Mark Mylod created ‘The Menu’ according to the chef’s exact specifications: One-setting films may take a little getting used to. It’s difficult to make a small room feel vast and full of potential, to keep shots from becoming stale, and to subtly shift the film’s visual environment to reflect the story’s progression. To be sure, “The Menu” won’t be the only 2022 film to take place almost exclusively on a private island or to feature a large ensemble cast discussing their way through our deep societal rot.
Director Mark Mylod found that the confines of the space and the psychology of the antagonist helped him blend the elements of satire, dark comedy, and psychological thriller into a single dish for this film about a group of diners who journey to the extremely exclusive restaurant Hawthorne run by the celebrated Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) and receive far more than dinner and show along the way.
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I realized it would be a great challenge to take a place where a lot of people are seated for a lot of the time and actually offer that kinetic energy and make it dynamic as a space,” Mylod told IndieWire. That was a trip when the chef had complete creative freedom. If he were to accomplish that, how would he go about it? It was a fascinating workout, especially after finishing production on Season 3 of “Succession,” which features a vastly different camera grammar and rhythmic editing style, albeit one that shares some common ground with the former.
Mylod looked to films like Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” Luis Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel,” and Reiner’s “Misery” to find a more biting, controlled pace and visual perspective for “The Menu.” These films all have limited spaces where the action takes place, but they find an electric dynamism through camera placement, evocative architecture and set design, and emotive lighting. And Slowik’s restaurant, Hawthorne, was built specifically for those purposes.
That there was an open floor plan between the kitchen and the dining area was important to me because it represented a kind of social microcosm in which “the givers and the takers” coexisted. I like the idea of having the cooks lurking in the background, posing a threat through the military choreography of their work, even while the camera is in the dining room with the guests, despite the relatively shallow depth of field.
Mylod emphasized the significance of “the always-there, somewhat out-of-focus menace to the diners.” Production designer Ethan Tobman “flipped the table 180 degrees toward the window and built this enormous wall of windows, unbreakable glass facing out over the ocean, giving this barrier between the diners and that intolerable, unreachable freedom represented by the ocean outside that window.”
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Mylod changed the atmosphere of the restaurant by adjusting the lighting, in addition to containing the upstairs/downstairs sections of the plot in the same brutally posh bunker. According to Mylod, “we plotted it such that the sun would progressively sink down into darkness over the course of the evening,” isolating and putting additional strain on our protagonists. Then, it just comes down to staging, focusing on including Chef Slowik’s signature dance moves.
Everything in this world is his domain, and that realization guided much of what came next. I often found myself wondering, “What would Chef Slowik do in terms of fine-tuning the design and the camera settings, especially in documenting his environment, the food or the cooks, anything going on in the kitchen?”
Mylod’s introduction to the world of food photography influenced every aspect of the film’s production, but perhaps most notably, it influenced the final flourish of Chef Slowik’s dish. For the climax, Mylod recalled a shot of David Gelb’s that became part of that show’s title sequence, depicting a deconstructed dessert by Grant Achatz in which all the elements were, effectively, spread across the tablecloth. This work would ultimately drive both Slowik’s success and his own destruction.
“Then I had the idea, what if we did that throughout the entire restaurant?” Made the entire eatery the sweet course? Mylod remarked, “It seemed almost preposterously impossible to execute once I started talking about it and designing it with Ethan and [cinematographer Peter Deming] and [costume designer Amy Westcott] and we started trying to work out all the elements that we need to do that.” Getting “the shot” necessitated cutting a unique hole in the roof of the restaurant at the proper height and angle to accommodate the desired aspect ratio.
Now that the images were in place, Mylod used sound to provide emotional depth and character to the environment. Mylod hoped to find the story in the interactions of all the patrons at the restaurant’s tables, just as the set design allowed for parallel storytelling across the two distinct socioeconomic planes. It’s a technique he’s used before in pivotal episodes of “Succession,” and one he admires seeing used by Robert Altman.
“I studied Altman’s technique extensively, and I had the good fortune to collaborate with two outstanding performers, Charles Dance and Michael Gabon, who were in “Gosford Park,” another major inspiration for “The Menu.” And they told me how Robert worked with them on set.
The entire group was always mic’d up, as Mylod put it. “So we’d work with two sound mixers—I’m being slightly reductive to their amazing craft—but basically one would focus on the main screenplay and the other would be genuinely isolating this Darwinian sense of, ‘Okay, where is there something fascinating happening at which table?’ I’d tell the cast to improvise constantly so that the camera could pick up on any interesting happenings at any table.
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Each table has its own unique rhythm and texture, whether it’s (stealth MVP) Aimee Carrero’s delightfully deadpan roast of John Leguizamo’s movie star boss or Paul Adelstein and Janet McTeer’s never-ending ouroboros of snobbery. This allows Mylod to add sonic variety and make shots that move between the diners feel fresher, even if the compositions stay the same. It’s just one dining room, but there are usually about fifteen to sixteen actors on set, so I made it my top priority to get along with them. Mylod remarked on how beneficial it was to have everyone experience the journey together.
Sound and music in “The Menu” are also credited to Slowik for Mylod, much like with the images. The swishing of air every time the door was swung open was a perfect example of how we weaponize sound in an effort to unnerve our listeners. Mylod remarked, “These kinds of details helped construct and, I hope, shaped a soundscape that matched the one we aimed for visually.
The soundtrack plays a significant role in the film’s pacing since the narrative shifts each time Slowik (and later Anya Taylor-Margot) Joy changes paths with a remarkably sharp clap. When Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) knocks over a glass, “the sound people were just brilliant” at sending over numerous takes of the clap and the breaking of the glass, Mylod gushed.
Mylod’s last touch was original music that gave expression to the characters’ unspoken emotions. I had seen [composer Colin Stetson] at work on ‘Hereditary,’ and he always resisted the easy cue. And I knew he would never [go for] a jump scare because of the music. In the past, this has always been more of a plodding slog, bordering on a party atmosphere. To repeat: what would Slowik do? It’s his night off now. And you know, the movie ended quite well for him; he finally achieved the transcendence and freedom he’d been seeking. Therefore, there needed to be a sense of splendor and festivity, along with, presumably, a whole range of other feelings.
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