Today on the show we have Oscar® nominated documentarians Betsy West & Julie Cohen.
Betsy West (Director/Producer) is an Academy Award®-nominated Emmy winning director/producer of RBG (Magnolia, Participant, CNN Films, 2018), along with Julie Cohen. Most recently, she and Cohen directed My Name is Pauli Murray (Participant/Amazon Studios), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021.
Betsy was executive producer of the MAKERS PBS/AOL documentary and digital series about the modern women’s movement, and the feature documentary The Lavender Scare (PBS, 2019). As an ABC News producer and executive producer of the documentary series Turning Point, she won 21 Emmy awards. Betsy is the Fred W. Friendly Professor Emerita at Columbia Journalism School.
Julie Cohen (Director/Producer) is the Academy Award® nominated, Emmy winning director and producer of RBG (Magnolia, Participant, CNN Films, 2018) along with Betsy West. Her film My Name is Pauli Murray, also directed with West, premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Previous films she’s directed include The Sturgeon Queens (7th Art Releasing; Berlinale, 2015; Best of the Fest, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival), and Ndiphilela Ukucula: I Live to Sing (2014 New York Emmy Award for Best Arts Program).
Before she started making documentaries, Julie was a longtime staff producer for NBC News. She’s been an enthusiastic amateur cook and baker ever since her parents bought her a Cuisinart for her bat mitzvah in the 1970s.
Their current film is called JULIA. The film tells the remarkable story of the groundbreaking cookbook author and television superstar who forever changed the way Americans think about food, about television, and even about women.
Using a treasure trove of never-before-seen archival video, personal still photos, first-person narratives, and cutting-edge, mouth-watering food cinematography, the documentary will trace Julia Child’s surprising path, from her struggles to create and publish the revolutionary ‘instant’ classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group), to her empowering personal story of a woman in her 50s, finding her calling as an unlikely television sensation.
This is the first feature-length documentary solely devoted to Julia Child, and will illuminate her casual upheaval of the male-dominated culinary and television worlds.
Almost single-handedly, Julia Child upended the mythology that women could not hold their own at the highest levels of creative gastronomy, and that the only women Americans wanted to see on TV were young, submissive, and conventionally beautiful.
JULIA is produced with the full cooperation of Julia Child’s friends, family, and the Julia Child Foundation. It follows the highly-acclaimed documentary, RBG, executive produced by CNN Films, directed and produced by West and Cohen through their company Storyville Films, and edited by Carla Gutierrez, who will also edit JULIA.
The film comes out Nov 12 in-theatres NY/LA followed by nationwide expansion.
In this episode we not only discuss the making of Julia and RBG but also cover how they approach documentary, the craft of tell stories and much more. Enjoy my conversation with Betsy West & Julie Cohen.
Alex Ferrari 0:00
I like to welcome to the show, Julie Cohen and Betsy West, how you guys doing?
Betsy West 0:17
We're great, Alex.
Alex Ferrari 0:20
We've just been having a having a lot of laughs before we started recording. So I do appreciate you guys coming on. I do have the chance to watch your amazing new doc Julia, about Julia Child's who I'm a huge fan on a fan of and I've loved your past work as well, which we're going to get into. But let's just jump in. How did you guys get? How did you guys team up? And how did you get started in documentary?
Betsy West 0:43
Well big question
Julie Cohen 0:46
Big question. Ah, we teamed up through a project called the makers project, which was possibly not so surprising given some of the work that we've done subsequently about the history of the modern women's rights movement.
Alex Ferrari 1:01
Oh, very cool.
Betsy West 1:02
Yeah, that was like 10 or so years ago. And then, you know, we went our separate ways, more or less. And then in 2015, as Justice Ginsburg was kind of blowing up on the internet for the two cents she was writing, and we had I both interviewed her prior to that we came up with the idea of doing that documentary, and then subsequent to that, we've been working on a few films together.
Alex Ferrari 1:31
Now what was it about a documentary for each of you that made you want to go into this side of storytelling, the side of the industry?
Betsy West 1:41
You know, when I look back on it, I always loved documentaries. And, you know, I loved as a kid, I will now date myself watching the World at War, and, you know, just longer storytelling. But you know, I became a, a broadcast network news producer, and a behind the scenes producer working on shorter format. And then magazine pieces, Julie and I have sort of a similar background. But I always loved documentaries back in the day, even when they were kinda it was kind of the D word. You know, documentaries weren't so hot. back then. But that's really what I wanted to do.
Julie Cohen 2:24
Yeah, I mean, similar deal for me also came from the broadcast news world. I also just love documentaries. Like I like movies, like movie movies. So doing telling real stories in the format of movies is really fun. Like, my favorite art is always true story art. I love photography. I even love music. That's kind of documentary ish, you know, the Bruce Springsteen's like ghost of Tom Joad album, that's really sort of like a documentary in an album, like anything. That's anything that's real, feels like kind of some of the coolest stories to tell.
