Interview with the Cast and Director of ‘The Menu’

The Menu” is an inspired black comedy featuring an incredibly talented cast of actors who play characters invited to a remote island where celebrity chef, Julian Slowik, is preparing quite the cuisine for them. As the night goes on, however, the guests come to see that Chef Slowik’s intentions are anything but gracious as he looks to punish those who cannot take enough time to taste the food they are eating. In this day and age when we are too busy shoving food into our mouths as life moves by fast, this motion picture reminds you of the importance of savoring every bite.

I got to sit in on a press conference for “The Menu” which was moderated by Rolling Stone magazine’s senior editor, David Fear. It featured actors Nicholas Hoult, Anya Taylor-Joy, John Leguizamo, Aimee Carrero, Judith Light and Hong Chau, and they were joined by then movie’s director, Mark Mylod, who is best known for helming episodes of “Succession” and “Shameless.”

When it comes to black comedies, I always wonder how they are conceived and put together. Making a comedy movie is hard enough, but putting a black comedy has got to be even harder as you are trying to get the audience to laugh as things no one would laugh at in real life. On top of that, this movie could be described as many different things such as, as Fear put it, “a broad social satire, it’s a Grand Guignol horror film, it’s a very dry comedy, and it’s a high tragedy.” Taking all this into account, one has to wonder how Mylod managed to find the right balance for everything.

Mark Mylod:   First of all, instinctive in reading the script, I think one of the things that drew us all to the project was that lovely mashup of tones that I think as quite a small target to hit. But we were all attracted to how specific that was. And then I think for me it was the few days or the week that we spent doing our version of rehearsals, which was basically to sit together or in smaller groups in a room and just talk about issues that interested us in the script and in our story and about our characters. And in doing so, it was perhaps less about what we were actually saying and more about us all tuning in by osmosis, perhaps unconsciously to get on the same level. I think it’s a Sydney Pollack quote about everybody making the same movie, so that by the time we were on set, we all tuned in together and we continued to do so with the huge benefit of shooting the film almost entirely chronologically.

One of my favorite performances in “The Menu” comes from Hong Chau who portrays the right-hand person to celebrity chef Julian Slowik (played by Ralph Fiennes), Elsa. Considering how the screenplay only gives her so much to work with, I couldn’t help but wonder how Chau managed to give us such a fascinating character in the process. Her answer to this helps illuminate the way she creates a character.

Hong Chau: I signed on not really being able to picture what the final product would look like. That was exciting to me, because I was curious to see how it would turn out and I knew that the people involved were great collaborators to take that leap of faith with. I was a huge fan of Succession and I knew that Mark (Mylod) would be able to take these characters who are unlikable for so many reasons, and somehow weave together a story where you cared about what happened, not necessarily to them, but cared about the situation. It was just surprising that I felt even some sort of heartbreak for some of the characters, and that’s just a special gift that Mark has.

Another big question I had was for John Leguizamo who plays a movie star who is washed-up, past his prime and, most importantly, has no name. This movie star could be any we know from when we were growing up or from today’s world which is filled with an endless variety of actors playing superheroes and comic-book characters. Leguizamo wrote a book back in 2007 entitled “Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas, and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life,” and he was more than honest about the many actors and movie stars he has worked with. When it came to his nameless character, I had to wonder which actor/movie star he based him on.

John Leguizamo: I’m not being typecast here, so because I’m not washed up and I’m not an action star, so I’m not a washed-up action star. But I’ve worked with a lot of action stars who became washed up and I modeled it after one person in particular who was a bit of an a-hole and a bully. Okay, Steven Seagal. I modeled after Steven Seagal because I did a movie with him and in rehearsals, he knocked me out and he didn’t care.

