Ever since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Menu has remained in my mind as one of the best, most sharply written films of the year.
With a simple, claustrophobic premise of an exclusive restaurant trapping a handful of VIP diners, the film is ripe with savage commentary on privilege and wealth. But as the film goes on, it is the battle of wits and intricate chess game between Ralph Fiennes’ Chef Slowik and Anya Taylor-Joy’s Margot that elevates The Menu to a story about passionate artists and what happens to that artist when our gluttonous culture of consumption breaks them down.
It’s what makes the film not only consistently entertaining and darkly funny but also empowering and thoughtful as it reaches its conclusion, all thanks to precise direction by Mark Mylod and a brilliantly structured and carefully executed script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, whose work in the past include articles from The Onion and episodes of Succession – a previous collaboration with Mylod.
I was very fortunate to speak with Seth and Will on The Menu, and within seconds, they set the tone of the conversation. With my virtual background being the still image of Fiennes and Taylor-Joy in the kitchen, both writers just had to make a quippy comment!
In the interview below, we talked about the inspiration behind the script, what fascinates them most about their characters, and most of all, how we are all sort of experiencing the film’s culture dynamic in the real world.
Will Tracy: [Seeing my Zoom background] You have hired Ralph and Anya to stand completely still behind you!
Seth Reiss: You are a money man. [laughs]
WT: Yeah. They’re great actors! Look! They’re not moving an inch!
Kevin L Lee: [laughs] Yes, they’re great. They’re holding for the camera. We need to set up the camera shot.
SR: They’re pros!
KL: Well, Seth and Will, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Congratulations on the film. I adore this movie.
SR: Aw, thank you!
WT: Thank you!
KL: I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival and it’s one of my favorites of the year. I ate your movie up completely. So thank you so much for making just such a sharp, killer script. Tell me about that initial spark that inspired this. What led you both to writing the story?
WT: I went to a restaurant that’s sort of similar to the restaurant you see in the film. It was on a private island in Norway, and you get on a boat. My wife went to this restaurant where there were only 12, 13 customers and they gave you a tour of the island, and it was a very similar experience. And it was starting to get dark. And I was in Scandinavia, and we’re in some weird restaurant and I saw the boat pull away that brought us there. And I’m a little claustrophobic and the whole thing just felt like… I kind of felt trapped a little bit.
And the idea of being trapped in a restaurant like that on an island for four hours seemed like that’s, at the very least, a good precinct for a story. And so Seth and I have known each other and worked with each other for many years since we worked with The Onion together. And we started talking about the idea of, well, what if you set a movie there, and then what if you structure a movie the way you would structure a tasting menu by courses? And that gives you your roadmap for the story.
SR: Yeah. And just, I think, Will said that if you ever feel lost in the writing, if you ever feel like tension isn’t increasing, well, you can just go back to the structure of where are we at? Here’s where we need to get to. I think writers are always looking for a structure that they can hang their story onto. And so the structure of a tasting menu really benefited us as writers, and benefited the story as a whole. Conceptually, it was, I think, a cool idea.
And then we started talking about, well, what do we want to say with this movie? And I think it’s twofold or three or fourfold. Obviously, we want to say something about the service industry and how people in the service industry are treated. I think we also want to talk about entitlement and just how we tend to consume and consume and consume content.
SR: And we’re constantly consuming content, and we don’t think about the people who are providing the content for us and how those people providing the content might then burn out and then feel, or wonder, why are we doing this in the first place? We’ve kind of lost our desire to do this.
So I think you can obviously map what’s going on in The Menu with the creativity and artistry of the chef. You can map that on to film. You can map it onto really any creative endeavor where people feel like they have to continually churn out stuff.
SR: Journalism. Yeah.
KL: My god. You guys basically just described every reason why I love your movie. Even though it takes place at a restaurant and is about food, I feel like it’s just about passion in general. It’s about artists in general. In your script, you describe Chef Slowik as not just a chef, but a storyteller.
KL: So talk to me about how you shaped this character Chef Slowik. And when you were writing this character, what thoughts came to your mind on how you wanted to challenge him?
WT: Yeah, I think what we liked about the character was that he is an artist and he is passionate, but there’s also, his ego has derived quite a bit from this over the years. And I think he likes to think that he’s moved beyond the place of ego, that he’s become self-actualized. And that’s what this special night is all about, is “I’ve transcended what was my striving, grasping, parochial need to be seen as a great artist. I’ve transcended that now and I’ve moved beyond it. And so I will atone for my sins tonight.”