Alex Ferrari 2:59
Now, how do you guys choose the subject matter that you guys tackle? Because it doesn't take, you know, six months, three months to make one of these things? Generally takes a few years? And but how do you guys choose? And then how do you stay? Stay interested it for so long?
Betsy West 3:16
Well, I mean, you put your finger on an Alex. Really, you have to choose things that you want to spend two or three or four years on, or else you know, you'll you'll go nuts. And I think, you know, with Justice Ginsburg, it was kind of one of those light bulb ideas of Oh, my goodness, what an amazing story, occurrence story, a backstory, a love story. I mean, you just couldn't have anything better than then working on that. You know, after that film, we started looking around for other projects and thinking about other women who perhaps had not been appreciated so much. And, you know, had had really been groundbreakers had really changed our world. And that's when we landed on the idea of doing Julia.
Julie Cohen 4:05
Yeah, I mean, there's definitely not a formula that we have. It's the main decision point is like, do we want to delve into this? Because it is otherwise like, you know, making a documentary as your Indie film audiences probably no, like, it's, it's just, it's a lot of work. It's a lot of time, a lot of the process is a big pain in the butt. So the reward side is feeling like you really love the subject matter. And we just realized, like, Oh, this one could really be fun. It's so different than all the other stories that we've worked on in our careers and like there's just like so much joy, involved and kind of deliciousness and it seems like subject matter that we really, really might kind of groove on.
Betsy West 4:54
No, I think it also was a kind of filming challenge. For us to do something different. Yes, Julia has archive, but also the opportunity to do some high end food photography, which neither of us had really done before and to really dig into that we thought would be, would be super fun.
Alex Ferrari 5:16
No going back to RPG what was what was it like working with her interviewing her being in the room with her? I mean, I have to ask, she's that she's essentially an icon at this point. She wasn't icon while she was she was a living icon when she was with us, what was that like? And how did you even approach that? When did you just call up? Listen, Ruth, we'd like to make this film about you. How did the whole process come to be?
Betsy West 5:42
A, you know, it's step by step, basically, we approached Justice Ginsburg, pretty carefully and strategically. And initially, when we went to her with the idea of doing a documentary, she said, you know, not yet I'm not ready. This was, you know, when she was in her early 80s, we're thinking okay, but we, she didn't say no to us. So then we came back a couple of months later with the idea of, oh, well, we're just gonna start to interview people, your friends and colleagues, and whatever, you know, to kind of get her approval for that. And then we took it from there. So it was we didn't go in saying, oh, yeah, we want to do a documentary. And can we go with you to the gym, by the way, like, we didn't start out. Even though in our minds, we were thinking, it would be fun to go with her to the gym. But it was a slow building of trust.
Alex Ferrari 6:38
It was a step by step. So when you're approaching a subject, a subject like that, who has so high profile, you can't walk in with guns blaring, you have to really kind of really baby step your way in to that kind of stuff.
Julie Cohen 6:51
Yeah, I mean, I think you're always trying to ask questions to which you can get the answer. Yes. So those need to be small questions. First, you don't come at. So you have to think of it from their perspective, like you don't come at someone with like a really chill, like, Oh, we're going to impose on you so much. We're going to take up so much of your time. You know, pick apart every aspect of your career. No, it's not like that you're like, I mean, the way to get the process going is to try to start to get it going. So trying to come up with things that you think that your subject might agree to. And in this case, as Betsy says, it, you know, the initial thing wasn't even about us interviewing or even filming the justices herself. It was about like, Oh, is it okay with you, if we start to interview some of the people who you've worked with in earlier phases of your career, just so that the project so that she starts to get the sense that this project is moving forward and hear back from people that we interviewed, like, oh, you know, these women were pretty serious about what they were doing. And they seem like they've done some research. And, you know, they seem like they came in with this amazing, you know, woman cinematographer who had like, greater like, this is like a real production happening here. So then you get that sense. And then that stage, Justice Ginsburg, let it let us start filming some of you know, some public events that she was doing, and then later, some more intimate or private events, and then that the actual interview didn't happen until, you know, to to near the end of the process, actually, two years into in development.
Alex Ferrari 8:22
Now, I have to ask, I mean, How nervous were you to show it to her?
Betsy West 8:29
Well, um, you know, amazingly, Justice Ginsburg never asked to see the film ahead of the screening at Sundance, and which we thought was a real act of trust, or maybe she was just too busy or ask. She agreed to go to the Sundance Film Festival. So we had both our major first premiere at Sundance there with Justice Ginsburg sitting across the aisle from us, and it was completely totally nerve racking. And, you know, we were kind of watching her, the sock of our eyes the entire time, as opposed to watching the film. You know, she started laughing right at the beginning, because there is sort of a kind of funny opening sequence with staff who's saying mean things about her. And then, you know, just a little ways in she pulled out a tissue and wiped her eye and it was it was incredible. I can't even tell you what it was like to experience that and to have her like, like the film and appreciate it. I mean, it just meant everything to us.
Alex Ferrari 9:42
And you guys went did you guys premiere at the Eccles at Sundance, or was that the Egyptian?