The movie Leguizamo is referring to is “Executive Decision,” an action film from 1996 directed by Stuart Baird. Leguizamo played US Army Special Forces officer, Captain Carlos “Rat” Lopez, and Seagal played his superior, Lieutenant Colonel Austin Travis. There are many stories about what happened behind the scenes on “Executive Decision,” and they all describe how Seagal slammed Leguizamo against a wall when he laughed at him for taking himself far too seriously.

John Leguizamo: (Seagal) hit me with an elbow in my solar plexus and knocked me against the wall, because I was laughing at him. I forgot to mention that part. I was a bit of a dick then. Sorry, I had to give that fact. So that’s who I was modeling after. I’d seen these privileged guys, and these guys who come into a room with so much narcissism and self, it’s like they suck the oxygen out of the room because they want all the attention and everything’s got to be on them, otherwise they turn negative. So that’s what I was trying to create, because it doesn’t naturally come to me.

And when it comes to these characters in general, what I admired most was how each actor inhabited them. These characters could have been portrayed broadly, but they were not which I thought was great. When it came to character descriptions, one of my favorites came from actress Judith Light who played Anne, a longtime fan of Chef Slowik’s who often visits his restaurant along with her husband Richard (played by Reed Birney).

Judith Light: When you watch a woman who has lived her life giving up her soul and herself in order to have the privilege that she so desperately wants, and begins to realize through the course of the film is that you think it’s one way and it’s not that way. It turns into something else and you begin to see that she wakes up as she realizes that her life is not what she wanted it to be. She’s not who she wants to be and she’s not living the way that she wants to live. And so, there is this bubbling, this cauldron that’s underneath all the time within the dynamic. And where that begins to shift and play out is in relation to Anya’s character. You begin to see that there’s a uniting of these two women in a very simple-I think maybe we say three words to each other in the entire film-but you can see the process of what’s happening within the heart and soul of this person. You don’t really see it until things begin to unfold in the most powerful, painful kinds of ways. So, between the two of us, between Reed and myself, I felt a very special and deep kind of rehearsal. Mark was saying in the beginning we all had these rehearsals with each other, and we improvised something between the two of us that was so moving and poignant and powerful because you know you walk into a restaurant and you see those two people. They’re not talking to each other; they never talk to each other. And you say to your partner, “I’m never going to be that person. I’m never going to be the person in that relationship.” And there you are, and one day you wake up and there you are and you are that person. And so, we were discovering all those things all of the time. So, Mark really gave us the depth and the breadth within the creativity of those rehearsals, and being on the set as well, our reactions to other people that really illuminated, and you begin to see this character; you see her transformation over time.

“The Menu” comes to us courtesy of Searchlight Pictures, and it opens in theaters on November 18, 2022. I highly recommend you check it out!

‘The Menu’ Serves Up Quite a Devious Dish

To me, “The Menu” is what Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” would be had it been set in a restaurant. While not as insanely crazy as “Midsommar,” this film is an insidiously clever black comedy which follows a group of people as they travel to a remote island (is there any other kind in a movie like this?) where an exclusive restaurant named Hawthorn, which is run by celebrity chef Julian Slowik, is located. But while the chef has prepared quite the cuisine for his selected guests, some sinister intentions are eventually unveiled for all to see which turns a special occasion into an inescapable nightmare. It all made me wonder if the screenplay was written by individuals who had been waiting tables for too long and been stiffed on tips one too many times. Or maybe it was conceived by a talented chef who was sick of people eating food and not tasting it. Or perhaps it was written by someone eager to illustrate the ultimate wet dream of Gordon Ramsay. Seriously, I can’t wait to hear what Gordon or even the Swedish Chef have to say about this.

“The Menu” starts with us being introduced to the guests who have been carefully invited to this especially special restaurant. Among them are a trio of drunk tech workers who have plenty of money to burn, an older couple who have visited Hawthorn several times previously, a celebrated restaurant critic and her devoted magazine editor, and a middle-age Hollywood movie star whose relationship with his assistant, who is by his side on this trip, is not entirely professional. From the outset, it looks like we have the typical cast of characters here, but this will be challenged as the filmmakers are quick to play with our expectations.