But of course you can flip that coin right around and say, well, no, actually this entire night is a disgusting monument to your own ego. And now you’re bringing all these poor people down with you, both the ones who work for you and the ones who consume your art.
SR: There’s the idea of, he’s talking to the food critic at one point and her ego is spent by him texting her to come. His ego has been fed by her writing reviews. They all need each other. All their egos need one another. And then-
WT: It’s a content ecosystem.
KL: Yes. Ecosystem. Yes.
SR: And so just like a journalist wants to write an amazing story or a sketch writer at a comedy show wants to write an amazing sketch, or you want to write an amazing episode of Succession. But then, there’s that part of us that goes, “How are people responding to this?”
I want to know. And that gives me some sort of validation. And I think Chef is the same way. Even though he’s at the top of his game, he needs that validation from people. And this night is finally, I don’t need that anymore, which I think is absolute horseshit. He absolutely needs that validation.
WT: Because he knows that ultimately, well, first of all, it never fills you up. And he knows that he’s still empty and still hungry for that validation. But also he knows that especially with food where the tastes and trends and foods change so wildly over the years. And also once you eat it, it’s gone. It doesn’t last. You can’t hold onto it. You can’t go back and eat a “great chef from the 80s food.” It’s over.
So you have to do something to cement your legacy. You have to do something to make you feel as though you’ve been part of a cultural conversation that will last beyond your death. And playing with the elements of life and death and when you work in an art form that’s as ephemeral as food, there is this panic of how do you keep it going? How do you stay on top? And then what after that? The question of legacy is so much harder for a chef. It just goes away. And I think he’s terrified of that.
KL: I think that’s what makes him such a compelling character in this film. When the film premiered, I think someone in the audience asked Ralph Fiennes, “How do you feel about your villain character?” And then he just straight up says, “I don’t think he’s a villain.”
SR: We don’t see him as a villain either. I mean-
WT: One can. That’s perfectly valid if one wants to see him as a villain. But-
SR: In The Menu, I think there are no heroes or villains. I think Margot does not belong there. I think that’s what’s important about her character. I think she’s acting heroically, but within the box, she truly doesn’t fit. She doesn’t really fit with the people in the service industry, even though she’s a member of it. And also, she doesn’t fit with the customers there. That’s totally not her scene.
Or there is the idea, which I kind of like the idea because we don’t know what the next day is. There’s the idea that Margot goes home to her beautiful penthouse apartment, wherever this is, because she’s actually quite wealthy. She might be. So I think it’s an easy-
WT: We don’t know-
SR: Yeah, we don’t know.
WT: And does she even act heroically? She acts out of self-preservation in an instinct for survival. And there’s some cunning to her. And obviously she’s someone who has been mistreated, including by people in that room. But she doesn’t make any effort really to save anyone else.
WT: I think she’s trying to get out.
SR: She’s trying to get out.
SR: And then there’s the idea of what both these people are quite good at and what they recognize in one another is the ability to provide an experience. And so I think Margot effectively provides an experience for the Chef. And I think the Chef is quite appreciative of that experience that she ended up providing for him.
KL: I think there’s something very intriguing and empowering about how you wrote Margot’s character. She’s like you said, she doesn’t belong. And so she comes in and is this big curveball for Chef Slowik. It messes with his routine. It messes with the menu.
KL: Watching how Margot’s character is written, how Anya Taylor-Joy gives that performance, is there a takeaway or commentary that you hope audiences take from this character, something that you want to say with her being a survivor?
WT: Well, I think that in some ways she’s someone who remains a bit of an enigma throughout the film. I think she gives various people, I think, what they want or what they want to see from her. And I think that she is also someone who, although she’s both a monkey wrench in the Chef’s menu and in the evening, by the end of the film, she’s also given him the ending that he didn’t have before. She’s kind of given him what he wants and what he needs. So I think that she’s someone who probably read that correctly. That she’s the one who knows what the customer wants in a way and knows how to find it probably better than he does.
I think he’s thinking much more about his own ego and what will satisfy it. And I think she’s probably thinking much more about what does this person need? What does this person need, and how can I use that in this particular instance to escape? So she, in that sense, is more of an empath who can see what the ego of a man like this requires, which is in some ways her job, right?
SR: Right. I think if we said to Margot, “Margot, you’re a survivor.” I think she might actually roll her eyes at that.
SR: I think she might be like, “No, I did what I had to do. I got out of there.”
WT: And also, “I know guys like that.”