Julie Cohen 9:47
Oh, so give it give us the other I remember, but it was
Alex Ferrari 9:50
The Egyptia, the big one. Oh, okay. I was just I was just trying to visualize it.
Betsy West 9:58
Yep! 500 People that have like It's sort of bleach hurry, right. bleacher seats and yeah
Alex Ferrari 10:06
That must have been. And then and then with the whole Oscar stuff going around, what was that? Like when you got that call?
Julie Cohen 10:15
Well, you know, you don't get a call on you watch it on your watch it on. Everyone else, right? The nominations being announced. And certainly, it was fun.
Betsy West 10:29
We had our we, our husbands made us breakfast, right. So we're at my house, and we had a really nice breakfast that we sat there. And actually our name, the RBG name was the last one in the list of the nominees. So we actually thought when they named the fourth one, and it wasn't us, we thought, Okay, that's it. You know, we didn't, so that that accounted for a rather exuberant reaction. It was more a reaction. Like, you're kidding.
Julie Cohen 11:00
We were real. We were quite surprised. So
Alex Ferrari 11:04
So that as the nominations were being a natural, like, just past the hashbrowns there's like it's over.
Julie Cohen 11:11
We had we weren't that casual. We had eaten already. Okay. I guess, you guys because we were the last one to be other, you know, as the other films are being named, you sort of start to get the feeling that you're not gonna know, it was,
Alex Ferrari 11:29
What was the biggest lesson you learned from working on RBG?
Betsy West 11:33
Oi The biggest lesson of from art working on RBG? I mean, I guess. Persistence, yeah, you know, slow and steady wins the game. I mean, that's what RBG did, in her her life, lots of setbacks, lots of discouragement, you know, for a super smart person who gets out of law school and can't get the kind of job that she really deserved. And then, you know, just started finding this opportunity to challenge not only the discrimination that she faced, but the discrimination that all American women faced and a world that people took for granted where women were second class citizens, I mean, kind of an extraordinary thing that really came out of the obstacles in front of her. So I guess it's a lesson of persistence, and don't let anger get the best of you think, think strategically, okay, you're up against a wall? How am I going to get past that? That that was her approach.
Alex Ferrari 12:44
Now, when you guys are laying out a film, how do you lay out the story? Do you discover the story along the way? Is there an outline? What is the actual documentary process? As far as your you guys are concerned?
Julie Cohen 12:58
Yeah, the process is sort of like continually organizing and outlining the story and changing that as you go along. Like, certainly, at various stages, we have a rough idea of thoughts of what you want the structure of the film to be, then at a certain point in the process, our editor gets involved in in the case of both RBG and Julia are the same brilliant editor Carla Gutierrez was part of that process with us. So you saw you know, we sort of you have very, you know, you're very tentative outlines in mind, but often what works the best I mean, we like to start, you know, in the same way that I was saying, you're trying to get to a Yes, pretty, you know, we try to start with some scenes that we really think are gonna work, not worry about, like the whole thing in one in one sitting but just like, you know, take a bite of it, take a small slice of what the story might be. And like once there's a really beautiful scene, then that gives you the optimism that you need to push to the next level and sort of piece things together. And if they're working, keep going in the direction that things are working and if they're not working, make revisions to the parts that aren't working.
Betsy West 14:12
Yeah, I mean, we do use a you know, the sort of modern method of the little post it's on a wall which filmmakers know where you have you write the scenes and the the things that you expect you're going to have to cover and you put them on a wall only we do it on digitally now with this thing called jam board which you can use to just move scenes around. And as Julie said, we start cutting scenes. I mean, in the case of Julia, one idea we had was okay, people have seen this archive of Julia you know that the her cooking lessons have been repeated 1000s of times and you know, people love watching them but how fun to deconstruct the main Have that show of the French chef from the very beginning. And we have the opportunity to do that because the producer Russ Mirage is still around and we found the stage manager, Alex Pyro, and you know, sat them down and have them take us through what it was like to put together this show this groundbreaking show in 1963. And it was so fun, you know, to get the the scenes of the kind of makeshift studio that they had and the photographs that Julia's husband took behind the scenes. I mean, I think people going to a documentary, they want to experience a world you know, they want to be immersed in a world that they didn't necessarily know. They may know the characterization of Julia, they may cook some of Julia's food, but do they really understand Julia's world and what it took to become Julia Child, and that's what we were, were trying to get at?
Alex Ferrari 16:00
Yeah, what I was what I found so wonderful about the film was that in my experience with Julia is obviously I know her growing up, my mom had to book and, and everything I probably saw her on TV once or twice. But it was Julia and Julia, Julie Julia, Julia, that that that Meryl Streep. Yeah. Which was a fantastic film. But that was the introduction to her story. And it kind of skims over a lot of stuff. Because it's, you know, it's a, it's a movie. But what you guys did was you went so deep into it, and I really didn't realize how groundbreaking she truly was. I mean, she, she changed how America cooked. It was. And also it was, you know, a women's rights icon as well. But before we keep going, what did how did Julia come? How did you decide on Julia? And, and said, Okay, we're gonna spend three or four years with Julie and how long did it take?
