Adapting to changes in cultural and societal believes and experiences is a powerful theme and driving force behind all elements of the new documentary, ‘Julia,’ which focuses on the professional and personal lives of Julia Child. The title cooking teacher, author and television personality defied expectations throughout the mid-late 20th century when she supported feminism by launching a revolution in the male-dominated food industry across America and Europe.
Oscar-nominated filmmakers, Betsy West and Julie Cohen directed and produced the movie about the food and television icon. Much like their documentary’s subject, the filmmaking duo preserved during a difficult circumstance – the COVID-19 lockdown last year – to edit the movie in isolation during the quarantine. Once post-production on the movie was completed, it went on to play at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The documentary is scheduled to be officially released in theaters in New York City and L.A. on November 5 by Sony Pictures Classics.
‘Julia’ brings to life the legendary eponymous cookbook author and television superstar, who changed the way Americans think about food, television and even women. Using never-before-seen archival footage, personal photos, first-person narratives and cutting-edge, mouth-watering food cinematography, the film traces Child’s 12 year struggle to create and publish the revolutionary 1961 cookbook, ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking,’ which has sold more than two-and-a-half million copies to date, and her rapid ascent to become America’s most unlikely television star. It’s the empowering story of a woman who found her purpose – and her fame – at 50, and took America along on the whole delicious journey.
West and Cohen generously took the time during this month’s TIFF to talk about helming and producing ‘Julia’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmakers discussed that they were driven to direct and produce the movie in part because they wanted to show how much they appreciate the fact that Child changed the world in a tremendous, delightful way through her cooking. The filmmakers also shared that they’re honored that they were able to share ‘Julia’ with movie fans at TIFF this month.
ShockYa (SY): Together, you directed the new documentary, ‘Julia.’ What was the inspiration in making the film, and how would you describe your helming style together during the production?
Betsy West (BW): I remember a bus ride that Julie and I took across Manhattan when the idea of making a Julia Child documentary had been raised. We started talking about the dishes we were served as children; in my case, that was in the 1950s and ’60s, and for Julie, that was in the ’70s. We talked about the Jello salads, hot dog creole and processed, frozen foods.
We then started thinking that this woman really changed the world tremendously. That was the origin for making this film.
Then as we got into the story, we discovered how revolutionary Julia also was as a presence on television. It was very unusual for a middle-aged, tall, loud-voiced woman to be on TV at that time. She really changed the landscape and culture of television at the time, so we thought it would be fun to make a documentary about her.
Julie Cohen (JC): Not only is it an illuminating story, but it’s also a really delightful story to tell. So we jumped right in.
We also learned pretty early on that there was this feminist love story that was part of the Julia Child story. We like love stories, both as moviegoers and moviemakers. So we were excited that this story had that element to dig into.
BW: Just to add to that, this was pre-pandemic, so it turned out to be pretty darned lucky for us because the bulk of our shooting took place before the shutdown happened. So we were already editing; one day we were in our office editing, and the next day we were in our home offices, working virtually. So we were able to keep going that way.
Having Julia as our companion, and immersing ourselves in her world, was a great time during a time of so much uncertainty and fear. We felt really fortunate that this was our project during this time, and we threw ourselves into it.
SY: What was the process like of doing research into Julia’s life and career as you began production on the movie? You mentioned her feminist side; why was it important to you both to focus on that aspect of her during your research?
JC: We really enjoyed digging into all of the information that has been gathered by both the Julia Child Foundation, some of the authors that have written about her and the Julia Child Collection, which is at the library at Harvard.
There were also incredible resources at the Women’s History Library that gave us access to Julia’s writings. It was really fun to see the notes behind the making of ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ versus the final book.
We’re filmmakers, so we care a lot about the visuals, so looking through (Julia’s husband,) Paul Child’s extraordinary, and very intimate, photos of his was a real treat for us. Even the process of going through the 201 episodes of (the television show she was on,) ‘The French Chef’ to figure out what were going to be the best moments to build a film around was fun.
SY: Speaking of the ‘Julia’s visual style, what was the experience like of collaborating with its cinematographer, Claudia Raschke, to decide how you would shoot the documentary? What was the process like of also deciding which clips from Julia’s life that you would include in the film?
BW: In addition to going through the photos and diaries in the archives that Julie mentioned, we also wanted food to be a major character in the film. We decided early on that we would work with a food photographer in France who we heard about, who specializes in shooting food in a close-up way. His photography was so beautiful.
Plus, our regular cinematographers, Claudia Raschke, filmed for six days in a replica of Julia Child’s kitchen that we built in a studio in Manhattan to really present Julia’s recipes and her whole process of creating food. We wanted that to really enhance the archives.
SY: ‘Julia’ features interviews with her relatives and fellow chefs, including her niece, Phila Cousins, great-nephew, Alex Prud’homme, and French chef, Danièle Delpeuch. What was the process like of deciding who you would feature in the movie, and how did you decide what you would discuss with them about the title cook?
JC: I think just about everybody we interviewed added something really special to the film. Our guiding idea was to find the people who knew, or had a really strong connection to, Julia. We’re lucky that we were able to talk to her niece, Phila Cousins, and great nephew, Alex Prud’homme, in addition to her colleagues and neighbors in Cambridge. The women who were part of her circle in Cambridge gave us a real perspective on her personal life, particularly her relationship with Paul.
The wonderful chef in France, Danièle Delpeuch, had incredible insight on the sexist world of French cooking, and what Julia was up against when she was at the Le Cordon Bleu. Danièle also gave a huge perspective on, and really painted a picture of, the love story between Julia and Paul.
SY: Earlier, you mentioned the process of putting the final version of ‘Julia’ together. What was the experience like of collaborating with Carla Gutierrez, who edited the documentary, to deciding how to put the feature together?
JC: I think that’s always the most fun process of making a film. Betsy and I worked together with our incredible editor, Carla Gutierrez, to put together the film we wanted to make. We wanted to make sure the film not only gets out the information about Julia, but also makes a really absorbing experience for the audience.
We didn’t just want to teach viewers who Julia was; we also wanted to bring them as close as we could to being in the room with her as she’s going through this experience. We also want them to feel as though they’re seeing that incredible food in person. Marrying the food to the story was an ongoing, but really fun, project.
We actually had a person who’s a real expert on Julia’s recipes cook the food, and she also served the food stylist. So we presented her with a number of plotpoints, and asked her things like, “Which of Julia’s desserts would look really rich, sensual and erotic?” She gave us some options, and we ended up deciding that the pear almond tart was really the way to go for that aesthetic because it had so many different steps to making it.
We also wanted to see Julia failing when she’s trying so hard to cook. So we also asked our food stylist, “What’s a food that Julia would make that you could see it failing?” So she came up with the Blender Hollandaise Sauce, which easily breaks. So creating that was a really fun process of making this film.
BW: The other part that I would add is the music. It was so great to work with our composer, Rachel Portman, who I think added so much to the emotional and luscious feeling of France in the 1940s when Julia was there. There was also an excitement of creating the music when we show the time that Julia was becoming a celebrity. So that was a big part of our edit.
SY: ‘Julia’ is playing at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. What did it mean to you that the documentary is premiering at the festival?
BW: We’re excited that we’re showing the movie at Toronto. We’re certainly thrilled at the prospect of this incredible audience of film aficionados gathering together to see and experience this film.