The Menu's Writers Wanted Ralph Fiennes To Combine His Grand Budapest Hotel And Schindler's List Skills [Exclusive]

Recently, /Film's own Jack Giroux had the opportunity to talk about "The Menu" with the movie's screenwriters, Will Tracy and Seth Reiss. The pair had previously mentioned that they envisioned Ralph Fiennes in the role of Julian Slowik. In "The Menu," Julian is the celebrity chef whose multi-course, theatrically-presented, ultra-expensive meal will — on this particular night — involve multiple human deaths. The chef, in his hermetic kitchen cloister, takes the conceptual elements of his cooking a few steps too far and drives himself mad with notions of class, life, death, and how they all relate to meal prep. 

Julian is calm and distressingly frank when discussing the deaths of his clientele, and Fiennes' terrifyingly soft-spoken performance is a memorable one. Fiennes, of course, has a long and varied career, appearing in intense independent films, mainstream effect-based blockbusters, and large-scale Hollywood dramas. Of the many notable characters Fiennes has played, writers Tracy and Reiss recall most sharply the whimsical Gustave H. — the stuffy and lusty concierge from Wes Anderson's 2014 film, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" — as well as the terrifying and evil Amon Göth — the real-life Nazi commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp in Steven Spielberg's 1993 film, "Schindler's List."

In their talk with Giroux, Reiss and Tracy admitted they wrote Chef Julian to be a combination of those two characters.

The extremes of Fiennes

Giroux asked the screenwriters what Chef Julian's voice sounded like on the page. It seems that Fiennes — who signed onto the project back in 2019 — was already confirmed to play the part, and Tracy explained that he and Reiss took the opportunity to delve into Fiennes' known talents:

"We were essentially writing it for him at a certain point, thinking hopefully, we can get him. Even before he was fully in, there had been interest from him. And so, then we really started writing it towards him. He has a surprising jauntiness."

The writers agreed that when Fiennes plays a sinister figure, he rarely plays up any kind of evil or villainy. Anyone who has seen "The Menu" will see that Fiennes remains resolute, light, even elated throughout the film. People may die in front of him, but Chef Julian has become so resolute in his fatal meal plan that he's still pleased that everything seems to be working out. This was both funnier and scarier than if Fiennes has played the part "heavy," as Tracy explained: 

"He doesn't seem like he's playing heavy. He can be scary in a way, but he can also be quite charming and lighter than you expect in his tone. I mean, the guy, it's the same actor playing the guy in 'Grand Budapest Hotel' as the guy in 'Schindler's List.' In some way, we wanted him to be bringing both of those skill sets."

A whimsical, flirty concierge combined with a Nazi war criminal. One can see it.

Chef Julian's sadness

Without revealing too much, it can be said that Chef Julian possesses several dark secrets. It's telling that Julian's mother (Rebecca Koon) is present for her son's deadly meal plan, and she can do nothing but drink wine and wait for the inevitable. "The Menu" doesn't make Chef Julain's pathology explicit, but audiences do get enough of a glimpse into his psyche that one can see the character as tragic. Giroux asked about Chef Julian's inherent sadness, to which Reiss replied: 

"Oh, it's extremely sad. Extremely sad. I mean, I love talking about the sadness of these people. Ralph is so sad. Tyler [a fanboy of Chef Julian played by Nicholas Hoult] is not only the most psychotic person in the restaurant by far, but I think also the saddest. What his life is like when he's just alone has got to be brutally sad."

Tracy added that Julian "is at least enough of a human being to know, 'The only thing that matters to me is this place.' But he at least seems to know it's awful that it's taken over his life." Fiennes' skill for playing sad characters presents itself in many of his films. I would recommend David Cronenberg's 2002 film, "Spider," for one of Fiennes' more notable tragic performances.

"The Menu" is currently playing in theaters.