Last week, thanks to Sony Pictures, I saw a special preview screening of Julie & Julia. The screenplay for the film was adapted from two books: My Life in France, Julia Child's autobiography, co-written with her grand-nephew Alex Prud'homme, and Julie & Julia by Julie Powell. One book recounts (among other things) how Mastering the Art of French Cooking came to be, and the other is how one woman cooked every single recipe in it, in the space of a year. I also got to see a presentation with a past Top Chef contestant, the author Julie Powell and one of the primary supporting actors Chris Messina, but the most intriguing person I met associated with the film was the culinary consultant, Susan Spungen. She and an assistant managed to prepare and cook every single dish in the movie as well as prep the cooking scenes.
Susan Spungen is a cook, food stylist, editor and cookbook author. She worked as food editor for Martha Stewart Living magazine for over 10 years, was a restaurant pastry chef and went to art school early in her career. She is a stylist with the soul of a cook.
Having seen several presentations by food stylists, I get the feeling that their work with food is all about making it look good, and sacrificing taste is no big deal. As a food blogger who actually, you know, eats the food I photograph, I can't really relate to that. On a movie set, just like in my house, that's clearly not the case. Food often has to be eaten on film, in addition to being seen and even heard. Accuracy is important, whether that means making food look good, bad or just plain ugly. It has to be the right temperature and taste just so.
When you see the film Julie & Julia, you will see a lot of food. It gets prepped, cooked, eaten and enjoyed. The food has a starring role in the film and there are times you can almost smell and taste it, that's thanks in no small part, to Susan Spungen. I predict popcorn sales will be especially high during showings of this film.
Here's some of what I learned about preparing food on a movie set:
* You can't garnish with parsley because it might stick in the actors teeth(!)
* Because of multiple takes, the same dish must be prepared many, many times
* Sometimes recipes have to be changed to really work on screen
* Food must be quiet, or it will sound too loud, drowning out dialogue
* Bread is way too loud on screen so you'll rarely if ever, see actors eating it
* Actors don't drink wine, but Welch's grape juice in the movies
* An electric paint remover does a better job than a toaster to evenly brown and toast food
* To get cheese in French onion soup to stretch from bowl-to-mouth, add mozzarella
* Chopped onions have to be soaked in cold water to keep the actors from crying
* Making special sound effects and visual effects with the food is sometimes another departments responsibility altogether
* Lobsters have to be procured dead, even for a scene in which they are cooked, so as not to violate SPCA guidelines for avoiding cruelty to animals on set or location
I'm not supposed to review the film in detail, but I will tell you this much, Julie & Julia the film brings Julia Child to life. Meryl Streep is brilliant in her portrayal and director Nora Ephron is masterful at bringing the sensual nature of food to the screen but also at illuminating complex and fascinating real women, who are not simple stereotypes but people who find satisfaction and success through cooking. And that is something I can absolutely relate to!
More posts from those at the screening: