exit interview

The Julia Writers See Julia Child As a Fable

Photo: HBO Max

At a time when so much TV is adapted from real-life stories, there’s something fascinating about HBO Max’s Julia. It’s about the famous cookbook author and public-television icon Julia Child: her work essentially inventing the idea of a cooking show, her rise to prominence as a TV personality, her marriage to diplomat Paul Child. But rather than hitting the beats of a strict biopic, Julia moves slowly. The show’s first season covers roughly one year of her life, leaving room for invention; the series is interested in Child’s real experiences, yes, but it’s more interested in what she can represent as a cultural figure. As a result, Julia is a fuzzier, warmer blend of fact and fiction than most ripped-from-life TV series. The show’s writing staff — showrunners Daniel Goldfarb and Chris Keyser and writers Natalia Temesgen, Emily Bensinger, Erica Lipez, and Eboni Booth — use the gaps in Child’s history to turn Julia into an exploration of America’s changing cultural landscape in 1963. The series, as they envision it, is as much about the birth of modern marriage as it is about the particulars of Child’s life and legacy.

In our conversation about the series, Julia’s writers (sans Booth, who was unable to join) discuss the way they conceive of the show: not as a biography, but as a fable. Julia exists to impart a lesson, a sharp contrast from the grim, ambiguous TV dramas aiming for endless complication. “We are making a piece of fiction about a real person,” Chris Keyser explains. But the idea of Julia Child drag in 1963? That’s based in fact.

What was the pitch for Julia
Daniel Goldfarb: The pitch was Julia’s second act, to pick up with her time in Boston in the ’60s. Even more so, the pitch was the invention of the first modern marriage. We would start with a warm, loving marriage, but it would be the 1950s version of marriage. Over the course of the season, the marriage would evolve into a true partnership.

In Hollywood terms, it was Mrs. Maisel meets The Crown. [Laughs.] We had a lot of conversations about the women’s movement and celebrity and public television and feminism. There were all these themes we could explore, and we could use Julia as this iconic public figure whom people don’t know that much about behind closed doors. Chris and I always talked about this as the Amadeus version of Julia Child’s life. Everything in this season could have happened, and maybe did happen, but didn’t necessarily happen. But it was all inspired by the research we did.

Was there a guiding principle for what needed to be real and when you were allowed to invent?
Chris Keyser: There were a couple of principles. The first was that we had to be true to the spirit of the people who once lived, and most of them, with the exception of Russ Morash, are now gone. We had a big advantage with the cooperation of the Julia Child Foundation, so everything we did — all the stuff we wrote, all the things we invented — was passed through them. Not because they had approval, but because it mattered to us that people who knew Julia deeply would say, “Yes, these capture the essence.” If you talk to Todd Schulkin at the foundation, they were very happy with it. What we heard was “Maybe more than anyone else, you have captured the essence of Julia and Paul and Avis and that relationship.”

We knew there were going to be tentpole moments to be truthful about. We knew from the historical record that Julia went on I’ve Been Reading, that she made an omelet at the last minute, that they received 27 letters in response to it, and that she then wrote to WGBH and said, “I would like to make a cooking show.” Those things are all true. Most of the big moments the public might be able to find in the record, we stuck with. But Julia wasn’t public in the way Elizabeth Taylor was public. We don’t know where she was at every single moment. There were plenty of spaces in between, and that gave us space to be imaginative. It’s a fable. It’s the most loving fable we could’ve written; there’s no sense of undermining. But we felt pretty free to say what happened behind closed doors, we could come up with ourselves.

Emily, I know you wrote the San Francisco episode, where Julia goes to a drag bar with James Beard. Can you talk about the process of developing that story? 
Emily Bensinger: We knew we wanted to do something with James Beard — they had a famous friendship. And Julia and Paul were a little bit complicated about their homophobia. We wanted to lean into that and not shy away from Julia’s more complicated personality traits and beliefs. We have a lot of biographies, and you can see some of the contradictions. The San Francisco episode was about exploring the time period and the counterculture, and the friendship with James Beard which was complicated but really, really beautiful.

Goldfarb: We knew that once The French Chef started airing in San Francisco, Julia was embraced by the counterculture and there were drag performers doing Julia almost immediately. We knew Julia had this deep friendship with James Beard, and we knew Julia had this complicated relationship with her homophobia at the time. Whether Beard took Julia to a drag bar, we don’t know. But we know those drag bars existed, and we knew people were doing Julia at that time, and we knew Julia was very close to James Beard.

An advantage we had as opposed to other biopics and biographies is that we only cover one year of her life. We had eight hours to cover one year; in a movie, you have one hour to cover 15 or 20 years. We were going to hit the tentpole moments, but we also had time to explore between those moments.

Keyser: And we knew Paul Child was not a public person in the way his wife was, so we wanted to use episodes four and five to talk about the varying reactions of Paul and Julia to their initial fame. The essence of each of those stories was based on something real. Erica wrote about the bread chapter; Natalia wrote about this trip to Smith. They all have elements of truth and elements of fantasy.

