This interview with the director of The Menu was originally published in conjunction with the film’s theatrical release. It has been republished to coincide with the film’s release on HBO Max and digital platforms.
On the surface, Mark Mylod’s thriller The Menu looks like a chilly, high-end horror movie. The trailer shapes it as the story of a successful chef who baits a trap for his rich, spoiled patrons, drawing them into an unpredictable life-or-death game where he and his devoted followers define all the rules. Bloody mayhem follows. But Mylod sees the film differently — and his interpretation ties directly into what drew him not just to this film, but to his other most high-profile work, as a regular director on the hit TV series Succession and Game of Thrones.
For Mylod, the connection between those three stories is the way they deal with family — literally on Game of Thrones and Succession, and more symbolically in The Menu, where the antagonist, mysterious, aristocratic Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), has built his kitchen staff into a slavishly devoted team that his fanatical apprentice Elsa (Watchmen star Hong Chau) specifically describes as a family.
“If I have any throughline in my work — going back to my British work, when I first started directing back in the late 1500s — it’s family,” Mylod joked to Polygon in an interview after The Menu’s premiere at the 2022 Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. “I realized that power and family are symbiotic, especially in the formative years. I’m really fascinated by that. You’re trapped in the space where you dwell, and you can’t escape, really, until you can leave home. And so there’s endless potential for dramatic conflict.”
In Game of Thrones, bloodlines are effectively destiny — everyone involved in the titular quest for power and dominance is both boosted and limited by the family they were born into. In Succession, the entire story revolves around the connections and competition within a rich family. In The Menu, though, there’s more of a sense that Chef Slowik’s patrons — including characters played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, John Leguizamo, and Aimee Carrero — have been trapped by a family that resembles a cult.
“Part of the attraction of The Menu was that idea that you put all the characters in this one box with that quasi-family, and you trap them in this space, and there’s endless potential for dramatic confrontation and dramatic conflicts,” Mylod says. “And out of that, you get that lovely relationship between tension and comedy, which the writers take so much advantage of.”
Literal family does come up in The Menu, with Chef Slowik’s mother as one of the patrons at his life-or-death dinner, though their relationship and intentions toward each other are one of the film’s biggest mysteries.
“We hoped you would fill in some of the blanks,” Mylod says. “[The question is] always How far does one go with exposition? How far does one go into Chef’s backstory? We walked a tightrope with that. The choice we made was to kick into the intelligence of the audience. They can fill in those things for themselves. Audiences are so sophisticated these days, we didn’t feel we needed to delve into that too much. They could feel the emotional connection.”
A further connection between Game of Thrones, Succession, and The Menu is that all three stories deal heavily with wealthy people weaponizing their power and getting punished for their hubris, but all three stories humanize those characters as well.
“That chess game was always at the heart of it,” Mylod says. “With Bong [Joon-ho] in Parasite, he never intended for the poor people to be the goodies, and the rich people to be the baddies. That’s trite, and it starts to undermine the authenticity of the emotional story he’s trying to tell. We found ourselves in the same place — we wanted to have an emotional connection to these characters. We could see how they do stupid things, but I certainly didn’t want them to just be cardboard cutouts, two-dimensional stereotypes. We wanted them to have emotional lives, and we wanted the audience to feel their jeopardy.”
For Mylod, the connections between Succession and The Menu are stronger, both thematically and in terms of how he worked behind the scenes to encourage improvisation and full-immersion cast participation.
“Something I did bring to The Menu very specifically from Succession was my ongoing lifelong admiration of Robert Altman, and the way he works,” Mylod says. “I was lucky enough very early in my directing career to work with two actors, Charles Dance and Michael Gambon, who’d worked on [Altman’s masterpiece] Gosford Park, and I was always pummeling them with questions about how he worked. He really was pretty much the first director in the West to get two sound mixers and get everybody [on a set] miked up.”
