Long before Mark Mylod became the go-to director for hit cable shows like The Affair, Game of Thrones, and Succession, he had already made the move from television to film with Sacha Baron Cohen‘s 2002 comedy Ali G Indahouse and the 2011 rom-com What’s Your Number? starring Anna Faris and Chris Evans. Winning two Primetime Emmys for his work on Succession helped pave the way for Mylod to direct The Menu, a dark genre comedy with an ensemble cast to die (or kill) for.
The Menu stars Nicholas Hoult and Anya Taylor-Joy as Tyler and Margot, a young couple who have shelled out big bucks for an exclusive dining experience at Hawthorn, a remote island restaurant run by celebrated Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), who has highly specific expectations of his wealthy clientele. On this particular night, the guests include food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her editor (Paul Adelstein); a movie star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant (Aimee Carrero); two wealthy Hawthorn regulars (Reed Birney and Judith Light); and three finance bros, played by Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr.
Hong Chau is immensely funny as Hawthorn’s beleaguered hostess, Elsa, though the evening starts out quite stoic and serious. Things only get progressively darker as dinner is served and it becomes obvious that Chef Slowik has carefully planned every detail of the evening, including Hawthorn’s guest list.
The Menu marks a solid return to filmmaking for Mylod, who clearly brought everything he has learned on shows like Succession and upped his game as a director in every respect. Above the Line recently spoke with Mylod over Zoom, and the director told us what drew him to the script, how he assembled the fantastic cast, and why sound mixers were crucial to attaining the Altman-esque feeling for which he was striving with this film.
Above the Line: This is such a darkly fun movie, so how did this script come your way, and what made you decide to direct it?
Mark Mylod: I hadn’t made a movie for a while, and I made a decision, quite consciously, a few years ago, just to wait, to perhaps take some bold choices in my television work, and just to get into some thornier work that actually scared me. Out of that, of course, came the pilot for The Affair and my work on Game of Thrones, which led to Succession. It was really just wanting to follow that same ethos with my film work, to really just wait until there was something that I could really get my teeth into. Excuse the pun, it’s impossible to avoid them.
I found myself in the second season of Succession, thrown together with a new writer on the show, Will Tracy, who, of course, is the co-writer of The Menu, and we did an episode called “Tern Haven” together, which was very well received. I loved collaborating with him, and he became a good friend. The episode was 90 percent a big dinner party, so unwittingly, it became a dress rehearsal for our work together on The Menu.
A few months after that, he sent me the script, just asking me to take a look at it. I loved it. It was such a fantastic ride, and such a brilliantly specific tone with a lovely mixture of that psychological horror thriller genre element with that lovely dark comedy, and some satirical elements. I’d never read anything like it, and I thought, ‘I’d love to make that film.’ I didn’t realize he was actually asking me if I would like to make that film. Before I knew it, I was talking with the producers and then with Searchlight, and we were off to the races.
ATL: Was this script something the writers had been working on for a while?
Mylod: The script had been around, and in fact, Alexander Payne was going to direct the original iteration of the film, but Alexander decided to go a different way, so he left the project. Eventually, the script came to me, and I had a very specific idea of how I wanted to make it in terms of my adoration of Robert Altman and the way he works, in terms of having this big ensemble all together all the time and getting in there with them so there’s a sense of immersion in that space.
I also did a couple of passes on the script with the writers, specifically to further evolve the rest of the diners — the supporting cast, if you like — and to evolve that third act into that more operatic sense that you see in the final iteration of the film. That was my kind of pitch, if you like. I have this very specific way that I like to work with the cast, and I felt that we needed to open up the second half of the movie a little bit.
ATL: Besides this great script, there are two elements of the movie that are really key to its success, the first being the cast obviously, but then there’s also the location, and I recently spoke to your Production Designer, Ethan Tobman, about how that was constructed. But in terms of assembling the cast, did you start with the Chef, or was Ralph Fiennes always the guy?
Mylod: It did work like that from, ‘Okay, let’s start with Chef.’ I don’t like the expression of “no-brainer,” but it kind of was a no-brainer, because both the writers — Will and Seth, and I — always said it’s got to be Ralph Fiennes, specifically because if you look at the gamut of his work, from Schindler’s List to The Grand Budapest Hotel, I don’t know any other actor [who] can so completely fill that incredible spectrum of the experience of Chef in the film.
When I first spoke with Ralph, we bonded over seeing the Chef not as a baddie, not as an evil psychotic, but as an artist in pain, who is consumed with self-loathing over the way that his ego has corroded his artistic sensibility and led him to this place where he feels he has nowhere to go, no way back. There was a tremendous underlying pathos to that. The genius thing about Ralph, of course, is he can do all of that and be terrifying, but also be incredibly funny. That was quite a unique quality for all of us.
And then I met with Anya, who I’d been tracking — along with the rest of the world — really since The Witch. I needed a young actor who could go toe to toe with Ralph’s character, and Ralph can be quite a presence. Obviously, his whole character is a presence onscreen. Anya has this formidable sense of self, even at a relatively young age, and incredible intelligence. [She’s] a brilliant, brilliant actor. Those scenes between the two of them, which for me were always the ideological core of the film, needed to be strong, and I needed this existential debate between these two characters as she seeks to outwit him. I needed them to feel equally balanced, and Anya gave us that with absolute brilliance and screen presence.
