He knows what he’s doing, and that experience is obvious in the way he moves his hands. He guides her, teaching her, not caring that their skin gets sticky. The room is hot, aromatic. Nearly an hour later, they both enjoy the final satisfaction… of a bite of the pie they made together. (What, were you thinking of something else?)
In the forthcoming movie Labor Day (Jan. 31), a peach pie — crafted over the course of a sensuous series of scenes — nearly steals the spotlight from stars Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. The seductive dessert arrives onscreen courtesy of Susan Spungen, the talented food stylist who was previously responsible for the cinema comestibles seen in movies like Julie & Julia and Eat, Pray, Love. Spungen spoke to TIME about her career as a food stylist, the perfect pie scene and what Instagram users can learn from Hollywood.
(MORE: Richard Corliss reviews Labor Day)
TIME: I heard Jason Reitman asked you for the greatest pie in film history…
Spungen: It was in the script. That was pretty much what convinced me. Word for word, it said, in all caps, GREATEST PIE-MAKING SCENE IN CINEMA HISTORY. I thought, OK! Let’s see if we can do it. That was the clincher. I was up for the challenge.
So how do you tackle such a daunting task?
The look of the pie was pre-ordained because Joyce Maynard [who wrote the novel on which the movie is based] describes it in great detail in the book, and the details she describes are also her personal technique for pie-making, which she practices on a pretty regular basis from what I understand. We were just using that as our template and perfecting it for film.
Were there any changes necessary to make it work on film?
Everybody always wants to hear that we do something really tricky with it, but honestly it’s all real. It’s more about controlling your ingredients and making sure everything’s at the optimal temperature. Most of what the actors are doing is actually working with the dough and the peaches, so it was really about having everything ready at the right temperature. Everything has to just be perfect so that when you put it on set you can take the rolling pin and it will roll out perfectly. You don’t want to be sitting around waiting for hard dough to soften.
How does one become a food stylist?
I worked for Martha Stewart Living for about 12 years, starting in the early ’90s when it launched, and that was something of an accidental career. I was aspiring to be a food stylist…
So that was the goal all along?
There are so many young people who know about it as a career now, but it was definitely more obscure then. There was a story written in the New York Times in the food section [about food stylists] and I read it and was like, “Wow, that sounds like a great job for me.” Honestly, that’s how I learned about it. Everything about it sounded good.
How did that lead you to movies?
When Nora Ephron was in the planning stages of Julie & Julia, she had been asking around with different people and my name came up. She called me herself, and said, “Hi, this is Nora Ephron.” I had a friend who used to put on voices and I thought, “Oh, come on, Andy.” But it really was Nora Ephron and she really was calling me, and she said, “I’m making a movie about Julia Child and I heard you were the person I need to have work on my movie.” What was I going to do, say no to that? I’ve only done four films. I only want to do a movie when the food is an integral part of the plot and the story.
Do you always cook everything you style?
That’s actually part of a pretty common misconception about food stylists, that we come in after someone else has cooked something and style it, but it’s very integrated. As a food stylist, you have to do everything from figure out when you’re getting the peaches, where you’re getting the peaches, where you’re storing the peaches, and all the cooking and baking. That’s what it is. You have to have your hands on it from the very beginning. Making the pies is the styling.
Do you have any tips for amateur food stylists who want to take good pictures of what they cook?
So much of it is lighting. Especially for amateur Instagrammers, looking for really nice natural light is definitely something that you want to do. At a dark restaurant, even if the food is amazing, your pictures will never really look good, even with a filter. Look at everything in the frame and compose the picture, both what’s on the plate and what’s around the plate, and don’t over-style things. Things should look very natural.
What do you think of the vogue for taking pictures of food?
I really actually enjoy Instagram, though if you were to look at my feed you’d see that it’s probably only 20% food. When somebody I know is traveling to some part of the world where I’ve never been, I’m getting this vicarious thrill really seeing what someone’s travel experience is, including the food that they’re eating. What I don’t like as much is when people are doing these more studied things and then calling themselves a food stylist because they create these little tableaux for Instagram. That’s not what food styling is, as a job. Arranging things under the optimal conditions in your kitchen at home is a form of styling but it’s not what the professional does; it’s more of an artistic hobby, and I enjoy a lot of the pictures.
OK, most important question: What’s your favorite kind of pie?
I know I should say peach, but it can sometimes get a little too liquidy. I like a drier pie. I’ll have to go with apple.