The Menu Director Mark Mylod – Filmmaker Toolkit Interview
Director Mark Mylod talks about channeling the character of Ralph Fiennes to create the look and feel of his “Eat the Rich” satire.
Movies that mostly take place in one place might be something of an acquired taste. It’s challenging to make a single room feel wide and full of possibility, avoiding shots that are repetitive or seeming boring, and adjusting the film’s visual landscape, but not too much so that it evolves as the story progresses. The Menu isn’t the only film in 2022 set almost entirely on a private island, or with a large cast working their way through our deep societal rot by sitting around and talking to each other. But for the film’s story, about a group of guests who travel to the ultra-exclusive Hawthorne restaurant run by celebrated chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) – who gets far more than a dinner and a show along the way – director Mark Mylod hired notes that the limitations of space and the antagonist’s psychology helped it meld the elements of satire, dark comedy, and psychological thriller into a single dish.
“I knew it would be a nice challenge to take a space that has a lot of people sitting in it most of the time and actually give that kinetic energy and make it dynamic as a space,” Mylod told IndieWire. “This was a trip totally controlled by the chef. How would he do it? That was a really interesting exercise, especially as I just filmed Season 3 of Succession, which has such a different camera grammar, such a different metronome than the editing – certainly some similar overlapping themes, but a very different metronome. “
To find a more snappy, controlled pace and visual perspective for The Menu, Mylod instead turned to films like Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, and Reiner’s Misery, which, while limiting, are limiting The spaces in which the action takes place find an electric dynamic through camera placement, striking architecture and set design, and emotive lighting. And Hawthorne, Slowik’s Restaurant, was designed to facilitate all of those things.
“Two key elements for me were that there was this open kitchen so that we could have two worlds: sort of a microcosm of society, ‘the giver and the taker’, between the dining room and the kitchen. When the camera is with the guests in the dining room, I love the idea of having that sort of backstage element of the lurking chefs and their threat from the military choreography of their work always going on, even with a relatively limited depth of field. The ever-present, slightly fuzzy threat to the guests was important,” said Mylod. “Then I turn 180 degrees to the window, [production designer Ethan Tobman] has created this huge wall of windows, unbreakable glass facing the ocean, forming that barrier between guests and that untenable, unattainable freedom that the ocean represents outside of that window.
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In addition to capturing the top and bottom elements of the story in the same brutally posh bunker, Mylod adjusted the ambiance of the restaurant space with lighting. “We planned it so that as the evening progressed, the sun would gradually drop into darkness, isolating and putting more pressure on our characters,” said Mylod. “Then it really depends on the staging, using mainly the movement of Chef Slowik. Everything in this world is his universe and that informed a lot about the process. I’ve actually often wondered what Chef Slowik would do in terms of design and camera positions, especially when photographing his world, the food or the chefs, anything that goes on in the kitchen.”
The world of food photography was a new one for Mylod, one that influenced all facets of filmmaking but perhaps most dramatically helped shape the success of Chef Slowik’s final course. Mylod had gone through “Chef’s Table” as research for the work that would ultimately fuel both Slowik’s success and self-destruction, and for the finale he recalled a shot of David Gelb that became part of that show’s title sequence, of a deconstructed dessert by Grant Achatz, where all elements were effectively spread across the tablecloth.
“I started thinking, what if we did this for the whole restaurant, you know? It zoomed in so the whole restaurant was dessert? And once I started talking about it and drawing it with Ethan and [cinematographer Peter Deming] and [costume designer Amy Westcott] and we started trying to work out all the elements that we needed to do that, it turned out to be almost absurdly difficult to accomplish,” Mylod said. “We had to cut a special hole in the ceiling of our restaurant building to get it [the shot]knowing the angle we needed and the right height for it with our aspect ratio.”
With the right visuals, Mylod added emotional depth and texture to the space through sound. As with the set, which allows for simultaneous storytelling across the restaurant’s two clear socioeconomic levels, Mylod wanted to be able to find stories happening at all the diners’ tables in the conversations they have. This is something Mylod has done previously in key episodes of “Succession” and also something he admires about Robert Altman’s work.
“I learned a lot about Altman’s work and also worked with two brilliant actors, Charles Dance and Michael Gabon, who starred in ‘Gosford Park’, which was another big touchstone for me with ‘The Menu’. And they told me how Robert worked with them on set. Everyone was miked the whole time,” said Mylod. “So we’d be working with two sound mixers – I’m getting a little bit of a shout out to their incredible craft, but basically one would focus on the main script and the other would actually isolate that Darwinian sense of ‘okay, where’s something interesting happening at which table?’ I would encourage actors to basically improve all the time so the camera can find every action at every moment at every table.”
Whether it’s Janet McTeer and Paul Adelstein’s non-stop ouroboros of snobbery, or Rob Yang’s, Arturo Castro’s and Mark St. Cyr’s stunted tech-bro banter, or (Stealth MVP) Aimee Carrero’s delightfully dry roast from John Leguizamo’s movie-star boss, every table has something different rhythm and texture, meaning Mylod is able to add sonic variety and freshen up recordings that move between guests, even when the compositions remain the same. “You know, it’s a dining room, but there’s maybe 15, 16 actors on set at one time, so working with them became one of my priorities, I suppose. [And shooting chronologically] has allowed us all to go on a journey at the same time,” said Mylod.
Courtesy of Searchlight
But just like the visuals of the film, both the sound and the score of “The Menu” ultimately come back to Slowik for Mylod. “We take every opportunity to weaponize the sound, hopefully only slightly unnerving the audience, even with the rush of air as the door swings open. Elements like these built and hopefully created a soundscape in the same way that we hopefully created it visually,” said Mylod.
The soundscape is in many ways what triggers the transitions in the images, as the film spins every time Slowik (and eventually Anya Taylor-Joy’s Margot) shifts between gears with an incredibly sharp clap. “The sound team was just brilliant at conveying countless replays of the clapping or breaking of the glass when Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) knocks the glass over,” said Mylod.
The score was the final ingredient for Mylod, adding an emotional articulation of the characters’ feelings that they would never actually voice or show. “I watched the way [composer Colin Stetson] worked on Hereditary and his refusal to bet on it [the obvious cue]. So with the soundtrack, I knew he never would [go for] a jump scare. It would always be more of a slow construction cramp, almost a festival. Because again, what would Slowik do? This is his evening. And you know, for him, the film had a very happy ending, a transcendence and liberation that he’s longed for. So there had to be an element of beauty and celebration, as well as hopefully countless other emotions.”
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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/11/the-menu-mark-mylod-toolkit-interview-1234784856/ The Menu Director Mark Mylod – Filmmaker Toolkit Interview