Julie & Julia – and Susan!

by Matt on July 13, 2009

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When Julie & Julia opens on August 7 you’ll see an uncanny performance of Meryl Streep as Julia Child, some silly and overly sweet moments involving Julie Powell and plenty of food in almost every scene. It’s enough to make you want to run to France or your kitchen shelf to grab “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.

Last week I joined a few film and food bloggers in Hollywood for a special screening of Julie & Julia.  The event was followed by a chat with Julie “I’m Not A Blogger” Powell as well as actor Chris Messina who plays her husband. The event was held at Le Cordon Bleu in Hollywood and featured a cooking demonstration by Chef Brian Malarky with recipes inspired by the movie, a combination of Julie Powell’s book and Julia Child’s My Life In France. I had a swell time chatting with Julie (we’re both from Austin, y’all) and one of the highlights of the day was meeting Susan Spungen. As a food photographer I was particularly interested in hearing about her experience on the film but was pleasantly surprised that everyone else wanted to know, too!

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Susan was the lead food stylist on Julie & Julia and responsible for every bit of food created in the movie. If it was cooked or prepared by Julia Child she did it. If it was attempted by Julie Powell then she did that, too. This was no easy feat but once you read Susan’s bio it’s easy to see how she pulled it off. As a cook, food stylist, recipe developer, editor and author, she worked with Martha Stewart for many years as food editor and now writes, styles, advises and works in film. She’s gorgeous, jovial, knows her stuff and is a stylist from heaven, if you ask me.

If you’ve worked on a food shoot in the print world or photographed food for your blog then you know you pretty much have complete control over what you’re doing. The world of films are entirely different. Not only must the food be completely edible for the actors to eat but you’re also working with a much larger team where scenes require multiple takes. This cannot be easy, people!

Susan talked about a key component that makes film so different than print. “You might not realize the magic of filmaking. They’ll do a master where it’s a shot of everybody in the scene and film it over and over again. Then they’ll shoot each person at the table saying their lines over and over again, eating the same food over and over again. It’s complicated and takes all day.”

toasting-the-cheeseA scene in the movie that strikes fear in the heart of Julie Powell involves boning a duck. Susan said that was the least of her worries and was more concerned with getting a “cheese pull” for a bowl of onion soup pulled off correctly. A Cheese Pull is exactly what you think it is: those long stringy sections of cheese you see in pizza commercials or grilled cheese advertisements. And folks, you wouldn’t believe what stylists must do to get that on a good day, let alone on a movie shoot where you can’t stand next to the food and poke and prod it into submission.

Susan brought her script and read a section about a montage that terrorized her: “Both of them cooking. Both of them having the best time. Julia sharpens a knife. Julie sharpens a knife. Julia makes a watercress soup in a foodmill. Julie makes a watercress soup in a cuisinart. Julia types the words ‘practice outdoors with half a cup of dried beans’. Julie practices outside her apartment building with an omelette pan and half a cup of dried beans. Julia makes a floating island. Julie types the words ‘so last night I made a floating island.’ Julia eats onion soup and the cheese extends from her soup to her lips. Julie eats onion soup and the cheese extends from her soup to her lips.”

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Susan shared the challenges of making food hot enough to melt cheese yet not hot enough to burn Meryl Streep’s face off. My heart is pounding just thinking about that.

It’s one thing when you have to make something as beautiful as possible, but what about when you must show the mishaps in the kitchen? Without revealing too much from the movie she also discussed the food accidents throughout the movie. How to make an aspic incorrectly? Add a bit of heat and liquid. Need your chicken’s stuffing to slide all over the floor? Tweak the recipe. But for the most part all of the food in Julie & Julia is real, it’s edible, and all from Julia Child’s Mastering The Art Of French Cooking.

Amy-AdamsAnd what about the actors? What if they’re not the most comfortable in the kitchen? Again, Susan to the rescue. She spent two 4-hour sessions at ICE in New York with Amy Adams running through the things she’d be doing on camera like practicing knifes skills and learning to poach an egg incorrectly. And what about Meryl Streep? “Meryl’s great. Even though she says she doesn’t cook she knows what she’s doing” said Susan.

Susan ended her talk with a demonstration on getting her onion soup to melt and bubble over and it took everything in my power not to run up and grab it. She’s working on a new film and I do hope she lets us know what it is soon so we can all gawk over her beautiful work. Thanks Susan!

Julie & Julia opens August 7th. Thanks to Sony Pictures, the folks at Le Cordon Bleu, Julie Powell and Susan Spungen. Images of Meryl Streep and Amy Adams from Sony Pictures, the rest by yours truly.