When it comes to food, British film and TV director Mark Mylod admits that he is more of a Heinz-beans-on-toast man than a connoisseur of fine dining. In fact, when he was working on Game of Thrones, and had the opportunity to eat at some of Europe's swankier restaurants, Mylod felt decidedly out of place. "We'd be going around Spain and Croatia, and that was my little initiation into Michelin-starred restaurants," he says. "I never felt awfully comfortable in them, even though I could appreciate the art and the human endeavor."
That experience was one of the reasons Mylod warmed to the script for the horror-comedy The Menu (out Nov. 18), about a much-feted chef who whips up a night of terror for selected diners at his exclusive eatery. Written by Will Tracy, with whom Mylod had worked on HBO's Succession, and Seth Reiss, the director connected with the idea of the basic need to eat suddenly transformed into a "brag on some level — that was immediately a very potent area to have a poke at."
The Menu stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, John Leguizamo, Janet McTeer, Judith Light, and Succession actor Rob Yang, among others, as a group of one-percenters who spend $1,250 a head for the pleasure of dining at Hawthorne, a restaurant on a remote island overseen by Ralph Fiennes' Chef Slowik. He specializes in the art of molecular gastronomy (think: food meets science) and, over the course of the evening, offers his guests a parade of pretty and pretentious dishes, from scallops on boulders to a breadless bread plate, as well as some fairly unpleasant life lessons.
Mylod knew the food onscreen had to look the part for his film to work. To that end, he recruited Dominique Crenn, the chef at San Francisco's three-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn, for her input on the dishes screenwriter Tracy had noted in the script. "Will, being the bona fide foodie, whose experience at a Norwegian restaurant was the germ of the idea for the piece in the first place, had been very specific in researching the dishes," says the director. "A lot of it actually worked pretty well, particularly the Island, the first course that came out with the scallop on top of the boulder and all the fruits of the sea around that. But Dominque had ideas as to what would work cohesively and aesthetically on the plate. So there was a dialogue always there."
The person responsible for physically creating the dishes during the shoot was Kendall Gensler, a New Orleans-based food stylist whose previous credits include Django Unchained and Treme. Unsurprisingly, Gensler was thrilled when she read the script. "I thought it was very exciting," she says. "Of course, I look at it from the culinary standpoint. Scripts like this don't come around very often where it's all food all the time."
Gensler's task was to bring the dishes to life in a manner which would mean they still looked freshly-plated after hours of shooting. "We spent about two weeks before we started shooting fine-tuning the dishes, so that they would stand up to camera, [for example] making decisions as to when we would be using a real scallop as opposed to a potato scallop," she says. "What we had to assess was the camera. So if it was a 'hero' plate crossing the floor, we would plate real scallops, and then if they were on the table and the camera was far away we would have potatoes."
The food stylist's bete noire turned out to be foam. "We're talking about molecular gastronomy and so there were foams in several of the dishes, and having a foam stand up to camera was difficult," Gensler says. So how does one keep foam looking, well, foamy? Turns out, you can't. "We kept having to reapply the foam," she says. "There is a molecular compound — like Foam Magic — that will hold the foam up, but it will take it from lasting one minute to three minutes. So we would shoot, we'd have to replate, replace the foam, and go from there."
Since The Menu's restaurant is open-plan, with the food prepared in plain view of both the customers and the production's cameras, Mylod only cast actors who could convincingly look like they were preparing the evening's dishes. "The background people had all previously worked in the [restaurant] industry, that was the entry card to get them in," says Mylod. "I didn't want anybody who worked in the industry to watch this film and go, well, that's not right, they wouldn't be doing that." Mylod recruited Savannah-based chef John Benhase to help drill the actors. "We had John doing this boot camp to make sure that every element of what was going on upstage all the time was all completely authentic," says the director, whose film premiered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival to highly positive reviews.
The cherry on top for Mylod was casting Fiennes as the film's dictator-chef and Hong Chau as his disciplined second-in-command, Elsa. "We didn't want a ranty shouty psycho," the director says of Fiennes' Slowik. "We wanted an introverted artist who has made some Faustian pact because of the business that he's in and now has found himself just with nowhere to go." As for Chau's Elsa, Mylod says "she never played it for comedy, she played it for the slavish devotion to Slovik and his art, and the straighter she played it, the funnier it became, in my opinion, and that was the joy of it."
So has Mylod caught the foodie bug after his tasty experience making The Menu? "I became a bit of a convert," he admits, "just because of the realization of the extraordinary skill of an artist like Dominique Crenn has to elevate something that you're going to taste," says the director. "But I'd still rather go and have fish and chips."
The Menu hits theaters Nov. 18.