Maclean's Interview: Nora Ephron

Writer and director Nora Ephron on her new movie with Meryl Streep, lust, and the greatest lamb stew recipe ever

Maclean's Interview: Nora EphronNora Ephron is a celebrated journalist, author and a writer-director whose movies include Silkwood, Heartburn, When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. Her latest film, which will be released on Aug. 7, is Julie & Julia, a romantic comedy inspired by Julie Powell’s 2005 book Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 tiny apartment kitchen, based on the 36-year-old’s 2002 blog chronicling the year she spent cooking the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I. It also draws from Child’s own memoir, My Life in France, which describes the process of writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a culinary classic published in 1961.

Q: One of the wonderful surprises of Julie & Julia is its depiction of Julia Child (Meryl Streep), this beloved dowager and culinary icon, as a romantic, vibrantly erotic figure in her relationship with her husband Paul Child (Stanley Tucci). In fact, that relationship is far more electric than that of Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and her husband, Eric (Chris Messina), living in New York. Were you intentionally being subversive in showing how hot a middle-aged marriage can be?

A: No, I was just telling the truth. That’s what Julia Child’s marriage was. She wrote letters about it and so did Paul—he wrote to his brother and she wrote to all her friends. And one of the first things I loved when I started writing this is that the two of them had such a lusty sexual relationship and that the modern couple simply didn’t have time. And I loved that. If you looked at these two couples you would not have guessed that this is how this would have shaked out, if you had to guess which one of them had a really sexual marriage. I really loved that. It was a heavenly thing.

Q: Did you ever meet Julia Child?

A: No, it’s so sad but I never did.

Q: The movie is constructed with two parallel stories—one set mostly in Paris in the 1950s, the other in modern-day New York City. It’s a clever conceit. Was that your idea?

A: No, unfortunately. The credit has to go to Amy Robinson, one of the producers of the movie.

Q: If there’s a criticism to be made of the movie, it’s that the scenes of Julia and Paul Child in Paris are so transcendent and glamorous compared to those depicting Julie Powell and her husband in Queens, N.Y.,—so much so that you don’t want them to end. Did you anticipate that would happen, that the Queens scenes would sharpen the glamour?

A: Oh yes, it was entirely intentional. The whole movie starts out with the contrast between the Eiffel Tower and that awful water tower in Queens. It couldn’t be more obvious.

Q: Meryl Streep is brilliant as Julia Child. She appears to literally shape-shift in order to play a character who was imposingly large and six foot two. How did you achieve that?

A: We did every single trick in the book to make that happen. But we did only things that happened 40 years ago. In other words, there is nothing digitally done, just the normal tricks done to make people look bigger. All the clothes are designed just slightly short in the waist so that she looks bigger. I didn’t cast anyone tall to work with her. And every so often we would have extra-tall extras work in the scene and Meryl would glare at them, like “Move them out the way.”

Q: Julia Child is such a larger than life character that it would be easy for Streep’s performance to become a caricature, which never happens. Yet you do include a scene set that shows Dan Aykroyd’s famous parody of Child from an old episode of Saturday Night Live. Why did you do that?

A: Actually, one of my proudest moments was getting that into the movie. I had many thoughts about it. I knew that there would be a lot of people who didn’t know who Julia was, and who wouldn’t know how iconic she was, that she is part of the popular culture. And I also wanted people who didn’t know who she was to know we weren’t making that up that she talked that way—that it wasn’t just an actor’s choice. And I also just loved that clip we used. I just thought it was hilariously funny.

Q: This film will introduce a lot of people to Paul Child, who was happy being in the background, either taking photographs of her recipes or later producing her television show. What was your take on him?

A: Well I was only thinking about what I knew, which is that she believed that the handsomest man on the earth had fallen in love with her. And she was, I was sure, positive that no one would marry her; and along came this man that she just thought was the most sophisticated, debonair human being. And if you look at pictures of Paul, he’s always beautifully dressed. Clearly he had a very healthy vanity about what he looked like. And he was also a wonderful photographer. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to be the most successful civil servant who ever lived, he found this other thing, which was this adventure Julia had embarked on and she made him completely a partner in it.

Q: This movie seems like a homage to supportive husbands who are nice guys. Rather ironic, don’t you think? Given that you’re so well known for your novel Heartburn, a roman-à-clef based on the breakup of your marriage to Carl Bernstein who walked out on you when you were seven months pregnant?

