Interview with Rachel Portman

(Rachel Portman photo by B Ealovega)

There’s always been a delicious zest to Rachel Portman’s way with outsized characters, a talent for hearing life as a sympathetically loopy, waltzing circus as capable of laughter as it is heartbreak. From the clowning Johnny Depp that put the English composer on the Hollywood map with 1993’s “Benny and Joon” to a gallery of aristocrats high and low born, American eccentrics from the city and trailer hoods and any number of dottily magical characters, Portman’s tell-tale melodic voice is no more joyous than when celebrating individuals who capture the public’s imagination, no more so than when mixing the ingredients to embody the larger-than-life, French-trained, Pasadena-born bon vivant Julia Child, the woman who brought nascent food porn to tastefully break America out of its jello and hotdog-bound kitchen rut into the land of anyone-can-cook-it gourmet courses.

Such is the wondrous, fairly charmed true story told by documentary filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West who go from the groundbreaking jurisprudence icon “RBG” to the endlessly imaginative recipes materialized from the kitchen studios by “Julia.” Given a thoroughly delightful chronicle of a love for food and life in equal measure that brought TV one of its most treasured and unlikely stars, “Emma” Oscar winner Rachel Portman whisks together a magical concoction whose ingredients are immediately recognizable at first bite. Taste wistful strings, romping rhythms, accordion waltzes and emotion as gossamer as it can be aching, all finished on the symphonic stove with memorable themes and melody, and you’ve got the musical cooking of Rachel Portman when given the kind of boisterous character canvases she excels at. Indeed, the musician who showed that women could make a film composing mark has never more stylistically scrumptious than serving up the persona of a fellow groundbreaker in a respectively wondrous field.  

Julia Child (Photo by ABC Photo Archives)

Before this film, what was your history with Julia Child?

I knew who she was, but I never watched her program. Her shows must have still been on when I came to the states. But I never turned on the TV. I was just working the whole time I think. She was more of a legend to me, and the film captured her character so brilliantly that I didn’t feel that I “missed” her really. It’s such a beautifully crafted documentary as a piece of narrative about her. It’s so colorful that it had everything that it needed for me to understand who, and how Julia Child was.

I imagine you saw the fictional “Julie & Julia” before watching this film. What struck you about the real Julia from watching this movie before you started work on it?

Even though I had seen “Julie & Julia,” this felt very different to me. This wasn’t a film about her. This was her. It’s a difference between doing a drama and the thing itself. So I wasn’t really influenced by the other film. I just took all of the material that was in front of me as my melting pot for all of my ideas apart from talking to Julie and Betsy. They had really good ideas of what the music for “Julia” should be, and weren’t shy about using them, which I love. I felt very free to be fun and romantic with the score, and to play on the importance of creating food for people. It was a wonderfully rich canvas to draw from. Not only Julia Child herself, but the film that Julie and Betsy had made about her. It’s fun, it’s bouncy, moving and larger than life at times. And it has a “character” who’s so determined and hard working. Julia was who she was, which helped me to write music for her that was uncompromising. 

(Photo by Giles Keyte)

Was cooking and food a big part of your life before scoring “Julia?”

I remember when I was a teenager and feeling grumpy with my mother about something. I was sitting in a quiet room doing homework at the table. And she came in with a little plate of food that she cooked. I think it was Spinach Florentine or something. She put it down, didn’t say anything and went away. And I realized from that day onwards that cooking food for someone is a way of showing love. I’ve always held that belief ever since. It’s more than the nourishment of the actual food. That is brought up in the film by these chefs who talk about being fed by our mothers when we’re born, and how important that is. Food and love are wonderful things, and I love eating and cooking. It’s a fundamental part of my life. I don’t profess to be a great cook, but eating is important to me.

When you have a really eccentric character like Julia Child, how difficult is it to have musical fun with her as opposed to inadvertently making fun of her?

Oh, I’d never want to do that. And I hope the music doesn’t do that. If anything, the music is having fun in a way that’s determined, a bit bad-ass and a bit edgy. But I’m not saying, “This is hilarious!” I took Julia in her big personality with great seriousness, and I hope the music reflects that. 

“Julia” directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West

When you look at so many films you’ve scored like “Benny and Joon,” “Home Fries,” “Used People,” “Grey Gardens” and the diet based “The Road to Wellville,” quite a few of them are about larger-than-life people. Why do you think your music is so often attracted to them?

I’ve always liked offbeat characters. When I started writing music, a lot of pieces were often eccentric. So I think I really have that streak, and I don’t get asked to do it nearly enough. I get asked to do a lot of serious things. Yet instead of doing out-and-out comedy, I’d rather do something that was slightly oddball. It’s more interesting to do that musically for me. But I love doing colorful and light films like “Julia,” because life is full of that, as well as being bittersweet. The music can do those two things at once. 

Julia follows up the way darker documentary “Road Runner” about Anthony Bourdain. While he and Julia are probably the two best known cooks in the world, does Julia not having that kind of overwhelming dark side make it an easier film to score than if she did?

There isn’t that kind of dark side to Julia, but I’m sure she had a “demon” driving her. Because in order to have that kind of professional drive, you have to have that demon. So I don’t know if Julia is 100% benign in that sense. But she doesn’t seem troubled and had a very strong love with her husband. Yet for anyone to do what Julia did so well, you have to be driven to work that hard to perfect something. And there are scenes in “Julia” of her perfecting and perfecting and perfecting things. We all know in our various professions that determination is the key to getting there. When people come to ask me about what tips I can give to a beginning film composer, I’ll tell them determination. I was completely determined as a young composer. There was nothing else on my radar but what I wanted. I see that in Julia Child, completely.

