starring role after Kavanaugh shared details of the pivotal food truck scene. Shortly after, Blum was in email threads with the film’s director, producers, prop master, and production supervisors, planning out everything from how to get the truck to Los Angeles to the on-screen uniforms.
The entire process took only a couple of months, starting with the Johnny Doughnuts team handing over the company’s graphics in March. By May, the film’s prop master had organized a semi-truck to transport one of their three food trucks to L.A. A day before the shoot, Blum, his wife Kim and operations manager Sarah McKenzie loaded up a truck and set out for their 10 a.m. call at Venice Beach Pier.
When the Johnny Doughnuts team arrived on set, they came bearing “a load of doughnuts” for both the crew and their starring food truck’s shelves. By the beach, their mobile shop sat waiting, complete with eye-catching cosmetic changes. Executive producer Betsy Danbury, director Dan Gilroy and the costume department, among others, were also there, with the latter carrying wardrobe samples that had incorporated the doughnut shop’s logo.
Blum has a cameo in the film, a decision made after Kavanaugh asked if he wanted to be in the scene. But if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that he and the other actor in the truck aren’t wearing the same uniform. This wasn’t by accident.
“The costume department came out, and they had a ton of samples of our actual uniform with our logos,” Blum tells Food & Wine. “They made hats and t-shirts, but we really wanted to keep our actual uniform, so we made an agreement. Their actor wore their t-shirts and then I was in the truck next to the actor, and I got to wear the uniform of Johnny Doughnuts.”
After Washington’s stand-in ran lines and the truck had been perfectly positioned against the sandy backdrop swarming with 200 extras, Washington entered in-character and shot the scene in 20 minutes. Blum, who once worked in Hollywood on the TV show Thicke of the Night, says the entire four-hour process was both “holistic” and “seamless.”
“Everybody was so respectful to us and extremely grateful that we brought our truck,” Blum says. “They made sure that when they did that one shot, they came down on the Johnny Doughnuts [logo]. They knew what it meant to us, and they knew that they had the power to give that to us, which was really awesome.”
As a tribute to its Hollywood debut, limited time Oscars-inspired maple turkey bacon doughnut on Tuesday, February 13th. The doughnut will be available to customers at all Johnny Doughnuts food trucks and brick and mortar shops through March 5.