Mark Mylod’s The Menu, from a script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, has become one of Searchlight Pictures’ best success stories since its release last month, racking up the company’s biggest opening weekend since Slumdog Millionaire.
The recipe for the mix of chills and thrills that delight and terrify diners including Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Janet McTeer and John Leguizamo, has been carefully balanced by its director with all the precision of the dark head chef, Slowik, played with relish by Ralph Fiennes. And though Mylod will admit he is no foodie, it’s the precision of its satire on fine dining that bites the hardest.
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Mylod’s name will be familiar to fans of Game of Thrones and Succession, for which he has directed multiple episodes (he is also an EP on Succession). His first feature in 11 years, released as he shoots Succession’s fourth season, is a powerful statement of intent for the brand of dark, incisive entertainment he is most interested in delivering.
Over breakfast in a nice restaurant—where else?—Mylod walks us through how he served up his most delectable dish (with the mildest hint of spoilers throughout).
DEADLINE: The most important questions come first: do you have the scripts for the new season of Succession on your phone right now, and have experienced a robbery before, or will this be your first?
MARK MYLOD: I actually have been robbed, yes [laughs]. A couple of times in Lewisham [a London borough]. The scripts are on my phone, but you need the password, so it would cost you…
Yeah, we’re in the middle of shooting now, and it’s good. I’m really happy. Well, I’m terrified, obviously, but I’m also really proud of it. There’s a lovely thing where successive seasons have been—not raising the bar, that sounds arrogant—but it’s been well received. And every time I think we’re going to get found out, another season comes out and is well-received. So, of course, we started Season 4 with a level of anxiety, and now I’ve spent a bit of time in the edit, with the first few episodes in the can, I feel really good. I think there’s a good season in here.
DEADLINE: It feels thematically linked to your interest in The Menu, because both projects are all about how absolute wealth corrupts and blinds people to reality.
MYLOD: It’s the devaluing of everything. One of the things I’m most proud of in The Menu is you can view it through a whole lot of different lenses, and so it feels to me at least cohesive. It’s a really fun ride, primarily, but there is that social bite to it, and I hope it’s not quite as straightforward as ‘eat the rich’. At least for me, the more interesting items are about the individual characters, and how their whole value system is being perverted and eaten and twisted.
Ralph Fiennes’ character starts right at the top of the food chain in that particular ecosystem. It was a lovely bonding thing for me and Ralph, when we first got on the Zoom together, that we didn’t want him to be a mustache-twirling villain or a psycho. Obviously, there’s a side to his not particularly together character, mentally, but we both saw him as an artist in pain. Someone who made it so far in his art and has had this terrible realization about the summation of choices he’s made. We can all relate to that. I think everybody, whether it be an artistic pursuit or not, can get to a place of thinking, ‘My god, what have I done?’ That underlining flaw of Chef Slowik is really interesting because I think it’s universal.
The big touchstone for me, when I first got involved in the project, was rewatching The Exterminating Angel. I remember being knocked out by that film when I first saw it. It’s an incredible piece of work anyway, but it was specifically the sense of culpability that the diners feel, with the dawning realization of themselves being part of the problem. I wanted to go on that ride with our diners, and with Chef Slowik guiding them through that as this incredible presence, this cult leader. He has this ability to see people and peel away these layers so that by the end of the ride they’re naked and vulnerable. Everybody in that room has lost their way. They’ve lost a sense of their values, whether they be spiritual, artistic, or material values.
DEADLINE: All except Margot, played by Anya Taylor-Joy.
MYLOD: She’s our window into that world, a world many of us haven’t experienced. I didn’t know that world well before I did a deep dive into it as part of the research. I’ve never been a foodie, and my experience with those restaurants is limited to hitting David Benioff and Dan Weiss up to join them on their various rides when we were shooting Game of Thrones in Europe. They’ve always had an excellent taste when it comes to choosing places to eat, so I’d hit them up to go to some fancy restaurant in Spain or somewhere. And, lovely and funny as they are to be with, I’d always come out of those restaurants with this slight sense of needing a soul shower. I just never felt very comfortable in places like that.
DEADLINE: What specifically caused the discomfort?
MYLOD: I think it’s about the basic process of eating. I like to come to a restaurant like the one we’re in right now and feel relaxed. I feel as though this is a good place to sit down and enjoy some eggs with lovely company.
