The pretension and excess of the fine-dining scene, with its high-priced tasting menus (and tiny portions), is so obviously a target for satire, it’s surprising that contemporary filmmakers haven’t poked fun at it more often. Yet screenwriter Will Tracy realized its potential when he found himself being ferried to a private island near Norway to attend a high-end dinner. Trapped for hours on a foreign island, all for the sake of a meal, seemed like the ideal scenario for a genre-bending film that could follow the beats of a thriller while taking aim at the privilege of wealthy diners. The idea eventually developed into The Menu, scheduled to hit theaters this November.
The film, from 20th Century Studios, stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Margot, who travels to a coastal island in the Pacific Northwest with her partner, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), where a world-famous and reclusive chef (Ralph Fiennes) is preparing a lavish tasting menu for a select clientele. An array of socialites, tech entrepreneurs, and media figures are also in attendance, none of them aware of the evening’s twists and turns to come—planned to coincide with the dishes in the chef’s enigmatic tasting menu.
Boxoffice Pro spoke with The Menu director Mark Mylod, who has displayed his own flare for acerbic satire in his work on television’s “Entourage” and “Succession.” From Robert Altman to Luis Buñuel by way of Ali G, Mylod reveals why The Menu has all the ingredients necessary to serve audiences a wild ride when it opens in theaters this fall.
You’re no stranger to satire, as we know from TV shows you’ve directed, like “Entourage” and “Succession,” as well as your feature-film debut, Ali G Indahouse. The Menu reunites you with some of your collaborators from “Succession,” including screenwriter Will Tracy and producer Adam McKay. How did those experiences prepare you for The Menu?
Will Tracy is the co-writer of the script, along with Seth Reiss. Will and I worked together on an episode of “Succession” in season two [“Town Haven”], where 90 percent of a segment took place at a big dinner table. We had a great time working on it, and a few months later Will told me about this screenplay and asked me if I’d take read. I was bowled over by how much fun it was, by the incredible out-of-left-field twists and turns the screenplay took. It’s kind of a dark comedy: a thriller/satire, I suppose. It’s a really fun ride where we poke at the exclusivity of [the fine-dining] world and, by extension, our society. I went back to Will and told him I really liked [the script]. We started talking and before I know it, I’m chatting with Adam McKay, and then I’m talking to Searchlight, and suddenly we’re making the movie.
I did a pass on the script with the writers, which coincided with the first lockdown in 2020. We began casting as we came out of that period, and Ralph [Fiennes] and Anya [Taylor-Joy] fell into play very quickly. Then I started working with the brilliant casting director Mary Vernieu to build out the rest of the cast.
What sort of visual style did you bring to the project?
I had a very specific way I wanted to shoot based on my adoration of Robert Altman and knowing his preferred way of working, specifically in Gosford Park, which has some of the same kind of satirical parallels with our film. The idea is to have all the actors “on” all the time. We weren’t pulling anyone aside to shoot close-ups. Everybody’s on and miked all the time, and the cameras can find you anytime. We built our restaurant set in a warehouse in Savannah, Georgia, and I wanted it to feel like a real restaurant. Authenticity is the key to good satire, and we had an obsession with every detail: the design and look of the kitchen, how the kitchen was staffed, and the food that was cooked. In terms of the performances, I wanted it to feel like a dining room, so we would have different conversations taking place simultaneously at different tables, allowing me to work with the sound team to pull out segments of dialogue from different conversations into the mix. It meant that conversations between actors had to be real all the time; they always had to be in character.
I needed a particular type of actor who would embrace that idea and not be thrown off by it. We got this beautiful company of actors who would all come onto set together in the morning and stay there until we wrapped in the evening. It was an absolute joy working with them. There was a real sense of companionship and mutual support. Despite the fact that we were in this boiling hot, old warehouse in the middle of a pandemic, we had a lovely time working together.
Like Altman, you also have an extensive background in directing for television and bringing those lessons into your film work. How did that Altman DNA come to be part of this project?
It first started with a conversation on my first feature, Ali G Indahouse. I had these brilliant actors, Michael Gambon and Charles Dance, both of whom had just finished shooting with Altman. I’d recently discovered his work and was throwing questions at them about how Robert worked. That’s how I discovered the specifics of the way he would work with actors and how he would give direction. Everything felt so obvious in the way that brilliant ideas are obvious: they’re only obvious when someone says them. Having everybody “on” and in character all the time felt like the best way to hit the sweet spot of dramatic and comedic tension, which of course is symbiotic.
When I looked at Altman’s work on M*A*S*H, it seemed like a brilliant way to service those twin needs in the storytelling spectrum, giving the film a unique tone and authenticity.
That’s what felt so brilliant about it; it felt like it got to the truth of the matter [that] each scene wanted to explore. When I first left school, I went straight to the West End and started working backstage changing the scenery on plays like The Cherry Orchard and The Aspern Papers, so I suppose I learned to love actors by standing in the wings, watching these brilliant actors from the side. Watching the way that everybody onstage is attuned and in the moment, and the way that evolves subtly, night by night. I never expect actors to do the same take twice. I never expect the cameras to do the same thing twice. I’ll never shoot part of a scene—I’ll always shoot a whole scene at once. I just love the idea of having everybody present in the same moment, and seeing where improvisation might take a scene en route to arriving to its destination. There are infinite possibilities in that way of working, instead of trying to disguise the fact that we’re repeating a scene for the 10th time—that feels emotionally dead to me. The idea of everything being alive creates spontaneity, life, and tension, comedy … it creates everything that I’m interested in watching.
It’s a particular challenge to achieve that vibrancy, that sense of energy, when you’re setting an entire film around a dinner table. That’s a major visual constraint to address. It brings to mind the way Luis Buñuel approached similar challenges in films like The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie—films that, like The Menu, satirize the ritual of fine dining and its social context by introducing diverse genre elements.
The Exterminating Angel was a huge influence for me on this film. I first watched it years ago, and as soon as I read the script for The Menu, I went straight back and watched it again. It’s such a brilliant film. The biggest chunk, I suppose, that I took from it, was this sense of culpability among the guests. I found that incredibly helpful in terms of the arc of the diners. In The Menu, we could have put our characters in as stereotypes and archetypes in order to support our central thesis—the duel between Margot and the chef—but it was much more rewarding to take them on a genuine arc, so that by the time we get to the end of the film, there is a sense of recognition of the greed and ego of that exclusive part of society they’re a part of. That became the focus of our rehearsals as we prepared to shoot. I don’t like to stand up and rehearse, but I do love to sit around a table with the actors and talk about those secondary and tertiary themes. We all latched on to that subtext because we had the benefit of shooting almost entirely chronologically, thanks to the restaurant setting. That allowed us to calibrate the journey for those characters in a precise and, I hope, enjoyable way.
It’s interesting to talk about this as a cinematic challenge, because we’ve got these characters in that one space for two hours. I didn’t want the film to feel anything but cinematic: alive and kinetic, intense and fun. Part of the pass that I did on the script was to take the cast outside [of the restaurant setting] to give the audience that breath of oxygen before putting them back into that pressure cooker inside this room. In that sense, The Exterminating Angel was a huge influence, as were Parasite and Misery, in the way that they use an extraordinary architectural space to impart a sense of claustrophobia.
The Menu, I hope, brings together everything that I love about cinema. It’s a collective ride for a wide audience. The performances are fantastic. It’s got this brilliant company of actors. It’s beautifully shot. It sounds amazing, the cinematography, the soundtrack is fantastic. I know it’s a terrible cliché to say this, but it really is a cinematic roller coaster. And what’s more fun than that, with a bag of popcorn?