A: That was a long time ago. I’m now married to a really nice guy [the author Nick Pileggi].

Q: Judith Jones, who edited Mastering the Art of French Cooking, has let it be known that Julia Child didn’t approve of Julie Powell’s blog, believing it was disrespectful of her work. Yet certainly that’s not the message the movie conveys. Were you surprised by Child’s attitude?

A: The movie and the blog are totally different. But I really don’t think Julia understood the blog.

Q: Last week, it was announced that the release date of Powell’s next memoir, which details an affair she had, was pushed back from next month until the end of the year. The rumour is it would interrupt the marketing of this romantic comedy which depicts their marriage as happy. Is that so?

A: Really, that book has nothing to do with this movie.

Q: You’re known as someone who loves to cook. You’ve said you worked your way halfway through Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the 1960s.

A: Oh, I probably lied about that. I realized when I made the movie that I had never made quiche or aspic or clafoutis or kidneys or sweetbread.

Q: What was Child’s culinary legacy to you personally?

A: You know, I still use her first cookbook. It’s the greatest lamb stew recipe in the world. You could never make anyone else’s lamb stew ever.

Q: The last movie you made with Meryl Streep was Heartburn. Food and love also figured prominently in that movie, though the marriage was decidedly less happy. Are food and love inextricably entwined in your own marriage?

A: They are absolutely, since food is one of my favourite things. Though I certainly know lots of people who happen to be happily married who don’t have food play the role in it that it plays in my life. And I don’t know how they do it, and frankly I feel so bad for them because I just love food and one of my favourite things is asking, “What do we want for dinner? What do we feel like eating?” That wonderful negotiation that goes on several times a week about what “we” feel like.

Q: As a director, you treat food almost like a character itself. There’s a scene in Heartburn where Meryl Streep feeds Jack Nicholson the most delicious-looking spaghetti carbonara in bed. And the food in Julie & Julia also makes you salivate. What is your secret?

A: We hired a brilliant woman to do the cooking for the movie, Susan Spungen, who is a food stylist. But these things didn’t have to only look gorgeous, they also had to taste good. So one of the things I said to the actors is, “No picking at your food in this movie.” Everybody ate and understood that this was about people who went on eating no matter what. That no crisis was so urgent that you couldn’t have a good bottle of wine and a dozen oysters along with it.

Q: So did you also supply personal trainers for the cast? A truckload of butter must have been consumed during the making of that movie.

A: [Laughs.] No, but some people did gain weight.

Q: After this movie people are going to go right out and buy a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

A: Oh, I really hope that happens.

Q: But do you see it resonating with a modern audience used to Rachel Ray and recipes that you can whip up in 30 minutes or less? Some of Child’s recipes can take days to prepare.

A: I really don’t think Mastering the Art of French Cooking is that complicated. A lot of the recipes you could write in a shorter way, it’s true. But she’s really teaching you how to cook. Once you make her beef bourguignon or the lamb stew you understand what a stew is. You understand the whole principle of stew and you don’t have to cook it in the same meticulous way with the same attention to all the rules the second or third time, because you know. Now when I make the lamb stew I leave the second step out because it doesn’t make any difference if I do that.

Q: There’s an irony, of course, because Julia Child was the American cooking show pioneer, but she probably couldn’t make it on the Food Network today.

A: I’m not sure about that.

Q: Really?

A: Well, maybe not in the beginning because those early shows are hilarious and I highly recommend them because she’s so totally amateurish; they’re so full of suspense you really have no idea what’s going to happen—whether she’s going to drop it or make it. The show where she’s cooking lobster is one of the funniest because there’s just lobster flying all over everything in the room. But eventually she got pretty polished: by the time she was in colour and working with Jacques Pépin she knew what she was doing.

Q: Julia Child came to fame when she was in her 50s, which makes her a late bloomer. You too became well known as a director when you were in your 40s. How would you rate the satisfactions of filmmaking with those of writing?

A: Fortunately, you don’t have to choose. You don’t have to say you have to give up one thing to do another. I get to do both. It’s a completely different thing. One you get to do all by yourself and you turn it in and they change a few words around and make a few suggestions and it’s still your book. And with movies it doesn’t matter if you’re the producer and director, and writer, which I am on this movie. People say you have control, and ha, ha, ha, ha: you don’t have control. You’re just a passenger on a runaway train and you just pray that it’s going to work out.