A couple, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), travel to a coastal island in the Pacific Northwest to eat at an exclusive restaurant, Hawthorn, where the reclusive, globally celebrated Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) has prepared a lavish tasting menu for select special guests.
Joining the couple are three young, already inebriated tech bros, Bryce (Rob Yang), Soren (Arturo Castro) and Dave (Mark St. Cyr), an older wealthy couple and repeat clients, Anne and Richard (Judith Light and Reed Birney), renowned restaurant critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her slavish magazine editor Ted (Paul Adelstein), and a famous middle-aged movie star (John Leguizamo) with his assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero).
Hosted by the immaculately dressed front-of-house staff led by general Elsa (Hong Chau), the evening unfolds with increasing tension at each of the guest tables as secrets are revealed and unexpected courses are served. With wild and violent events occurring, Slowik’s motivation begins to rattle the diners as it becomes increasingly apparent that his elaborate menu is designed to catalyze to a shocking finale.
THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE MENU
A few years ago, while visiting Bergen, Norway, screenwriter Will Tracy (“Succession”) took a boat to a fancy restaurant on a nearby private island. “I’m a bit claustrophobic, and as we sat down to eat, I saw the boat that dropped us off leaving the dock,” Tracy recalls. “It was a small island. And I realized, ‘Oh, we’re stuck here for four hours. What if something goes wrong?’.”
Tracy brought the idea to his longtime screenwriting partner Seth Reiss (“Late Night with Seth Meyers”), and together the pair conceived a satire with a story structure matching the narrative beats to the courses of a high-end restaurant’s tasting menu. From amuse bouche to dessert, ratcheting up tension and amplifying the unusual circumstances while retaining authentic elements of the hospitality industry.
The script made its way into the hands of producers Adam McKay and Betsy Koch. The satirical thriller was in line with the pair’s other recent work at Hyperobject Industries, including McKay’s climate change parody Don’t Look Up and director Mimi Cave’s dark comedy Fresh. “Adam and I are always looking for sharp satire and unconventional genre films, and this had both in spades,” Koch says. “I read the script and it was the first time in a really long time that I read any script twice in a row. I sent it to Adam and from there it was about convincing Will and Seth to let us produce this movie.”
“I loved how the script combined humor and biting satire,” McKay adds. “It was fun but dark, and it indicated an exclusive culture in a surprising way. It reminded me of The Trouble with Harry in tone and humor—which is one of my all time favorite movies. The film mixes biting class satire with humor, darkness and a healthy dash of absurdity. Does that sound like a recipe? I swear I didn’t mean to do that.”
“Satire gives you purchase to operate on a slightly heightened reality,” Reiss continues. “It opens the door for fiction, though it all makes logical sense within the reality we’re creating – everything flows from that world.”
The screenwriters then sent the script to Mark Mylod, who was immediately taken by the characters and the approach to the restaurant world. Well-known as a television director for Emmy® Award winning series like “Game of Thrones” and “Succession”, Mylod had also previously worked on a particular episode of Succession” written by Tracy. That episode was largely set at a dinner party, and for that Mylod had embraced an approach inspired by Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, which he also brought to The Menu.
“We wanted to be really careful in skewering the industry and walked this tightrope, poking at it while remaining deeply respectful of the art form and the humans who are involved,” Mylod notes. “When I got involved, I did my own personal dive into that world to educate myself on how it worked and the level of commitment and the stress of maintaining that extraordinary level of art night after night. It destroys people. It’s incredibly high pressure.”
The writers and Mylod ultimately brought a sense of humanity and emotion to each character – even those who seem unlikeable.
Casting the film was a fun challenge for Mylod because the story required a diverse ensemble of skilled actors. While Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Constant Gardener), the mastermind behind the Hawthorn restaurant, is the central figure in the kitchen, all of the other characters really build out that world, both in the dining room and in the kitchen.
