When an author’s book is being made into a movie, it’s common for the writer to have a certain list of demands: script approval, final say on casting, access to the set. Joyce Maynard thought all of that would be nice when Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) approached her to turn her novel, Labor Day, into a feature film. But there was really only one thing that she insisted on as a stipulation of the adaptation: she personally must be the one who teaches its stars how to bake pie.
Labor Day, which hit theaters this weekend, stars Kate Winslet as a suburban New Hampshire single mom, a hermit who over-relies on her young son once her husband leaves her. Josh Brolin plays an escaped convict who slyly convinces Winslet’s character to harbor him in her home over Labor Day weekend in 1987. Over the course of the weekend, the two fall in love. The moment they do—and here’s where Maynard’s peculiar demand begins to make sense—is when Brolin and Winslet bake a pie together.
The scene has been compared by some critics to the pottery wheel sequence in Ghost, in which the tactile act of baking a pie from scratch becomes erotic as Brolin and Winslet connect over rolling pins, flour, and diced peaches. It’s the lynchpin scene in convincing the audience that it makes sense for these two characters to risk everything for a love affair, that it’s not insane for a suburban mom to fall in love with a fugitive. Maynard wanted to make sure every detail of the scene worked—right down to the way Brolin handled his pie crust—so Reitman agreed to allow her to be a baking consultant on the film.
Fast-forward a few weeks, and Maynard was in a kitchen baking pies with Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet. Not too shabby. So, how’d it go? We chatted with Maynard to talk about why she was so insistent on, of all things, being pie instructor to the stars, and how the cooking lessons with two Oscar nominees went.
So this is a pretty unusual way for an author to get involved with the film adaptation of her book…
Jason Reitman read my book, Labor Day, shortly after it came out. He said he read the book and he cried. I love to hear that! I love his films, so right away I felt this is so great. The first thing he said is, “Can I come over to your house and watch you make a pie?” He correctly recognized that pivotal moment in the story. So he did come over!
I take it you’re pretty good at baking pie, then.
I’m a pretty good pie-maker. It’s about more than the pie. It’s a way of approaching life. There’s a level of letting go of the recipe that’s a good way of thinking about living.
Was it his interest in the pie-making session that sold you on Jason as director?
Among other things, yes. Actually, once I had determined that Jason was the director in whose hands I wanted to make this film, I had to let go. I understand that. I don’t want somebody standing over the shoulder when I write a novel, so I wouldn’t want to stand over his shoulders while he made this film. So my only formal involvement in the film beyond being thrilled with the casting was teaching Josh Brolin how to make that pie.
Why was this, of all things, so important to you, being able to teach the stars how to bake?
It’s the moment when the tenderness of this man is made very physically real. You learn a lot about a person by how they make a pie. Of course, good people can make bad pie. But I wanted you to see—to me, this is a very sexy scene, and they have clothes on! But I did not want it to look like some sort of perfect, Martha Stewart pie. I wanted it to look like a pie that someone like Josh’s character would have made. It’s actually what my pie looks like. It’s not this perfect thing. And neither are our lives! These are people with a lot of miles on them. They find each other unexpectedly, and they’re not young. This scene makes physically real who they are and where they are in their lives.
How receptive was everyone to the idea of you coming in to teach pie class?
They were great! They were really great. I’ve taught a lot of people how to make pie, but Josh was really a natural. He took it very, very seriously. He actually made a pie every single day at the shoot. When they shot the scene, it was one of the late ones in the shoot. He needed to look like someone of complete confidence, in command. He needed to look like a pungent but tender man. I think all of that comes through in that scene. It’s very much about conjuring one’s past. For me, the pie, I cry when I get to that scene because I associate it with my mother. For him, I think it’s the same way.
Did he have any baking experience when he came in? What were you working with here?
I don’t think he made pie before, but he’s clearly somebody who was comfortable in the kitchen. You could tell that by the way he peels peaches. He peels them the way I do, with a straight knife. He got it. There are people who put a lot on the quantity of things and the recipe. Everyone’s always asking me for the recipe, but the recipe is almost always the same. It’s how you handle the dough. So he got that. He was taking a million notes on how many teaspoons of this and how many of that. He was fingering it. It’s not something you learn from a page.
Did Kate Winslet come to learn, too?
She did. She was there. But she wasn’t supposed to be somebody who knew how to make a great pie. He was making it for her, and with her. Kate was there and actually Tom Lipinski, the guy who plays the young Josh Brolin, was there. But really my focus was all Josh Brolin. Which isn’t bad. He’s so highly lovable and an amazing guy. I don’t believe he’s ever played a romantic role, but man, every woman in the world was swooning over his pie-making abilities.
There’s been a lot of coverage comparing the pie scene to Ghost’s pottery wheel scene.
Yes. It’s a pretty sexy scene. It’s hot. It’s Labor Day weekend. Jason actually built a special oven for the scene. You can see the pie baking. Of all the 2,000 or so pies I’ve made I never got to see my pies baking that way. I’d like to add that if you choose to be a cynical person that it’s easy to be a cynical person about that scene.
Cynical about the pie scene? How so?
Someone could be like, “Pies? Really? Give me a break.” But it’s a love story. I don’t think it’s a fairy tale, but it asks you to go on the journey that some people might say is too much.
Have people told you it’s “too much” to believe?
It’s interesting. I’ve been traveling around the country with the film. A lot in the Midwest, where I come from. But the response has been fantastic. Still, I could see there being a Saturday Night Live sketch about the pie scene, for sure. But I’m not a cynical person. If I’m not by this age, I may never be. I wrote the love story I wanted to read. I’m my first audience. I was a single mother raising children alone in New Hampshire for many years. I know that feeling: taking care of children and nobody taking care of you. Of being so alone in the world. Of course, this story never happened to me.
So what is it about the act of making a pie together that sparked that sexy connection between them?
It’s not about words. They don’t say that much. It’s a very physical scene. It’s unplugged. We live in times where even people at restaurants on dates are checking their cell phones, where fathers with their kids are texting while their babies are in their arms. I set the story in 1987, which was very much a simpler time. Even the video game in that movie was just Donkey Kong. I wanted to present a picture about people just getting to know each other in a human, physical way. It’s a low-tech love story.
What was it like when you saw the finished movie for the first time?
Two moments were great. First was showing up in that town in Massachusetts where they filmed. When I write, I am describing a movie that’s in my head. And it was all made real! People were walking around and saying things I wrote. It was an amazing experience. And then later walking into a screening room with my two sons, who inspired some of that—they’re now 29 and 31—it’s one of the great thrills of my life, in my 41 years as a writer. That for the first time in my 41 years as a writer I’m on The New York Times Bestseller’s List. It’s a very happy time. And it wouldn’t be if I wasn’t proud of the movie. And I am.