Betsy West and Julie Cohen on JULIA, Julia Child and Collaborating – Leslie Combemale interviews

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There’s so much to recommend about Julia, the new documentary by directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen about the history-making trailblazing cook Julia Child, that AWFJ selected it to be our Movie of the Week. What stands out the most, beyond all the new rare footage and never-before-heard letters and never-before-seen photos is the sheer joy of the film. It really captures Julia’s love of life and food. I spoke to West and Cohen, fresh off their critically acclaimed My Name is Pauli Murray and known for their Oscar nominated film RBG, about their work as filmmakers, Julia the film and Julia Child, the icon.

Leslie Combemale: One of the things I think many female audience members reaching for or passing 50, like me, will love most about the film is that Julia handled ageism, in a time when it was even worse than it is today. How did that aspect of the film come together?

Betsy West: I think we were really drawn to the fact that Julia did not attain her celebrity until she was in her middle age. She didn’t find her passion for cooking until she was 39, and then went on television when she was in her early 50s. She did face ageism. She was unusual as a television celebrity, and it wasn’t that executives had picked her to do this, it was her insistence on baking an omelet on a pretty staid talk show that led the audience to reach out to the station and say, ‘Hey, we want more of this person.’ Then the show happened. Her connection was directly with the audience. Then, when in the 1970s, PBS was marginalizing her a bit, not prioritizing her show and the way that she felt was appropriate given her success, instead of taking that and saying, ‘Alright, I’m in my 70s, now, maybe it’s the time to let go’, she really took the bold step of saying goodbye to PBS and moving to commercial television to Good Morning America, and taking on the challenge of translating her program from half an hour to doing a recipe to just a few minutes, but then she found an even wider audience. It was Julia taking the reins Julia refusing to be sidelined. As an older woman that inspired us a lot.

LC: And every step of the way, she is creating the future for all of these celebrity chefs that exist now, who exist because of her.

Julie Cohen: Julia created the future and so many ways. I mean, first of all, she marked a path for women to be on television in a way that one wouldn’t expect, and then just let people consider the idea that food is cool. That was just not the vibe in the early 60s. Julia made food cool. She amped that up over her lifetime, and it has long outlasted her and even, to the extent today where there’s just a whole culture of food hipness that she both helped create, but possibly would have had a little skepticism toward. People have asked about how she would feel about Instagram, and I think the answer is she might love the increased intense interest in food, but she certainly wouldn’t love the fact that when someone’s food shows up on the table, they stop and snap a picture of it before eating it. Food is meant to be savored and eaten.

LC: There’s feminism baked into her story in so many ways, but specifically, in that in the 60s, there are all of these “housewives” out there cooking, but not having any cachet or any kind of respect in doing so, then here’s this woman who comes in who’s middle aged and she is creating. She’s an expert. She’s more of an expert than most men are. And I think there’s something really powerful about that, that goes way beyond food.

BW: She’s teaching people. I mean, she’s learned the craft. She spent a lot of time becoming an expert, and then she’s teaching people, but not not in a condescending way. Julia’s success was the combination of her mastery of a craft and her relaxed and inviting personality. So many people said, ‘Oh, we thought if she can do it, I can do it.’ She gave people a confidence to try things. I think that’s why she was able to connect with audiences so organically.

LC: There’s also always a joy in everything she ever did. When you’re watching her you see her make a mistake and she laughs it off and just keeps going. She was always really down to earth, and I think that too is what connected her with her audiences.

JC: I don’t think there was an understanding that that’s what people wanted. With television, like with so many mediums including social media today there’s a feeling that this fake perfection is what you need to be presenting of yourself. ‘I have the perfect family, and my pets are perfect. Our vacation was beautiful.’ Everyone else looks at those images and actually literally feels bad. Julia wasn’t like that. She wasn’t perfect. She wasn’t doing things perfectly. She was messing up. If her show had had higher production values, and more money behind it, and more consultants, they probably would have had her do it in a completely different way, and never let her mess up. If she had had enough money, if they could have afforded enough tape that she could have made edits, then they would have just edited out the mistakes, but they couldn’t afford that. Instead, she had to just talk about it, and say she was screwing up, and be her natural self, the way that a person who has their act together behaves when they make a mistake. That was actually the element that the viewers responded to most, because people get sick of trying to be perfect. It’s too hard to do, and no one can do it right.

LC: And this is the 60s, so that just says perfection has always been something that society has wanted, and that nothing’s changed in that respect. Lack of perfection is much more compelling. I’d like to ask you about the food cinematography. You used macro food photography and special lenses to bring Julia’s recipes to life onscreen, both DPs Claudia Raschke and Nanda Fernandez Bredillard worked on those scenes. Showing how the food is being prepared is one key to the film’s ability to capturing an audience.