MYLOD: You’re welcome [laughs]. But I’ve never been to one of those restaurants and felt relaxed. That’s on me, to a certain extent; to a large extent. I have a large chip on my shoulder, partly because of the industry that I work in, but mostly because that’s just me. My dad was a policeman, and there was no showbiz connection in my family. I failed all my exams and came to work in this industry with so many clever people from Oxford and Cambridge, and I didn’t have that to my name. So, I suppose, I’m always trying to overcompensate. Margot’s my window into that, I guess.
DEADLINE: And that’s the heart of the fallacy about class, isn’t it, that somehow how you were born, or where you went to school, determines your societal status before you’ve ever truly been tested?
MYLOD: Yeah, it’s a whole thing. There is definitely something I love about tribal sadness, which is that we’re conditioned this way. I’m as guilty of that as the next person, and I hate myself for it. It drives me crazy, and I try to pull myself out of it, but the Pavlovian reaction I have is to make those assumptions.
The pursuit of wealth leads to absolute capitalism, and absolute capitalism fails so many people. I don’t claim to be a politician, and I’m wary about straining into areas where I’m just a rank amateur, but it seems to me that countries that have more of a social democracy than us, particularly in Europe, have a better sense of society. But then, perhaps they have an unfair advantage because they have smaller populations and less strain on their social services budgets.
DEADLINE: Possibly, but they do seem to suggest that those systems are scalable. America, certainly, seems conditioned to regard socialism as a dangerous thing, and that concept of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is baked into the American dream.
MYLOD: But I do still feel—and, again, this may be just me unconsciously tapping into the chip on my shoulder—that when I came to the US as a director, with the huge advantage of being a white male, that I was walking into a system that felt fundamentally more meritocratic than I felt in London. There, I always felt like an outsider on some level.
DEADLINE: How did you draw the line in the film between the diners buying into the theatre of their evening in an exclusive restaurant, and the realization that they aren’t going to leave with their lives? It’s a realization that strikes them each at different times.
MYLOD: It was a lovely thing to find that pivotal switch, and it was something that evolved in rehearsal, to get the tone of that moment where the slow tease of the car moving up the rollercoaster to the point where it’s teetering on top ready to drop. That zone of ‘are we being fucked with?’ is a really lovely zone to be in. I wanted to live in it for as long as possible.
DEADLINE: It’s surprising how long you’re able to live in it, based on how insane this high-net-worth dining can be.
MYLOD: It’s amazing, the theatricality of these places. There’s a new place in Copenhagen where it’s kind of an extraordinary technicolor dream. The chef’s investor said, “I’ll give you $15 million to do whatever you want with the place, as long as one of the dishes is served on a cast of my tongue.” So, on a handshake, that deal was done. And, indeed, one of the dishes does come out on this cast of a tongue.
You think about someone like Rene Redzepi’s drive as an artist. He’d won Best Restaurant of the Year twice, and then he came second. He almost had a nervous breakdown because he was only the second best restaurant in the world. That determination to throw everything out and build again with the new Noma is something I found so inspiring in terms of understanding the drive of our chef, of showing that there was a man who was absolutely driven.
I saw the same with Grant Achatz at Alinea, even when he was literally in danger of dying he wouldn’t get a surgery for the fear of losing his sense of taste. That was his highest priority. That sort of drive is mindboggling.
Ultimately, my takeaway from the whole experience is that I’ve got this incredible respect for the human cost of it on all levels, from these artists down to the people in the industry who work relentlessly, 50 weeks a year, it never lets up. I get to call wrap eventually. I can work my arse off, but in February I’ll finish with Succession, and I’ll go sit with my kids for a week in the countryside. They don’t seem to be able to do that. The human cost of that is extraordinary, and it’s perfect for the dramatic tension because they are just perpetually exhausted.
DEADLINE: How much complication was there in ensuring that we get to know each of the tables in that restaurant and that the tension you’re building isn’t punctured by spending too long with any one of them?
MYLOD: I love that question because I could literally spend an hour bending your ear on it. I’ll try to be a little more efficient than that. There were fundamental challenges in trying to make something cinematic, trying to make a movie that spends 80% of its time in one space.