“I got really lucky with the cast, but there is an old adage that good things come to good scripts and this was certainly a case of that,” Mylod says. “One of those good things was Mary Vernieu, the casting. director who is a bona fide genius. I described the tone and the way I wanted to work in this Altman-esque fashion of having everybody present on set the whole time. I needed the kinds of actors who were intelligent and confident enough for that and to leave some room for improvisation. Gradually, one by one, we built each guest table.”
Though many of the characters, both guests and staff, seem insufferable on the surface, their purposefully clichéd traits eventually unravel to reveal more complicated backstories and personalities. For the cast, that was a particularly compelling element.
“I was a huge fan of Mark and his ability to take a group of characters who are inherently unlikeable and get the audience to like them and enjoy being around them,” says Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite, “The Great”), who plays Tyler. “All of these characters are distasteful in many ways, but you also want to spend time with them and, in some weird way, root for them.”
Throughout the evening, the staff at Hawthorn serves six tables of guests, each representing a certain type of person who has infuriated or disrespected Chef Slowik, from long-time disaffected patrons, to pompous food critics, to know-it-all foodies.
Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), an established, renowned restaurant chef, is at the top of his game. But he’s also made a Faustian pact in order to rise through the industry and helm Hawthorn, which he doesn’t own, putting him at the mercy of investors. The Academy Award® nominated Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Schindler’s List, The English Patient, The Constant Gardener) concocted a full backstory for the character as someone whose artistic purity has been tarnished by his wealthy clientele.
“He’s come to loathe the elite consumer, and himself, for being corrupted by them,” Fiennes explains of Slowik. “They’re a clientele that can never be satisfied. He’s a perfectionist and constantly having to maintain a level of perfection for people who never really appreciate it. The appeal of the script was that it considers the whole spectrum of the characters in a framework of a dark comedy.”
“Chef’s Table”, the series that meets innovative culinary stars from around the world, was an obvious source of inspiration for Fiennes. While Chef Slowik is not specifically based on one specific real-life chef, Mylod did send the actor a number of episodes from the series including the one on Chicago chef Grant Achatz, who runs the 3 Michelin star restaurant Alinea.
“Slowik is quite a complex character,” Mylod explains. “I wanted to show his dedication to the elevation and innovation of his artform, to the point of putting his own life on the line – so mesmerizing and extraordinary. Ralph and I were both very determined not to present the character as a caricature. We wanted to find his humanity and his pain, and understand his actions. Not to forgive or condone them, but to at least give them context and authenticity as best as we could.”
Fiennes also spent quite some time on set with Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn, also featured in “Chef’s Table”, who brought to life the menu that appears in the film and consulted with the filmmakers, to learn about how a chef relates to their kitchen staff.
“I had the cliché of the chaotic kitchen in my head, with the chef shouting over everything,” Fiennes recalls. “But when Dominique told me about her kitchen and how she liked to work, that is how I saw Slowik’s kitchen: the control and the power is in the kitchen staff’s dedication to the chef and his food. There is no loudness or violence. Just a nod, a look, and little mutterings of correction or encouragement.”
THE UNEXPECTED GUEST
Margot, played by Emmy-award Nominee Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night in Soho, The Witch, “The Queen’s Gambit”), is an outlier among the guests at Hawthorn. She has joined Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) as his date for the meal, but she is at first puzzlingly disinterested in Chef Slowik’s food and has contempt for the overly precious presentation of the dishes.
One of the film’s most compelling dynamics unfolds between Chef Slowik and Margot, who isn’t supposed to be at this particular dinner. She disrupts the chef’s vision for the evening, but he seems to respect her.
“It was interesting because Margot is an enigma,” explains Taylor-Joy. “In the script she’s quite sardonic, and it’s fun to be able to improv with that. She is tough, funny— and she’s very, very quick. She knows her job; to figure out what the person she’s with wants and how to be that ideal. It was truly fun to play her.”
“There’s a game-recognizes-game situation going on there,” continues Taylor- Joy. “But, also, I think they both dislike the same things. What’s wonderful about the way that Ralph has played Slowik is that rather than being an out and out madman, we do feel this empathy for him because he just loves something so much but also happens to be a little bit insane. There are moments where it’s fascinating, you don’t know whether to be frightened or have empathy for this person who clearly just loves food and is upset that these people have tainted the thing that he loves more than anything else in the world.”
