In the world of the 21st century in which we live, our day to day existence is an every changing place. Old jobs are being taken away and new one's are being created especially in the film industry. Author Susan Spungen is a cook, recipe developer and event planner who jumped from the kitchen to the print business to become the food editor at Martha Stewart Living in 1991 and go on to contribute to a variety of different publications and publish several award winning cookbooks. Now having being called to Hollywood for her work as a culinary consultant or food stylist she has worked on films like "Eat, Pray, Love" & "Julia & Julia" as well as the recently released on DVD & Blu-Ray "Labor Day". While in Toronto recently I got the chance to sit down with her and ask what the job of a food stylist truly entails and what went into the self professed greatest pie scene in movie history.
Dave Voigt: I imagine this is probably a bit of a loaded question, but I have to ask. How does one ultimately become a Food Stylist or Culinary Consultant?
Susan Spungen: Well, it really all started with "Julia & Julia". Nora Ephron had called me herself a little out of the blue. Nora heard about me from people she was working on the script with and that is kind of how she operates in a very word of mouth kind of way. When she called me, she had said that she was working on a movie about Julia Child and would love to have me involved, and said yes and to be honest I think that I had just seen "Ratatouille" and I saw that Thomas Keller had taken that title on that movie and I thought that sounded great so I went with it (Laughs). That's the truth, I doubt that they would have thought of it.
What does that job entail? Because from the outside looking in at something like a "Labor Day" is it more than just making the pies?
Well it depends, on "Labor Day" I was just the food stylist, on that one. On stuff like "Eat, Pray, Love", I was a little more hands on in determining what foods should be in certain scenes. On films like that and "Julia & Julia" there were some elements that just weren't scripted and in many ways I was very much a technical advisor, to get not only the food right but the technique right as well.
Was there a lot of hands on, in terms of showing Josh (Brolin) and Kate (Winslet) how to make the pies?
Well I was on set for the most part doing the actual baking for "Labor Day". So much of it really does come down to logistical issues, going from location to location and making pie after pie. It looks like one little season but were making dough for days and there were quite a few scenes that were cut as well, like a flash back of the grandmother teaching Tom Lipinski who played the younger version of Josh how to make the pies, and that was just gone. Those establishing scenes were gone, but yes I am the actual person making those pies and making the materials work for the actors in that moment using real pie dough and real butter and of course real peaches. Having all that stuff look, I guess you'd say perfectly imperfect so the scene would work like it was supposed to . On most films that I have worked on, they just shoot above the food and then do inserts, but on "Labor Day" he wanted them and in there and they did most of the work that you see on screen with a couple of little exceptions.
This is probably a stupid question but I have to ask, as so many filmmakers want things to be as authentic as possible and it is a period piece, you didn't have to period bake and use old ovens or anything?
Well the period wasn't THAT long ago, it wasn't only 1987. The prop master was trying but really a pie dish is a pie dish, it hasn't changed much. The set looked great, but because it was so recent they didn't have to worry about it too much.
Your new book, "What's A Hostess To Do" is great with specific ideas and the right elements that you need to entertain, and I'm curious if it comes back around to haunt you while you are on set if you see a craft services table and just shake your head?
(Laughs) Well, I TRY not to (Laughs). I mean if it's 4PM and someone is walking around with Quesadillas or something, I will happily partake. I would say that I am particular, but not a snob when it comes to food. My big thing tends to be if the food is fresh or not, freshness and cleanliness are by big sticking points, otherwise I am pretty easy going.
Favorite food movie?
There are so many that are in the canon of that genre, and I of course I love the ones that I have worked on (smiles). And I'm also very partial to "Big Night" in part because I got to work with Stanley Tucci. I loved the opening scene in "Eat Drink Man Woman". There's just so many, and I love some of the classics as well.
What is it about our connection with food and cinema that makes it so visceral?
It's really no different than commercials, which also work on and I think it really comes down to that visual aspect that really gets to people which can downright manipulative. Hell some times in movies one of my major complaints is that the camera doesn't linger long enough on the food. The long the camera is on the food, the more it stands out, it's even on some of these throw away scenes that we don't think about at the time, but ultimately are so memorable to the audience. I think it's directly correlated to camera time...
Much like everything in Hollywood...
HA! Exactly, camera time and camera close-ups (Laughing)
"Labor Day" is now available for rent or purchase on DVD, Blu-Ray and On Demand from all major providers.
"What's a Hostess To Do?" is now available at all major bookstores everywhere.