As you were going through the source texts, biographies and letters, and everything that’s been written about her, did any quotes or anecdotes inform your decisions about how the show’s version of Julia would react to these cultural movements? 
Bensinger: There’s a wonderful collection of letters she wrote to Avis DeVoto. You get a lot of Julia’s voice, and you can glean a lot from the way they spoke to each other. They’re brilliant and hilarious — these women were so funny.

Keyser: We thought about it in three chapters. The first chapter, the first three episodes, are really what went into her making The French Chef. It begins with the idea and ends with the first moment. We know a lot about that but not everything. We know, for example, that they had to pay for a lot of the food. We took that and turned it into a story in which she paid for the food, but in some cases, they bargained or made it themselves, because we wanted to tell the story of an evolving marriage between Julia and Paul that reflected the way women often had to behave with their husbands.

The second chapter was about what the growing fame meant to Julia. We pulled some things, but it’s not like we looked at a book and said, “That’s what matters.” Because what mattered to us was an exploration of the move from private to public life and how marriage impacted that. And the third chapter was raising a question we thought was interesting, but we don’t know if Julia explored it in precisely the way we depicted it, but it mattered in 2022: Where does she fit into the history of feminism? She is not consistent in talking about what she represents for the world, and we wanted to play with that.

Goldfarb: When we did the initial research, there were little moments. Knowing there were drag performers of her in San Francisco, we were like, We want to do a San Francisco episode. Or knowing that later in her life she was honored by Smith College, when she was not a superstar student and didn’t fit into what you think of a Smith College student. So we invented this idea of going back to Smith. We knew Paul and Judith were heavily involved in writing the bread chapter of Mastering part two, and we knew it was Judith’s idea and Simca wanted nothing to do with it. We would find all these sentences, and then literally from a sentence, we had this huge list of ideas for episodes.

Erica Lipez: The bread episode is a good example of that. So much of the essence of Judith and Paul creating that bread recipe was completely accurate to what happened, it just happened over the course of a year: Paul working on a recipe, sending baguettes in the mail to Judith in New York. But a mail sequence from Boston and New York is not good television. It’s really exciting to see them do all that work together and get to the essence of what happened. It was the genesis of Judith falling in love with cooking, not just for Julia but as her own passion. Bread was a big part of her life. Paul was getting to have some ownership over something Julia was doing. Doing that over a montage rather than a year, that’s fun! It honors it.

Let’s talk about Alice Naman, who in some ways is the most whole-cloth creation in the show. 
Natalia Temesgen: She was inspired by Ruth Lockwood, who was a real person, and we knew we wanted her to interact with Julia in similar ways. But there was so much room to decide who she really was outside of the workplace. We really wanted to show this character as someone who had certain privileges growing up, someone who was supported financially and emotionally in her two-parent household, someone who was encouraged to go to college. Her brothers are professionals. So showing some of the talented tenth, as W.E.B. DuBois would put it — that upper-middle-class Black American demographic — in the middle of the history of racism in Boston. We wanted to spend time with this character who is living around that but has her own goals and dreams for herself, who can pave a way that doesn’t exist for her demographic.

Keyser: Alice is not a Black version of Ruth. She is a composite character based on a number of people at WGBH at the time. I know a woman whose mother, who was Black, was there and worked with Julia in the ’60s. We know Madeline Anderson, the well-known documentarian, was doing work in public television. By the time this story progresses five or six years into the future, GBH is filled with women and even people of color.

The whole writers’ room made the decision that it wasn’t okay for us to say we were going to wait two seasons to get there. We had this conversation about not saying what is but what might have been. That gave us a chance to talk about things we could not have spoken about until season three. We created a composite character who was very specific; we spent more time on Alice than anyone else because there was nothing about her before.

How early did you make the decision to create a composite character? Did you have versions where Ruth Lockwood was there first? 
Goldfarb: Fairly early. I think there was a first draft of the pilot where it was Ruth Lockwood, but making the show today, it needed to be bigger than what it was. By the second draft of the pilot, it became Alice. Ruth Lockwood was a privileged married woman who did amazing things for The French Chef but didn’t really want to do anything else at WGBH. In terms of what we were trying to say about women at that time, we didn’t see how that story contributed to what we were doing with Judith and Avis and Julia.

Can you talk about the show’s tonal balance? How did you think about the overall mix of discomfort and coziness? 
Temesgen: Some of the sadder or more vulnerable moments are often followed by intimate conversations with someone important to that character. In episode four, after Julia has that walk with Iris, she goes back to her room. She’s nervous. She’s looking at her reflection. She doesn’t even know who she is. But she calls Paul. That’s so much of what the show’s about: not shying away from the discomfort of being a human. It’s in those moments that we reach out to people who know and love us. Avis and Julia have so many of those scenes throughout the season, and Alice opening up to her mom — it’s a reminder that while we go through them, we can go through them with people that love us.