You really are the first person to put female composers on the map, especially with your Oscar win for “Emma.” Could you identify with the film’s theme about being a trailblazer?

Yes. As a woman, I can’t help but be interested in celebrating women who do well. I’m all for helping women composers. It’s moving to me to see any woman doing really well and breaking through a glass ceiling. Even though a lot of people have told me over the years that “You’re the only woman…” I wish I wasn’t. But I got very lucky. There are scarce few women around in my profession. But I didn’t really consider it. It means more to me now looking back, because at the time I was so consumed with work that I never gave it a thought. I think that’s partly what helped me. I was gender-blind in terms of the workplace. I had a job and got on with it. I had no worries. I wasn’t thinking about being a mother with kids. It just wasn’t a consideration. It also helped that I was going to a school that had every few girls. I learned to get along the same way in a very male world. So I celebrate Julia Child because she came before me and what she did was incredible. I bet she didn’t think about it herself either, being the only woman in her profession. 

You have a rhythmic, often waltzing “comedy” sound that immediately announces that it’s your distinctive style, especially on “Julia.” I particularly loved the Swingle Singers-like voices on the piece “She Loved to Ad-Lib.” Where did that idea come from?

I don’t know. It just popped into my head! That’s me singing as well! That was so much fun. I just thought “Why don’t I sing on this?” So I just did. It took about ten minutes at the end of the session to do it. In fact, the whole score wrote itself in that way. Sometimes you have a project and it just offers up all sorts of colors, character and humor. 

Was the trick here to score “Julia” as a “fictional” feature as opposed to a documentary?

I treated it as very much a movie and not like a documentary, and I had to because it’s very dramatic. There are long sequences where the scene is building to a climax over lots of intercutting, with the result at the end – for example the scene where Julia gets her book deal. I’ve done documentaries where I’ve given the directors lots of music that they could cut around with. That would never have worked with this, because “Julia” is crafted in such a way that it needs dramatic scoring all the way through it.

Paul and Julia Child (Photo by Lee Lockwood/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Your strings here are especially emotional, especially when it comes to Julia’s relationship with Paul. 

For me what’s really important is the use of melody and themes so that by the end of the film you feel that the music has a character that you know too. When the melodies return, they have more poignancy by the ending because you somehow heard them before realizing it. That’s the kind of thing I love to do.

Sole Meunière

Was it natural to break out the accordion when we get to France where Julia discovered her love of food?

It’s too delicious and irresistible not to use an accordion once you get to Paris. I love writing French music. It’s just delightful. There’s a wonderful scene in there where a female chef talks about how you prepare Sole Meunière. She’s just brilliant and describes it in a way where you feel like you’re tasting it as she’s talking about it. The music then becomes part of the recipe as well. I did that with “Chocolat” as well. I love writing music to food. The two things really do go together. You also want to have a waltz when you get to France, so that music was written in a rhythm that’s very simply and light, like a souffle.

I think a lot of people’s pandemic experience revolved around food, whether it was exploring cooking at home or going for takeout. Was “Julia” scored during it?

Yes it was. Sadly, I didn’t meet the directors. We realized that we could do all of this work – unlike if this happened ten years earlier, when it would have been much slower and harder to communicate. Everything on this score happened remotely on Zoom. “Julia” was recorded last November at Masterchord, which was a newer studio in London. We didn’t have a huge orchestra, so we didn’t have to go anywhere really big. When we were recording, everyone was wearing masks who could, and we were all socially distanced. Nobody extra could come into the recording room. It’s all regulated and beautifully do-able to record with the orchestra during the pandemic. But a lot of the fun goes out of it. It’s different not to sit in a room with the directors and really understand them. You lose something by only meeting and talking to people over Zoom. But funnily enough in this case with Julie and Betsy, it didn’t matter at all. I felt very in tune with the material and the film that they’d made. “Julia” was very clear in its intentions and I wasn’t needing help with anything. And also Julie and Betsy were very intelligent about their use of music, which made it easy like that. Some projects are easy like that. You think that things are happening very naturally.   

What do you think Julia Child would think about your score for her? And how do you think you’ve conveyed her spirit to audiences? 

Well I hope that if Julia Child heard my score, she would be happy with what I’ve written, because it was my intention to give a very true portrait of who she was and her life. I wanted the score to be very honest and to celebrate her. I care hugely that she would approve of the music. I hope audiences will take away her being a colorful person. I hope I bring that color to her in a musical form, and a real love of her life, and for food. A real passion for cooking and for being fed and creating food with love for others. 

Did you have a bowl of food next to you while composing “Julia?” I find it’s impossible to watch the film if you’re not eating during it.  

I was very hungry all of the time when I was working on “Julia,” and very interested as to what we were going to have for supper when I put my pen down at the end of the day. You can be absolutely sure that I tried to make the Sole Meunière in exactly the same way I saw it in the film. I don’t think I did it as well though. Julia does cook a lot of meat, which I don’t eat. So I was left without that. But it doesn’t make any difference in terms of the importance of conveying the taste and celebration of food That’s a wonderful thing for music to be able to do.

“Julia” is now in theaters, with Rachel Portman’s score available Lakeshore Records HERE

Special thanks to Kyrie Hood