Fiennes adds, “It’s a weird connection because it isn’t romantic. It’s more like he identifies with her. He has a very binary view that there are those who serve or give or make possible and those who take or purchase. This division is very important to him— you’re either “with us or with them”. She doesn’t buy that all. And she doesn’t really like his food. She thinks there’s a big bullshit factor in what he’s doing.”
Nicholas Hoult plays Tyler, a culinary obsessive who thinks he knows far more about fine dining than he actually does. He namedrops fancy kitchen equipment and insists on pulling out his phone camera, even though Hawthorn doesn’t allow photographs of the food.
Hoult explains of his character, “It’s his dream come true getting to go to this restaurant; he’s been saving up for a long time to go there. He had plans to go with an ex-girlfriend who then broke up with him, so he’s brought Margot for the evening because at Hawthorn you can’t have a table for one. He’s a character who you can like on some level because of his passion and the enjoyment that he gets out of this restaurant. But he’s also someone who has got a lot of deep psychological issues.”
Tyler’s know-it-all approach is also comical – and gets on people’s nerves. For Hoult, the character’s inability to be his authentic self was compelling. “Something that Mark talked to me about is that we all have masks that we gradually create and wear and layer upon ourselves,” Hoult says. “We see them fall off in front of us throughout this story. Tyler is there under all these delusions of who he is.”
Tyler’s relationship with Margot initially appears to be romantic, but Tyler actually has employed Margot, an escort, as his dining companion. Their dynamic shifts as the evening goes on and more details about Chef Slowik’s ultimate plan become apparent. Hoult notes, “Margot is very much playing a role for Tyler that evening, this cool girl who he never had dates with in school.”
THE CRITIC AND HER EDITOR
Lillian Bloom, played by Academy Award Nominee Janet McTeer (”Ozark”, Albert Nobbs), is a well-recognized food critic whose reviews can make or break a chef’s career. Throughout her years in the restaurant industry, Lillian has become arrogant with an overly inflated ego. She has a history with Chef Slowik, who she claims to have discovered, and is joined for the meal—at Hawthorn’s center table—by her yes man – her editor Ted, played Paul Adelstein (Mothers and Daughters, Intolerable Cruelty).
“My character is somebody who adores food – adores restaurants,” McTeer says. “But somewhere along the way it’s become about the review. It’s become about being clever – and it’s become about her. She’s overly respected and self-important.”
“Lillian really put Chef Slowik on the map, so Ted and Lillian take credit for him in a lot of ways,” Adelstein adds. “I think there’s a fun mirror dynamic between Ted and Lillian in that Ted also takes credit for Lillian. Ted is always trying to match her but also show that she’s the alpha.”
To prepare for the role, McTeer spoke with chef and food writer Ruth Reichl. Lillian embodies exactly what critics are not supposed to do. McTeer says. “Ruth and I talked about how at a certain point it can become all about the critic. But a good restaurant critic should be anonymous. Ideally, you’d go into a restaurant and you don’t know they are there. But my character shows up with pink hair and a great suit so people will know she’s there.”
THE CELEBRITY AND HIS ASSISTANT
The purposefully unnamed Movie Star, played by John Leguizamo (The Survivor, Moulin Rouge!), is hoping to transition from a failed acting career to hosting a travel food show, so he is there for research. He is accompanied by Felicity, his assistant, played by Aimee Carrero (“The Offer”, Wander Darkly), who is desperate to quit and get away from him.
Leguizamo explains. “He feeds on my insecurities and I feed off of her insecurities. Neither really know what to do at a place like Hawthorn. I portray a super obnoxious American egotistical actor who is full of himself. His career is on the downturn, so he becomes even more erratic and ugly. Aimee and I played off all that toxic behavior between actors and their assistants. For Carrero, the relationship between the actor and Felicity was a way of looking At power. While Felicity initially seems like a good person, it becomes clear that she has The same level of entitlement as the other guests.
