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It’s been 11 years since The Menu director Mark Mylod last directed a feature film, and his return to the big screen has gone better than he ever could have expected. His epicurean horror-comedy starring Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult has not only been met with critical acclaim, but it also scored Searchlight’s biggest opening weekend — $15.2 million — at the worldwide box office since the heyday of Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
Mylod’s last film, the Anna Faris and Chris Evans-led romcom, What’s Your Number? (2011), didn’t connect with critics or audiences, so Mylod decided to change up his approach and focus on television. He went on to direct the pilots of Once Upon a Time, Shameless and The Affair, before finding a home at HBO by way of six episodes of Game of Thrones and 13 episodes of Succession, which netted him two Emmys as executive producer.
With The Menu revolving around Fiennes’ disillusioned artist, Chef Julian Slowick, Mylod actually related to his antagonist on some level, and his last film had a hand in it.
“It’s not specifically losing the joy of directing, but I’ve had phases. I felt like I made either wrong choices or choices that were not bold enough,” Mylod tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So, about a decade ago, I really tried to arrest that pattern of behavior and actually challenge myself to take on work that I was frightened of because it was challenging.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Mylod talks about putting The Menu together, as well as the expert help he received along the way.
Well, Big Cheeseburger owes you a thank you. I just had to get one after this movie.
(Laughs.) You’re welcome.
There should’ve been a warning before the movie.
I know, right? “Do not watch the film on an empty stomach.”
So, over the last decade, you’ve had quite a run on television, but did you expect to return to features at some point?
I always hoped to, yeah. Sorry for the bad food pun, but I was just waiting for something to get my teeth into. About a decade ago, I made a conscious decision to try and be more bold with the choices I made, both in film and television, and luckily, I found work in television that I found really stimulating and scary in the best way. So I jumped into areas that weren’t in my comfort zone and were more challenging, but I had to wait a long time to find a film script with the same challenges.
The Menu has been around for a few years, but there seemed to come a point where the project just hit the accelerator. What do you chalk that up to?
Probably my brilliance. (Laughs.) The previous situation with Alexander Payne as director was pretty close to going. Emma Stone and Ralph [Fiennes] were both cast, and Alexander, for whatever reason, decided to go a different way. So it went back into neutral for a little while until the script came to me via Will Tracy, the co-writer. We were thrown together in the second season of Succession. Will came aboard and wrote a brilliant script for an episode called “Tern Haven,” which I directed, and it was a lovely collaboration. The episode turned out very well. At least, it was appreciated, and unwittingly, it was kind of a dress rehearsal for The Menu.
So Will sent me the script for The Menu, and I thought it was this beautifully constructed, cinematic ride. It was just such fun. There was a very specific and quite a small target to hit, tonally, which I felt that I could deliver in terms of that blend between thriller, horror and dark comedy. And then I could immediately feel the satirical underlay to it, so I started talking with the producers and with Searchlight.
I had a couple of things that I wanted to evolve in the script, in terms of giving more evolution to the group dynamic of all the diners, which was specifically influenced by a film I love called The Exterminating Angel, Luis Bunuel’s film from ‘62. There was a culpability in the diners and the guests in that film, which I hoped to reflect with our diners so that there’s a through line for the whole dining room.
I also wanted to give the audience a lung full of oxygen at a certain point by taking the action outside, and I wanted to evolve into this more operatic ending that you see in the final iteration of the film. So I did a couple of passes with the writers, and at that point, Searchlight felt confident enough to green light the film, which is when we went into casting.
You work with The Menu producer Adam McKay on Succession, so was he already on the film when it came your way?
Yeah, he was already on it. Betsy Koch, the producer at Hyperobject [Industries], Adam’s company, read the script and loved it, and she went to Adam and said, “Hey, we’ve got to make this.” I’m not sure Will Tracy was involved with Succession at that point; he joined us in season two. But it went to Betsy first, and she and Adam then spoke with Will, before making that deal together.
With a stacked ensemble like this, did you just clear the runway and let them do their thing?