Julie Cohen 16:55
Um, yeah, I mean, you could say it took it was three years from the time that we sort of first considered maybe doing it at the time the film came out, but like, the first year of that is just trying to make the whole thing happen and trying to get someone who's going to fund it and trying to get the various entities mainly the Julia Child Foundation, um, as well as WGBH, the the Boston PBS station that had, you know, rights to so much of that archive, like getting everyone on board kind of took a year and then two years, basically to make the film and like, the decision was as for the reasons that you said, because Because Julia was groundbreaking and groundbreaking in ways that were going to let us in our film show the context of like, what was the crappy food that Americans were eating in the free Julia era? What was the vision of women on television that was being that was, you know, being elevated before Julia came on the scene, like, in order to understand how big a leap she made, you have to know what the world was before. And that gave us the opportunity in our film to like, set those contexts and we knew because we know those worlds and we know about sexism, so we understood that we would be able to that it would actually be pretty entertaining to lay that stuff out in film form.
Alex Ferrari 18:12
Yeah, and what I loved also is that you you really focused on the love story, like her love story with with her husband is it's just beautiful. And what he did was groundbreaking as well a man of his generation to just push her in the into the spotlight and he was happy in the background. is So was like you said it in the documentaries like that's just doesn't that didn't happen at that. Do those guys?
Betsy West 18:38
Yeah, yeah. No, I mean, we are attracted to story with two subjects who have a good love story. And certainly the Paul and Julia story is fantastic. Because it starts out with Paul being the one who is opening up Julia to the world. You know, she had lived a rather privileged and sheltered life until she volunteered for World War Two and met Paul in in the in salon where they were both posted. And, you know, he was a worldly guy 10 years older, knew about art culture do about food, you know, so when they married and moved to France for his job with the State Department. That's when Julia just blossomed and discovered her passion for food and started cooking for Paul, which was really good for him. And we have, you know, a scene in the film kind of illustrating some of the benefits that Paul and Julia's love affair in France. And then, as you said, something unusual happened. Paul's career was in decline. He had left the state department he really didn't have anything to do they move back to the United States. And Julia, suddenly, her cookbook after 12 years is public And she goes on television and and becomes a kind of superstar. And Paul's reaction to that was just to help her every step of the way to believe in her belief in her when she was writing the book that nobody else thought was a good idea. And to believe in her when she became a superstar, and to continue to help her for the next three decades. It's kind of extraordinary.
Alex Ferrari 20:27
It's extremely extraordinary. And the other thing I found that watching the documentary is that she was absolutely fearless. Like, she threw herself into whatever. And she didn't care what anyone else said, How old was she, when she started? In this stage of her life, wasn't she in her in her early years,
Julie Cohen 20:47
50 years old when she first showed up on television, like Julia was not famous until she was 50, which, truthfully, is another part of the story that we really loved. And, you know, just like a good reminder for audiences, and particularly kind of young women in the audience to see like, No, you actually don't have to have had it all together and be ready to break out when you're 22. There are all kinds of different paths that people can take. And, you know, so that that was
Alex Ferrari 21:16
You mean, you mean, you didn't have it all figured out at 22? I mean, I obviously, I mean, Jesus.
Betsy West 21:23
I think there's something about the fact that Julia did have this later in life success that gave her the sort of confidence that she had right now. And once. Once she got there, she really, she really was pretty strong in her beliefs about how to carry on in her life. It just in all aspects, and yet also someone who evolved and who changed and we love that part of the story as well. It's not just like, oh, Julia went on television in the early 60s, it became famous and that was it. I mean, there were, there were many more chapters and some challenges when she was kind of being pushed off the air, by PBS and how she met that challenge. And, and how she evolved in her thinking on social issues like homosexuality, which was, you know, pretty major in the 1980s. And, and she really changed her her thinking and her prejudice, frankly, about homosexuals. So those parts, those aspects of the story of Julia's ongoing evolution, you know, really appealed to us.
Alex Ferrari 22:33
The persistence that that Julia had is is absolutely remarkable to be on a book for 12 years. I mean, many filmmakers listening and writers listening can really feel that because I started it's like, yeah, we were on the boat for trying to sit and to do anything for 12 years and to keep going. And to keep going no matter what. When there was no hope. There was really no, there was no, there was no signpost anywhere that said, this was a good idea. It's not like you're making a movie. And they're like, Well, other movies have been made before and made money or were successful. There was nothing like it. And she's just kept trying until finally someone opened the door for her. It was just, it was just so inspiring to see that.
