Mark Mylod hadn't made a feature film in 10 years when he signed on to direct The Menu. Which isn't to say that Mylod hadn't kept himself plenty busy: The British director spent the better part of a decade directing episodes of some of the most acclaimed TV series on the air, including Game of Thrones, Shameless, and most recently, HBO's Succession, for which Mylod has been a key member of the Emmy-winning creative team.
Mylod, in other words, seems to have found nothing but success in the world of television. What, then, made him decide to return to feature filmmaking with The Menu? "It really is a great ride," Mylod says. "Obviously, I'm promoting the film. But the script really was just a fantastically fun ride that felt endlessly surprising and inventive."
The satirical thriller, co-written by Seth Reiss and Succession writer Will Tracy, takes place in an upscale restaurant run by the enigmatic Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), where the latest batch of diners (including Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult) realize that their host has cooked up an evening that none of them will soon forget — if they even manage to make it out of there alive, that is. The film is, therefore, a far cry from Mylod's last feature, the Anna Faris and Chris Evans-led 2011 romantic comedy, What’s Your Number?
"The absolute hook for me was the script's tone. I'm obsessed with tone and with explorations of flawed characters," Mylod explains. "The Menu was this beautiful thing, where the dark comedy and the thriller-horror elements really meshed together." Moreover, the director felt confident that he knew how to bring The Menu to life in a way that did it justice. "This might sound kind of big-headed, but I could just see the right way to do it."
In conversation with A.frame, Mylod discusses how he realized his vision for The Menu.
A.frame: When you’re making a film like The Menu, which is a unique blend of satire, comedy, and horror, what movies do you look to for reference or inspiration?
Genuinely, one of the lovely things about The Menu was that I could never really do that with it. Normally, with pretty much every script I’ve read over the past decade, I could see how they were initially pitched as "this movie meets that movie." I, truthfully, couldn’t do that with The Menu. There were obviously huge touchstones, like Get Out, which is a work of complete genius that combines some of the elements in The Menu — particularly the more genre-specific horror elements — with a very strong, underlying tone of satire.
It wasn't really tonal influences that I looked to for The Menu, but more cinematic influences. For instance, when I wanted to figure out how to weaponize a single-location setting, I went back to Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel. What I was so struck by, particularly, was the sense of culpability of the guests in that film. I also looked at Bong Joon-ho's Parasite. The way he weaponized the texture of the central house in that film was a huge influence on me, as was his use of light. I thought about Misery, too, in terms of how it uses a contained space to create tension but still keeps everything cinematic, which could be a bit of a paradox in most cases. All those films were really inspiring to me.
The film's restaurant has a really unique structure and look to it. What were your conversations like with your production designer [Ethan Tobman] as you were creating it together?
I could spend at least two hours answering that question, but I’ll try to keep it brief. [Laughs] In a reductive sense, the restaurant is a bit of a Frankensteinian amalgamation of some of the world’s most influential gastronomic restaurants. Specifically, we looked at the modern rustic design of Noma in Copenhagen, which is so cutting edge and happens to be on the same level as what we thought Chef Slowik's restaurant should be. Our research also rippled out to El Bulli, which is closed now, as well as Thomas Keller's restaurant, The French Laundry. So, if you’re a proper, bona fide foodie, you will likely notice little Easter eggs in the design of Chef Slowik's restaurant.
There were other cinematic considerations as well. I wanted the restaurant to have equal spacing between the two worlds of the dining room and the kitchen, which represents the haves and the have-nots — or the givers and the takers, as Chef Slowik says. I wanted it so that, even when we were in the dining room with the dinners, the camera could still communicate through a slightly defocused haze the constant, military presence of the restaurant's chefs and the relentless metronome of their work in the kitchen. That way, what starts off as a beautiful process slowly transforms into a looming threat to the diners.
Meanwhile, if you turn the camera 180 degrees, you have this beautiful glass window, which provides a gorgeous ocean view that represents freedom and nature. However, when the sun goes down, that freedom gradually recedes, so the window starts to represent the unattainable sense of freedom — or the return to innocence — that the chefs and diners all crave so much. When we lose the sun’s light, we also lose the connection to the outside, which allows the restaurant to shine more of a spotlight on the film’s characters. As it gets darker outside, that also helps crank up the tension, so the window ultimately became another cinematic way to weaponize the space of Slowik’s restaurant.
The camera also moves freely through the restaurant, never feeling too locked down or static. How'd you achieve that?
You know, Robert Altman is a huge hero of mine and, in terms of achieving the whole tone and look of the film, Gosford Park was a big touchstone for me. I was particularly influenced by Altman’s way of working with an ensemble cast, which involves everyone always being on set the whole day. There aren't just alternating close-ups or mid-shots. The camera can go pretty much anywhere anytime in his films, and I like to encourage improvisation during every take in order to keep the performances and scenes alive. For me, it was important that the camera felt immersed in the space of the restaurant and that we pursued that way of shooting because I wanted the audience to experience that feeling too.
Editorially, the film moves at a really brisk pace. What was the hardest section or sequence to put together?
My editor, Christopher Tellefsen, and I worked for months to get the pacing right. It wasn't that one section of the film was necessarily harder than another, either. It was more about maintaining the film's dramatic through-line and making sure the ride felt right. It's a delicate thing, because if you make one adjustment, that creates a domino effect an hour down the line, which is, hopefully, the sign of good editing. We made mistakes, of course, and then we’d have to go back and try to undo weeks' worth of work. With the whole third act of the film, in particular, it was a big challenge to make sure we stuck the landing.
The film depicts its violence very sparingly. Was that always your intention? Or was the amount of violence in it something you toyed around with while you were editing?
It was my immediate instinct. But then, of course, what I usually do these days is have an instinct and then spend about two months questioning it. [Laughs] I go back and ask, 'Why do I feel that way? Am I running away from saying something? Am I being an artistic coward?' But what came out of that process was a certainty that the thriller element of the film comes directly from the slow build, and the dawning horror of what's going on as we move through the evening.
Of course, I wanted to spike that slow build with elements of violence. My composer, Colin Stetson, and I were on the same page about that. Colin’s whole approach musically was the same as my approach visually. It wasn't about going for the cheap shot or the gore, in much the same way that Colin would never punctuate a particular moment with screeching strings. He'd find another way to more effectively get under your skin and build dread.
The horror of the film ultimately comes more from how it forces you to feel like you're in the dining room and trapped in the same situation as the characters. I felt that if I went too bloody with it, that it would, frankly, come across as slightly cheap, which isn’t the direction I wanted to go with this film. That’s not to say that we don’t have jump scares or moments like that, because we do. Hopefully, though, they work on our own terms.
By Alex Welch