“Even though she’s his assistant she has all the power in the relationship,” Carrero. “Her mother is a big studio executive. She wants this to be her last evening working for the Movie Star, but he doesn’t want to hear it. Felicity actually has a lot of love for him, but she doesn’t respect him. When you feel like you’re doing everything for someone, a lot of resentment can build up. She has to do a little dance around his fragile ego.”
THE WEALTHY COUPLE
Richard and Anne, played by Tony Award winners Reed Birney (Mass, The Hunt) and Judith Light (tick, tick… BOOM!, “Transparent”), are a well-to-do older couple who have dined at Hawthorn multiple times. Although they are regulars, the pair doesn’t seem to enjoy—or even really remember—the experience of Chef Slowik’s cuisine. Birney and Light have known each other since 1982 but had never worked together. The actors wanted to embody the sort of long-term couple who has stopped relating to one another.
“Richard and Anne are those people that you see sitting there in a restaurant, and you look at them through the entire meal and notice that they have not said a word to each other,” Light explains. “They have been to Hawthorn eleven times. They are moneyed and go to places just because they can get in.”
Over the course of the evening, secrets are revealed about Richard, who seems to recognize Margot. As the action builds, and the direction of the meal becomes clearer, Anne becomes less subdued and more outspoken, discovering that she’s been betrayed.
Of Anne, Light says, “This experience on this night brings out her courage, and her ability to speak the truth she has long known. It’s a truth that she has not let herself know before this, and that’s pretty powerful stuff.”
THE TECH BROS.
Also dining at one of Hawthorn’s highly coveted (and fateful) tables are Bryce, Soren and Dave, a group of obnoxious young tech employees played by Rob Yang (The Kitchen, “Succession”), Arturo Castro (“Broad City”, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and Mark St. Cyr. (Marshall). The trio work for Doug Varick, who owns Hawthorn, which gives them an added sense of privilege. The characters represent the nouveau riche entitlement experienced in the restaurant scene in more recent years. They are all used to giant expense accounts. Says Mark St. Cyr, “There was an industry boom in the tech age where people that are at the front of the curve can get really wealthy really quickly. For these characters, the power that comes with wealth has definitely gone to their heads. They’re young and rich, and they have no issues flaunting it, although none of them feel like they were born into a really wealthy class.”
Castro, who plays Soren, was familiar with the vibe of his character after appearing on the TV series ‘Silicon Valley.’
“These guys feel like they’re entitled,” Castro notes. “They have a chip on their shoulder any time anything’s ever denied or not to their liking. In some ways though I think Rob and Mark have an intense vulnerability about them and that makes them three- dimensional.”
Yang reflects, “Bryce is deeply conflicted about what his life has amounted to even though he’s got all this money. He’s got this real douchey sense of ‘If there’s a problem, I can throw money at it.’ To me, this film is about putting up a mirror to each one of these diners. There’s a real dynamic in this story between people who are entitled and not concerned with others, and then the service side of giving. It’s about takers and givers.”
Hawthorn’s staff live on the island where the restaurant is located, sharing a bunkhouse. They have a cult-like demeanor and work with precision and a clear dedication to Chef Slowik. The chef’s right-hand restaurant captain is Elsa, played by Hong Chau (Downsizing, “Watchmen”). She’s severe, composed and does the Chef’s bidding without question. The restaurant’s first line team also includes the sommelier (Peter Grsoz), and sous chefs, Katherine (Christina Brucato) and Jeremy (Adam Aalderks).
“Elsa maintains her composure under all circumstances and she’s really about following through on Chef Slowik’s plan,” Chau explains. “She’s a very enigmatic character. We don’t know a lot about her. One of the challenges was that there was so little information about her on the page. Mark and I had a lot of conversations about how to make this character more dimensional and to humanize her. I think it’s really interesting for the audience to wonder about her and never actually get any answers.”
The relationship between Chef Slowik and his staff reveals their unwavering belief in his vision. They will follow through on his plan for the evening almost blindly, no matter what.