Julie Cohen 23:16
Yeah, I mean, I think that Julia and the French colleagues that she was working with to develop that book really felt strongly that what they were doing was a good idea and would be valuable for home cooks. And that was, that was the deep impetus, as you say, there was there was nobody saying this is a fantastic idea, they had gotten an extremely small advance money that would have long run out, but in the first year, let alone the 12th year, it wasn't like there was, you know, nobody was chomping at the bit waiting for this book, they would just like had this vision, like, oh, this would be amazing. And I think they felt like they would get some real fulfillment out of putting on, you know, putting down on paper, like some of the amazing French techniques of cooking that, um, you know, that are well known in France and and very much not known in the US like they thought it would be a worthwhile thing to do. And that's where it started. Not so much. I mean, like, yes, of course, they wanted commercial success, as the 12 years go on, that is seeming less and less likely.
Alex Ferrari 24:19
And I think that's, that's a lesson that everyone listening needs to take on. It's like, if you believe in yourself is something that's just so believed in the world hasn't caught up to that idea to the world 12 years to catch up to that idea, essentially. And then it took another took a little bit longer for them to catch up with her being a 50 year old TV star on PB. I mean, it's just insane. It's like a PBS in Boston somewhere. It's like, she makes an omelet, and then all of a sudden, like, Hey, you want to show, okay, we don't know how to do a show. Let's just do this and it just hides. It's like if you wouldn't write it in a screenplay, you'd be like, that doesn't make any sense.
Betsy West 24:55
You know, the thing the part of that that I just love is that you know Julia just connected with the audience. Immediately. It wasn't like the executives said, Oh, we've got a potential star here. Let's invest in this Julia Child person. Let's bring her along, you know? No. They said, Okay, we'll do three shows, we'll you know, we'll pay you minimal amount of money. And, you know, she was instantly just memorable. You know, people were like, Who is that crazy voice, but she's funny and but, and she knows a lot, and we love watching her. So to me, it's this example of going direct to the audience. And and you know that that's how it happened. It was not the TV execs who were doing it.
Alex Ferrari 25:44
And what I loved also, that you mentioned in the documentary was the SNL skit by Dan Ackroyd, which I always wondered, I'm like, I wonder if she actually got a kick out of that or not. And it's and the answers in the documentary, you were like, Oh, okay. But she brought it out constantly and constantly bringing it out to show people that there must have been, I mean, she was an icon. She was even in the 75. Was that 75?
Julie Cohen 26:09
Yeah, it was only five. And remember, I mean, remember what you know, what SNL in the 70s was, what a huge big deal. It was just like, you know, one of our characters mentions that, like, in the early days of Julia Show in the mid 60s, everyone will be like, did you see Julia Child? You know, this week? Have you seen Julia this episode? And of course, that's what SNL was, by the mid 70s. Like, every Sunday, I mean, I was a kid at that point. And every Sunday, it was just like breaking down what happened on SNL the night before, and I think that Julia understood that kind of Dan Akroyd impersonate her was a real sign of, you know, cultural zeitgeist. Yeah. Okay, so she appreciated that. But like, you know, the problem. I mean, at the time, I think it's so fantastic. The problem is the decades have gone on. And Betsy and I kind of came to discover that people who were familiar with Julia vaguely, like, that's what they remember that, you know, a caricature, completely zany, completely off the rails, like drunk lady, you know, with a chicken. And like, actually was a lot more than that. Not only was she a true expert in food, and bringing that expertise to Americans, like in a way that mattered. So we are amused by that as Julia was, but we also wanted to, you know, the whole point of the film is kind of to tell you what the real story is behind that caricature.
Alex Ferrari 27:37
Yeah, absolutely. And you did a fantastic job doing that. Now, did you learn what led what life lessons did you learn from Julia? Because you, me, you and you go into when you go into a subject matter, like this, like with RBG, that you you have to something has to rub off on you. So what was that thing? One?
Betsy West 27:54
I'll tell you one. You know, I like to cook. But often weeks go by before I really do cook, and sometimes my ambition gets the better of me, like I think I can create some great thing and it's like, it's 10 of seven. And the guests are coming soon. And I'm like doing four different dishes. And often I'll be disappointed with how one or the other came out. And I in the past would apologize. Oh, you know, like this corn thing. It was supposed to rise more or whatever. I am never, ever apologizing again for a dish that I served to people I mean, and I love that attitude. Julia's whole point was oh, you make a mistake you make the best of it, you turn the the potato souffle into something else and you just serve it you know you so you turn the dessert that flopped into a soup and you serve it and you not apologize. So that's my life lesson and I once the pandemic and the shutdown is over and I actually am entertaining regularly again. I plan to implement that advice.
Julie Cohen 29:04
And again a before her time feminist message because like apologizing for one right is a big lady problem like it is you do have an inclination when you're presenting what you've done to a roomful of people to start pre telling them like everything that's wrong with what you can oh, this was actually supposed to be bad. I use baking flour when I was opposed to yours
Alex Ferrari 29:32
Fell on the floor.
Julie Cohen 29:35
Like to serve the book like it was like you know we all make mistakes it's okay to make mistakes but that's that don't like apologize for them just like you know say that's what you know, say you meant this to be that kind of everyone like if you if you do it if you give it a little hype, like the boys often do that's going to that's going to change people's perception of it and a view and it's a great it's a great Julia lesson.
