"The Menu" director on his film's crossover with "Succession," flavored by "corrosive" egos

Mark Mylod spoke to Salon about his satirical fine dining thriller starring Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy and more

Published November 17, 2022 7:00PM (EST)

Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Menu" (Eric Zachanowich/Searchlight Pictures)
Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Menu" (Eric Zachanowich/Searchlight Pictures)

There is a super-delicate flavor profile for "The Menu," director Mark Mylod's ("Succession") tasty satiric thriller about an exclusive restaurant, Hawthorne, run by the eccentric Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). A dozen customers — including foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his unimpressed date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), critic Lillian (Janet McTeer) and a movie star (John Leguizamo) — pay obscene sums of money to partake in a precious and singular culinary experience. 

"Ego is obviously a central thesis of 'The Menu' in terms of it being a corrosive factor in the work of any artist."

Mylod's film is a shrewd clapback on privilege, hubris and pretension. The diners all get their just deserts; Chef's taco course includes tortillas imprinted with each customer's sins. Chef and his staff, led by the unflappable Elsa (Hong Chau), maintain precise control over the evening, as secrets and lies are exposed, and some unsavory things happen. 

Mylod chatted with Salon about his experience making "The Menu." 

You have worked almost exclusively in television and have won two Emmys for your work on "Succession." Are you looking to take your career "next level" with "The Menu?" What is the appeal of making a feature film at this point in your career?

I've always wanted to make features. I just haven't made one for a long time. I was waiting for the right script, really. I made a decision about a decade ago to try and be bolder with the choices I was making and take a few more risks and do stuff I was attracted to but also frightened of. I pushed that through television initially, and to more dramatic work, something more tonally complex. Then I extended that into searching for a film script — and excuse the foodie cliché, they are impossible to avoid with the puns — that I could get my teeth into. As soon as I read "The Menu" script, I was completely besotted with it. 

There is a line in the film about "giving everything you have to please people you never know." That a chef will prepare a meal for a nameless, faceless consumer — which is pretty much what a director does. You probably know a fraction of the people who will see your film. But what observations do you have about an audience's unheard appreciation or disapproval? 

I supposed if there is a negative review to something, you have to give up the ego for. Ego is obviously a central thesis of "The Menu" in terms of it being a corrosive factor in the work of any artist. You have to let that go. In television and film, whatever the medium, you get hurt feelings if you put something out there and it's shot down at any level. That's hurtful. One has to learn to do the best job to tell the story that one wants to tell, and hope that it will find an audience on whatever level. 

What are your thoughts about that position of privilege? 

Getting to make a film or express oneself creatively in any medium, is a huge privilege and getting to do that with a script like "The Menu" which knocked me out by what an incredible cinematic ride it is, and with a beautiful combination of tonal challenges to get the right balance between the thriller/comedy/horror and the satire, was irresistible. I'd never read anything like that before.

How did you massage the tone of the film, which is satiric with characters puncturing pretentions, but also horrific, with characters puncturing bodies? 

As soon as I read it, I felt instinctively that I knew how to hit that tone. There was a lot of instinct in achieving that. But then it was working with the actors, and the rehearsal process was me and the actors talking about the themes in the film and how we related to them and how we find the throughline together. A big influence on that was that I asked the actors to watch "The Exterminating Angel," Buñuel's film, and the next day we spoke about that. I was knocked out by the film and particularly the culpability of the guests in that film, who had a sense of their own guilt and privilege. We shot "The Menu" almost entirely chronologically, we chart the journey of the diners from this place of privilege to a place of actual vulnerability and emotional nakedness by the end of the film. 

"The Menu" is really about mindfulness, which is the moral of the film where so much bad behavior, from greed and adultery, theft and other sins are on display. What can you say about people getting their just deserts?

"[David Gelb] shot some of the real food porn shots, which elevated the satirical element of it, because he photographed the food exactly as that show would."

