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The Menu Screenwriters Will Tracy and Seth Reiss on How to Write a Highly-Specific World, and Why They Hope Their Movie Lingers Like Jaws

When screenwriter Will Tracy took a boat to a restaurant on an island in Norway, it inspired an idea that he shared with his longtime writing partner, Seth Reiss. Their conversation resulted in them outlining a spec script in a menu style. That script was turned into a new film titled, appropriately, The Menu, and it has fared well with both critics and audiences.

Now playing in theaters following its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Menu is a star-studded biting satire set in the world of fine dining. It’s an experience unlike anything one has encountered at a casual dining restaurant. Imagine spending thousands for an exclusive dining experience on a remote island. It’s an experience that one just has to see for themselves.

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Margot, a customer who wasn’t even supposed to be there as she was brought in to replace the woman who decided not to attend that evening. At the other end of the table, so to speak, is Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), and Margot disrupts his plans because he spent months planning the menu and she’s not even supposed to be there. Outside of them, there is no shortage of customers filling up the room. The further we get into the film, the more we learn about them and think that they’re getting just what they deserve.

Will Tracy and Seth Reiss
Will Tracy and Seth Reiss at the world premiere of The Menu at the Toronto International Film Festival/Todd Williamson/January Images via Searchlight Pictures/EPK.tv

Above the Line: I’ve seen The Menu twice now and it’s one of the most hysterical films of the year. What was the genesis behind the idea for it?

Will Tracy: I went to a restaurant in Norway on an island. It’s kind of like in the film. We took a boat out and it was just only, maybe, 12-15 customers. We were given a tour of the island. I’m a bit of a claustrophobic, nervous person and I’m in a foreign country, and it was dark on the boat ride, and on an island, what if something goes wrong? I immediately started to become a bit paranoid but also immediately sensed — sometimes when you are in a situation like that, you should pay attention to like, ‘oh, would this be something interesting to write about if it’s making you have these very extreme feelings?’ I did say to my wife that this would be a good, at least, precinct for a story. I kind of just told that basic idea to Seth. We’re old friends and writing partners. Seth kind of came back with all these ideas for people [who] could be that way. With the structure, we kind of went back and forth and kind of came up with a menu-structured film called The Menu.

ATL: What was your writing process together like?

Seth Reiss: We would meet at Will’s apartment. I would say the only actual co-writing that we would do is when we would outline it. I think Will and I both sort of have an aversion to starting off scenes that we don’t know where they go or why we’re writing them, so I think for us, outlines are really crucial. We would just hang out at Will’s apartment. We would eat dinner. We would talk out the story and talk it out and massage it. I think probably we would start from the beginning and keep going through till it got to a point where we felt just like, ‘Okay, well, now we need to start actually putting it into a script.’

It’s kinda similar to the way The Onion is put together, which is, as a staff, we brainstorm all the beats that could be in a story, and then the writer kind of goes off alone and writes. Will would write 15 pages and send [them] to me, I would do a little pass on those 15 pages, and then I would write another 15 pages and send [them] back to Will. The fun part about that was, even though we had an outline and we sort of knew we were going, there was still space in there that needed to be filled out. It was really fun to kind of surprise one another with our pages and with things that weren’t part of those initial conversations.

The Menu
Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Menu/ Searchlight Pictures

ATL: What would you say was the biggest surprise for each of you in writing this script and watching the film come together?

Tracy: I think, probably, the degree to which we became more interested in characters who maybe, at the outset, were sort of more broadly comedic characters, and then we became interested in them and gave them, I think, more of a life so that they became a bit more three-dimensional.

Reiss: Yeah, I think what we didn’t set out to do when we started writing, I feel like there’s a moment, hopefully — I mean, I think it’s in there but to each his own — but by the end of the film, you get the sense that all the customers, with the exception of Margot, have sort of bought into the chef’s argument of why what needs to happen needs to happen. I don’t think they don’t start at that place but they get to that place, and that arc came as the script got more and more sophisticated. I think this was always what we wanted to do but I think we had a lot more fun with the chef as an artist, as an egomaniac, as him wanting to say to himself that tonight is completely egoless, but if we take a step back, how could this monumental night that you want to be your masterpiece, how could it not be ego filled? I think those sorts of things grew.

ATL: With all the characters in the film, was it challenging to do justice to all of the different subplots?