Alex Ferrari 29:59
You As you know, I was I was raised surrounded by women. So I have I've no brothers or sisters, but I was just women, very strong women around me at all times. And now with my family, my daughters and my wife, I have no testosterone at all in my life. Just the cat and the cat got fixed. So. So I feel that as, as a young man, you never ever taught to apologize for anything, you just go with it, you roll with it. And And as I'm teaching my, my girls that I'm like, no, no, you, I'm teaching them to be strong women, and to teach them from a male side point of view. And also from a female side point of view, with my wife of like, No, this is the world, and this is what you're going to be walking into. And my god, I can't even imagine walking into the world that she walked into where she lived in. Yeah, it's such a tough world.
Betsy West 30:50
Yeah. And then imagine the world in France. I mean, we'd love the heart of the film in France to kind of create how, what kitchens were life there. I mean, talk about a macho, sexist, fireman, Julia Child walked into, you know, going to the Cordon Bleu with the Master Chef, and the students were all male Gi is from the US who were using the GI Bill to further their education before they went back to cook in restaurants in the United States. And Julia is the only woman we love that. And she seemed to have a kind of confidence about her, which I think was, you know, just part of her makeup, you know, that she she didn't mind being six foot two, right? Women really don't like being so tall. It didn't, it didn't seem to bother her, she married a man who was shorter than she was I mean, it she didn't have that self consciousness. And I think also in breaking into a male world that she found herself in France, she was just very matter of fact about it. I want to learn how to cook, this is the best place to do it. And please, you know, let me into this class and, of course impress them all.
Alex Ferrari 32:08
In again, that fearlessness in in what she said because she towered over most men. Yeah. Easily, I think that's also probably a little bit of where the confidence came from, because she'd always towered over over men. So in many ways, I mean, this is just me, my, my Psycho analysis of it. But you know, she does feel that that kind of vibe. And you see these pictures of her in the in the documentary, where she's kind of just small, she's just our and it's just the confidence to do what ever she wants. It's,
Julie Cohen 32:37
Yeah and interesting thing is, even though all of the ways that, you know, we're kind of socialized as women sometimes to be a little apologetic or a little demure or not show yourself, you know, often to the world and Julia self, the self confidence and the feeling. And the and, and the being hurt. selfness is exactly what the audience's responded to, they completely got that this was an authentic person, they saw that they're seeing the real Julia, they liked that she was fearless. They'd like that she wasn't apologizing, they'd like that she was loud, even like everything that was real about Julia, which is a lot of things that girls actually aren't taught to be even still is actually what the public really responded to, in and not just women, like guys like her too.
Alex Ferrari 33:26
Yeah, and that's the thing, I love the word use authentic, because that's exactly what she was RBG was is that they were who they were, and they were comfortable in their own skin and weren't trying to impress they weren't trying to be something they're not they weren't putting an Instagram filter on themselves in many ways. And that's what people are drawn to. I mean, in all of your work, even doing news and other things throughout your career. Have you noticed the same thing I have is that the people who get the attention of some, not all the times, but they are who they are. And they're not trying to be something they're not generally speaking, especially the important people, meaning important people, meaning that people who are changing the world, people are being of service to the world like RBG, like Julia, because they I mean, you can't fake job. Like that was that's a hell of a performance. If she's pulled that off for so many years. That's who she was. Do you find that? That's one of those common factors and all the work that you've done over the years?
Betsy West 34:25
It's an interesting question. I'm not sure that I would want to make that generalization across the board.
Alex Ferrari 34:30
You know, it's case by case, right?
Betsy West 34:32
I think it's somewhat case by case. I mean, look, people are very different. There's such a huge variety of people and sometimes, you know, you'll what was so and so like, Oh, they're exactly like what they are, you know, what you would imagine on television and you know, you can say that, but that's not always the case. There are certainly people who have a pretty good public and I think that's, you know, so Observe, there are interesting sort of introverted people who then get in front of a camera, and they kind of transform into something else. And I'm not saying I'm gonna call that phony. I'm just saying that's the way they are. And then they get off camera and Okay, that's it, you know, they're moving on to something else. I mean, that was not the case with Julia. I mean, Julia was an extremely outgoing people person loved being on television and loved meeting people in the grocery store, it didn't really matter to her. So I would say it's true of her. And it's it's a, you know, I think, Justice Ginsburg, a very different character of you know, really was an introvert who, later in life had this amazing celebrity, but she was pretty true to her personality, I think throughout and was very much the same, you know, often on camera, I think, in a way, but I wouldn't want to generalize it to everybody. Do you agree, Julie?
Julie Cohen 36:03
Yeah, yeah. Well, I was when it was webinar, Alex brought in our broadcast news careers that were some people that were I mean, you know, look, there are people that have gotten called out in recent, the same nice guy on television that they in real life that they might have appear to be on your morning television show. So yeah, I'm just saying
Alex Ferrari 36:29
There is there is that yeah, there was yesterday, we had a nice smile on her face as you were talking. Yep, it's in my head. I know who it is. Now, um, I have to ask you, what do you think Julia would do with today's technology of social media? Of all of that stuff? Do you think she would have? Would she have an Instagram account? Even in the later years of her life? Would she be out there really kind of connecting with her audience in that way? In your opinion?
