After charting Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s rise to the top of the legal world, the filmmaking team behind “RBG” is reuniting to tell the story of a different kind of trailblazer: Julia Child, the television chef and cookbook author who taught America how to eat.
Co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen will examine Child’s unconventional life, one that saw her seize the spotlight with the 1961 publication of her best-seller “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” when she was nearly 50 years old. She then brought her love of fine food to the masses with WGBH television program “The French Chef,” which was syndicated nationally by PBS, and later, in appearances on “Good Morning America.”
“She was larger than life, literally,” West told Variety days before flying to France to conduct interviews for the film. “She was 6’2” or 6’3” and kind of clunky in a way, but also totally self-confident and funny and authentic, and people really responded to it.”
And like Ginsburg, Child forged a path in a profession that was dominated by men.
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“I don’t think that many girls would have thought of chef as even a possible career choice before Julia Child did it,” Cohen says.
The directors were in demand after “RBG” earned an Oscar nomination and became a sleeper box office hit, earning $14 million, but they took their time developing their next project. Just as they did with Ginsburg, West and Cohen were eager to find another female pioneer whose life warranted deeper exploration. Once they decided on Child, they found eager backers in CNN Films, which produced “RBG,” and Imagine Documentaries, the new nonfiction arm of the company behind “A Beautiful Mind” and “Empire.”
“When Betsy and Julie told us what their next project would be, I leaped out of my skin,” says Amy Entelis, exec VP for talent and content development for CNN Worldwide. “Julia Child had been a hero of mine for many years. I was a Julia Child groupie. I went through her book, recipe by recipe.”
Child got turned on to haute cuisine when she was living in Paris with her husband, Paul Cushing Child, a diplomat and civil servant. While abroad, she honed her culinary skills at the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and in private study. The lessons she brought back to the United States were nothing short of a revelation. It was a time when processed and canned food were staples of most American diets; iceberg lettuce, not locally sourced produce, was all the rage; and spaghetti and meatballs was the height of exotic eating. In this gastronomic wasteland, Child helped popularize dishes such as coq au vin and quiche Lorraine with readers, public television viewers and, eventually, a nationwide audience of fans.
“Now cooking shows are a dime a dozen, but back then what she did was revolutionary and really spawned a change in the way Americans thought about food,” West says.
“RBG” relied heavily on a series of interviews with the Supreme Court justice, something that will be impossible in Child’s case, since she died in 2004 at the age of 91. The filmmakers say that her years of on-camera work will provide ample material. They also plan to interview surviving colleagues, friends and the chefs she inspired.
There’s one other key ingredient. “Food will be a character,” says West.
Promises Cohen: “It’s not a movie where people are going to want to go to the theater hungry. We’re going to have food cinematography that’s quite different than anything you’ve ever seen.”
West and Cohen will produce the film, which has the working title “Julia,” alongside Imagine Documentaries president Justin Wilkes and executive VP Sara Bernstein. Imagine Entertainment chairmen Brian Grazer and Ron Howard and Imagine co-chairman Michael Rosenberg are executive producing along with Entelis, CNN Films senior VP Courtney Sexton, and Oren Jacoby, founder of West and Cohen’s company, Storyville Films. Carla Gutierrez will edit the doc, having performed similar duties on “RBG.” “Julia” is expected to wrap principal photography next year.
Child hasn’t been on television in at least a generation, but the movie’s backers believe that today’s world is one she helped foster through her programs and writing — a change in tastes and appetites that will make her story all the more relevant.
“Everybody is a foodie, everybody can be a foodie, and everybody appreciates good food,” says Bernstein. “It’s the perfect time to make a movie about Julia.”