BW: This was a real opportunity for us to bring this technology to bear. When Julia was doing her show, it was black and white, and then in color, but in general the food really didn’t look all that appetizing. It was kind of gray and yucky. We decided that we were going to make food a major character in service of the narrative, so we got food stylist Susan Spungen to work with us, and to help us select the classic Julia recipes that we were going to cook in a kitchen, which our producer Holly Segal helped to have made. We had a replica of Julia’s kitchen. The idea was we were going to have both these cinematographers come together and film in this kitchen, but COVID intervened. Nanda, who’s in Paris, had to stay in Paris. We wound up creating the recipes in two different cities, and then Claudia did the more cinema verite shooting, so for example she filmed the creation of the sexy pear tart, and that’s Susan the food stylist’s hands you see. Nanda was doing his macro and slow motion artistic food cinematography in France, and then our amazing editor Carla Gutierrez was integrating them and cutting them together. There are actually some French pears and some American pears, all in this dish being being put together. It was great to be able to bring that high level of cinematography, especially to a film that we’re very excited people are going to be able to see on a big screen.

Betsy West and Julie Cohen

LC: It’s wonderful that you wound up having to have an American and a French person knitting a recipe together, because that’s so appropriate to Julie’s story and to the story of how she made Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

JC: It actually happened quite organically. The graphics person that we’ve worked with on a number of our films, including RBG, whose name is Kook Ewo, is French and is based in Paris. It was in the midst of hiring him for this project. He happened to be visiting from New York and we sat at an actual French Cafe in New York City. We told him about this project, and he said, ‘You know, I’ve got this friend who’s this amazing impressionistic food cinematographer. His name is Nanda.’ He goes on YouTube and shows us two minutes worth of footage, and we were like, ‘Oh my god, it’s amazing. We’re calling him tomorrow.’ Nanda ended up filming not only a bunch of our scenes in France, but also the specialty food shooting.

LC: I love is the fact that you work with so many women below the line. And I really appreciate that, and certainly my colleagues at the Alliance of Women Film Journalists do, too. You’ve already mentioned Claudia, who has worked with you several times as director of photography. And Carla, who is the editor, and your food stylist, Susan, that you mentioned. Can you talk a little bit more about those collaborations?

BW: We did, pretty deliberately, on RBG reach out to women to be in the key roles to collaborate on the film. It seemed to be to work very well on RBG, and so many of the same people were working on Julia, and then the pandemic happened. We’d been working in our office, and Carla was editing away, and we’d already been shooting with Claudia. Suddenly we’re all in our home offices, and the fact that we had worked together before, that we had such a great relationship, made the transition pretty seamless, actually. We were able to, through the magic of cloud technology, to just keep working, and to be in Zoom meetings, and to exchange Google Docs, and to look at various cuts on Vimeo, and everything else. It was the relationships, the teamwork that we’ve built, the shorthand and the comfort level that we have now, helped make this edit a particular joy. Not only the subject matter, I mean dealing with Julia is a lot of fun, because she’s such a great character, but I think also our whole team brought a spirit that made us feel very lucky to have this project to work on, frankly.

JC: These are our friends and collaborators, from these two projects, Carla and Claudia both have some Julia Child-like aspects to them. They both have big and extremely positive personalities. These are joyful people, doing their work joyfully. I’m always impressed by Claudia. With a lot of cinematographers, there’s a lot of stress in the field and sometimes it’s miserable. Claudia is always having the most amazing, positive time. In the case of Carla, all the three of us all working together, there’s a lot of fun. Yes, there’s stress, but mostly we’re just having a good time.

BW: We’re laughing!

JC: We really wanted this film to feel tasty, and loving, and funny and fun, and sexy and romantic, and I feel like the spirit of putting it together fit. There were some new elements to this film, like our amazing producer Holly Siegal. She had so many huge challenges on this project, that were almost like not documentary but narrative film challenges. Things like bringing in a set designer to create this Julia Child kitchen, but in which we also could shoot from all these different angles, and that also really worked, and we could cook in, and there had to be a pyro technician on the set to make sure that like nothing is causing any flammable problems. She was the main coordinator with the food stylist, and all of this stuff that honestly we couldn’t even give her any guidance on. She just figured it out, because she’s amazing.

BW: When COVID happened, luckily we had done most of the interviews before the shutdown, but we hadn’t done the food, because we wanted to wait and pick the recipes that were going to really work with the narrative. That had to be done with all kinds of COVID protocols. At the beginning, this was a year ago, and it was all new to everybody. Holly had to handle that, plus a couple of interviews.

JC: Plus having a baby.

BW: Oh, yeah, then she had a baby after that. It was very challenging, but for us, it was really fun. We have a lot of pictures of us, especially the end of the edit, which is always very exciting, where Carla gets up and does a dance. Everybody is just so happy. We had a great experience, and we’re really happy with the film.

LC: I love that you hired Oscar-winning composer Rachel Portman because of course she is just so important to film music, and to composing as a woman.

