Bénédicte Charpiat on Making Fake Food For French Movies
Oddball inventions are the motor that drives Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, which opens July 18, a bittersweet French-language romantic comedy based on Boris Vian's book of the same name that throws dozens of Gondry’s signature doo-hickeys, gee-gaws and handcrafted gizmos at you in every single scene. The charmingly lazy chief protagonist, Colin (Romain Duris), is the mastermind behind a gadget called the “pianocktail,” which by plinking away on the ivories can make music and mix a cocktail simultaneously. There’s also a tiny man-faced mouse, a floating bubble-topped plastic cloud car and a lot of wonderfully Pee Wee-esque stop-motion animation.
It only makes sense then that whenever breakfast, lunch or dinner makes an appearance – and Colin is apparently wealthy enough to afford a booming-voiced private cook (Omar Sy) whose crazy-looking food is almost an ancillary character – that it comes out of the kitchen with a dark storybook quality or looks like a prop previously used in an effed-up version of Babette’s Feast.
Recently we caught up with Bénédicte Charpiat, the Mood Indigo food stylist, via Skype as she sat in her leafy backyard in the Paris suburb of Noisy-le-Sec. Though separated by a slight language barrier and almost 6,000 miles, it was clear that being asked by Michel Gondry to fabricate wriggling eels, fantastical cakes and the head of a furry wild boar wasn’t a run-of-the-mill gig.
Squid Ink: How did you come to be in charge of designing the food for Mood Indigo?
Bénédicte Charpiat: It’s a funny story. Stéphane Rosenbaum, the set designer, called me on a Friday and said, “Oh, Bénédicte, are you free for two weeks to work on the new movie of Michel Gondry?” And I said, “Yes, of course. To do what?” She said, “To do all the fake food,” and I was like, “Hmmm. Fake food. What’s that?” I had no idea what was fake food. I’d never done that before. She told me, “Oh, you have to do the head of a savage pig…” [pause] I don’t remember the word … A wild pig that you find in the forest?
SI: A boar!
BC: Yes. And she said, “You have to do fish and meat and all that kind of stuff.” And I said, “Okay, when do I have to start?” She said, “In two days.” I said, “Okay, on Monday I will be there at the studio in the suburb of Paris.” They didn’t realize that it would take such a long time and it would take a lot of work to make the fake food for this movie. Michel had told them, “I don’t want real food for the movie. I really want fake food.” On Monday I arrived and directly they asked me to [make] sea snakes.
SI: The eels!
BC: Yes, the eels. And I said, “Oh my god. How do I do that?” So I put the stop button on in my brain and I started imagining everything.
SI: Did you ever figure out why you were the one chosen for the job?
BC: To be a cooking designer? No. I am an actress, a dancer, and a singer. I am working in the sets for the cinema and the theater for seven years now. One was Moby Dick, and it was a musical. I had to do a leg out of wood. The actor was playing Captain — you know the captain from Moby Dick. Ahab? Another one was for a company of clowns. I had to do all the masks. But the first assistant [on Mood Indigo] and I had worked together before and she thought of me. It was just like that.
SI: Was there any food in Mood Indigo that someone might actually ingest?
BC: At the big party for the birthday of the dog where they are dancing and there are fifty or sixty people? I did all the small food that the French call canapé. There is a [scene] where they drive in a beautiful glass car to a picnic in the countryside and there is the head of a wild pig and a big white cake. That is all fake. Everything was fake except when the actors were eating I created something for them. At home, I am the cooker for my kids and my husband. So I created real food and it had to be similar to the fake food. So when they are eating, it’s real food. For example, at the dinner where there was a funny table that was not flat?
SI: The one that undulated, like a range of tiny mountains?
BC: Yes! For this cake, I used black bread, color up the sides. And another example was for the caviar. For that, I made a special gray jelly and put very small pieces of black olive in it and almond paste that I colored with food coloring.
SI: In the party scene for the dog’s birthday, trays of canapés are passed around. Referred to as “oven-baked snacks,” they are literally miniature stoves with bite-sized morsels inside.