Altman was famous for his naturalistic, overlapping dialogue, captured on the set from people encouraged to stay in character at all times. Mylod used that technique on Succession and The Menu to give his sets what he calls “a Darwinian sense,” where everyone is acting all the time, rather than just in short setups where the camera is pointed at them and they have specific dialogue in the script.
“Everybody was on and everyone was improvising, so everybody’s alive and present the whole time,” he says. “I used that on Succession, and I used it on The Menu. It takes a very specific, brave, intelligent, intuitive actor to embrace that. We were very specific in our recruitment to achieve that. [With The Menu], the result was the happiest seven weeks you could possibly have on set, because we were all locked in together in our bubble with COVID at that time. All the extras would come on set in the morning, everybody’s miked up, and if they happen to be off camera, they’re still supporting, they’re still improvising, keeping the atmosphere of the restaurant alive.
“That brilliant kitchen staff were there every day, after going through this bootcamp about exactly what they should be doing at any moment. They’re doing their choreographed dance, with that precision of Slowik’s world. So we ended up with a really loose and free way of working, which is an interesting counterpoint to the precision of the writing and the rhythm of Slowik’s world.”
As far as themes that connect Succession and The Menu, Mylod says the “eat the rich” idea of powerful people being punished is “part of the fun,” but that he’s more interested in how both stories handle warped creativity and the disintegration of characters’ ideals.
“The perversion of art through power, through exclusiveness, through money, is certainly something I’m personally interested in. It’s certainly what drew me to Succession,” he says. “I worked with [Succession creator] Jesse [Armstrong] on that. With The Menu, I think the theme of the pure beauty of creating good food for another human being, the pure elemental act of sharing and sustaining and nourishing another — it’s so beautiful. You can’t get more fundamental than that, except perhaps in childbirth. And for that to have been perverted by industry, by money — that feels to me like there’s a tragic element [for Chef Slowik]. That perversion of an ideal, I think, is really interesting.”
In the end, that sense of tragedy in a character is part of what defines Mylod’s favorite characters in all three of these stories. While he hesitates to expose his fandom for one character over another in these three ensemble projects — “That’s like asking me my favorite child,” he says — he admits that he’s drawn to villainous characters who see themselves as heroes.
For Game of Thrones, that meant being pulled toward Cersei Lannister. “[Actor] Lena [Headey] was so the opposite of that character,” Mylod says. “She’s so loose and lovely and fun, and then she just totally morphs into this different human on camera. It’s just extraordinary to see the transition. It appears so effortless.
“And [Cersei is a favorite] because I remember talking to Lena about her way of looking at the character — she just made a comment one day about ‘I’m just trying to protect my children here.’ Like Cersei wasn’t an evil person, she was just a woman trying to protect her children. Looked at just from that point of view, it was a revelation to me. I was kind of romanced by how exquisitely bad she is, and at the same time, she’s just trying to protect her kids. So that was beautiful to me.”
For Succession, Mylod is drawn to Roy family hanger-on Tom Wambsgans (played by Matthew Macfadyen), also because of the distance between actor and character. “Same argument, really,” Mylod says. “There isn’t a best character, but in terms of who changes the most from themselves into the character, it’d be Matthew, because he’s such a lovely, quietly spoken, gentle character, and then he morphs into Tom, this monster.
“And he just brings an emotional dimension to the character that breaks my heart sometimes, because he’s just a Midwest kid trying to make it big, following his dream. So if you look at him and say maybe he’s a baddie, he just thought he was doing a good job. Nobody thinks he’s a baddie.”
The same holds true for Mylod’s favorite character in The Menu: inevitably, its tormented villain, Chef Slowik, who also doesn’t see his capture and torture of his patrons as evil. Instead, he sees them as having captured and tortured him, leading to everything that happens in the movie. “That’s why I love him,” Mylod says. “He’s the essential, quiet tragedy behind what’s hopefully a really fun ride of a movie. Slowik is in pain. He’s just trying to stop the pain.”