The key to that was the rehearsal week that we had, as I have a very specific way of working. A huge hero of mine is Robert Altman, and from working with a couple of the actors in Gosford Park, I knew exactly how he worked, which was like a light going on to me. It’s this idea that all the actors would pretty much be on set all the time, with everybody mic’d all the time. You’d have two separate sound recordists so that you can record the master dialogue and isolate everybody else’s tracks. This enabled us to have this beautiful kind of immersion in our dining room, where everybody can talk over each other. There’s room for a lot of improv so that it feels like a real live dining room, and this was hugely important to me.
I was very clear from the start that that’s how I wanted to work, and the actors responded incredibly well to that. So we spent a week rehearsing, and my version of rehearsals is to pretty much sit in a room together and just talk about themes and ideas and what is really happening in the film. It’s less about what we’re actually saying and more about that osmosis where we’re all basically tuning in together, in the Sydney Pollack way of making sure we’re all making the same movie. So by the time we step onto the set on day one, we’re all attuned to that same tonal place. And then, with each take, my way is really to use the cameras in such a way that you rarely, if ever, have to ask the actors to do the same thing twice.
Each take is a separate kind of exploration and has a life of its own, with the appropriate improv or different nuances that one might find. So it’s very much a kind of free-form jazz, and it gave me the sense of immersion and spontaneity that I wanted, particularly in the early elements of the film, when there’s this lovely effervescent energy from this very entitled and ego-fed room full of diners.
All the actors are great, but I have to single out Hong Chau. Was the Elsa character a big hit on set?
Hugely. The Elsa character was originally written as a big Nordic woman, but we loosened that up pretty much immediately. We just wanted to find somebody who could be really specific with that character, and along with Nick’s [Hoult] character, Tyler, Elsa is a slightly more pushed character. It would be very easy to take her into an over-the-top, broad way, so I wanted a brilliant actor who could find that level of absurdity and comedy in there, but also had vulnerability and humanity.
I’d seen some of Hong’s work, particularly with PT Anderson, and just loved it. So we had a Zoom call in the time of Covid, and it was just one of those lovely meetings. She’s so special as an actor and has a level of insight and control. And sure enough, she came to set and just knocked us all out with how incredibly specific she was with the character and her whole backstory for the character and the underlying pathos that you get a little hint of in moments. She’s just brilliant, and I loved working with her.
Chef Julian Slowick (Ralph Fiennes) is a disillusioned artist to say the least, but it’s actually quite common for people to fall out of love with something they’ve devoted their entire lives to. Have you ever had a phase where you lost that joy for the art form?
It’s not specifically losing the joy of directing, but I’ve had phases. I hinted at it earlier in our conversation, but I felt like I made either wrong choices or choices that were not bold enough. When Ralph and I first started speaking about the character, we didn’t see him as a cinematic baddie. We didn’t see him as a psychotic, even though his actions would clearly argue against that. We both saw him as an artist in pain, somebody consumed with self-loathing over the bad choices that he has made, particularly his relationship with ego and with commerce. So, of course, we both related to that on some level, as I think anybody in any field would, particularly the artistic field. And yes, I’ve clearly had periods where I felt that my choices were either just plain bad or just way too safe. So, about a decade ago, I really tried to arrest that pattern of behavior and actually challenge myself to take on work that I was frightened of because it was challenging.
Anya’s character, Margot, tells Slowick that he treats the work like an intellectual exercise. Have you known people within this industry that do that as well?
Yes, and it sets up a really interesting conflict with me. I am not a natural intellectual; I flunked out of high school. So I’ve never been able to approach the work with that academic or intellectual lead. For me, it’s always emotion and character-led, because that’s what I can do. So when I’m working with collaborators who are very intellectual in their approach, it is sometimes quite difficult for me to relate to it, but on the other hand, it completes me to where I can bring the heart to something.
I’ve always been fascinated by character flaws; they’re universal. And I find it endlessly fascinating to explore and dig into characters who perhaps seem very unsympathetic on the surface. You’ll see that in my work on Succession and also in The Menu. So when I’m working with that type of artist, it is often a good and healthy collaboration.
Each course tells a very specific story, so how much flexibility did your on-set chefs and consultants have with regard to the scripted dishes?