“Elsa admires and looks up to Chef Slowik for his tenacity in terms of standing firm in his beliefs,” Chau continues. “I think it’s sometimes really hard for people who work in a service industry to stand their ground because there’s the idea that the customer is always right, and you are there to serve them.”
THE MAIN COURSE
The Menu was filmed in and around Savannah, Georgia, in the fall of 2021. Mylod collaborated with cinematographer Peter Deming, who has extensive experience shooting horror and thriller films, including Mulholland Drive and The Cabin in the Woods.
“Peter really knows his craft, his camera placement and lighting are top notch,” Mylod says. “We talked about very specifically wanting an evolution, like a focusing spotlight, to show more and more pressure on the characters. We wanted to have an emotional coldness to the place, and yet not so cold that it was uncomfortable to watch. He just threaded the needle with that. It felt naturalistic and also beautiful.”
Mylod wanted to keep the cast members on set during every scene, even if they weren’t involved in the particular shot. He encouraged them to bring in their character research and talk about it with each other. Because the backgrounds and sets were so precisely crafted, the cast were able to learn their movements easily; every scene was choreographed carefully.
“I specifically shot the film so that any spontaneous moment was covered by two cameras so that we could take it as a whole and not have to manipulate it with other performance takes,” Mylod explains. “That allowed the actors, and specifically Ralph, to experiment within the parameters the spectrum of Chef’s behavior.”
“Filming overall was a process the actors enjoyed, often taking inspiration from each other’s work. They would do Reed and Judith’s scenes and all the actors would be on set watching it and we’d all applaud. And then Paul and Janet would do a scene and we would all watch and just be in awe. It was incredible.”
Like its characters, The Menu is not what it appears to be from the outset. Each course unravels a new aspect of the story, allowing the viewer to take a wild, unexpected adventure along with Hawthorn’s guests. As a satirical thriller, the film reflects on deeper issues without being too didactic or overbearing. It’s dark and unnerving but fun as well.
“Satire is one of those things where you have this nervous laughter but you hear everybody else in the cinema laugh, too,’” says Taylor-Joy. “If we don’t understand it ourselves, we can see the mirror that satire is holding up to our world. However, it also allows you to laugh at it and I think that’s a really good way of processing that emotion. My favorite films are the films where once you leave you keep thinking about them and you want to have discussions.”
Castro adds, “The power of satire is that it softens the blow. When you’re laughing, you’re open. They say a laugh is a scream without the fear of judgment. When you’re this open and suddenly you get hit with a hard truth, you’ve been disarmed.”
Although the events of The Menu border on absurd, it also seriously asks for consideration about how we interact with those who serve us.
“I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to be a part of it,” Crenn says. “It’s important for people to understand that a kitchen is not just cooking. It’s so much more complex than that. As humans, we’re going through a lot of contradictions sometimes. It important to be a little bit more respectful and conscious about others, especially when we serve food to another person. And not to be entitled walking into a restaurant. I think this movie is actually going to bring a lot of respect to our industry. It might be a dark film, but I feel there’s a lot of things that you can reflect on and become conscious of.”
Finally, Mylod hopes The Menu entertains while also spotlighting the impressive, undeniable level of artistry that exists within fine dining—a form of expression he has a newfound regard for thanks to the film.
“My takeaway was how incredibly hard it is to be at the top of your game and sustain that world,” he reflects. “I look at those chefs who maintain that level of artistry and invention and evolution. I have no idea how they do it, and there’s sheer, incredible work that goes into that from every level. From the people bringing your order to the people creating the menus, it’s an incredibly hard industry. To do that night after night, I have a huge respect for them. I hope the audiences will get a sense of that, as well.”
“It’s a very entertaining film, but beyond that I hope the grotesque characters and deranged exclusivity that runs through the movie lands, as well,” McKay adds. “In a dream world maybe even a few audience members ask some questions about service, entertainment and our relationship with food.”
The Menu is out now at selected cinemas nationwide.