A group of 11 diners gather one evening on a private island in the Pacific Northwest for a once-in-a-lifetime meal from a renowned chef in the new thriller “ The Menu.”
At $1,200 a head, it promises to be a singular experience, but no one, not the movie star, the tech bros, the foodie fanboy, the food critic, the wealthy regulars, nor the wild card date, is ready for just how intense, and dangerous, things will get as the meal unfolds under the direction of Ralph Fiennes brilliant and tortured Chef Slowik.
The film comes from the minds of Will Tracy and Seth Reiss, both alums of The Onion and HBO’s “Succession.” The idea to satirize the cultish fine dining world came after an experience Tracy had at a fancy restaurant on a private island in Norway. They sent their script to director Mark Mylod, who directed the big excruciating dinner party episode in season two of “Succession,” and they all hit the ground running to create one of the year’s most exciting and unexpected films — funny, twisted and even a little heartbreaking. It opens in theaters nationwide Friday.
To create a dynamic dining room experience, Mylod took a page from Robert Altman’s playbook in which all of the characters would be on set all the time, acting and conversing even when the script was technically focused on someone else.
“I needed everybody to be in character all the time and improvising way beyond what we’d written on the page,” Mylod said. “So I recruited this incredibly intelligent and smart and bold cast. No two takes were the same. It was all an exploration.”
The ensemble includes Hong Chau, as the severe and stylish front of house Elsa, Nicholas Hoult as the foodie who has saved up for this night, Anya Taylor-Joy as his skeptical date, John Leguizamo as a movie star, Janet McTeer as a food critic and Reed Birney and Judith Light as regular patrons.
“If you put 12, 15, 20 actors in a room, that could be a recipe for disaster with egos and everything bouncing off and people wanting to do their best,” Hoult said. “But Mark set a great tone in the rehearsal period.”
With a roaming camera always looming, they had to be on a lot, but there were also opportunities to just watch and admire other’s performances. During scenes where Fiennes is holding court in front of the diners, Chau said they often had to stop short of clapping for him. It felt like they’d just been treated to a private performance.
“He has a way of looking straight into your soul. And it’s this fun thing for me because Tyler, the character I’m playing is meant to be kind of brainwashed by Chef Slowik and adoring of him,” Hoult said. “So I all the feelings that I would have as someone who’s in awe of what Ralph does and has done, I got to just kind of be a fanboy on set and use that.”
Mylod, who considers his palate “limited,” knew his behind-the-scenes collaborators would be as key as those in front of the camera in creating this deceptively complex world, including getting “Mulholland Drive” cinematographer Peter Deming who could find the tension in the frame. “Chef’s Table” creator David Gelb helped stage some “food porn” shots. And Dominique Crenn, the chef and owner of a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco, came aboard to advise on all aspects of the environment, from the food to the way certain characters might behave in a restaurant.
“I was a little nervous around (Dominque) and I didn’t speak to her that much,” Chau said. “But she kind of like, sidled up next to me one day and said, ‘I love what you’re doing. What you’re doing is like, spot on. I love how clean and sharp and elegant you are, and I want you to come and work for me.’”
Chau was a major architect of her character, who was a bit limited on the page and inspired by all the “funky people” she’d seen around Portland, Oregon, while filming “Showing Up” there. Elsa was originally supposed to look very plain, very beige and basically blend into the scenery.
“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a bummer. That’s a real, real bummer,’” Chau said. “I was stubborn and kind of dug my heels in and just explained the biography that I kind of came up with for her.”
The film’s costume designer Amy Westcott, who is married to Mylod, loved Chau’s vision and helped develop her striking outfit, which felt Victorian and statement-y but also clean and professional.
“They completely ambushed me, and I’m really glad they did,” Mylod said. “They were both completely right.”
Some who have seen “The Menu” have latched on to the class dynamics of the restaurant employees and its obscenely wealthy patrons and made “eat the rich” comparisons to films like the Oscar-winning “ Parasite ” and this year’s Cannes-winning “ Triangle of Sadness.” Mylod thinks that’s a bit reductive, though.
“A direct ‘let’s skewer the rich’ is low-hanging fruit, I think,” he said. “I tend to approach things more from a character point of view rather than necessarily sociologically as a whole. Those diners, most of them are appalling characters and deeply flawed characters, but it’s their flaws that I find really interesting because how did they get there? How do their egos de-nature their more vulnerable innocent self to get to that point? And what does it take to strip that away? That’s the journey that chef’s work is trying to take them on that evening.”