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This Julia Child documentary gives a new look at one of America's brilliant chefs

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There was a time in this country when what counted as cooking was stuff like vegetables encased in Jell-O molds or spam sliced and topped with pineapple. Well, filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West remember that time pretty clearly.

JULIE COHEN: My mom liked to cook spaghetti with ketchup as a sauce. That was, like, a regular meal.

BETSY WEST: Yeah, well, we had a lot of tuna fish casserole with mushroom soup.

CHANG: Then in walks culinary icon Julia Child, who helped reconnect Americans with the joy of making delicious food and savoring it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIA CHILD: See, that's the beauty of this souffle. You're the complete boss of it at every inch of the way.

CHANG: Child had actually prepared herself in college for what she called, quote, "a leisurely butterfly life." But she ended up spending the next several decades reshaping American cuisine through her bestselling cookbook, "The Art Of French Cooking," and her iconic television shows. Her life and work are now depicted in Betsy West and Julie Cohen's new documentary, "Julia." Julie Cohen, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

COHEN: Great to be here.

CHANG: And, Betsy West, you and I already know each other since you were one of my professors in journalism school. It is so great to have you on this show.

WEST: Well, so fantastic to be here, Ailsa. Thank you.

CHANG: So much of this film, yeah, it's focused on the cooking, but it's even more so focused on the love story between Julia and her husband, Paul, which was this - I didn't realize - such a moving, sweet relationship. Can one of you describe the kind of love that they had for each other?

WEST: This is Betsy. I mean, when they first met, as we show, they didn't exactly hit it off. Paul thought that Julia was a little too loud, a little hysterical and she...

CHANG: He found her giggle annoying.

WEST: Her giggle was a little annoying to him, and she didn't really like his mustache and his long nose. But then they were both posted to China, again, for the war. And that's where they really became first friends and then their romance grew. Part of it was Paul, who was 10 years older, was introducing Julia to the world. He was introducing her to art and to culture and to food.

CHANG: And the reason, or at least a large reason, we know about these sentiments that they felt towards each other is because of all the letters and diary entries, you know, that Paul and Julia left behind, including like that sonnet he wrote for her. Oh, my God, that just, like - my heart was just bursting with so much joy listening to that. You know, it is so neat that they both sat down in writing so many of their thoughts. I don't think any of my own love stories have ever been so well-documented.

WEST: Yeah, I mean, we were very lucky to have access to Julia's archive. And there, you find letters that Julia wrote to friends talking about Paul, bragging about what an intellectual he was, what a great thinker he was and also Paul writing back to his family about just the joy that Julia was bringing into his life. So we dug into that. The other thing in the archives that we didn't expect to find were Paul's photographs. And you can tell from the pictures he took of Julia when they spent, you know, about 15 years in Europe, he was taking photographs of Julia that just are exuding love. She's - there's Julia with her legs splayed out, you know, lounging. There she is lying on the grass. And then there's an amazing photograph of Julia, kind of a nude photograph of her silhouetted in a window. I mean, this was a very romantic and sensual relationship.

CHANG: It really was. You know, so much of the building blocks of your documentary were provided by this archive that you're talking about. And I know that multiple family members were producers on this film as well, right? Like, I'm curious, how do you think that influenced the shaping of this story about Julia Child, to have the family of your subjects so deeply involved?

COHEN: The grandnephew of Julia gets an executive producer credit in our film. The family played no editorial role in the film beyond giving us access to the material. Not only did they not have editorial control, but actually they never asked to see nor did we show them cuts of the film until it was completed. You know, we were not doing a tear-Julia-down film, and I think the family understood that. But that said, we went into it saying, we're not saying you're going to love every single moment, but we think we're enthusiastic about telling a loving portrait of the fantastic Julia Child. But no, they didn't play any editorial role in the film.

CHANG: Yeah. And there were some aspects of this film that were critical of Julia Child. Like, you touched on some homophobic beliefs she once had. And I'm curious, how did you decide, first of all, to include that? And what was the conversation like between the two of you of how to include it?

COHEN: Yeah. That story of Julia's homophobia early in her career came out pretty organically. First of all, it was in some of the biographies that have been written about Julia. But it seemed worth pointing out both in and of itself but also because it showed something about how Julia evolved. I mean, she went from someone who was totally uncomfortable with gay people and was homophobic to someone - because her gay attorney, who also she wouldn't acknowledge for a long time the fact that he clearly was gay, as those around him said they all knew, he got AIDS, and she was extremely caring towards him during that period of his life and his death, came to understand, of course, that he had been gay, was horrified to think that so many people were dying with AIDS - of AIDS. This was the 1980s when this subject just wasn't talked about.

And Julia did a total 180 and all of a sudden became a supporter of gay rights and of people with AIDS in particular. We have a clip of footage in the film of Julia at an AIDS research benefit in 1988 talking publicly about, we've got to take care of people with AIDS. This was a time when almost no celebrities were doing that, let alone a celebrity like Julia, whose appeal was to Middle America, people who were not necessarily comfortable about talking about something like AIDS.

CHANG: Absolutely.

WEST: Yeah. This is Betsy. I mean, I just want to say that, you know, in terms of approaching it, obviously, we greatly admire Julia Child. We feel that we really owe something to Julia Child and to how she changed our world. But she wasn't a perfect person. She was feisty. She was opinionated. And yet, as Julie said, she evolved.

CHANG: Finally, I read that the two of you personally cooked some of the dishes that appear in the film. So who made what?

COHEN: If people go see the film, they're going to see that the closing credits include very specific instructions on how to prepare and assemble a perfect salad nicoise. Having - sitting in the room and watching that scene being filmed just filled me with a desire that has not gone away in the year since to make salad nicoise again and again. So it does remind us that we sort of try to give the warning to people that are going to see this film, if you haven't eaten before you go, you need to make a reservation immediately after.

CHANG: Filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen, their new documentary about Julia Child is called "Julia." It is in theaters now. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

COHEN: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

WEST: Ailsa, what a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.