Also onboard is Tyler (played by Nicholas Hoult), a super-obsessed foodie who aspires to learn everything he can about cooking from Slowik. With him is his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose love of food doesn’t come even close to his, and he is quick to admonish her for smoking as it will ruin her palette. When it comes to an exclusive restaurant like this, you want to spend more time tasting than eating, and this is echoed by Slowik once his guests are seated at their tables.

As everyone is led on a tour through the island by Slowik’s trusted right-hand person, Elsa (Hong Chau), they are told the ingredients for tonight’s meals come from the island and the nearby ocean. But once we get to see the employees’ sleeping quarters, which look similar to the beds those cult members slept on in “Midsommar,” this our first hint that things are going to go haywire as his fellow cooks act in a very unified way, and this made even clearer when Slowik claps his hands loudly to get everyone’s attention. Yes, that’s all he needs to do to bring his fellow cooks in line, and they are ever so quick to do so in the process.

Slowik tells everyone that the mission of this evening is not to eat, but to instead taste and savor the food given to them. But as the evening goes on, we see he is not out to congratulate his guests as he is to belittle them. This becomes apparent when he makes a deliberate mockery out of “Taco Tuesday” and presents his guests with tortillas which are as tasty as they are far too revealing. From there, the party becomes very dark and oppressive in a way only the Hawthorne employees could see coming.

Revealing more about “The Menu” might take away from your enjoyment, and I refuse to rob you of its many surprises. What I can tell you is that it is a lot like those movies which really gain my affection; it’s like an onion which invites you to peel back its many layers. And once you get past the final layer, you will find yourself wanting to watching this film again as putting all the pieces together will be irresistible. Moreover, this film held my attention from start to finish as I constantly wondered what direction the story would take next as we are taking from one food course to the next with little in the way of hesitation.

At its heart. Director Mark Mylod and screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy look to satirize the cruel divisions between the haves and have nots and of a society that never seems to have time for the finer things in life. Granted, I came out of “The Menu” thinking the satire could have been even deeper and sharper, but its is sharp enough to make for a gleefully twisted motion picture, and I am always looking for a good black comedy.

I was also struck by how good the actors are as they could have played their roles ever so broadly, but instead find nuances to where their characters are not mere cliches. Both Janet McTeer and Paul Adelstein make renowned restaurant critic Lillian Bloom and her magazine editor Ted into more than caricatures as their surface appearances can only hide the hideous takedowns they have written and published on restaurants past for so long. Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr at first give us the kind of tech gurus who think they have it made to where money can seemingly buy everything, and each actor makes the ego-crushing their characters endure all the more brutal.

Nicholas Hoult quickly turns Tyler into a believably devoted foodie to where the reveal of his cooking style made me feel strangely sorry for him. And I can always count on John Leguizamo to give me a great time as he gives us the kind of washed-up actor here which he has had the misfortune of working with in real life, and Aimee Carrero has some choice moments as his long-time assistant Felicity who learns there is actually a downside to not having student loans to par off.

But there are some performances I really want to single out here, and among them is Ralph Fiennes’s. As celebrity chef Julian Slowik, I expected the actor who was the first to ever utter the word “fuck” in a James Bond movie (“No Time to Die” to be exact) to turn this character into some demented madman. But while Julian does have some demented plans for this evening, Fiennes makes him at times empathetic as he shows an emotional pain searing through which we can see in his eyes. This is especially apparent in his scenes Anna Taylor-Joy as her character of Margot is the one who was not actually invited to this particular dining experience, and this results in exhibiting some kind of hope that this dinner might have a positive outcome.

As for Taylor-Joy, best known for a Netflix miniseries I should have watched already, “The Queen’s Gambit,” she has the unique challenge of being the audience surrogate as, like her, we are desperately looking for a way out of this hellish situation which does not look to have a happy ending. She makes Margot an especially strong character even as fear threatens to engulf her every second. Watching her here, it’s no wonder she was picked to star in the upcoming “Furiosa” prequel.

