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Behind the Scenes: Food Stylist Susan Spungen

This Friday, the movie Labor Day, featuring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin is released into theaters and critics are buzzing about the sensual pie-making scene. Frank (Brolin) teaches Adele (Winslet) and her son Henry, how to make a peach pie, and it becomes a turning point for the romantic relationship that flourishes during the film. Frank’s meaty hands guide Adele as she delicately rolls out the crust. Golden filling oozes from the trios hands as they dip them into a bowl of over-ripe peaches. Did you know that hundreds of pies were baked for that one scene? Just about any movie with on-camera baking involves a food stylist. Susan Spungen, the stylist for the film, shares the details of the sexy pie scene.

Susan Spungen on-set with Josh Brolin

Susan Spungen on-set with Josh Brolin

My assistant Christine and I were the only people baking behind the scenes. We made all the dough, peeled the peaches and baked the completed pies. There were cases and cases of peaches, a lot of leftover dough and hundreds of pies by the time we finished.

I was surprised at how well Josh picked up the technique and made it look like he knew what he was doing, but I’ve seen that before. Working in films I realized that actors learn to cook much how they learn their lines. They learn what they need to know for the scene and then become an expert on that part.

Joyce Maynard, the author of the book Labor Day, came on-set for an afternoon and did a demo of her particular method, which was different than what most people, including myself, make a pie. The director felt strongly about using this method, so my job was to learn it and remain on-set to assist the actors.

There isn’t much time for long lessons. Usually I teach the actors what they need to know for that particular part of the scene. For instance, I taught them how to roll out the dough and another day we worked on mixing the filling. This film wasn’t as food-centric as Julie and Julia, where I was on-set for 3 months. I worked about 12-15 days total on Labor Day’s set.

The making of the pie with the actors on set is really sensual. They have their hands in the juicy peaches, so it’s kind of a sexy thing. Then the actual shot of the pie baking is sexy in its own way because it looks absolutely delicious. The director’s goal was to make this the “best pie-making scene in cinema history.”

Making pie is a very tactile activity. It involves your senses more than anything else. All that goes into the dough is flour, butter, water and a little salt, but the technique is key. It’s all in the hands.

When it comes to film, it becomes about trying to understand what the script and the director is going for and figuring out how to make that happen. In this film I made quite a few pies before Jason Reitman signed off on them because they were too pretty. I had to unlearn how to make a pie the way I usually would because they did not want a perfect pie. They wanted an organic and almost sloppy pie, which was still beautiful in their own rustic way.

That’s not easy when the director has something very specific in mind and you have to deliver that. The food has to act and it’s your job to animate it in the way the director wants it to.

Whatever I do with food naturally is what I try to do on set. I’m trying to harness something that is unconscious instead of something that is forced. It’s just the way I cook; I want to see things look pretty on the plate. I’m not a restaurant cook, I’m a home cook so the plates I style have a “home cook” look.

I was in Atlanta for business in November. I did some shopping at the cute coffee and cheese shop Star Provisions, and I was impressed with the meal I ate at Abattoir. I was staying in Decatur and had a meal alone at the bar at Cakes & Ale, and the bartender was very nice. I didn’t even feel like I was dining alone because he kept me company.

It was my first time in Atlanta besides being in the airport, although the traffic was a little difficult. Its great to see really good chefs and restaurants spreading all over the country to places that didn’t have good food before.

By  Alexa Lampasona for the Food & More blog

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