In terms of satirical element to the film, my personal choice is not to hammer the satire. Satire, at its best, creeps up on you. You find yourself thinking about it after the film having a burger or drinks with friends. I tend to approach it more personally in that I look at characters not with disdain, but with curiosity as to what led them to that state of entitlement or what has denatured them or bent them from their more ideological selves into this state where there is more heightened ego, arrogance or entitlement. There is a crossover there with "Succession." It would be low-hanging fruit to hammer them. I feel compassion for and connection with the characters. I want to understand the choices they made and how they got there. To me, that makes for more interesting character exploration than a straight "Eat the Rich" hit. 

The MenuA course from "The Menu" (Searchlight Pictures)

I loved the sound of the food. How did you capture that as well as the smells and tastes of the food in the film, which is a character in the film? 

If you are going to satirize something or try to illustrate or portray this world with any authenticity, I needed to get the right people in. I wasn't a foodie before, so my first thought was who best in the business? We sent the script to Dominique Crenn, a chef in San Francisco. She is the first and only woman to be awarded three Michelin stars. She loved the script and came aboard to be our collaborator and work with us and get the design of the food and the menu up to world class level and reflect Ralph's character as a world class chef. Dominique worked with her partner and our food stylist, and they set up the off-screen kitchen and put all of our cooks working in our on-screen kitchen through this week-long boot camp so that everything everybody was doing at any time was completely authentic. We got the look of the kitchen as how a three-Michelin-star kitchen would. And key to that was talking to David Gelb, the creator of "Chef's Table," which has been so influential in how food has been photographed for the past couple of decades. He shot some of the real food porn shots, which elevated the satirical element of it, because he photographed the food exactly as that show would. 

What would be on your taco? 

It's almost an obsession of mine. My local Mexican place does these avocado and cheese tacos ripping with this lovely chocolate sauce –

– I meant the sin that would be on your tortilla.

It would probably be misunderstanding questions. Blimey, what's my sin? Of course, I have no sins, I'm perfect! It would be something that reflected my lifelong imposter syndrome, probably.

Wow. Well, we can't go there. I only have five minutes left. Chef is asked to prepare a particular dish with love. How did you infuse "The Menu" with love? There is not much love on screen.

Love is an interesting element in the film in that there is so much lost love and yearning from Ralph's characters. We bonded in our first conversation because we saw Chef Slowik not as an evil movie baddie, but as an artist who has lost his way and is in pain and consumed with self-loathing; he has lost his love for what he does. When he meets Margot, who should not be there, she too has lost her love for what she does. And the conflict they find themselves in, there is also a deep connection between them. They have a loss of love for themselves and their direction in life. She tries to rekindle that, which is the opposite of Chef Slowik.  

I infused the film with love by photographing every element by creating this restaurant and everything in it with the idea of "What would Slowik do?" When he created this world, he did it with an absolute obsession. I'm not sure one would call it love. That's a moot point. But I made sure working with production designer and Dominque that every element of the kitchen was as high end and as perfect as it could be because that was the obsession of chef. And even the metronome of the edit, I made sure it was, "What would Chef do here?" It was all curated through his eyes. I was trying to respect and love his vision for his food and see every element as "What would Chef do?" 

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Your discomfiting film ends with the serving of comfort food. What is your comfort food and what have you eaten that truly unsettled you? 

My comfort food goes back to where I grew up in the Southwest of England. It's a thing called a Cornish pasty. It is probably a total mystery to anyone this side of the Atlantic. The closest I can think of for an American audience would be empanada. It is a very basic food, and I absolutely love it. What foods do we love? It's the things that remind us of a place of innocence. That's a Cornish pasty for me.

What's the most disturbing thing I've eaten? Whenever I've gone to a three-Michelin-star restaurant, and I don't understand and feel so excluded from that process and what is in front of me. I feel like an imposter in that situation, and therefore I feel like Margot. That was a huge connection for me. I felt like a fish out of water and didn't connect in that room. 

There is nothing you've eaten that has been truly gross?

I think beef tartare. The one time I tried that, I thought, "That's not for me." My buds just are not sophisticated enough to enjoy that kind of food.

"The Menu" spens nationwide in theaters Nov. 18.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Anya Taylor-joy Chef's Table Interview Mark Mylod Movies Ralph Fiennes Restaurant Succession The Menu