Tracy: Yeah, it’s tricky, right? It was [a] fun challenge but also just a challenge when you have a room where… basically, the whole film takes place in a room, and every character is almost in every scene. You want that room to feel as though it’s filled with life, right? Once you start to make characters more interesting, you have to really parcel out, ‘when are we going to swing back to that table and that table?’ When are we ready for a bit more of this story while still remembering, although it’s an ensemble with lots of these B-stories, there is still an A-story happening, which is Margot and Chef and kind of their connection and Margot’s kind of journey out of the restaurant.

Reiss: [On] a purely non-artistic level, it’s like, ‘where can we get into [a] Chef/Margot scene? We need to get them talking to one another and it would also be better if we got them talking to each other privately, so how can we do that?’ By the way, when that problem arises, it’s not necessarily because the solution to that problem usually adds some dramatic effect in the movie, so it’s actually a good problem to have — figuring out where that scene takes place. Oh, it’s in a bathroom? Cool. That’s crazy. The chef’s gonna unlock like, whoa — so I think that really adds to the fun of the movie.

ATL: I thought it was so hysterical when Chef’s like, ‘you’re not eating my food,’ when he initially says, ‘don’t eat the food, savor and relish it!

Tracy: Exactly. He’s caught in a web of his own bullshit [laughs].

ATL: How much did the script change as you received notes from producers Adam McKay and Betsy Koch?

Tracy: I think it changed not hugely significantly but certainly in good and tangible ways. Notes from Adam and Betsy tend to be great notes and notes that we welcomed to deepen the movie a bit. But I would say that the core — it’s a hard movie to kind of unpick things and change the structure of too much because it’s [a] very contained narrative. It all takes place in the course of one night and it’s structured to the beats of the actual menu and core styles with title screens. It’s a hard movie to kind of [say], “how do we go back to the drawing board on this?” In a way, it is what it is. It’s more [about] filling [it] out with interesting character detail and also thinning out the beats that feel repetitive and streamlining it and making sure it all stays surprising and all on a string and doesn’t lose any kind of momentum. The notes were more in that area as opposed to anything that was like major surgery.

The Menu
Janet McTeer, Nicholas Hoult, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Paul Adelstein in The Menu/Searchlight Pictures

ATL: Were you all on set during filming or was it a situation where you had to appear via Zoom or whatnot?

Reiss: No. This was crazy. This is something we’ll never experience the rest of our lives, I’m sure. We had such a great relationship with our director, Mark Mylod, that we were on set for the entire shooting of the movie. We were sitting in video village right behind Mark. During takes, Mark, bless his heart, would look back at us and ask us what we thought about what was going on. We would go on set between takes and give actors alt-lines if they needed because the way Mark shot the movie was [the] camera was always moving around the dining room. Actors didn’t always know when the camera was gonna hit them. There were two sound engineers so that everyone was always miked up. People needed –along with the dialogue that was in the script — dialogue that they could just say because a tape was rolling. We were lucky enough to be there for all of it. It was truly an amazing experience, especially to watch the actors work because they were such smart, smart, smart, talented actors.

ATL: Will, you’ve written for Succession and Mark Mylod directed one of the episodes that you wrote, in addition to being an EP on the HBO series. Did it help to have a prior relationship with him once he came on board to direct The Menu?

Tracy: For sure, especially because the episode that I wrote that he directed has some not only thematic overlap a bit, but also similar challenges, because the episode is about a big dinner party. It’s similarly kind of swinging the different conversations around a table. And also, how do you stay in one constrained location for a long, tense series of sequences and not feel exhaustion with the location, and not feel as if you’re running out of ways to exploit that location?

Also, just on a more basic human level, it’s just great to have someone whose tastes I trust and [whose] working process [I knew]. I had developed a sense, which I was then able to tell to Seth, of like, ‘Oh, I think Mark is probably feeling this way about a scene. I think he’s probably gonna go this way. I have a sense that Mark is probably looking for this. I bet you Mark’s worried about losing time for the day right now. I think he’s trying to make the day. I think he’s a little worried about [the] schedule. Is there anything that we can do to help ease the process for him?’ It’s really good to have a shorthand with someone like that.

The Menu
Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult in The Menu/Searchlight Pictures

ATL: Having written for The Onion and late-night television shows, what’s the trick to writing biting satire?

Reiss: I think the trick is making sure that the world you’re satirizing is completely accurate so that the comedy — there’s straight line, punch line, straight line, punch line. The straight line is the reality of the world, and so then the punch line is almost, I guess, this version of that world for a quick second or something, or just how you keep on boring down into the reality of the world and how that world might be weird and crazy. It’s already kind of intense and weird and you just keep on heightening that and heightening that and heightening that.

