When Julia Child’s “The French Chef” premiered on the Boston public television network in 1963, celebrity chefs were unheard of, and French cuisine in America was confined to haute cuisine, to restaurants like New York City’s La Caravelle, favored by John F. Kennedy and Salvador Dali. As Julie Cohen and Betsy West recount in their documentary Julia, Julia Child, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, France’s most prestigious cooking school, not only transformed American attitudes toward food, she redefined educational programming on public television.
In a recent Zoom interview in New York City, Cohen and West spoke to AwardsWatch about Julia, and about their passion for chronicling the lives of female iconoclasts. Recently, the director-producers also profiled Anna Pauline Murray (1910-1985), a Black activist, lawyer and minister who coined the term “Jane Crow” (derived from Southern segregation practices known as “Jim Crow”), that refers specifically to the discrimination suffered by Black women. The documentary, My Name is Pauli Murray, is streaming on Amazon. Cohen and West are best-known for RBG (2019), their documentary about the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Julia draws from Child’s famous T.V. show; archival video and audio; biographies; her autobiography, My Life in France (2006); her diaries, and those of her husband Paul, as well as from Paul’s photographs. It also features several of Julia’s most popular recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961); these are rendered in brief, beautiful “macro” segments. The documentary opened theatrically on November 12.
Maria Garcia: Thank you for speaking with AwardsWatch. I have to ask: why Julia, and why now?
Julie Cohen: Why not Julia? That is our main answer, and because we love telling the stories of groundbreaking, culture-changing, barrier-smashing, ceiling-breaking women. In the case of Julia, it is because of the way that she changed America’s culture and food. It was fantastic terrain for us to delve into, and it was a joy to do it.
MG: It appears your documentaries are a women’s history project in the making. Is that right?
Cohen: Yes, that’s what it has become. It has evolved into that.
MG: For Julia, you had access to so much material. At first, as you were organizing sources, what was your guiding principle?
Betsy West: Our guiding principle at first was to get a handle on all of this material. It included all of the tapes of “The French Chef” and the many other shows that Julia did over the years. Then we were able to track down behind the scenes footage as well. And we had fantastic archive producers who were categorizing the material. There were so many hours of it that we would categorize such things as “places where Julia made a mistake,” “places where Julia made a joke,” and “where Julia was teaching people something.” That is how we started.
MG: I want to ask about these wonderful segments in which Julia’s recipes come alive. How did you decide that these would be part of the documentary?
Cohen: We decided pretty early in the making of this film. It was even part of our decision to make the film in the first place. We thought it would both be fun and really new for us as filmmakers to go in heavy on the story of the food itself, and on the possible ways to transition the food into a character. The outlines of Julia’s story are what we organized first, but keeping in mind the whole time which of the classic Julia recipes fit with which the parts of that story. And that’s where our great cook and food stylist Susan Spungen stepped in. Not only did she prepare and style the food for all the scenes that you see, but she also helped us figure out what Julia recipes were going to be in the film. Every recipe you see is an actual, authentic Julia Child recipe. We would kind of talk to her about which food might fit with which scene.
MG: Have you used Julia’s cookbook, and do you have a favorite recipe? Or maybe you have just eaten Julia’s recipes?
West: I don’t want to pretend that I have gone through all of Julia Child’s recipes! I have not. The beef bourguignonne is fantastic. And actually, Julie and I discovered that we both had landed on Salade Niçoise as all time favorite. I’ve added it to my regular dinner rotation. So yes, we have been inspired by Julia to pay more attention to the food that we’re cooking.
MG: When you saw Julia demonstrating how to make something, you felt you could do it. I think that’s what she gave women who liked to cook.
West: Yes, like she did with the eggs, the omelet she demonstrated on her first T.V. appearance. You do it the Julia Child way, and wow, it just comes out so delicious!
MG: The film is so well-edited, I would like to ask about your collaboration with Carla Gutierrez.
West: Carla is amazing. We worked with her on RBG, which was our first experience, and that turned out pretty well, so we were thrilled that Carla, who also likes to cook, was on board for this film from the very beginning. The difference for this film was that we started editing in person, but then because of the shutdown over Covid, we quickly went to remote editing. Carla was in her office in New Jersey, and we were in our home offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and yet we were able to communicate on Zoom. Carla would be editing sequences, and we would maybe make a few suggestions. Often we would just be blown away! Then, just through the magic of cloud technology, we were able to keep going.
I think that Carla brought to the food sequences what we had intended in the first place, which was that food is very emotional. Our photographers did such a great job, Claudia Raschke, and a food specialist photographer in France, Nanda Brédillard, who did some of the macro shooting. And Carla integrated all of that in such a beautiful, emotional, evocative way, that was what we had in mind from the beginning.
MG: Julia is a documentary and you’re journalistic filmmakers, but there was this sensual quality to your portrayal of Julia that was quite touching, especially when we get some quotes from her correspondence with Paul, and Paul’s letters to Julia.
Cohen: We appreciate your saying this because our thought from very early on, Betsy, myself and Carla, was that we really wanted to make this feel like a movie, like a romantic comedy and like a date movie, something that viewers really immersed themselves in. We want them to get swept away by Julia, and for the film to take them on a journey. Everything that we’ve discussed here is part of that. And you raising Julia and Paul’s letters—absolutely. The building romance, starting with a sort of active, not very positive appraisal of one another, moving towards a deep, sensual, loving, sexy relationship, we felt was part of Julia’s story. One other element that I want to add is that in our mind what helped to make this feel like a romantic movie is the beautiful score by Rachel Portman. She specializes in narrative films, not docs, and brought that feeling to this movie.
