Editor’s Note: There are spoilers featured here.
A couple, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) travel to a coastal island in the Pacific Northwest to eat at an exclusive restaurant, Hawthorn, where the reclusive, globally celebrated Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) has prepared a lavish tasting menu for select special guests. Joining the couple are three young, already inebriated tech bros, Bryce (Rob Yang), Soren (Arturo Castro), and Dave (Mark St. Cyr), an older wealthy couple and repeat clients, Anne and Richard (Judith Light and Reed Birney), renowned restaurant critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her slavish magazine editor Ted (Paul Adelstein), and a famous middle-aged movie star (John Leguizamo) with his assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero).
Hosted by the immaculately dressed front-of-house staff led by general Elsa (Hong Chau), the evening unfolds with increasing tension at each of the guest tables as secrets are revealed and unexpected courses are served. With wild and violent events occurring, Slowik’s motivation begins to rattle the diners as it becomes increasingly apparent that his elaborate menu is designed to catalyze to a shocking finale
Whilst attending Fantastic Fest, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Dolores Quintana chatted with THE MENU director Mark Mylod and producer Betsy Koch. During their conversation, they discussed the draw of THE MENU’s script, tackling the balance of tones despite overwhelming fear, and discussing the gender politics within the male-dominated food industry.
THE MENU spec
How did the idea for THE MENU come about?
Betsy Koch: Shout out to the writers, Will Tracy and Seth Reiss. They sent it. Will went to a restaurant with his wife. He got on the boat. He got to an exclusive island and watched the boat leave, and he’s like, wow. It dawned on him that they have no way off this island and they’re held captive here for four hours through this lavish tasting menu. There’s got to be a movie here somewhere. And so, he and Seth wrote it.
I read the spec in 2018 and it was an incoming script, just a first draft. I’ve never been so blown away by a first draft, by the spec script that came in. It was truly one of those scripts that, I was almost gonna go up to people on the street like, can you just read this and tell me what you think? [crosstalk] The excitement of reading writing like this that pops and sparkles in that way, was so exciting in my job. But then also the potential of making a movie was even more exciting.
Coming back to how it came about, it was the spec script that Nikki and I read. Then we attached Mark, and you’re off to the races. I mean, Will Tracy sent Mark the script because they both work on the show “Succession.” So, there’s a relationship there.
‘It did terrify me’
What attracted you to the script, Mark?
Mark Mylod: How hard it was to get the tone, I think. That it was terrifying and I made a pact with myself a few years ago to only do stuff that terrified me and it did terrify me but partly because it was just brilliant. I didn’t want to mess up a great script. And partly because it was very clear that it had a unique tone, a unique balance between genre, satire, and comedy. To make that work in the right way, I could see it very easily going off the rails. Maybe getting a bit too service, a little too smug, a little too comedic. It could go the wrong way. So, there seemed to be a very specific frequency to tune into.
The big creative challenge was to represent this world authentically and with humanity and admiration for those who practice that art and the extraordinary work that we’ve talked about. The backstage is focusing on the artists and their dedication, and the human toll is totally extraordinary. But also [needing] to sexualize the way that in the past couple of decades, this particular half, has become so perverted and almost a monstrosity on some level, ripe for a bit of poking. And that beautiful kind of symbiotic relationship between the genre with the dramatic tension and punching that with comedy with the right rhythm and the right level just in a really interesting and scary dance to do.
I knew we needed very specific elements. First of all, an incredibly talented and smart cast that could find and could tune in to the same frequency [as us] so that we’re all making the same movie. And also in our crafts. I knew costume, photography, production design, and all our treatment of the food had to be so spot-on and so methodical. In short, basically, everything had to be through the eyes of that character as he would have it.
Ralph Fiennes did just such a wonderful job. It was literally frightening. It’s a great balance of like the guy that he once was and the person who believes in honesty, and what he’s become.
Mark Mylod: That self-loathing is absolutely key to Ralph Fiennes and I both saw the character when we first spoke. When we first met, that’s what drew us together for 40 minutes of the film. We both saw the character as a man of tremendous suffering with this Faustian pact, the self-loathing of the Faustian pact that he made with his business partners, and just all the choices that he made have taken him so far away from the simple joy of nourishment. And that’s not to say that it has to be reductive. It doesn’t have to be a better group, of course, but it was obviously a cipher for the act of sharing and enjoying good food and he sort of lost his way and can’t see a way back. There is something tragic and there is tremendous sadness to that. We didn’t want him to be a beard-stroking, bad guy, you know? Not a traditional villain. He’s just somebody who’s trying to find a way out of his pain.
Accuracy in THE MENU
His performance has got a lot of depth to it, because you can see all of the working parts of it, and that’s the thing. It seems like examinations of the back of the house and cooks and chefs in restaurants are really kind of having a time right now. There was Pig, which I loved and kind of hit on some similar things. I haven’t seen “The Bear.” But I know a lot of cooks and chefs who say it’s literally traumatic for them to watch it because it can get rough in restaurants
Betsy Koch: I’m always interested in people that work, like whether or not that feels therapeutic or cathartic or it feels really traumatic. Like my parents-in-law are both psychiatrists and it’s tough for them to watch anything that’s even rooted in [that] there’s like Melfi on “The Sopranos” or just like anything that’s psychiatry related. So that’s interesting.
Mark Mylod: I’ve been in test screenings where people who’ve worked in the industry, often for years, have [given] lovely feedback, particularly in terms of the authenticity of the kitchen work, but also saying yeah, it’s like that. It’s great to see represented accurately. Obviously, not the events of the story. But…
Betsy Koch: To be dramatic about it, but we have a voice. We are seen.
I think that’s really something that’s really important because a lot of people don’t know how it functions. I think the accuracy and the detail that you’ve put into the film, especially the emotional complexity of what’s going on. I don’t want to go into spoilers, but the female sous chef, the fact that there’s this deep loyalty among the cooks and the chefs in his kitchen. I don’t want to say it’s cultish, but like a fierce military-style love and respect that they have. They would do anything for him, and just the female sous chef, the fact that she has this problem with him, but she still has that loyalty, right?
Betsy Koch: Yeah, it’s like watching a woman navigate her way through this very male-dominated industry, but still truly at her core, this is her dream. Doing what she loves to do, but doing it at what cost, and these parts of her that are being sacrificed. And then, of course, the twist on that, or again, not to give anything away, but the idea of her saying, well, killing everyone was my pitch, and so you have that very comedic, absurdist moment too behind her big speech, Man’s Folly, which I think that sort of subverts things.
Mark Mylod: We didn’t want to be preachy in the tone [when it came to that]. There is mischief to the tone that also goes in [to help with that]. The trick is trying to answer and also find balance.
Betsy Koch: Because there’s a version of that just being like, woe is me. I’m a woman. We wanted to certainly show that and explore it and show that that’s absolutely the reality of that world. We talked to Dominique Crenn, our Chef consultant about sort of what she went through coming up in the world as a female chef. What are the gender politics within a kitchen? How does all that go down? And so it felt sort of like a nod to that but certainly tried to make it accurate.
THE MENU arrives in theaters on November 18, 2022. To learn more, check out our review.
All Photos courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.