BC: Yes. In the small, small ovens, inside were fake cakes. Some of those we ordered from a bakery; others were fake.
SI: Walk us through the process of working with a whirring-mind director like Michel Gondry.
BC: It was a lot of work, a lot of work, a lot of work. Michel is an amazing guy. The first time he came into the room while I was working, he said, “OH MY GOD, you are going to stay here and do everything I ask you every morning and you have to do it.” So every morning, he comes to see me at 7 a.m. and he’d say, “Oh, I had a dream last night. Please Bénédicte, can you do different cocktails or little cakes or roast beef or chicken thighs?” He imagined more than what was in the book or the script.
SI: “Can you do different cocktails or little cakes or roast beef or chicken thighs?” Where do you even start? What kinds of materials did you end up using?
BC: Plastic meat, linen, silk, pieces of string. Everything I can find in the trash. [laughs] Even feathers that I found in the garden. Flowers, different kinds of leaves. Fake flowers that I made with different material — but mostly silk and taffeta. Pieces of moquette, the thing you put on the floor?
SI: Sort of like hand-woven carpet?
SI: Mood Indigo seemed to be half-set in the '70s and half-set in whatever fantastical era that popped into Michel Gondry’s head. Did a timeframe like that allow you to draw on any resources?
BC: In the beginning, Stéphane Rosenbaum gave me a big, old cooking book from the '60s – it was called Cooking and Wines from France — and said, “Look at all the pictures and try to do what’s in this book. Maybe a little bit similar, but not so much similar and let your imagination go.” It was a challenge for me. I didn’t imagine that I would be able to do what I did for this movie.
SI: What was one of the hardest things to pull off?
BC: The eel. I spent a long time to make it work when the eel goes through where it comes from in the kitchen?
SI: The faucet!
BC: The faucet! It was not very easy to imagine how it could work and I spent a month making it perfect. The chicken pie also. And the big white cake also. The big white cake on the top, they put on the knife and it’s cutting the cake and it starts to turn and plays music? That was crazy to create, but it worked when we shot the scene. I remember that I was crying because it took me so much time to find the right material and the right way to put it together, but when we shot it, it worked and I was very happy.
SI: So much of Gondry’s movies come together in post-production. What was it like to see the finished film?
BC: We were all crying. I am so happy because you could really see all my work. I don’t know how to say without being pretentious. [pause] I am proud. I am especially proud. It was sometimes very funny because when they do the stop-motion animation with the cakes, it’s amazing for me. They used my stuff, but the stop-motion made it look amazing. After that, there are so many things in this movie. Sometimes people were lost, like my husband. He said, “There is too much, too much, too much.” But I love this movie. I really love this.
SI: Now that you can officially put “food stylist” on your resume, have you styled food on any other film productions?
BC: Yes, someone called me to do another movie, a kind of Marie Antoinette from Sofia Coppola, the same century and I had to do an amazing table like the table was 14 meters long with eighty people around who are eating meats you find in the woods, like duck, pheasant, all the animals you have in the woods. But French woods, not bears and things like that. And I had to design all the flowers on the tables.
SI: Back in 2009, Gondry, who is also a talented artist, issued an offer: if you sent him a photograph, $20 and you were willing to wait six to eight weeks, he would sketch and sign your portrait. Did he draw a lot for you?
BC: He drew a lot. But in his head it was clear, but on the paper it was not so clear. The thing is, Michel asking you something, you have to say, “Okay, Michel. Yes. I will try to do what you want. I’m not sure I can do it, but I promise I am going to try.” Then he is happy. If you say, [gasp], “No, my god. It’s too complicated or difficult,” then, oh my, so loud he shouts and says, “Don’t say no. Try to do it.”
So I understood very quickly, “Don’t say no to Michel Gondry.” Say, “Yes, I’m going to try to do my best.” He pushed everyone to do their best and it was a really, really amazing experience and wonderful. Even for our set designer. It was great. It was an artistic adventure . And it was a human adventure too.
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