I also really admired Hong Chau’s enigmatic performance as Chef Slowik’s right hand person, Elsa. From the screenplay, only so much is revealed about Elsa, and yet Chau turned into one of the most riveting characters to be found in “The Menu.” Watching Chau here makes me wonder what kind of backstory she created for Elsa as she dares you to see if you have the guts to peel back her many layers to reveal who she really is underneath her orderly appearance.

I really do hope audiences get to check out “The Menu” and that it doesn’t get lost in the midst of all the blockbusters and Oscar hopefuls which are about to invade multiplexes everywhere. Movies like these tend to get smothered too quickly as they have to deal with the latest superhero adventure, sequel or potential franchise installment. What’s wrong with enjoying movies which are standalone ones anyway?

Also, I cannot wait to recommend it to people like my dad and brother, both of whom love to cook. There’s no doubt they will be tickled to death by this one, and they will come out of it thankful that they are not running their own restaurants, something which is the furthest from their minds.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ is One of Wes Anderson’s Most Inspired Works

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2009.

After watching “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” I am convinced Wes Anderson should make as many stop-motion animated movies as he possibly can. Nothing against his live action work, but this form of animation seems really suited to Anderson’s unique blend of comedy and dysfunction. While his last film, “The Darjeeling Limited,” was very good, it started to seem like he had been dealing with the same themes once too often. But with the brilliantly made “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” his material is given a freshness which, for a moment, seemed to have escaped him. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this turned out to be one of the most enjoyable movies I saw in 2009. As a result, any frustration I had over not being able to see “Avatar” (it was a family outing, and it didn’t seem right for my 5-year-old niece) was completely forgiven.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is based on a children’s novel written by Roald Dahl whom Anderson considers one of his personal heroes. Dahl is the same man who wrote “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach” among other stories, and his work is characterized by a lack of sentimentality and a lot of dark humor. Judging from “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” with their strong black humor, it’s no wonder Anderson digs Dahl!

The Mr. Fox of the title is a cool and exceedingly clever animal, and we first see him with his wife sneaking into a farm to steal food. They are, however, caught in a trap which has his wife pointing out they should choose a safer form of work. Oh yeah, she also tells him she’s pregnant, and this changes the dynamics of their relationship in a heartbeat. We catch up with these two a couple of years later after they have found a home within a hole in the ground. Mr. Fox is now a newspaper columnist, and he and his wife are parents to a son, the sullen Ash, who constantly feels unappreciated in all he does. Still, Mr. Fox does not like where his family lives and promises to do better by them. Despite the warnings of his lawyer, Badger, he ends up buying a new home in the base of a tree. These new lodgings are also coincidently right near the gigantic farms owned by three ugly looking farmers: Walter Boggis, Nathan Bunce, and Franklin Bean. So, of course, this gets Mr. Fox all excited and back to his usual tricks of stealing food and drink while the rest of the family remains unaware. To quote another fox from a vastly different 2009 movie, “chaos reigns!”

The first thing people will notice about this movie is its “star studded” (what does that term mean anyway?) cast of actors. Voicing Mr. Fox is the most debonair of movie stars right now, George Clooney. With this, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” and “Up in The Air,” I can’t help but wonder when Clooney gets the time to sleep. At this moment, he’s everywhere, and his constant presence would be ever so annoying if he weren’t such a terrific actor. Clooney perfectly captures Mr. Fox’s confidence without ever becoming overly smug, and he exudes the cleverness this character has in getting back at the three farmers.

