The pretentiousness and excess of the foodie scene, with its high-priced tasting menus (and tiny portions), is so obviously a target of satire that it’s surprising contemporary filmmakers haven’t poked fun at it more. often. Yet screenwriter Will Tracy realized his potential when he found himself transported to a private island near Norway to attend an upscale dinner party. Trapped for hours on a foreign island, all for the pleasure of a meal, seemed like the perfect scenario for a genre film that could keep pace with a thriller while aiming for the privilege of wealthy diners. The idea eventually developed into The menuwhich is slated for theatrical release in November.
The film, from 20th Century Studios, stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Margot, who travels to a Pacific Northwest coastal island with her partner, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), where a renowned chef global and reclusive (Ralph Fiennes) prepares a sumptuous tasting menu for a select clientele. An array of socialites, tech entrepreneurs and media personalities are also in attendance, none of them aware of the twists and turns of the upcoming evening, scheduled to coincide with dishes from the chef’s enigmatic tasting menu.
Prospoke box office with The menu director Mark Mylod, who showed his own flair for acerbic satire in his work on television’s “Entourage” and “Succession.” From Robert Altman to Luis Buñuel to Ali G, Mylod reveals why The menu has all the ingredients needed to give audiences a wild ride when it opens in theaters this fall.
You’re no stranger to satire, as we know from the TV shows you’ve done like ‘Entourage’ and ‘Succession’, as well as your film debut, Ali G Indahouse. The menu reunites you with some of your “Succession” collaborators, including screenwriter Will Tracy and producer Adam McKay. How have these experiences prepared you for The menu?
Will Tracy is co-writing the screenplay, along with Seth Reiss. Will and I worked together on an episode of “Succession” in season two [“Town Haven”], where 90 percent of a segment took place at a large dinner table. We had a good time working on it, and a few months later Will told me about this script and asked if I would read it. I was bowled over by how much fun it was, by the incredible twists out of left field that the script took. It’s a kind of black comedy: a thriller/satire, I guess. It’s a really fun ride where you touch on the exclusivity of [the fine-dining] world and, by extension, our society. I went back to Will and told him I really liked [the script]. We started talking and before I knew it, I was chatting with Adam McKay, then talking to Searchlight, and suddenly we were shooting the movie.
I did a screenplay pass with the writers, which coincided with the first lockdown in 2020. We started casting when that time came out, and Ralph [Fiennes] and anya [Taylor-Joy] came into play very quickly. Then I started 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 of filming based on my adoration of Robert Altman and knowing his preferred way of working, especially in Gosford Park, which has the same kind of satirical parallels with our film. The idea is to have all the actors “on” all the time. We didn’t leave anyone out to do close-ups. Everyone is on and mic all the time, and the cameras can find you anytime. We built our restaurant in a warehouse in Savannah, Georgia, and I wanted it to look like a real restaurant. Authenticity is key to good satire, and we obsessed over every detail: the design and look of the kitchen, the kitchen staff, and the food being cooked. In terms of performance, I wanted it to feel like a dining room, so we would have different conversations simultaneously at different tables, allowing me to work with the sound team to extract segments of dialogue from different conversations into the mix . This meant that the conversations between actors had to be real all the time; they always had to be in character.
I needed a particular kind of actor who would embrace that idea and not be fazed by it. We had this great company of actors who all came together on set in the morning and stayed there until we finished in the evening. It was an absolute joy to work with them. There was a real sense of camaraderie and mutual support. Despite being in this old hot warehouse in the middle of a pandemic, we had a great time working together.
Like Altman, you also have extensive experience directing for television and have incorporated those lessons into your film work. How could this Altman DNA be part of this project?
It all started with a conversation about my first feature film, Ali G Indahouse. I had these brilliant actors, Michael Gambon and Charles Dance, who had both just finished filming with Altman. I had just discovered his work and I was asking them questions about how Robert works. This is how I discovered the specifics of his way of working with actors and giving direction. It all seemed so obvious in that brilliant ideas are obvious: they’re only obvious when someone says them. Having everyone “on” and in character all the time seemed like the best way to hit the sweet spot of dramatic and comedic tension, which of course is symbiotic.
When I looked at Altman’s work on MASH POTATOESit seemed like a brilliant way to meet those twin needs across the storytelling spectrum, giving the film a unique tone and authenticity.
That’s what was so brilliant about it; it felt like it got to the truth of the matter [that] each scene wanted to explore. When I first left school I went straight to the West End and started working behind the scenes changing the decor of rooms like The cherry orchard and The Aspern Papers, so I guess I learned to love actors by standing behind the scenes, watching these brilliant actors from the side. Watch how everyone on stage is tuned in and in the moment, and how that subtly evolves, night after night. I never expect actors to do the same take 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 love the idea of having everyone present at the same time and seeing where improvisation might take a scene en route to its destination. There are endless possibilities in this way of working, instead of trying to mask the fact that we are rehearsing a scene for the 10th time, it feels emotionally dead to me. The idea that everything is alive creates spontaneity, life and tension, comedy…it creates everything I’m interested in watching.
It’s a particular challenge to achieve that vibrancy, that sense of energy, when you’re setting up an entire movie around a dinner table. This is a major visual constraint to solve. It’s reminiscent of how Luis Buñuel tackled similar challenges in movies like The Exterminating Angel and The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie— films which, like The menusatirize the ritual of gastronomy and its social context by introducing various gender elements.
The Exterminating Angel was a huge influence for me on this film. I first watched it years ago, and as soon as I read the script for The menu, I went straight back and watched it again. It’s such a brilliant movie. The biggest piece, I guess, that I took away from it was that feeling of guilt among the guests. I found this incredibly useful in terms of the diner arc. In The menu, we could have put our characters into stereotypes and archetypes in order to support our central thesis – the duel between Margot and the chef – but it was much more rewarding to take them on a real arc, so that by the time we come to At the end of the film, there is a feeling of recognition of the greed and the ego of this exclusive part of the society of which they are a part. It became the focus of our rehearsals as we prepared to shoot. I don’t like to get up and rehearse, but I like to sit around a table with the actors and talk about these secondary and tertiary themes. We all clung to that subtext because we had the advantage of shooting almost entirely chronologically, thanks to the restaurant setting. This allowed us to calibrate the journey of these characters in a precise and, hopefully, enjoyable way.
It’s interesting to talk about it as a cinematic challenge, because we have these characters in this space for two hours. I didn’t want the film to feel anything other than cinematic: lively and kinetic, intense and fun. Part of the pass I did on the script was taking the cast outside [of the restaurant setting] to give the audience that breath of fresh air before putting them back in that pressure cooker inside that room. In this direction, The Exterminating Angel had a huge influence, just like Parasite and Miseryin the way they use an extraordinary architectural space to give a feeling of claustrophobia.
The menu, I hope, brings together everything I love about cinema. It is a collective ride for a large audience. The performances are fantastic. There’s this brilliant company of actors. It’s beautifully shot. It sounds amazing, the cinematography, the soundtrack is fantastic. I know it’s a terrible cliché to say that, but it really is a cinematic roller coaster. And what could be more fun than that, with a bag of popcorn?