Food stylist is secret ingredient in 'Labor Day'
05:00 AM, Jan 27, 2014
In an already prolific film career, Jason Reitman has filmed situations ranging from teenage pregnancy (Juno) to planes (Up in the Air).
But even the four-time Oscar-nominated director knew he was going to need some serious help shooting the key cooking scenes for his screen adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel Labor Day (opening wide Friday).
“You just read the book and you know the role food is going to play. The pie is probably (one of) the stars of the movie,” says Reitman. “I am certainly no expert when it comes to the kitchen, so I needed someone who was.”
That’s when food stylist Susan Spungen was called in to lend her food-prep mastery, just as she did in top food-themed movies in recent years, including Julie & Julia, It’s Complicated and Eat Pray Love.
“I received an e-mail from one of the producers asking me what I knew about making pies look beautiful on camera,” says Spungen of her Labor Day request. “I was instantly intrigued. And that’s where this began.”
Her duties consisted of making the food (peach pies, biscuits) look camera-ready and making the actors look convincing. The on-the-run prisoner played by Josh Brolin, who happens to know his way around the Kate Winslet character’s kitchen, needed training before he set on the course toward pie-making perfection.
“From there Josh was off to the races,” says Reitman. “He was making pies every day at his cottage. We couldn’t get him to stop.”
“He had to get his hands in there to be convincing onscreen,” adds Spungen.
Her screen pie itself has earned raves. The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane gave a shout-out, calling it a “juicy masterwork.” The peach pie scene has also made a splash, with comparisons to the pottery-wheel scene in Ghost after Brolin pulls up close behind Winslet during its creation.
“Pie-making is a very sensual process, meaning you use all of your senses,” says Spungen. “That comes across here. And it’s sexy, the whole dance they are doing.”
“It’s a very intimidating scene as a director,” says Reitman. “It’s a crucial scene in the book. I knew it would be a crucial scene in the movie. And I could only pull it off with the abilities of Susan Spungen and the confidence she gave all of us.”
Spungen, one of the founding editors of Martha Stewart Living, was recruited to work in movies by director Nora Ephron for 2009’sJulie & Julia, which followed the stories of cooking legend Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and a food blogger (Amy Adams) cooking every recipe from Child’s iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Spungen re-created many of the dishes seen onscreen, including a tarte tatin and duck en croute (which won praise from Child’s real-life chef friend Jacques Pepin).
It’s Complicated featured tight shots of Spungen’s hands doing some of the intricate pastry work that Streep’s Child character undertakes. And much of the to-die-for Italian food in Eat Pray Love was prepared by Spungen.
“It’s exciting when it looks good,” says Reitman. “But it’s also exciting when it tastes great. It was impossible not to gain weight on that set. I still get hungry watching those food scenes.”