In film, an artfully executed food scene can make us laugh, wince with empathy or fire up our appetites. But how, exactly, is the food developed and styled to have such presence on the big screen?
We had the chance to find out when we spoke with Susan Spungen, the founding food editor at Martha Stewart Living, cook, author and in-demand food stylist. Her film work includes Eat, Pray, Love, Julie & Julia and It’s Complicated, so it’s no surprise that when Jason Reitman’s new movie, Labor Day, needed a stylist for the perfectly imperfect homemade pie — she got the call.
Q. How do the challenges of a magazine shoot compare to those you come up against in a film?
A. With film it’s a much less controlled environment. I’ve only had one experience where I’ve had an actual, real kitchen. There are just so many logistical difficulties involved: Where are you going, how are you going to keep the food, where are you going to keep the food, how are you going to get it to the set? There’s this whole extra layer of difficulty that you don’t have on a print shoot.
Q. Joyce Maynard uses her own pie recipe in her novel. Were you able to use her original recipe, or did you have to make changes?
A. We followed both her recipe and her techniques. We actually worked out a formula that was measured [Maynard didn’t have set measurements] so that we could get consistent results from time to time. That was the only real change we made.
Q. How did you approach styling the pie — was there a particular technique involved?
A. The first few I made for Jason Reitman’s approval were too pretty and perfect, so there was a sense of un-learning the techniques I have been using my whole life. It was about making it sloppy and messy — by the end, I was tearing off pieces of dough, making a very obvious patch right on the pie, making the edge look very unstudied — sort of like someone did it really quickly, without thinking. Pie is one of those things that is pretty forgiving, so even if you mess it up, it’s still pretty darned good.
Q. I spotted a tin of Crisco and cubes of butter being used for the pastry onscreen. What’s your personal preference?
A. I would say I’m a butter girl. I just like the taste and texture of butter. I have used half Crisco at times, because it can be flakier and not as hard, but 99 percent of the time when I make a pie, I use all butter.
Q. What turned out to be the most difficult part of making the pies on set?
A. It was August, and we had some really hot and sticky days; you could put a piece of dough out for the actors to roll out, but by the time the actors started rolling, it might have been too melted, so there was a lot of stopping and starting and replacing what they’re working with, because it’s warmed up too much. That was really the biggest challenge of doing something like pie in real time, on a real movie set that wasn’t air conditioned.
Q. How many pies did you end up making for the movie?
A. I’m guessing…but it would be safe to say that we made a couple hundred pies in all!
Q. Of the actors that you’ve had the opportunity to work with, who would you say has been a star student when it comes to cooking onscreen?
A. Amy Adams was the one that I really had to teach the most [for Julie & Julia], because she had to do many many things that were outside of her existing knowledge of cooking, and she had to do dozens of scenes. So she needed the most tutoring, and was a great student! But, I loved working with Josh Brolin on Labor Day. He was super down-to-earth, took the job really seriously, and was so easy to talk to; that it was really fun to work with him on this.
Want to try making the pie that Brolin made day after day, on and off set for Labor Day? Get the recipe below:
Joyce Maynard’s peach pie
- 3 pounds peaches
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup Crisco vegetable shortening
- 1 stick plus 1 tablespoon chilled butter, cut into pieces
- 1/3 to 1/2 cup ice water
- 2 tablespoons Minute Tapioca (plus 2 additional tbsp to stir into peaches)
- 1 beaten egg
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- In a large bowl, combine the peaches, sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon. Stir in 2 tbsp Minute Tapioca to help absorb juices. Let stand, stirring occasionally.
- Preheat the oven to 400°. In a large bowl, mix the flour and salt. Using a pastry blender, work in the shortening and 1 stick of butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the ice water over the flour mixture, stirring gently with a fork. Continue adding the water just until the dough holds together. Shape the dough into a ball and divide it into two discs, one slightly larger than the other.
- Place the smaller disc on a sheet of waxed paper, and use a lightly floured rolling pin to roll the dough into a 12-inch circle. If the dough sticks to the rolling pin, dust it lightly with more flour. Lay a 9- to 10-inch pie pan face down on top of the circle; flip the pan over and remove the paper. For the crust, on a sheet of waxed paper, roll out the other disc to form a 14-inch circle. Do not roll the dough more than necessary.
- Sprinkle the tapioca on the bottom crust. Add the filling, mounding it in the center, and dot with 1 tablespoon butter. Lift the waxed paper with the remaining crust and flip it over the filling. Peel back waxed paper. Trim the edges of the crusts and pinch together the top and bottom crusts. Optional: Roll out the trimmings and cut into decorative shapes. Brush the pie with the egg, and arrange the shapes on the crust. Sprinkle with sugar. Poke fork holes or cut vents in the top crust. Bake 40 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve warm.
Put pie plate on cookie sheet to catch drips. Cool before serving.
Labor Day comes to theatres January 31.
*The above interview has been condensed.