Julie Cohen 37:01
Well, there's an interesting mixed thing, like my husband actually always likes to talk about there's there's some, there's some hypothetical about, like, what Napoleon had had a B 52. And like, well, of course, this is sort of similar. What if Julia had had, I think we should I think even might be an SNL skit. But what if Julia had had Instagram? There's sort of, there's sort of a two part answer. One is that the whole love of food on Instagram is really the world that Julia created that like food is this amazing thing that's so much. It's not just what we get to nourish ourselves. But you know, it's like, to be celebrated and shown off and like, so that's like, really, a validation of who Julia was. On the other hand, Julia had a rule, we mentioned it in the film, she called the French rules, which is when your food is served and still hot, you eat it immediately, you do not stop what you're doing to take the most glamorous overhead picture of it. Food is meant to be eaten, not photographed. So
Alex Ferrari 38:00
On both sides of that, now, did you guys find yourself eating more? Why? Because I found myself wanting to eat whereas those beautiful food footage that you guys were shooting, that I knew were an archival, because I was looking like, oh, that's fresh? Did you find yourself like me? Did you find a new respect for food? Did you find a new? Just, you know, all of that while making this?
Betsy West 38:25
Yeah, I mean, we have to say that we filmed most of it before the shutdown, we filmed a lot of it in 2019, including an amazing trip to France that was really fun to be to visit Julius Hans and to eat some great food. But, you know, I think when the shutdown happened, all of us changed our relationship, to food and to cooking. And, you know, I found myself going to the farmers market, you know, shopping outside and thinking more about fresh food. And definitely, you know, both my husband and I were just cooking for each other, every single night. And one night, we made like a list of all of our regular dishes that we'd like, you know, that were in our rotation. And there were like about, I don't know, 45 of them that were in our now in our rotation. And I think so we really expanded our possibilities. And I guess that was partly about the pandemic. And I think partly because all day long, you know, I was seeing immersed in, in this world of food in the middle of the pandemic we managed to do the high end cinematography that that you see throughout the film. That which was last summer that we filmed under somewhat difficult circumstances with everybody masked or whatever and created a studio. Down in in Chelsea and and replicated Julie's kitchen our producer Holly Segal did an incredible job basically, having a shop construct Julie's kitchen and sourced all the copper pots and the garlin stove and everything else. And then filmed for about a week with our cinematographer Claudia Rasky. And then similarly in France, we were filming with a photographer using macro technology, really tight shooting and slow mo the food that was Nanda bread lard. In Paris, we intended for the two of them to be together or two, but because of academic that was not possible. So we did the parachute remotely. So that was a lot of thinking about food, and I guess it did influence us.
Julie Cohen 40:52
Yeah. And are we we brought in a food stylist and and cook Susan Spungen, who not only prepared all the film, and actually You prepared all the food and you actually see her in the film sometimes because it's kind of her hands that are rolling out the dough and that sort of thing, but helped us in the substantive quest of figuring out which Julia Child recipes would work well with which scenes like one example is we wanted to show something kind of messing up during the phase that they're experimenting with all different recipes. And we talked to Susan about like, what could we show that would like, screw up all the time she came up with hollandaise sauce and how it breaks and looks all curtly and disgusting. And then, you know, for looking for the sort of Love in the Afternoon sensual seen her and we had a number of discussions. You know, what is that? So what dessert is like the sexiest, like, what do you think? And we went in thinking it was going to be chocolate because when you think deserves like chocolate is the first in your mind. But then she described us that pear tart and every step of the rolling the dough and the poaching the pears and red wine. Or that custard was beautiful to go and eat. But um, so when you talk about like, we're we mean, you know, just the enthusiasm for even certain certain food groups definitely grew during the production of this film.
Alex Ferrari 42:19
Yeah, that tart when I was watching, it is a fairly sensual tart. i It's I had no idea tarde could be sensual I was watching was like, wow, I want to I want to I want to have a slice of that right now. No, where can people watch the film? And when is we released?
Betsy West 42:40
Yes, people can see Julia, in theaters in New York and Los Angeles starting November 12. And then it will be rolled out in many, many theaters in cities around the country in the subsequent weeks. So by Thanksgiving, it should be available. If you didn't want to see it before your Thanksgiving meal, you might want to have a snack just beforehand, so you're not hungry during it or whatever. I think it's a good it's potential good Thanksgiving fair?
Alex Ferrari 43:19
No. And what advice would you give a filmmaker who wants to get into the documentary? Game?