And then, building out the rest of the tables, the other diners, and [bringing] in Hong Chau, of course, [who’s] brilliant as Elsa, that was just a glorious experience of working with this great Casting Director, Mary Vernieu, to build out and get a unique dynamic to each of the tables that we visit. I was very open with all the cast about wanting to work in this very specific Robert Altman-esque homage to Gosford Park, I suppose, on some level. Everybody’s miked all the time, and everybody’s alive all the time, and the camera can find you at any time. They just responded and tuned in to that, so it was such a lovely experience working with them all.
ATL: Even though this film is very cinematic, it also has aspects of a play where you have all these actors on a single stage, or in this case, the Hawthorn restaurant. How did you deal with things like coverage? Did you really have all the actors all the time, even when you were maybe focusing on Anya and Nicholas or Ralph?
Mylod: I was very clear from the beginning with everybody that I wanted to have everybody on set pretty much all the time, and everybody mic’d all the time. People could talk over each other, and improv would become a very important part of it. If you were to break down the way that we shot, particularly the dining room scenes, you’ll see that we tried very hard to layer those so that you’ve got an element of the foreground and the more scripted dialogue, but you’ve also got secondary and tertiary conversations happening in other places, and the camera can — almost in a Darwinian sense — drift to wherever there seems to be something interesting happening that’s going to give us an insight into these characters. We achieved that, basically, [thanks to] the brilliant sound mixers who could actually isolate it so that everybody could be talking over each other, and yet, we could [still] make that cohesive. There was a very conscious Altman-esque way of working to achieve that.
ATL: What did you do in terms of rehearsals? Were you able to do table reads without over-rehearsing so that you could keep things fresh for filming?
Mylod: I have a fear of standing scenes up to rehearse them properly. I always fear that there’s going to be this great, wonderful spontaneous moment that we’ll then spend hours on set to recreate. What I do love to do, and what we did, was sit in a room with the cast over a few days, in various groups, and [just] talk. What that does, as we talked through what attracted us to the piece in the first place, [is that] we tune in to each other, and by osmosis, we all find ourselves by the end of that process in tune with the type of film and the tone of the film, specifically with a film that has such a unique tone as this, so [that], as Pollack would say, we’re all making the same movie.
I also gave them homework, like watching [Luis] Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, where you can see a brilliant example of the diners in that wonderful film going on this journey towards a sense of culpability for their place in the matrix of inequity. That was a lovely discussion that sparked off. Once we get onto set, I try to rehearse as little as possible. It’s something that I’ve evolved on Succession. Also, I like the first instinct as a kicking-off point. I find there’s life to that, and a spontaneity that we will then evolve from, and I never expect the same take twice from the actors or the camera. Every take is almost a freeform jazz thing, wherever that particular take takes us, and it’s a really fun way of working.
ATL: What were some references that you brought to the table and wanted to make sure were included when creating Hawthorn?
Mylod: It started just with an ongoing conversation, initially with myself and Ethan, and then extending into when [Chef and Chief Technical Consultant] Dominique Crenn came aboard. In terms of the look and the feel of that, it was really just trying to get that modern rustic vibe, and actually then cherry-picking from all the most renowned restaurants in that high-end molecular gastronomic world. There are elements of El Bulli in there. There’s Noma from Copenhagen, which was a big touchstone for us. Alinea, of course. French Laundry, particularly for that garden element of Thomas Keller‘s restaurant. We took all our kind of favorite beautiful restaurants in the world and cherrypicked from those. The brilliance of Ethan is he could homogenize and Frankenstein all that into this beautiful jewel box that was intensely cinematic.
Also, we wanted it to be this open-plan connection with the dining room, so that you can have this microcosm of society and the haves and have-nots there. Also, of course, when the camera’s in the dining room, it gave us the benefit of being able to have that threat, if you like, upstage, of the cooks’ almost militia-style presence out there. And then, of course, we have this open glass wall to nature and freedom beyond that through this impenetrable glass.
As the sun goes down, that puts more of a spotlight through the darkening of the outside onto our characters, and therefore cranks up the pressure and hopefully the tension within that room. There were key choices that we made, along with that more horizontal version of bars to imprison our characters and put pressure on them. All of those elements came together to create, I think, a really interesting and unique space.
ATL: Have you had a chance to see the movie with any restaurant workers, either from inside or outside the kitchen? I feel like they would be a great audience for this movie since they have to deal with difficult customers on a daily basis for their jobs.
Mylod: Of all the screenings we’ve done now, the most nervous I was was when we did a screening for the New York Food and Wine Society a couple weeks ago, which was entirely restaurant workers — chefs [and] cooks on every level. I was really scared. I was doing a Q&A afterward, and so I went up on stage with really sweaty palms and somebody in the audience said, ‘Oh, yeah. We feel seen for the first time.’ I was so relieved and happy, because for all the elements of pastiche and satire and poking at the excesses of any art form — in this case, high-end molecular gastronomy — what I came away from the whole experience [with] was this incredible respect and awe for the humans involved in it, [who are] just pushing themselves to the limit, physically and mentally, to try to keep evolving. And the sheer work ethic that goes into that. There’s something really cathartic, I think, for a lot of the [restaurant workers] who watch it.
The Menu is now playing in theaters nationwide. Look for our interview with Production Designer Ethan Tobman over at Below the Line very soon.