In one particular scene from director Nora Ephron's new film “Julie & Julia,” starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, a discarded failure of an aspic gurgles up from the garbage disposal in Julie Powell's small borough kitchen. It is the first major failure in her attempt to cook and blog her way through the 536 recipes in Julia Child's “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Julie, played by Adams, rushes over the sink and yelps as the blob sputters, spraying the white porcelain sink with the aspic's brown meat jelly. The cinematic success of Julie's aspic failure, as well as her triumphant boeuf bourguignon, and her exceptionally stringy French onion soup, to name a few, is almost entirely attributable to the film's extraordinary food stylist, Susan Spungen.
“I never thought I'd be doing this,” Spungen confessed at the film's blogger event at the Cordon Bleu in Hollywood on July 9. Although Spungen began working with food at Philadelphia's Frog Commissary when she was a teenager, she opted for art school at the Philadelphia College of Art instead of culinary school, but continued to work at restaurants to support herself through college. Food styling for Martha Stewart Living, Martha Stewart's Hors D'Oeuvres Handbook, and then her own award-winning Recipes: A Collection for the Modern Cook was something that Spungen says she sort of fell into, a natural way to unite her passions for art and food. But film was entirely different.
As Spungen explains it, print is steady and controllable; you can get up close and show details and that image lingers. But with film, it's “about conveying deliciousness and lusciousness in an instant.” (Or, in the case of the aspic, not.)
To illustrate her point, she opened her script and quickly read direction for a montage of cross-cuts that parallel Julie and Julia's culinary development, slowing to emphasize the lines, “Julia eats onion soup and the cheese extends from her soup to her lips. Julie eats onion soup and the cheese extends from her soup to her lips.” Getting French onion soup to string: a seemingly small challenge in translating the food in Nora Ephron's script to the screen but proved much harder than she'd anticipated. The set kitchen was far away from the actual set, too far to maintain the temperature needed for adequate stringiness, and she wanted to maintain as much fidelity to the original recipe as possible but the soup isn't exactly string-friendly and, since the actors were going to have to eat it, it had to taste good.
After dozens of tests, Spungen finally got it right. She added a little mozzarella to the Swiss and parmesan, a liberty she was reluctant to take with a recipe that is otherwise exactly as appears it in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and found a hand-held portable broiler to keep the soup bubbly en route to the set.
Spungen's efforts pay off. All of the food in the film looks beautiful — when it's supposed to. And even though the shot of Spungen's stringy French onion soup only features on screen for a few seconds, it indeed needs little more than an instant to convey the excitement of a successful cheese pull.
“Julie & Julia” opens on August 7.