Films that take place predominantly in one location are, perhaps, something of an acquired taste. It’s a challenge to make a single space feel expansive and full of possibility, to avoid shots feeling repetitive or boring, and to adjust the visual landscape of the film, but not too much, so it evolves as the story progresses. “The Menu” isn’t the only film in 2022 taking place almost entirely on a private island or with a large ensemble cast working through the our deep societal rot by sitting around and talking to each other. But for the film’s story of a group of diners who travel to the extremely exclusive restaurant Hawthorne run by the celebrated Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes — receiving far more than dinner and show along the way — director Mark Mylod found that the limitations 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.
“I knew that it would be a lovely challenge to take a room where a lot of people are sat down for a lot of the time, and actually give that kinetic energy and make it dynamic as a space,” Mylod told IndieWire. “This was a journey that is totally controlled by the chef. How would he do it? That was really interesting exercise, particularly, I suppose coming off the back of having just shot Season 3 of ‘Succession,’ which has such a different camera grammar, such a different metronome to the edit – some similar overlapping themes, certainly, but a very different metronome to it.”
To find a more biting, 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, even though they limit the spaces where action takes place, find an electric dynamism through camera placement, evocative 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 was that there were this open plane kitchen so that we could have two worlds: this kinda microcosm of society to a certain extent, ‘the givers and the takers,’ between the dining room and the kitchen. When the camera is in the dining room with the diners, I love the idea of having this kind of upstage element of the lurking cooks and their threat through the military choreography of their work always going on, you know, even with a relatively limited depth of field. The always-there, slightly-out-of-focus threat to the diners was important,” Mylod said. “Then flipping 180 degrees towards the window, [production designer Ethan Tobman] created this huge wall of windows, unbreakable glass looking out over the ocean, providing this barrier between the diners and that untenable, unreachable freedom represented by the ocean outside that window.”
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In addition to trapping the upstairs/downstairs elements of the story in the same brutally posh bunker, Mylod adjusted the feel of the restaurant space through lighting. “We plotted it so that the sun would gradually go down into darkness over the course of the evening, thereby isolating and putting more pressure on our characters,” Mylod said. “Then really it comes down to staging in terms of using the movement primarily of Chef Slowik. Everything in this world is his universe and that informed an awful lot of the process. I actually found myself asking myself, you know, what would Chef Slowik do a lot of times in terms of honing the design and the camera positions, particularly in photographing his world, the food or the chefs, anything going on in the kitchen.”
The world of food photography was a new one for Mylod, one that informed every facet of the filmmaking, but perhaps most dramatically helped shape Chef Slowik’s final course flourish. Mylod had gone through “Chef’s Table” as research for the work that would ultimately drive both Slowik’s success and self-destruction, and for the finale remembered a shot of David Gelb’s which became part of that show’s title sequence, of a deconstructed dessert by Grant Achatz where all the elements were, effectively, spread across the tablecloth.
“I started thinking, what if we did that for the whole restaurant, you know? Scaled it up so the whole restaurant was the dessert? And as soon as I started talking about this 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 need to do that, it turned out it was almost preposterously difficult to achieve,” Mylod said. “It required us to cut a special hole in the ceiling of our restaurant construction to get [the shot], knowing the angle that we needed and the right height for it with our aspect ratio.”
With the right visuals dialed in, Mylod added emotional depth and texture to the space through sound. Like the set that allows for simultaneous storytelling across the restaurant’s two clear socioeconomic planes, Mylod wanted to be able to find story happening at all the diners’ tables in the conversations they’re having. It’s something that Mylod has done before in key episodes of “Succession” and also something he admires in the work of Robert Altman.
“I read up hugely on Altman’s way of working and also worked with two brilliant actors, Charles Dance and Michael Gabon, who were in ‘Gosford Park,’ which was another big touchstone for me with ‘The Menu.’ And they told me how Robert worked with them on set. Everybody was mic’d up all the time,” Mylod said. “So we’d work with two sound mixers — I’m being slightly reductive to their incredible craft, but basically one would concentrate on the main script and the other would be actually isolating this Darwinian sense of, ‘Okay, where is there something interesting happening at which table?’ I’d be encouraging the actors to basically improv all the time so that at every moment the camera could find any piece of action at any table.”
Whether it’s Janet McTeer’s and Paul Adelstein’s nonstop 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 deadpan roasting of John Leguizamo’s movie star boss, each table has a slightly different rhythm and texture to it, which means that Mylod is able to add sonic variety and make shots that move between the diners feel fresher, even if the compositions stay the same. “You know, it’s one dining room, but there’s maybe 15, 16 actors on set at any time, so working with them became my priority, I suppose, amongst other things. [And shooting chronologically] allowed us all to go on a journey at the same time,” Mylod said.
Courtesy of Searchlight
But just like with the film’s visuals, both sound and score on “The Menu” ultimately come back to Slowik for Mylod. “We take any opportunity to weaponize sound to hopefully just slightly put the audience on edge, even with the swooshing of air whenever the door was hinged open. Elements like this built and hopefully created a soundscape in the same way that hopefully visually we created,” Mylod said.
The soundscape in many ways is what kicks off transitions in the visuals, in fact, as the film turns each time Slowik (and eventually Anya Taylor-Joy’s Margot) transitions between courses with an incredibly sharp clap. “The sound team were just brilliant at sending over countless iterations of the clap or the breaking of the glass when Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) knocks the glass over,” Mylod said.
The score was the final ingredient for Mylod, adding an emotional articulation of the characters’ feelings they’d never actually voice or show. “I’d watched the way [composer Colin Stetson] worked on ‘Hereditary’ and his refusal to go for [the obvious cue]. So with the soundtrack, I knew that he would never [go for] a jump scare. It would always be more of a slow building drag, almost a celebration. 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 craved for so long. So there had to be an element of beauty and celebration to that, as well as hopefully myriad other emotions.”
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