MG: I was going to ask you about Portman. I interviewed her for an article about the collaboration between directors and composers, and she has some wonderful ideas about instruments and what feelings each one best represents beyond the obvious violins as sentiment. She’s a wonderful composer, and her score for Julia is terrific, fitting and well orchestrated. Can we go back to the idea of Julia, RBG and My Name is Pauli Murray, as corrective of women’s history? I certainly did not know, until I saw your documentary, Julia’s substantial contribution to public television.
West: Julie and I actually met working on a project about the modern women’s movement, which was called Makers: Women Who Make America (2013). A hundred groundbreaking women, living women, were interviewed about what they did in the sixties, seventies and eighties to advance women’s empowerment. Frankly, it was a complete revelation to me. Even though I had grown up during this period, I really was not aware on all levels, in sports, in politics, and in the Supreme Court, what women were doing to help each other.
That project opened our eyes, and it led to us collaborating on RBG, and highlighting her role as the legal architect of the women’s movement. And then we saw this landscape of stories that hadn’t been told, women who had been ignored, dismissed or marginalized. That’s certainly the case with Pauli Murray, who was a major figure in 20th century legal thinking, both in civil rights and women’s rights—and she was a poet. Amazing accomplishments, and yet pretty much ignored by mainstream history. So for us, it’s a great opportunity to tell fantastic and thrilling, stories.
MG: Would you like to comment, Julie?
Cohen: Yes. In our mind, obviously there’s a sadness that women just have not gotten their due. At the same time, there is this tremendous field of fascinating stories waiting to be told. We’re not going to get to all of them. And we’re glad that other filmmakers are working on these projects as well. In the case of Julia Child, it’s not that people don’t know the name; actually, Julia Child is a household name, but we didn’t feel that she’s remembered, especially as time passes since her death, quite as she should be. The number one image that people have of Julia Child is the “Saturday Night Live” Dan Aykroyd impersonation, which is hilarious. Julia herself enjoyed it, as we have a sound bite of her saying in the film. Ultimately that’s a caricature of a crazy, drunk lady, bleeding all over a raw chicken. That does not tell the real story of somebody who changed the way our whole culture thought about food, and thought about women on television. We’re not opposed to comedy, and we actually love that comedy, but women can be easy to mock sometimes, and are a little tougher to take seriously. Our way of telling this story is a little bit of a corrective to that tendency.
MG: Yes, it is, and I felt that as well in the sequence in which a white, male journalist is baiting Julia about not being a feminist. Julia’s response is that she works from seven in the morning, and then returns home to cook for her husband. She says: “I’m a working woman.”
West: Yes, “I’m a working woman.” She was a working woman. The other thing I think that’s been fun for us is to put these stories in context because people often forget what the world was like then, how restricted women were legally before Ruth Bader Ginsburg did her job. Also, the image of women on television, before Julia broke through, was young and pretty, often dancing around refrigerators and ovens, or having a great time ironing their husband’s shirts. It was such a limited view. For us, part of the fun was to recreate that world and show how Julia burst through in such a dramatic and game-changing way.
MG: I was watching Lucille Ball reruns in middle school, and absolutely fell in love with her because as you said there were so few women on television. The women’s movement had begun by that time, and you knew Lucy was a housewife, but she was not just a housewife!
Cohen: Yes, and actually a great documentary is coming out on her soon, that Amy Poehler (Wine Country, 2019) is making. We’re definitely looking forward to seeing that.
West: I think she was another groundbreaker in that move toward women just being themselves, being who they were. That was what was so great about Lucy; she was just such a nut, and so authentic. I think Julia had a similar authenticity in not trying to be in a straight jacket, or some man’s idea of what a chef on television should be. Julia was herself, and really not afraid to express herself.
MG: Your wonderful introduction, Julia’s “chicken sisters,” gets to that quality. Viewers know they are going to see the authentic Julia, the crazy, nutty, consummate professional.
Cohen: The biggest plus coming into our film was Julia herself. That footage of her is spectacular. When we were picking our favorite moments, and where to put them, as well as where to start, that was both a chore and a pleasure. When we first were looking through some highlights, Betsy was so in love with those chicken sisters, so there was no way anything else was going to start the film! There were many clips of Julia that we loved so much and that we would sort of fight over, but in the end we had to tell a story. We could not just play clips of “The French Chef.”
MG: Would you like to mention what you’re working on now, or what you’re researching at the moment?
West: We are working on a film about another groundbreaking, fabulous woman who is still with us, so this is more of a vérité film. Again, that for us is a great challenge and something different, but we think that people will really take to her story. We hope to have that out next year.
MG: Can you mention a field?
Cohen: We can say that it’s a woman in politics.
MG: I look forward to that. Before we close, I have to ask about Danièle Delpeuch and how wonderful she was in you interview.
West: When we did that interview, which was in a Cordon Bleu kitchen, we were just dying because she was so fabulous! She completely evoked that macho, sexist world of the French kitchen with her eye rolling and everything else! Plus she described the love between Paul and Julia—how Paul looked at her. We just loved her.
MG: Yes, and the peak of that romance is the wonderful black and white, nude shot of Julia, held not very long. It seemed to me that the culmination of the relationship is in that shot. It didn’t need to be held any longer because it was so evocative.
Cohen: Absolutely. It’s a gorgeous, loving shot taken by Paul, of his wife. And you could just feel that love seeping through the lens.
West: It was a discovery we made going through the archives, that Paul was a great photographer, and how many fantastic pictures he took of Julia, Julia with her legs splayed and Julia lying in the grass. As Julie says, you can see how in love with his wife he was.
MG: Thank you so much for this film. It was a pleasure to speak with you. Good luck on the new project.
Cohen: Thanks, Maria.
Julia is currently playing exclusively in select theaters from Sony Pictures Classics.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Photos: Ron Adar/Shutterstock; Sony Pictures Classics