Listen to the audio version of this interview on The Boxoffice Podcast
The demand and excess of the fine-dining scene, with its pricey tasting menus (and tiny portions), is so obviously a target for satire that it’s surprising contemporary filmmakers haven’t scoffed at it more often. However, screenwriter Will Tracy saw his potential when he was taken to a private island near Norway to attend a high-end dinner. Being trapped for hours on an alien island just for the sake of a meal seemed the ideal scenario for a genre-bending film that could follow the beats of a thriller while aiming at the privilege of wealthy guests. The idea eventually evolved to The menuis slated to hit theaters this November.
The film from 20th Century Studios stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Margot, who travels with her partner Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) to a coastal Pacific Northwest island where a world-renowned and reclusive chef (Ralph Fiennes) is preparing a bountiful tasting menu for a select Audience. A range of public figures, tech entrepreneurs and members of the media are also in attendance, none of whom are aware of the twists and turns of the evening that is to come – planned to coincide with the dishes in the chef’s enigmatic tasting menu.
Checkout Pro spoke with The menu Director Mark Mylod, who has shown his own flair for bitter satire in his work on the television series Entourage and Succession. From Robert Altman to Ali G to Luis Buñuel, Mylod reveals why The menu has all the ingredients needed to give audiences a wild ride when it hits theaters this fall.
You’re no stranger to satire, as we know from TV shows you’ve directed like ‘Entourage’ and ‘Succession’, as well as your feature film debut. Ali G. Indahouse. The menu reunites you with some of your “Succession” collaborators, including screenwriter Will Tracy and producer Adam McKay. How did these experiences prepare you for this? The menu?
Will Tracy co-wrote the screenplay with Seth Reiss. Will and I worked together on an episode of “Succession” during the second season [“Town Haven”], where 90 percent of a segment took place at a large dining table. We had a great time working on it and a few months later Will told me about this script and asked me if I would read it. I was blown away by how much fun it was, by the incredible twists and turns out of left field that the script took. It’s a kind of dark comedy: a thriller/satire I suppose. It’s a really fun ride that has us poking around at the exclusivity of [the fine-dining] world and thus also our society. I went back to Will and told him I really liked it [the script]. We started talking and before I knew it I was chatting with Adam McKay and then I was talking to Searchlight and suddenly we were shooting the film.
I shared the script with the writers, which coincided with the first lockdown of 2020. We started casting when we got out of that period, and Ralph [Fiennes] and Anya [Taylor-Joy] came into play very quickly. Then I began working with the brilliant casting director, Mary Vernieu, to put together the rest of the cast.
What kind of visual style did you bring to the project?
I had a very specific way I wanted to shoot based on my admiration for Robert Altman and my knowledge of his preferred way of working, especially in Gosford Park, which has some of the same satirical parallels to our film. The idea is to have all the actors “on” all the time. We didn’t pull anyone aside to take close-ups. Everyone is on and on mic all the time, and the cameras can find you at any time. We built our restaurant set in a warehouse in Savannah, Georgia and I wanted it to feel like an actual restaurant. Authenticity is key to good satire, and we were obsessed with every detail: the design and look of the kitchen, the way the kitchen was staffed, and the food that was cooked. In terms of the performances, I wanted it to feel like a dining room so we would have different conversations at different tables at the same time, so I could work with the sound team to pull segments of dialogue from different conversations into the mix. It meant conversations between actors had to be real at all times; they always had to be characterful.
I needed a certain type of actor who would embrace that idea and not be dissuaded. We have this beautiful crew of actors who would all come on set in the morning and stay there until we were done at night. It was an absolute pleasure working with them. There was a real sense of camaraderie and mutual support. Despite the fact that we were in the middle of a pandemic in this boiling hot old warehouse, we had a lovely time working together.
Like Altman, you also have an extensive background in television directing and you bring those lessons to your film work. How did this Altman DNA come to be part of this project?
It started with a conversation about my first feature film, Ali G. Indahouse. I had these brilliant actors, Michael Gambon and Charles Dance, both of whom had just filmed with Altman. I had recently discovered his work and asked them questions about how Robert worked. That’s how I discovered the ins and outs of his way of working with actors and how he would give direction. Everything felt as obvious as brilliant ideas are obvious: they’re only obvious when someone says them. Having everyone “on” and in character at all times seemed like the best way to hit that sweet spot of dramatic and comedic tension that, of course, is symbiotic.
When I looked at Altman’s work MASHit seemed like a brilliant way to fill both of those needs across the storytelling spectrum and give the film a unique tone and authenticity.
That felt so brilliant; it felt like he got to the bottom of the truth [that] every scene wanted to be explored. When I left school I went straight to the West End and started working backstage changing sets for plays like The cherry orchard and The Aspern Papers, so I guess I learned to love actors by standing in the wings and watching these brilliant actors from the side. Watching everyone on stage tune into the moment and how that subtly unfolds night after night. I never expect actors to take the same shot twice. I never expect cameras to do the same thing twice. I will never shoot part of a scene – I will always shoot a whole scene at a time. I just love the idea of having everyone present at the same moment and seeing where improvisation could take a scene along the way. There’s endless possibilities in this way of working, rather than trying to disguise the fact that we’re repeating a scene for the tenth time – that feels emotionally dead to me. The idea that everything is alive creates spontaneity, life and excitement, comedy…it creates everything that interests me.
It’s a special challenge to get that vibrancy, that sense of energy, when you build an entire film around a dining table. That’s a big visual limitation that needs to be addressed. It’s reminiscent of how Luis Buñuel tackled similar challenges in films as The Annihilation Angel and The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie– Movies that, like The menusatirizes the ritual of fine dining and its social context by introducing various genre elements.
The Annihilation Angel was a big influence for me on this film. I first saw it years ago and as soon as I read the script The menu, I went right back and watched it again. It’s such a brilliant film. The biggest chunk I took away from that, I guess, was that guilt feeling among the guests. I found this incredibly helpful regarding the score arc. in the The menu, we could have used our characters as stereotypes and archetypes to support our central thesis – the duel between Margot and the cook – but it was far more rewarding to take them on a real arc, so we’ll get to that at the end of the film there is a sense of acknowledgment of the greed and ego of this exclusive section of society to which they belong. That became the focus of our rehearsals as we prepared for filming. I don’t like getting up and rehearsing, but I love sitting around a table with the actors and talking about these secondary and tertiary issues. We all got used to this subtext because we had the advantage of shooting almost entirely chronologically thanks to the restaurant setting. This allowed us to calibrate the journey for these characters in a precise and, I hope, fun way.
It’s interesting to talk about this as a cinematic challenge because we have these characters in this one room for two hours. I didn’t want the film to feel anything other than cinematic: alive and kinetic, intense and fun. Part of the pass I did on the script was getting the cast out there [of the restaurant setting] to give the audience that whiff of oxygen before they’re put back in that pressure cooker in that room. In this sense, The Annihilation Angel was a big influence as well parasite and miseryusing an exceptional architectural space to convey a sense of claustrophobia.
The menu, I hope, brings together everything I love about cinema. It’s a collective ride for a wide audience. The performances are fantastic. It has this brilliant company of actors. It’s beautifully photographed. It sounds fantastic, the cinematography, the soundtrack is fantastic. I know it’s a terrible cliché to say, but it really is a cinematic rollercoaster ride. And what’s more fun than that, with a bag of popcorn?