Is it difficult to write effective satire these days?
“No!” Seth Reiss points his finger at the zoom screen. “It’s not! And anyone who says it is is wrong and you can quote me.”
His writing partner, Will Tracy, laughs next to him. The duo, who met during their time writing for satirical news outlet The Onion, are speaking to me from their hotel room on Zoom. They’re doing virtual press for The Menu, their debut as feature film screenwriters.
“The world always gets crazier and crazier,” continues Reiss. “What’s a different facet of reality that really hasn’t been blown up yet that you can then blow up?”
For Tracy, that was foodie culture. During his honeymoon in Norway, the Succession writer and his wife traveled to an upscale restaurant on a private island by boat. After seeing the ship pull away from shore, Tracy began imagining all of the ways the experience could’ve gone wrong. He pitched the story idea to Reiss and the two were off to the races.
“There’s something special about a room full of paying customers watching a movie about a room full of paying customers,” says Tracy. “There’s a feeling of a nice, giggly tension in the room with that, that’s really fun.”
The film follows a group of wealthy patrons who travel (by boat) to Hawthorne, a highly-renowned restaurant run by celebrity chef Julian Slowik, played by Ralph Fiennes. As each meticulously-crafted course is served, the chef’s dangerous intentions become clear and the night slowly descends into chaos.
While The Menu may be rooted in biting satire, it is also a bonafide horror-thriller that dips its toes into plenty of delicious genre conventions. The film’s events become so outrageous that it’s impossible to predict where the story is going. Reiss and Tracy even surprised each other.
“Will would send [his 15 pages] to me, I would do a pass [and] write my 15 pages, but I would read what Will did, and I would be surprised. I would send [my pages] to Will [and] I would get to have my fun that wasn’t a part of our outline that would be surprising to Will. That just lent itself to being surprising.”
Despite all the twists and turns, however, the ending was clear. “I think we knew, as the characters know pretty early on, how it’s going to end,” says Tracy. “It’s not going to end well, right?”
In preparation for the film’s wide release this weekend, we sat down with Reiss and Tracy to discuss how they wrote the film, the “chicken and the egg” cycle of foodie culture, and what it takes to write effective satire in our crazed media climate.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Larry Fried: Gentlemen, it’s such a pleasure to be speaking with you today. Thank you so much for your time and thank you so much for this film. Just to start off, now that people are starting to see the film, reactions are coming in. People are loving this film. They’re so surprised by it. How are you two feeling going into its wide release coming up?
Seth Reiss: Horrified.
Will Tracy: Yeah. All joking aside, I have a moment, sometimes, of feeling like, “can’t we just put it in a drawer?”
Will Tracy: “And then we can take it out of the drawer, and we watch it, and if we like it, then maybe we can let our friends and family see it?” But the idea about a lot of people seeing it and having opinions about it, and sharing their opinions about it—
Reiss: It’s funny. You know, now thinking about it, I get excited about it whenever I’m in a theater watching it with people.
Tracy: Yeah, that’s true.
Reiss: But I don’t know what that has to say about my yearning for control, and so, at least I know what’s happening, you know what I mean?
Tracy: Yeah, right.
Reiss: So, if I was ever in a theater where there was, like, no reaction, it was dead, at least I would feel like at least I was here to monitor how that went.
Reiss: But now, there’s going to be, like—
Tracy: A “conversation” about the movie—
Tracy: …being led by other people.
Reiss: Yeah. Now there’s going to be, like, 3,000 theaters. And I can’t be at every one that shows every one, so I have to just, sort of, trust that at 8:10 some group of people is going to see the movie, I won’t see it with them, and then afterwards, they’re either going to like it or not like it. That part is horrifying. I will say, seeing it with people has been fucking awesome.
Fried: Oh yeah.
Reiss: I don’t know how you saw it, but the group experience of watching this movie—and I’ve gotten to watch it in Savannah, in London, in LA when we did test screenings—it’s quite lovely. And what I think is also quite lovely is people seem to get it. They seem to latch on to the mixture of tones. And they don’t seem, at least as a group, confused by that, which is a real testament to Mark, our director, and our editor [Christopher Tellefsen].
Tracy: There’s something special, maybe which was not intended, about a room full of paying customers watching a movie about a room full of paying customers.
Tracy: There’s a feeling of a nice, giggly tension in the room with that, that’s really fun.