SR: Yeah. “I get it. I figured it out.” I think there’s a really great moment in the film, it’s a moment between her and Judith [Light], where Judith’s character says, “You know my husband.” And Anya’s delivery of, “Yeah, I do.”
SR: It’s like what are we going to do about it? You know I know, and that’s it! And I will say… I think that Anya’s performance is fucking incredible, with how the character’s written and then the way Mark [Mylod] frames her. She’s doing so much with her face so we try to get in the headspace of this character. And she’s such a grounding force in the movie. I think she anchors the movie, really anchors the movie. And without her in it, without a performance in it, the movie would go… pffft [hand flutter motion].
So she really holds it down. It’s quite impressive. And it was really impressive to watch her work on set. And then it’s just wonderful the way Mark filmed her.
KL: There’s such a large ensemble cast in this film. They’re full of VIP guests and everyone’s brilliant. You guys did this amazing job of looking at wealth and privilege. I can’t help but think… I’m sitting here, I’ve seen the film, I’ve reviewed it, I’ve talked about it, we’re talking about it now. And part of me is wondering… am I part of the problem??
SR: So are we! Yeah! [laughs]
KL: Right?? So what do you make of that? What do you make of this meta culture where we’re feeding each other?
SR: I think because we’re living in the real world that we need to give ourselves a smidge of a break [Laughs]
WT: But we didn’t create the real world!
WT: We didn’t create that system that’s like, look… I mean, although we’re supposedly living in a great democracy, we know that really we have very little power to affect political change. We have very little power to affect class change. And so what do you do? The things that you have power over is sadly what you choose to eat, what you choose to watch, what content you choose to consume. And so in that way, we have to be somewhat easy on ourselves for not being like we’re creating the problem. No, we’re just, in some ways we’re self-soothing and self-medicating within a larger problem.
KL: True, true, true.
WT: But there are some people, obviously, like the Tyler’s [Nicholas Hoult] of the world who take that to a deeply sick and unhealthy extreme.
KL: I’m looking at the world that you’ve created in The Menu, and I think about the real Chef Slowik’s out there, whether or not they’re chefs or they’re filmmakers or they’re writers, something. And I wonder, is there something that we could do or we should do as people, here in the real world, so that the real Slowik’s don’t fall to the dark side?
WT: Honestly, it’s a good reminder in the film, in a non-patronizing way, to obviously be kind to the people who serve you and to be aware of what the transactional relationship is. And not to either overstep it with an overfamiliarity and a worship. But to also have respect for people who do that line of work who deserve to do it with dignity. And then also for people in the kitchen to, I guess, remember that you were in the pleasure business first of all. But also that there’s this old French phrase that you never grow old at the dinner table, and that this is a place where people are supposed to leave their worries and their cares behind. And to remember that the idea maybe is not to challenge and provoke people, but to make them feel welcome.
But beyond that, I don’t know what you do with a place like Hawthorne. They’ve reached a level of both excellence and consistency and also a price point where, how do you dial that down? You can’t. You’re on a private island charging that amount of money for that sort of food. I don’t know how you can relax it. Maybe you shut it down and maybe you go and open a taco truck? But I don’t know. That’s a very tricky thing.
But that’s what you’re seeing in the food world right now, is that restaurants like Hawthorne are becoming less common. So you are seeing more accessible, high and low end hybrid restaurants, from great chefs and great teams where they’re trying to make the business a bit more humane because it’s not a very humane business. It’s tough.
KL: At the end of the premiere in Toronto, we were all greeted with a food truck outside handing us free cheeseburgers.
SR: That’s great. I wish we could do that for everyone who’s about to watch the movie for many reasons. One, it’s a good idea. Two, they’ll like it more [laughs]
WT: [laughs] But of course where our minds immediately go as writers is… I’m immediately in the movie version of that scene, cutting to inside the food truck, and the guy making the cheeseburgers is like, “These fucking film festivals.”
SR: Or the prick – not prick, because I would do this too – who leaves the movie theater and is like, “Oh, clever.”
SR: “Oh, good move. Good move, PR team. Who came up with THAT? Who high fived after THAT idea?”
SR: But I do think.. what I was saying earlier about us giving ourselves a break… enjoy the cheeseburger.
SR: You have to enjoy the cheeseburger.
KL: Yes. I think at the end of the day, after the movie’s two hours of fine dining, being greeted with that food truck and given that cheeseburger at the end, I think that really, really hits home what you guys have been trying to say in the script. And seriously, guys, congratulations. It is a killer film.
WT: Aw, thank you.
SR: Thank you. Appreciate it.
Searchlight Pictures will release The Menu only in theaters on November 18.