Keyser: This is not a comedy in which life doesn’t hurt. We allow the characters to hurt, but we don’t allow characters to spend a lot of time bemoaning that. In season two, there are going to be a bunch of incidents where Alice faces racism, but we will let an audience figure that stuff out without telling them exactly how to feel. That’s the experiment — making something that broadly feels like a lark, that makes you feel good, but you can’t ignore that there are some things about life, some thorns, that really hurt.

At what point did you decide to begin the series with Julia entering menopause? 
Keyser: We talk about it as a second-act story. The things she might have thought would be part of the first chapter of her life are precluded from her. It’s a subtle way of saying, “What’s my new baby? What do I create?”

Goldfarb: In 1962, 50-year-old women did not think about having children. But it is still a penny-drop moment for her. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself, she doesn’t dwell on it. She sees Dorothy with the baby, Dorothy says she made an omelet, she gets an idea and she’s off and running. She works through what she has to work through, takes what’s given to her, and makes it into something joyful.

Lipez: It is historically the moment in life when society says to women, “You are no longer visible, you are no longer needed.” It’s such an act of defiance on Julia’s part to say in that moment, “No, I am not done. Not only that, I want to be more visible than I ever have in my whole life. I want to feel relevant.” That’s such an inspiring, exciting place to start.

For me, some of the best parts of Julia are the process parts, where we see them break down the challenges of inventing this TV series. How did you think about combining that story with the story of Paul and Julia’s marriage? 
Keyser: We thought about the whole thing as a process story. The advantage of slowing it way down is that we could avoid the traditional biopic problems, which are that you always seem to be intentionally headed toward the moments everyone expects. We wanted to push that away, to really focus on details of how they went from television amateurs to television professionals. There’s a thing people say, that American movies are about falling in love and European movies are about relationships. We wanted the story to be about the process rather than an endpoint.

Lipez: And this room is fascinated with process. Every person in this room was a theater kid turned into an adult; we are all fascinated by collaboration and the hilarity of putting on a show. The references in this writers’ room are constantly musical references, theater references. It’s a very joyful room to be a part of, and I think that got imbued into that story line.

What are the room’s favorite musical references? 
Bensinger: Oh my God, How to Succeed in Business. On a daily basis.

Temesgen: Fiddler on the Roof.

Goldfarb: Episode seven, we talked a lot about Hello, Dolly! and Into the Woods in terms of how to build it and structure it.

Lipez: Also My Fair Lady. We also like Noises Off.

Goldfarb: Episode two was inspired by Noises Off.

Keyser: And as Daniel said earlier, we began with the Amadeus theory.

Goldfarb: And Julia is theatrical! Paul’s letters as well. They were very witty people who loved to amuse each other with language.

How much did you think about viewers watching the show and immediately wanting to look things up? Did Alice really exist, did Julia really meet Mr. Rogers at that event, things like that? 
Goldfarb: We didn’t think about it that much! I’m more aware of it now that the show’s out in the world. We have heard from a lot of people who knew Julia who feel like we did capture her, which has been incredibly gratifying. And Julia did meet Mr. Rogers! Did it happen that night at that gala? We don’t know.

Keyser: How do you do the other version, really? You could read the books or do a documentary, but we couldn’t do a television series that isn’t filled with stuff we made up. We felt pretty free to say this is an act of imagination. It is a fable. It’s the essence of these people, but that’s the fun of it. It’s not trying to replace My Life in France or The French Chef in America, which you can certainly read.

I don’t think it’s bad that people check to see what’s real and what isn’t real. We’re open and happy to have that conversation, but we’re open about the idea that we’re making a piece of fiction about a real-life person.

You’ve referred to it a few times as a fable, which is a word that has a specific meaning about what a story does. Fables have a moral lesson attached to them; they’re teaching stories. Is that how you think about this TV series, that it’s a lesson? 
Keyser: It is a lesson. It’s not the kind of lesson you may be thinking of, but Julia’s lesson is to embrace life. Find something you love. Don’t ever let it go. Try as hard as you can, don’t worry about failure, don’t be self-conscious, don’t worry about how old you are. That is the lesson of the show. There are independent things that go on, but broadly speaking, the reason people love Julia Child is not because they make her food. It’s because she’s a blueprint for how to approach life. She becomes a fable for us. The reason she has lasted for 60 years is that we’ve turned her into what we needed her to be, a vehicle for appreciating life.

In your ideal world, how many years would you be making more Julia
Bensinger: Many years!

Goldfarb: The French Chef went off the air in 1973. If you think of everything that happened in America between 1963 and 1973, and being able to use Julia to think about these huge changes throughout the country, it feels like an opportunity to continue to explore the societal questions we start asking in the first season.

What are you planning for season two? 
Keyser: We’re going to go to France, and we’ll spend some time on Julia and Paul there with Simca. Season two will be like season one: a year or year and a half of Julia’s life exploring the way things change or don’t. By the end of the second season she’s genuinely a national figure.

Goldfarb: A lot of people are really fascinated by Julia and Paul and her time in the OSS during the Second World War — was she a spy, wasn’t she a spy? We never want to do flashbacks, but that lore is something we want to examine in the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julia’s Writers See Julia Child As a Fable