Tracy: Yeah, comedy of specificity, and also realizing that as silly or crazy as you may find this world because it’s alien to you, there are people in that world who take it very, very seriously. It’s their entire world. You really want to do justice to their experience and also find the comedy [in] someone who finds this thing the most life or death important thing in the world.

Reiss: If we were to watch four people who love cycling and we were to just listen to them talk about cycling for 10 minutes, we would find it pretty funny. They would be talking in a language that you have never heard in your entire life, even though they’re speaking English. They have just this idea and knowledge of this culture that…

Tracy: It’s the most important thing in the world to them.

Reiss: It’s the most important thing in the world to them and all those terms end up sounding really funny because they’re so alien to you, so yeah, it’s making sure to get that as accurate as possible.

Tracy: When you care about something that much, it pulls out some pretty extreme behavior. I think that’s where we tend to find it and that is always better. The more specific, the more authentic you can get.

ATL: I have to add that the taco bit was definitely one of my favorites in the film.

Reiss: Thank you.

Tracy: Thank you, Danielle. I appreciate it.

ATL: What was it like to experience the film with an audience during the world premiere in Toronto?

Reiss: The fucking best.

Tracy: Great. Yeah, it’s a fun audience movie — at least when it goes well, it’s nice, because it is the kind of movie that an audience audibly reacts to, whether it’s laughter or a feeling of oh, G-d. That’s a nice feeling because there are a lot of really great movies that get a much quieter response. I would imagine that would be quite nerve-wracking to be sitting in the quiet.

Reiss: It’s funny because I used to do a lot of performing sketch comedy and you groove your show to a point where you kind of know where the laughs are coming. And now, fortunately, and unfortunately, I know when this movie is working based on when people are laughing or not laughing so it’s like, ugh, I almost went back to that world where if this doesn’t get a good response, then that means they might not be on board, so then this might not get a great response.

I will say, it’s also been quite fun. I’ve seen it now four or five times in groups of people. It is really fun to watch it with people and to also be out ahead of them. I know what’s coming. I can’t wait for them to see what’s happening. It’s super fun. I don’t think Will and I counted on writing a boisterous time at the movies. It just ended up being that and that’s pretty cool.

The Menu
The Menu image via Searchlight Pictures

ATL: The second time I saw it was at a press screening downtown in Chicago. I think I was the only one there who had seen it before up in Toronto.

Reiss: Uh huh. Was the press screening — were they curmudgeon-y press people or were they laugh-y press people?

ATL: I definitely heard laughs outside of myself.

Reiss: Good! [laughs] That’s charitable.

ATL: Comedies have been struggling in theaters of late, especially given the way the pandemic has affected the box office. Are you worried that Hollywood is training audiences to watch comedies at home via streaming, and only come out to theaters for blockbusters such as Marvel movies and Star Wars films?

Tracy: People are having to get more creative for how they’re dressing their comedies so that it will appear to — you can bring in different kinds of audiences other than audiences who just want to see a comedy. I think this is certainly a movie like that, in a way. It occasionally makes me feel like there was a certain kind of comedy that was made when we were younger that you don’t see made as often and when it is, maybe it does become a huge hit. That’s somewhat of a bummer.

Reiss: Yeah. I will say I have so many fears that to add that onto the pile would just be… I can’t [bring] myself. I’m gonna say that it’s a thought but I’m trying not to let [it] encroach too much.

Tracy: Modern life is a bit of a horror show, so yeah…

Reiss: Let me just enjoy that we’re releasing a movie right now for crying out loud!

ATL: What do you hope people take away from watching The Menu?

Tracy: One thing I’ve always kind of secretly hoped is that when you make a movie set in a very specific world like this, you hope that maybe people who see the movie and then later on in their lives, they go to a high-end restaurant or they go to a tasting menu type experience like this, that the movie will be in the back of their head, kind of like after you see Jaws and then you go to the beach. That feeling would be nice. There’s a way a movie kind of has a second life that way.

Reiss: If people want to be kinder to the people who were putting food in front of them, wonderful. That can only be a win.

ATL: I’m just trying to imagine a chef being told that by someone — that they don’t like any other food, they just want a well-made cheeseburger.

Tracy: I know, right? That’s probably what happened there.

The Menu is now playing in theaters nationwide, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. Click here to read our interview with Director Mark Mylod, and click here to read an interview with Production Designer Ethan Tobman over on Below the Line.

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