The Menu Director Mark Mylod And Producer Betsy Koch On Crafting Their Tasty New Thriller [Exclusive Interview]

20th Century Studios has been low-key delivering some of the most consistent genre entertainment over the last several years. "Ready or Not," "Barbarian," "No Exit," and "Prey" all serve as excellent examples. Oddly enough, this has all coincided with Disney's purchase of Fox, even though many of the movies in question were in the works before that deal took place. And the hot streak is set to continue as "The Menu" — which hails from the studio's Searchlight Pictures division — makes its way to theaters this weekend.

I was lucky enough to see the film at Fantastic Fest and, in one man's humble opinion, I think it absolutely rules. The trailers have been keeping many secrets but, very basically, the film centers on a couple (Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult) who travel to an isolated island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the acclaimed chef (Ralph Fiennes) has prepared a lavish menu. But it all comes with some pretty shocking surprises, with the guests in for more than they bargained for. Those guests (and the kitchen staff) are made up of A-list talent, including Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Judith Light, Reed Birney, Paul Adelstein, Aimee Carrero, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, Rob Yang, and John Leguizamo. It's the ingredients one needs to make one heck of a cinematic meal.

During Fantastic Fest, I had the good fortune of speaking with director Mark Mylod and producer Betsy Koch about the film. We discussed putting together that A-list cast, the trick of a good marketing campaign, how this became one of Mylod's few films (he's a prolific TV director), and much more.

'I want to go for things that I'm frightened of'

So how are you guys feeling about the premiere tonight at Fantastic Fest?

Mark Mylod: Really excited. I've never been to Texas before. She grew up here. So we couldn't be at more opposite ends of the spectrum. We're going through town on the way here and she's going, "Yeah, that place is great. That place is great," and I spent half an hour walking around in the heat. So yeah, we're really genuinely excited to be in Austin. How about you?

Betsy Koch: I am thrilled to be here. I want to try to only speak in food puns. I'm so hungry for our movie to come out. I cannot wait. Obviously, do not put that in there.

It's all going in, I hate to tell you.

Koch: But it's interesting because we premiered it at TIFF and then we have this sort of long lead to the actual release of the film, which is November 18. So it is so much fun. Have you gotten so many texts about things like, "Oh my God, the poster's up"?

Mylod: Yeah.

Koch: It's just fun to see it all roll out because it's obviously been with us for so long.

One thing I noticed is, you've directed a lot of TV, not so many movies. So how is it that this came to be one of the few movies you directed?

Mylod: I mean, the honest answer is that I took a break from doing movies because my last one was pretty crap.

Everyone else's fault, I'm sure.

Mylod: [laughs] I just needed to reinvent myself, really, creatively and look at the projects that I was doing. So about 10 years ago or so I basically said, "I'm not going to do broad comedy anymore. I want to go for things that I'm frightened of," and it was a genuine epiphany. I know that sounds trite, but it's absolutely true. From then on, I only did work that I thought was challenging or scary. That's what led me to "The Affair," it led me to "Game of Thrones," to "Succession," and through "Succession," I met Will Tracy, the co-writer of the script. When these guys sent me "The Menu" script, I was terrified of it, so of course I had to do it.

In fairness, everyone's guiding light's a bit different. If you're just to list off your credits and be like, "I'm doing things that scare me," it worked out pretty good. A whole lot of Emmys attached there.

Koch: [laughs] Just lean into the fear. Lean into the fear.

One thing I found interesting about this movie is the marketing. In the trailers, you do get a sense of, "I kind of know what this is," but you also get the sense that it's very much, "We're telling you as little as humanly possible." So how challenging is that for you to be like, "Okay, we've got a whole movie here, but we only want to tell you so much before you go into it"?

Mylod: It's the less, the better, isn't it?

Koch: Yeah.

Mylod: I remember going to see, going back to "The Crying Game," or especially...

Koch: "Sixth Sense?"

Mylod: Thank you. "Sixth Sense," and just not knowing anything, and it was so fantastic. I wonder if "The Sixth Sense" would come out in the modern world and actually keep...

You'd have to see it that weekend or it'd just be...

Koch: Right. Exactly.

Mylod: I'm not saying we've got a "Sixth Sense" type switch, but-

Koch: He is dead at the end.

Mylod: He's not actually a chef [laughs].

Koch: Yeah. He's Haley Joel Osment, for some reason?

He's like a full-blown adult now. It's real weird.

Koch: It is, yeah. I've worked with him. He is lovely, as an adult.