I turn to my heroes for inspiration. Parasite was obviously an incredible cinematic achievement. Misery is another. And Gosford Park was a huge one for me. It was the key to how to actually work in the dining room. I’m a massive Altman fan, and I’d worked with two of the actors who had been in Gosford Park. I knew from them and from further research that all the actors would be on set all the time. Everyone would be micced, there would be two sound mixers.
In that way, the whole room could be alive, and people could talk over each other. On a technical level, we always had our scripted dialogue, but we also had everything else going on as well. It’s a system I’ve used a lot on Succession, too. In something of a Darwinian sense, if something interesting is happening at a table, we will find you. I’m able to send the cameras where I need them.
As soon as you cross the invisible line into the open-plan kitchen, different rules apply. For me, every choice in the design of the restaurant, the choreography, and everything comes down to a simple question: what would Chef Slowik do? That informed not only the aesthetic choices of the space but extended into the way I photographed the kitchen with this very choreographed, military precision. That was how we found the rhythm. I found almost a metronomic precision from Slowik that I was able to feel instinctively, and that also defined the pace of the film.
The tasting menu, and the pacing of it, was exactly as Slowik would have it because with the exception of the fly in the ointment that is Margot’s presence, that’s how he designed the evening, and it’s how I want the audience to experience the evening. It was a fun thing to evolve, and a real challenge too.
DEADLINE: You worked with Dominique Crenn on the actual food.
MYLOD: Yeah. It’s that classic thing of when you want to satirize something, you’ve got to get it right. It’s got to be authentic. We sent the script to Dominique and she just loved it. She came aboard as our consultant and ended up helping us design the plates, and enhance them.
We created this boot camp and recruited people who already worked in the industry so that everything everyone was doing in the kitchen was right for the dishes that were being created.
Not only that, but one of the crucial things was the time that Dominique spent with Ralph in rehearsals. Ralph is so meticulous in his prep, which is fantastic because he comes so liberated to the set because of that meticulous preparation. He wanted to understand the soul of a chef and you can only really watch so many episodes of Chef’s Table. We devoured them all, but spending time with Dominique as she talked about her philosophy gave Ralph a certain peace in his soul that he really understood the essence of what it is to be a chef. That was priceless.
DEADLINE: I presume you tasted the entire menu.
MYLOD: You know, I didn’t. It was all edible, all genuine. Dominique worked with what was written and evolved it. She even created the Man’s Folly course herself, because that was the only one that could be emotionally warm. We needed a certain aesthetic, with sculptural, 3D elements to every dish, but we also needed an emotional deadness. It’s a terribly nuanced thing, but we were at pains to make sure every course felt like that. It all tastes great, but Man’s Folly is the only dish that feels like it has an emotional resonance to it.
DEADLINE: So, why didn’t you taste it all?
MYLOD: The truth is I just never had time. I remember Soderbergh saying that when they shot the first Ocean’s Eleven film, the entire cast was having a great time in Las Vegas, but he wasn’t. I felt the same. I was running from start to finish. I was out of the game for 10 days in prep with Covid, so by the time we started, I felt like I was running the entire time to catch up. So, if the food looked good and the experts were telling me it was the real deal… I like Cornish pasties and fish and chips, so what does it matter if I think about what it actually tastes like?
I will say I did get very excited about the ultimate burger. The burger tutorial, on how to make the best burger in the world with one of the world’s greatest chefs, was a night to remember. I’m a terrible cook, but I brag now when people come over that I can make them the best cheeseburger in the world.
DEADLINE: Go on…
MYLOD: Temperature is everything. The right amount of oil and grill pan preparation. Cheap, cheap steak. You’ve got your minced beef, you’ve got the pan to the right temperature, and you’ve got your onions. Make sure the onions caramelize around the edge of the beef so they can infuse one another. Cheap American cheese that doesn’t split. Four pickles. Maybe a cheap sesame bun. You’ve got to toast the bun on one side. You’re going to spread one side with equal parts mixture of mayo, ketchup, and yellow mustard—cheap mustard. Spread that on. Pickles on the other side. Two patties, and when you flip them, as soon as you flip them, you get two slices of cheese on each one. Plonk them on top of each other, serve it straight up with fries on the side, squish it down, and off you go.
The subtleties that go with that—the amount the bun is toasted, the temperature of the pan, the caramelization of the onions—are what give you that edge. The ingredients don’t need to be expensive.
It’s making me salivate just thinking about it.
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