Julie Cohen 43:27
Well, it's hard question. I mean, I think you know, there's, on the one hand, technology is such that people could be experimenting with making short films, um, on their own, that probably doesn't mean that that's something that's going to be headed for distribution. The other thing is to just you know, get there, there are a lot of documentary production companies all around and getting in on the ground floor in the interning and production assistant. Mode is kind of always the way to start. But like learning, learning some technical skills is kind of important. Some shooting and editing skills is great these days, as well as sort of some substantive knowledge we always try to tell people it's actually good to know like, when people ask, Oh, should I major in film or communications in my undergraduate college, like, maybe, but also, it's actually good to learn some things about the world and to understand something about business or science or politics or history, like, you know, perspect especially for documentaries, like you need to have some grounding in the real world before you're maybe going out and trying to say something about the world which in and it's hard is what the documentary is all about.
Alex Ferrari 44:47
Now, I've asked you a couple questions ask all of my guests. What is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film business or in life?
Betsy West 44:58
Thank you so much. Alex,
Julie Cohen 45:04
I think of one.
Betsy West 45:05
I got one
Julie Cohen 45:06
Oh, you got one?
Betsy West 45:08
Yeah, I have one. But you go ahead you go.
Julie Cohen 45:10
I was just gonna say to not worry, too. I mean, in some ways it fits in with the best, as we were saying earlier, to not worry too much about things that go wrong. Like when something goes a little wrong. That's all right, things have gone wrong in every film that we've made. And you know, it comes out like the biggest problem is what happens after the thing goes wrong, where everyone is so panicked about the thing that went wrong, and trying to convince themselves and the others that it is not their fault, but then a cascade of things begin to go wrong from there. So like things go wrong, forgive yourself and move on.
Betsy West 45:48
Yeah, I mean, I took to heart RBGs advice, which she got from her mother, basically, that don't waste your time on anger, you know, try to move past it. And yes, it doesn't mean you're not going to be angry, of course, you're gonna get angry, you're a human being. But try not to get consumed by anger, and just find the way around it. Because it's a waste of your energy.
Alex Ferrari 46:21
Now, in any of your projects, it must have been a day that the whole world came crashing down around you. What was that event? And how did you get past it? What did you use to get past it?
Betsy West 46:36
Well, I would say my whole world came crashing down around me when I lost a job in a very high profile way in 2005, when I was at CBS News, and you know, it was kind of a wake up for me and but opened up doors to a whole new life because I had been an executive and you know, executive jobs are risky. You're always the person, you know, that gets blamed when something goes wrong underneath you when, you know, that's sort of what happened to me. But in general, I think executive jobs are tough. And I realized that I so loved making stories, telling stories. That's what I really love more than I love being an executive, although, you know, I think it was okay at it, but I really love doing that. And so that allowed me to pivot back to what I love doing the most.
Alex Ferrari 47:40
Betsy West 47:47
She's never cried,
Julie Cohen 47:48
Laughing the crushing experience. To me, the thing that I associate most with that is like, when, you know, something that you saw was gonna happen, like doesn't happen and that actually happens a lot in a row. Like where you thought you had a shoot and then you didn't and person cancels or you thought you had a booking and someone was gonna cooperate with something and they didn't and sort of similar to what Betsy was saying in the end. You all I always think almost everything that happens there's a way in the end take like oh, it was good that that did that was great that we didn't actually get that person because it would have bet it wouldn't have let Oh, so amazing.
Alex Ferrari 48:25
And less active. And last question three documentaries that all documentary should watch?
Betsy West 48:32
Oh my god. All right. Hoop Dreams. Yes, my mind and I saw the RE mastering of Hoop Dreams. thinking oh my god, this thing is so long. You know, I think it's like three hours or something. And I was thinking maybe it's too long. It is. It's just masterful. It's unbelievable. I just met Phil and was so lucky to see it again recently. All right, that's one
Julie Cohen 48:57
Documentary to see. I think I'm gonna say Waltz with Bashir um, I really recommend that to everyone. It's an animated doc that came out probably around 2008 Something like that, but it's like just telling a story in a really new way but that feels really emotionally profound. So that's one think
Alex Ferrari 49:23
And one more any any any of you I won't put you on the on the spot for three each.
Betsy West 49:31
Okay, there's so many um,
Alex Ferrari 49:35
Like for me it was like searching for sugar man. Which was that was a great one and then walking those walking the line or the one with the about the type broke guy between the twin towers
Julie Cohen 49:49
We both loved um, roll packs. I Am Not Your Negro.Really different take on an archival but it's like an estimate. It's an archive Film it tells me something about American history.
Betsy West 50:04
I really like stories stories we tell you know that Sarah Polley, which I thought was just really pushing the boundaries of storytelling in a way that works like sometimes I think the boundaries get pushed in a way that I thought that was wow, what an interesting way to tell a first person film. I don't know. I like that one.
Alex Ferrari 50:29
Betsy and Julie. But thank you guys again so much for being on the show. I truly appreciate it. And I hope everybody goes out and sees Julia and if you haven't seen RBG you have to go see RBG as well. So thank you guys for doing what you're doing and please continue making amazing documentary. So thank you.
Julie Cohen 50:46
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.