Mylod: One of those beautiful things about the writing, it just keeps you guessing, and it just keeps hanging a left turn, and every time you think you know where it's going, it switches on you. It's really a genuinely fun ride. One of the things I'm most proud about the film is it's such fun to watch.

Koch: There are legitimate shocks in the movie, and I would say there's also a difference between the argument that you have with yourselves and the studio, taking the teaser and then doing the trailer. We want people to see it. We are excited for people that would be fans of a genre film, like this, to get their butts in the seats. But you also just want to keep it mysterious because that's the way the script reads. That's the way the movie plays out. And so that balance was hard to strike.

'It really was much more kind of gloriously serendipitous'

As hard as that is to do, I feel like 20th Century has been doing an exceptional job with that the past few years, because you had "Ready or Not" and "Barbarian." I don't know if you saw "Barbarian," but they tell you nothing, and then you go into it and it's nuts.

Koch: The one movie that I feel like is doing it to a point where I'm like, "Oh, I'm dying to know," is "Smile." I don't know anything about it. Do you?

You weren't here last night. You didn't get to see it last night, did you?

Koch: I wasn't here last night and I'm only seeing billboards, and I want to see that I'm such a moviegoer that I'm like, "Okay, definitely am going to see this," but I don't know if I was a civilian on the streets walking by that it would grab me in a way. So I'm dying to see that movie.

Having seen it, I can tell you that's pretty much correct, but it's also very much a crowd-pleasing thing. One of the big things about "The Menu" is, even if the teaser doesn't give away, it's a really, really great A-list ensemble. So when you're putting together a movie like this, is it predicated on like, "Hey, we're going to get this budget because we have these people attached," or is it just by the grace of the movie gods that you somehow start this movie and then you end up with that cast?

Mylod: Oh, actually, obviously the economics are a huge thing, but in this case, it really was much more kind of gloriously serendipitous. It really was. We all wanted Ralph from the start. I think the writers had even had him in their heads when they were writing the script.

Oh, that's cool.

Mylod: So it was, from our point of view, just top of our wishlist. I had just had this brilliant Zoom call with Ralph who was over in London — I live in New York — where it was just all those cliches, like meeting of the minds, but it was just really fun. And of course, with Anya, like the rest of the world, I'd have my socks knocked off watching her on "Queen's Gambit," along with her other work with... name of the director, "The Witch"?

Koch: Robert Eggers.

Mylod: Brilliant work with him. So, we immediately had our kind of one and two on the call sheet, absolutely our kind of top choices. And then we worked with Mary Vernieu, this brilliant casting director in LA. We basically put the ensemble together, kind of table by table, trying to put the ingredients together — more food cliches. Because the script was so strong and the characters were so appealing, we could kind of punch above our weight.

Koch: That's what it was. The script was so... We were blown away by it, but so was the entire town. They had so many fans around Los Angeles and the movie business.

So helpful when people like something.

Koch: And so it kind of became one of those beloved Blacklist scripts that everyone wanted to put their client in. I mean, not everyone, obviously. I mean, it wasn't that crazy.

Yeah. The Rock is not in it, I mean, what are you going to do?

Koch: [Laughs] He was banging down our door and it was so awkward. I was like, "You shouldn't play the sous-chef. It feels strange."

I haven't seen the movie yet, but got to imagine, marginal improvement if he did play the sous-chef.

Mylod: The sous-chef looks pretty big.

Koch: Yeah. So not distracting in any way whatsoever.

More of a businessy question, I guess, because that's sort of one of the areas I weirdly obsess over. A lot of the 20th Century stuff has been going straight to Hulu. Was there any discussion of this going to Hulu? Or was this always a full-on theatrical release?

Koch: This deal was actually brokered prior to [Disney acquiring Fox]. So rather than streaming on Hulu, it's streaming on HBO Max. Also the deal was made in a way where it's going to go theatrical as well as streaming, so it's kind of the best of both worlds. I think when you make something that's really important to you, you just want a larger audience to connect with it, so I feel like streaming and theatrical helps us do that.

Yeah. I think the marriage of the two is the best. They're going to kick me out of here in a second, but I wanted to sneak out one more question. You mentioned "Game of Thrones." You have any plans to go back for "House of the Dragon" or anything? Have they called you about that?

Mylod: I don't know, to be honest. I'm getting to the end of another season of "Succession" and I'll take stock then. I've been going pretty solid with "Succession" and "The Menu." So I just need to take a little while to take stock.

Koch: You need to like, go to the dentist.

Mylod: I do need to go to the dentist.

Yeah, fun stuff like that. When you have a break, go get a tooth pulled.

Mylod: I have my colonoscopy, obviously.

"The Menu" hits theaters on November 18, 2022.