[Co-writers] Will [Tracy] and Seth [Reiss] did a lot of research into what the specific ingredients could be, but to get that completely authentic, we bought in the best. We sent the script to Dominique Crenn, who’s a three-Michelin-star chef in San Francisco and the only woman in America with three Michelin stars. And Dominique just loved the script, so she came aboard as a collaborator to just take things to the next level and work with our food stylists and our brilliant local chef in Savannah, Georgia, where we shot the film. And together as a team, they actually came up with various iterations of what was on paper and made sure that it was sufficiently sculptural and that the palette was right. Dominique Crenn, whose food is very emotionally warm, as she is, constructed these dishes beautifully, but also made sure they were emotionally cold to reflect Chef Slowick’s character.
Given how unusual the food is, did the cast eat more than usual?
If you speak to certain actors [such as Nick Hoult], they wolfed it down. Of course, one can only eat so much delicious scallop, so if it was anything other than a close-up shot, we would replace that with glazed potato, for instance. So there were various tricks to that, but yes, the cast did eat incredibly well. We never broke for lunch anyway. We worked French hours so that we could keep the vibe going throughout the day, and so it was useful for them to be able to graze on that gorgeous food. I never once ate any of it, firstly because I’m not really a foodie. To be honest, it would be pearls before swine with me, but it was also just because I was running around like a crazy thing all day.
What shot are you most partial to in the film?
There’s an aerial shot, which is an homage to both Chef’s Table, David Gelb’s creation, and specifically to a brilliant kind of deconstructed dessert dish invented by Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago. It’s a dessert that is created over the whole table top, and we did a restaurant-wide version of that, as part of the somewhat operatic finish to the piece. So I’m very proud of that because achieving it really brought all of the craft departments together. We had to work it out so carefully to actually achieve the image, and it was so satisfying to pull off. So that would probably be my favorite.
I would also say anytime there was a two-shot between Ralph and Anya. Their two characters represented the heart of the film for me, the ideological discourse, the duel between them, the conflict between them, but also the connection between them. That was the heart of the film, and I really wanted those two-handers between them to have this weight and this kind of toe-to-toe conflict that felt equal and fascinating. So those two actors really supplied that beautifully for me.
[DP] Peter Deming’s résumé speaks for itself, but did something in particular make you think he’d be a great fit for this contained story?
It really was an extension of my own ethos of shoring up my weaknesses by bringing in the best people. So much of directing is working with the right people, hence sending the script to Dominique Crenn to help with the restaurant. Ethan Tobman, our brilliant production designer, had already designed brilliant restaurants. We asked David Gelb, the creator of Chef’s Table, to shoot some food porn shots for us. I’d also not worked in the horror-thriller genre, specifically. I suppose certain elements of Game of Thrones kind of went that way, but it wasn’t a genre that I knew well.
So I’d watched Peter’s work over the decades, from Mulholland Drive, which, along with the rest of the planet, I was just so beguiled by, and then his collaborations with the world’s horror masters. He shot a few Scream movies, and he worked with Sam Raimi. So it was the way he captures tension within a frame almost instinctively. He does all those things that I don’t know, and I wanted that collaboration. He also happens to be one of the loveliest humans on the planet.
As you just mentioned, you directed a half-dozen episodes of Game of Thrones. And now that House of the Dragon is up and running, would you be willing to make a return trip to Westeros at some point?
I hope that can happen. We did speak about it, but because I’ve been so underwater with the combination of Succession and The Menu over the past couple of years, it hasn’t really been a possibility. But I would never say never. I think [House of the Dragon] is brilliant.
Are you working on Succession season four at the moment?
Yeah, we’re right in the midst of shooting it as we speak. I popped over to London for [The Menu’s] London premiere and came straight back onto set. I am genuinely so proud of what’s coming out of the edit. I can’t wait for the world to see it.
Decades from now, when you’re reminiscing about the making of The Menu, what day will you likely recall the first?
Lovely question. It would certainly be the day that we donned the entire cast with various sugar-coated accouterments. It would also be the day before we started shooting. We’d literally just finished building the set, and it was the first time I could be on it with all the actors. We checked out the seating plan, and the actors put on their costumes so that we could look at the balance of the color palette. And just looking around at that cast of characters, I remember feeling this real well of emotion that we had a great ride ahead of us.
The Menu is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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