Susan Spungen is like the Richard Jenkins of food styling. Not many people know her but you know her work. She was the lady that made the food look good in 'Julie & Julia', 'It's Complicated' (though a well-cooked turkey couldn't save the film) and, most recently, 'Eat, Pray, Love' (which I liked) I recently spoke to Spungen in a hotel lobby in Santiago, Chile.
Did you always know you wanted to be a food stylist?
I started off as a student of fine arts. I thought I was going to be an artist. I went to the Philadelphia College of the Arts which is now the University of the Arts. Back then, being a chef was a blue collar profession and no one pursued it the way they do now. When I went to school, I started working at the Steve Poses' Commissary and that got me jazzed about food.
When did you come to New York?
I was 22 when I moved to New York and I wanted to waitress because I thought that was where the money was. I couldn't get hired because you had to be some sort of actress type. One day, I was really tired from pounding the pavement and I fell into a little place in Soho called FOOD for a bowl of soup.
The Gordon Matta-Clark place?
It was past the Gordon Matta-Clark days. I had a bowl of soup and I liked the place and I ended up working there for four years. I liked the atmosphere of artists. The place started out as a performance space and a soup kitchen for artists. At that time I realized maybe the art thing wasn't going to work out for me. So then I got into catering and sort of bounced around for a bit. In 1990, I read a story about food styling in the New York Times about it called "The Art of Making Basil Blush" and I thought, "This is the job for me." They talked a lot about Rick Ellis who no longer does that much editorial. Now he styles the Applebee's commercials.
How did you go from seeing a New York Times story to being a New York Times story?
I have Susan Magrino to thank for my entire career. She was doing PR for Clarkson Potter cookbooks. One day we met at a party and I gave her my card. A year later she called me. She said, "Martha [Stewart] is doing a magazine. She's looking for food people. Do you want to meet her?" I have no idea why she called me but I said, yeah. From Day One, at Martha Stewart Living, I was producing, cooking and styling the food. I was doing everything. I could show you some mistakes from those days. It was a real departure from what people had been doing. Before then it was a little bit more stuffy, forced, contrived. There was a lot of artifice. Instead of natural light, they used studio lightning.
And that primed you for Hollywood?
I've done three movies: Julie & Julia I did in 2008. A year later, I did It's Complicated and I just did Eat, Pray, Love. I only worked on the Eat section in Rome. [Director] Ryan Murphy — even in the script — he wrote that he wanted "food porn" and it will really come across as that way.
With a shitty techno soundtrack in the background?
He wanted the food to be very sensual. The food was not something that was in the background.
How do you make food sensual?
We shot a lot of close ups of food. When you see something filling the movie screen, you'll be affected by that.
But it's also a balance right? Like in porn, if you get too close up it's all kind of disgusting.
Yeah but that's the art of the DP. [ED NOTE: !!!!]
And what was your role as a stylist in that sense? To constantly replace the rucola?
Well, for instance, in one scene it is specified in the script that Julia cuts into a squash blossom and the cheese oozes out. That's challenging. Cheese doesn't always behave and also because you have to rely on the hand double to cut properly.
What kind of cheese did you use?
I didn't use what you should use, which is mozzarella. I used taleggio because I knew it would ooze out the way they wanted it to ooze out. Mozzarella wouldn't have oozed out at all.
What's the hardest thing to shoot?
Melted cheese, actually. It can look gross really easily.
How do you make pasta look good?
There was a lot of mayhem because I was cooking at restaurants that weren't always even at the set. But I dabbed a lot. There was a pappardelle with rabbit and spaghetti with clam sauce and carciofi alla guidia. But for most of the food photography, we used a second unit so I could really get in there and I had more time. And Julia Roberts wasn't just sitting there.
Do actors spit?
Julia ate but they tend to pick something they can deal with eating over and over again. They tend to pick a vegetable. She was eating the chicken out of her pasta. I didn't see any spitting going on. Usually they have to chew and swallow on camera. Alec Baldwin was eating this noodle pudding in It's Complicated. In reality, he was eating apples. So he could eat the apples. He was watching his weight.