If your taste buds tingle at cinema’s more macabre offerings, then you might want to sample The Menu. It tells the story of an elite chief, Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), who is hosting a group of wealthy diners on his remote island restaurant.
Among them, foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), arriving for a fine-dining experience they will never forget.
Behind the film is British director Mark Mylod, whose work includes episodes on such hit HBO shows as The Affair, Game of Thrones, and Succession.
Joining FilmInk for a chat, he talks about what drew him to The Menu, his thoughts on watching rich people squirm and his own gastronomic encounters.
Your last movie was 2011’s What’s Your Number? Why did it take so long to return to features?
I made a choice, about probably ten years ago, just to try and be bolder with the choices that I was making. I found myself staying in a bit of a comfort zone of comedy. And I suppose, I felt that I wasn’t being brave enough. So, I started making choices towards projects that scared the life out of me and that pushed me towards The Affair, towards Game of Thrones and to Succession, and I thought if I’m going to make another film, it has to be something that I absolutely feel massively passionately about, that I could never refuse. And also, that I felt that I was like the only person in the world that could do that. Perhaps not literally. But [I wanted] that sense of ownership.
I got to know Will [Tracy], the co-writer, when we worked together on Succession. And when he sent me the script, as soon as I read it, I thought I’m the right person for this, even though it scared the life out of me. It was a world that, at that stage, I really knew very little about. But there was something about this very specific tone, this kind of triangle of satire, comedy, and horror/thriller. That was quite a small target to hit, but I could just feel it, I suppose. It was irresistible at that point. So, I had to jump aboard.
How did you create the menu and the dishes seen in the film?
There were certain influences in the whole creation of the world of our kitchen and the molecular gastronomy within it.
René Redzepi at Noma was right up there, along with Grant Achatz at Alinea, of course. Even Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. We took elements in the creation of the dishes, and in the design of the restaurant, from all these great restaurants around the world. To actually create them, I sent the script to Dominique Crenn, the brilliant three Michelin star chef, originally from France, and now based in San Francisco, and still, I think the only woman in America to have three Michelin stars. And she loved the script. And then she came aboard to work with us, to design and enhance our menu and came over to the set. She and her business partner Juan, along with a brilliant local chef called John Benhase…they ran a bootcamp basically, with all our cooks in the kitchen, all of whom had worked in that [part of the] catering industry. And she basically put everybody through their paces. So, whatever anybody was doing in the kitchen at any one time, was exactly the correct thing for the preparation of the next course in the film.
What drew you to casting Anya Taylor-Joy in such a pivotal role?
The first person I actually cast was Ralph Fiennes. Both myself and the writer had him in mind, even as we were developing the script. And once Ralph was aboard, the challenge was to find a young actor who could go toe-to-toe with him. So much of the nucleus, the heart of the film, is those two-hander scenes between both their characters, between Margot and Chef Slowik. And that conflict, that duel of wits between them, and indeed that connection between them, it had to feel equal to me.
I needed a force, somebody who could go up against Ralph’s incredibly commanding presence on the screen. And Anya just has that. She has this fierce intelligence and instinct. And her presence on screen is unbelievable. Along with the rest of the world, I was just knocked out by The Queen’s Gambit, how she can just hold the screen, just brimming with energy and internal calculation, which is of course, exactly what our character needs to go through. So, for me, she was the perfect actor for that role.
After Succession and this, do you get a weird pleasure in watching rich and powerful people suffering?
Yeah, it is a recurring theme of mine, isn’t it? I suppose so. It’s a bit of an easy one, isn’t it? The rich thing. If you just go straight for that, it’s a bit of low hanging fruit. It’s not my approach. Either in Succession, which is about horrible, rich people or The Menu which has some horrible rich people in it… My approach is a little more, I like to think, humane. I love flawed characters and I love trying to understand them to find the context of their behaviour and where possible to peel that back and find that innocence, find that vulnerability, to have empathy for them. I always feel actually quite protective of them. And that’s the same in The Menu. There’s a lovely film, Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, which was a big influence for me in making The Menu. Because in Buñuel’s film, the trapped guests have a dawning sense of their own culpability, of their own guilt, their own flaws as characters. And I love that idea… that journey that Chef Slowik is actually taking our diners on in The Menu. On the one hand, you could say that this is a terribly dark journey. On the other hand, you could say it’s a journey towards enlightenment, to a kind of transcendence of all our human flaws.
The film takes a violent turn towards the end. How did you approach that?
Chef Slowik, I don’t think he’s an inherently violent person. In evolving the character with Ralph, we both saw him as an artist who was just in pain and was really looking to assuage that, to soothe that, and escape this torment of self-loathing – the way his ego has led him to make all these choices [and] to this preposterously heightened, exclusive place so far from where he started, and he can find no way back. I think, obviously, the character also has a psychotic bent, otherwise he wouldn’t concoct and go through with this extraordinary plan. But yeah, I never really saw him as inherently violent. I think that was triggered by internal pain.
What’s your own experience of high-end restaurants?
I’ve never had a really bad experience. But I’ve never been really comfortable in them. I just always feel really awkward and therefore just don’t enjoy this highly curated experience. When I worked on Game of Thrones, I was on that for about three years. And David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss], the writers, are big foodies, and whenever we were in Europe, I’d always hit them up for some fancy Michelin star restaurant, which was a treat just hanging out with them. But I always felt really deeply uncomfortable in the restaurant. So, when I got the script, I immediately related to that kind of ‘style over comfort’ vibe, I suppose.
How do you feel about people spending ludicrous sums on restaurant experiences?
With my hand on my heart, I can’t be preachy about what people choose to spend their money on. I think that the system whereby we have to create this $10,000 bottle of wine so the rich people have something to feel that they’ve got value from, is of course ludicrous. It’s ludicrous. But if I start wagging my finger… I’m well paid as a director, I have white man 50-something privilege. For me to start lobbying and saying, ‘Isn’t that outrageous?’ would just be hypocritical. That’s why, even though I like to point out the absurdity of our culture that allows this to exist, I can’t be preachy about it. That’s why in both Succession and The Menu… I approach that absurdity on a human level. What are the choices? What’s the ego need? What is it that puts us into a system where we need that rather than directly poking at it?
The Menu is in cinemas from November 24, with advance previews between November 18, 19 and 20