Reiss: Yeah. It’s really fun. And I agree with Will. I don’t think we ever intended to write a movie that was fun. Like, I think we did, I think it was fun for us, and I do think that fun is artistically contagious from the artist to the people watching. I do think it’s contagious. But I was a little bit surprised by that, to a certain extent. And I’m relieved by it, obviously.
Fried: Life more often imitates art than the other way around in terms of people–paying customers–watching a movie about paying customers. But I do think that the satire that you’ve written about food culture, I think a lot of people are really interested in that. I think that’s why it’s really resonating with a lot of people. But, to answer a question you asked before, Seth, I saw it in Toronto at one of its TIFF screenings.
Reiss: Not the premiere, but another one?
Fried: Not the premiere. Well, to be honest, it might’ve been better, because I saw it at a later night screening than the premiere.
Tracy: Oh, fun, yeah.
Fried: So, it was a packed house.
Fried: It was a super excited group and one thing that I noticed about it is that this film is such an ideal audience experience film because there are so many surprises. You really cannot predict where this story is going and I’d love to pick your brains about that. I know you guys [designed the] structure of the story [like] courses in a meal, but did you guys have an idea of what the events in this movie were going to be, like the ways in which the chef messes with the people? Or were there some surprises that you guys discovered as you were writing it out?
Tracy: It’s interesting because I think we knew, as the characters know pretty early on, that we, kind of, know where it’s going to end–in a way, how it’s going to end. It’s not going to end well, right? I mean, I guess there’s a possibility that they’re going to get away…
[Reiss makes a “yeah, right” face, Fried laughs]
Tracy: But at a certain point, there seems to be a real possibility that that’s not going to happen.
Reiss: Well, the funny thing—I will say, to answer your question, it’s twofold. We knew, basically, where things were going to happen and how surprising they were going to be. But then, Will and I would surprise each other whenever we would, sort of, go off and write our 15 pages. Will would send it to me, I would do a pass, write my 15 pages, but I would read what Will did, and I would be surprised, and I would send it to Will. I would get to have my fun that wasn’t a part of our outline that would be surprising to Will. So, I do think that just lent itself to being surprising.
I also think that, you know, Will and I…we kind of want to make moves that maybe…to a certain extent, an audience has an expectation of what should happen. How do you undercut that in an interesting way? Like, our main character tells our other main character, “This is going to happen.” [He] tells her that pretty much toward the middle of the movie. That’s what happens. How it all ends up that way is what’s interesting and surprising. A lot of the surprises have to do with subverting expectations of what people might expect.
Fried: Will, I know that, between the two of you, you’re more of the foodie, and it was your experience that inspired the initial inspiration for the film. I’m curious, for you, which cog in the machine of cuisine culture do you think is more responsible for the ridiculous nature of it? Do you think it’s more of the chefs of the world who sneer at the “lesser thans,” or do you think it’s more like the Tylers [Nicholas Hoult’s character] of the film who ascribe meaning to every single thing that they eat?
Tracy: In some ways, it’s hard to say. It’s a bit of a chicken or egg, or a mutually destructive ecosystem in a way because I think that the chefs of the world, while they have some disdain for the Tylers of the world for ruining the mystery of their art–which used to be this very closely guarded secret knowledge that only chefs knew about and the world didn’t seem to even be very interested in. Now, there’s a whole cottage industry of television shows and documentaries and books and websites about this world–I think the chef has some disdain for that. Yet at the same time, would they really, if they could, get in a time machine, go back to 1970 where a cook was just considered some person behind a door in a room who made your food and it was brought out to you, you ate it, you never thought about who they were, you never cared about who they were or how they made it—you weren’t interested. That’s really what the world used to be. You became a cook as a way of avoiding joining the military or going to prison. [laughs] Do you know what I mean?
[Reiss and Fried laugh]
Tracy: Honestly! We hear it in interviews with a lot of cooks and chefs from an earlier era. Those were their peers–people like that, really on the margins and fringes of society. And now there are people who come from very affluent backgrounds who are very well-schooled, who even may have a background in science or art or engineering who this is a perfectly legitimate career that they can tell their parents about. So, it’s definitely made the life of a chef and the life of a cook, the quality of life, much better, and it’s good for business that foodies are interested. But at the same time, you feel like, “Fuck these people who think they know my world.” So, it’s like a self-sustaining thing and it’s hard to say who is initially responsible for it, or how you step down from that, in a way. But it’s an interesting question, right? The chicken or egg.