JC: We love it, too. We had the idea from pretty early on that we wanted to hire a narrative film composer for this film. We were lucky enough that our partners at Imagine agreed to let us budget to do that. We just had the feeling that we wanted this film to feel like a date movie and a romantic comedy. Yes, it’s a documentary. You’ll learn a lot. It’s illuminating. Maybe there’s some education, but mostly we wanted it to be an immersive, enjoyable experience, and having the score be part of that seemed important. We were so excited when Rachel agreed to do this film. Her process was unusual. She came in quite late in the process. We weren’t showing her little pieces. She had a pretty packed schedule, and she apportioned some time for us. The first process was her watching a copy of the film, and then going through scene by scene, and her asking us to shout out words. It was like a game show. She wanted us to shout out what we thought the scene was supposed to be about. Betsy would yell out, ‘Feisty! Determined! Tough! Sad! Miserable! Frustrated!’ We did it for, like, three hours. We’re just shouting out adjectives. Honestly, we were thinking, ‘What is this process?’ Then she does it. She gives us a cut of the cues of the score. And they captured everything. They were like all so good.

Composer Rachel Portman

BW: She had such a great way of integrating a French sensibility to the music, which we felt really worked. As Julie said, it does kind of sweep you away. It’s romantic and it’s fun.

LC: Julia collaborated with Simone Beck on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but their relationship and partnership was troubled and challenging. Those two and their interactions are so opposite to how you two as filmmakers partner to create these films together. How do you two work together and how did you find a way to do it so harmoniously?

BW: Starting with RBG, we discovered that we do have pretty similar sensibilities about filmmaking. Often, on the big things, we’re in agreement, and we make all the big decisions together. Because we trust each other so much, we can divide and conquer. In terms of doing interviews, often we’ll just apportion the interviews, and one person will be in charge of doing it, but we both try to go to the interview and to backstop each other. It’s like having another brain. ‘What do you think of this? What do you think of that?’ It’s just incredibly helpful. Similarly, when we’re putting the structure together, we’re working collaboratively to talk about how the film might be structured and what the scenes are. We have the this new thing we started to use called Jam Board, which is a template. It’s on the Google Docs template. It replicates the little postcards that people often use in an edit room, where they put the scenes on the wall. This is just done digitally. We’ll go over all of it and talk about that. Then often we’ll divide up scenes. Meanwhile, our editor’s working. Carla will be working on a more verite montage-y scene. Julie and I will be, each one of us, working on a more editorial scene; Julia’s childhood, or the beginning of the romance, or whatever it is. We’ll each of us work separately work with Carla. At a certain point, we have each other take a look and ask for thoughts, then give each other feedback. It’s a give and take that’s based on respect.

JC: It really works. That’s not to say it’s all complete harmony. We actually argue about things, and we we both are loud talkers. Neither of us are shrinking violets, so when we’re having a discussion about how to move something in a scene, or how to make a scene work, we just both talk really loudly and at the end, we make a decision. We kind of know when the other one is going to react to something. Often, if one of us has been looking at a cut on our own, we’ll come back together, and it’s like, ‘You’re gonna kill me, but…’ Actually, we’re both big at making cuts. The end of the process is like, ‘Hey. What if we lost this scene?’

BW: We’re really good at parsing words, because we can’t stand to have the story bogged down and be repetitive, or people feeling bored because we already told them that thing, or the soundbite already said that thing. We’re very much in tune in trying to make it lean and mean in the storytelling. It’s so important to be able to stand back, and have some perspective, and just let go of whatever excitement you had the two weeks before, when you thought of the thing, and you were thinking how great it was going to be. Then, after you’ve watched it about 20 times, you’re thinking, ‘It can go. Gone.’

LC: There are, for women especially, so many inspiring messages in your film. What did you two personally find the most inspiring aspect of Julia’s life and career?

JC: I’m gonna say that it’s the fun and the joie de vivre that was so inspiring. You think when you’re being inspired by a successful person, that what you’re going to be inspired by is their hard work and their determination. Those are all nice, but Julia did everything with so much zest and joy and fun, and I think that’s admirable and inspirational.

BW: I’m inspired by the fact that Julia didn’t find her passion until middle age and then persisted and just created a whole career for herself and changed the world. That’s pretty inspiring. On a more personal level, one of the things that I have decided, post-COVID, when we start having dinner parties again and when people start gathering again, I’m going to take to heart Julia’s advice, which is when you cook for your friends and family, and you really put your heart into it and you do your absolute best, and it doesn’t doesn’t quite work out, because you forgot something or it doesn’t really look like the picture, or whatever the hell it is, when you serve it, never apologize.

LC: That’s great advice.

BW: I think it’s really good advice, especially for women. We’re always frickin’ apologizing about everything, and qualifying, and saying ‘I’m sorry’. Just stop it. You did it. Serve it and have a good time.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.