Meryl Streep, who has also had a busy year with this, “Julie & Julia” and “It’s Complicated,” voices Mrs. Fox. I actually wonder how much sleep she gets as well as Streep always seems to be learning a new accent she has not taken on yet. Streep is the perfect contrast to Clooney’s charmingly reckless nature, and she serves as the conscience Mr. Fox needs to hear out more often. Streep doesn’t do anything incredibly different with her voice like she did for Julia Childs, but its warmth is quite seductive at times.

Anderson has also employed many of his regulars for “Fantastic Mr. Fox” as well. Jason Schwartzman who was featured quite prominently in “Rushmore” and “The Darjeeling Limited” voices Mr. Fox’s son, Ash. Schwartzman perfectly captures the angst Ash feels at never fully winning his dad’s approval, and you feel Ash’s desperation as he goes to dangerous lengths to get any approval. Owen Wilson, who co-wrote “The Royal Tenenbaums” with Anderson, has a cameo voicing Ash’s athletic coach, Skip. You can tell its Wilson right away, and he gives Skip a wonderfully dry voice which gets a good number of laughs whenever he appears. Even Bill Murray, who has had a role in just about all of Anderson’s movies, voices Mr. Fox’s lawyer, Clive Badger, and he always seems to fit in perfectly in Anderson’s cinematic universe. And let us not forget Wallace Wolodarsky who voices the confidence challenged Kylie Sven Opossum who somehow gets sucked into Mr. Fox’s schemes against his better judgment.

Others to be found here are Michael Gambon, the current Dumbledore of the “Harry Potter” movies, who voices one of the farmers hellbent on eliminating the thieving Mr. Fox, Franklin Bean. Eric Chase Anderson, who is responsible for those illustrations of Anderson’s movies when they are given Criterion Collection releases, voices Mrs. Fox’s nephew Kristofferson who is perfect in every way Ash is not. But the most surprising voice here is from the actor who voices Rat, Bean’s security guard. Rat was a French character, so I assumed the actor voicing him was French. Turns out that it was actually Willem Dafoe! That’s right, the same guy who was in that other delightful 2009 movie with a fox, “Antichrist.”

With just about all of animated movies being done with computers and digital effects, it’s refreshing to see other filmmakers go a little retro with the stop-motion animation. The work here is brilliantly done, and I was surprised at how lifelike everything looked. Movies like these must require an exceeding amount of patience to make because they clearly take years to produce. It also fits right in with Anderson’s quirky sense of humor which remains intact a good ten years or so after “Rushmore.”

I also really dug the soundtrack Anderson chose for “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Each of his movies contain a great selection of music which veers from classic British rock songs to American rock among other genres. With this film, Anderson includes songs from the Beach Boys and Burt Ives which fuel the proceedingas with an undeniable sense of innocence and adventure. It also made me an instant fan of The Bobby Fuller Four whose song “Let Her Dance” plays during one of the most joyful moments this film has. Composing the score is Alexandre Desplat who has composed music for movies like “Firewall” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” among others. I love how Desplat captures the infectious spirit of everything which takes place.

Is this a kid appropriate movie? I think so. It did get a PG rating which seems appropriate. Sure, there are many bottles of alcoholic apple cider and some smoked chickens which might give you the wrong impression of the goings on being displayed, but I really think this movie is harmless. Compare this to the recently released sequel to “Alvin and the Chipmunks” which has not so subtle references to classic movies like “Taxi Driver” and “Silence of the Lambs” among others. This film is not just aimed at kids, but for the whole family as well.

While many will be more likely to view this movie on DVD or Blu-ray (or VHS if it’s still available), ” Fantastic Mr. Fox” really is a fantastic piece of work which deserves a big audience. Anderson, along with co-writer Noah Baumbach (“The Squid & The Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding“), has managed to take his fascination with families that are less than perfect and put them in a context which will not scar your kids for life. It was also cool to see Clooney play a character who, unlike the one he portrayed in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” was not afraid to dance.

Was it worth not going to see “Avatar” this day and watching this instead? I hate to say it, but yeah.

* * * * out of * * * *