Fried: Will, it sounds like you’ve done so much thinking about this, processing so much of this world. Seth, how do you collaborate with Will to enter that world and then throw in your ideas to collaborate on a satire about it?
Reiss: Are you familiar with hell?
[Tracy and Fried laugh]
Reiss: It’s hell. No, I– [Reiss laughs] This is the first time we’ve spoken in four-and-a-half years.
Reiss: No, but I have an appreciation for “the chef as artist,” and I also have a deep appreciation for the extent that an artist will go to be excellent. I understand, and believe it’s true, how a restaurant like this can push its people to exhaustion, but also how people would want to be a part of an amazing institution such as this. So, I think you can map Hawthorne onto a lot of creative artistic endeavors. So, for me, that actually was quite easy, because I can see Hawthorne in a lot of different places. I’m sure the greatest ballet company in the world–that’s a Hawthorne. One of the most prestigious late-night comedy shows in the world–that can be a Hawthorne. So, for me, that’s actually quite easy. The harder thing for me is really getting in tune to the language and the specifics, but Will’s also quite good at that. We also had amazing people on our movie who were consultants, like Dominique Crenn who’s a three Michelin star chef. So, that wasn’t too hard for me.
Tracy: Seth is also—he can’t say it, but I will—a brilliant writer and a brilliant satirist in particular. Even when we worked together at The Onion, he was always this way. You can plug him into an area or a subculture like that and, as long as Seth understands the people involved–what do they want, what do they need, what’s the thing that drives them crazy, what’s the thing that makes them tick–as long as he knows that and is part of figuring out what that is, then the details almost become kind of inessential, in a way. It’s really what drives their behavior, and he can write that beautifully.
Reiss: Yeah. I do see The Menu as quite an Onion-y type movie. It’s very specific, about a specific culture, and everyone inhabiting it is actually quite sad.
Fried: Speaking of your time at The Onion, gentlemen, last question, you two are master satirists and you’ve done so much satire–
Reiss: Where’s our award?
[Reiss and Tracy laugh]
Fried: Yeah–well, hey, there’s some discussion for this film in the screenplay categories.
Reiss: Well, I just want the master satirist award. That’s all I want. [laughs]
Fried: Don’t be so coy. But I have to ask, does it sometimes become difficult these days to create effective satire when it feels like the world continues to self-fulfill its own satire?
[Tracy and Fried laugh]
Reiss: It’s not! And anyone who says it is is wrong and you can quote me.
Fried: We will!
Reiss: Because the world always gets crazier and crazier. So, you always have to figure out, as a satirist, what’s the angle-in on that craziness. I think what makes The Onion really effective is that it’s never the first thought of how to make fun of/satirize something. It’s the second or third thought that someone might be having, that they don’t have quite crystallized in their brain, that your story is going to make them go, “Oh yeah, that.” And the “Oh yeah, that,”—if you can get to that idea, that’s always interesting and not expected.
Tracy: Also, the world has gotten crazier in some ways, and in other ways, 300 years ago, you had 10 kids and eight of them would die because people thought witches caused the Black Plague or something.
Tracy: So, the world was pretty crazy in earlier eras too, it’s just like…what’s crazy changes. What’s crazy now, I guess, is a particularly crazed, heightened media environment.
Reiss: Which you can then satirize.
Reiss: So, that’s another angle that’s been created by society and culture that you can then make fun of. So, what’s a different facet of reality that really hasn’t been blown up yet that you can then blow up?
Fried: You guys are such a fun bunch. Thank you so much for your time and congratulations on the film. It’s truly wonderful and I can’t wait for everybody to see it in a crowd.
Tracy: Oh, thanks man. Appreciate it.
Reiss: Thanks man. Appreciate it. Thank you.
Tracy: Thank you very much.
Larry Fried is a filmmaker, writer, and podcaster based in New Jersey. He is the host and creator of the podcast “My Favorite Movie is…,” a podcast dedicated to helping filmmakers make somebody’s next favorite movie. He is also the Visual Content Manager for Special Olympics New Jersey, an organization dedicated to competition and training opportunities for athletes with intellectual disabilities across the Garden State.