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For Mark Mylod, the director of Searchlight Pictures’ The Menu, the biggest challenge was setting the tone for the darkly comic thriller, in which a group of diners travel to a remote island to eat at Hawthorn, an exclusive restaurant run by Ralph Fiennes’ celebrity chef Julian Slowik — a dining experience that comes with some unexpected surprises (not of the gastronomical variety).
“Trying to get the tone right … was really about me and the cast just talking a lot, and then the massive benefit of being able to shoot the film almost chronologically,” says Mylod of the movie, a class satire set primarily in the single setting of the Hawthorn dining room. “Everybody’s on set all the time, and you never know quite when the camera’s on you … That was a way of working that the cast really responded to, and I felt that it gave us an immediacy and a spontaneity to the life and the excitement these characters feel, specifically when they first come into the restaurant — that incredible entitlement that the characters have of being at the center of the culinary universe.”
Similarly, it was important to Mylod to accurately portray the culinary world to the “point of absolute obsession.” To do that, production designer Ethan Tobman sprinkled in Easter eggs and nods to certain great chefs and great kitchens in the film. Additionally, Mylod sent the script to Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in the U.S. to have been awarded three Michelin stars, for San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn. (For more on Crenn and the haute-cuisine dishes she created that were served onscreen, see page 19.)
“The time she spent with Ralph in preproduction imbued him with a tremendous inner confidence,” says Mylod, who adds that casting Anya Taylor-Joy to play an unimpressed diner opposite Fiennes made for terrific chemistry. “The unique and wonderful thing about Ralph is, he can bring all that pathos and also be hilariously funny,” explains Mylod. “With Anya, I, along with the rest of the world during lockdown, was mesmerized by her performance in The Queen’s Gambit, the way she carried that with such nuance and brilliance. So I sent the script to her and she loved it! I needed that character to be able to stand toe-to-toe with Ralph. That debate, that chess match between the characters, was very much the nucleus of the film for me.”
Mylod, who replaced Alexander Payne as the director on the feature, was initially drawn to Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s script because he knew it’d be challenging to find “the right balance between the comedy, the tension and the satirical undertones.” After talking to Fiennes, it became clear the two were on the same page.
“We both wanted specifically to avoid this idea of any kind of mustache-twirling baddie,” says Mylod. “Instead, we wanted to explore an artist in pain that’s consumed, really, with self-loathing.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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