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The Equal Lateral Triangle of Comedy, Thriller and Horror: A (Boisterous) Conversation with ‘The Menu’ Screenwriters Will Tracy and Seth Reiss

Screenwriters and satirical comedy gurus Will Tracy and Seth Reiss share with Script how the story originated, how writing for 'The Onion' carried into writing 'The Menu,' why they seemingly gravitate to writing comedy, and so much more.

A couple (Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult) travels to a coastal island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the chef (Ralph Fiennes) has prepared a lavish menu, with some shocking surprises.

Buckle up, Buttercups. The Menu is a dining experience you didn't know you needed to witness and devour in one go. Also, be prepared to cringe, laugh and applaud all at the same time. Your moral compass is put on full display here as the filmmakers behind this film have cleverly presented a perfect-tasting menu of confrontational dishes. 

I had the recent honor of speaking and sharing a lot of laughs with screenwriters and satirical comedy gurus Will Tracy and Seth Reiss about their new film, how the story originated, how writing for The Onion carried into writing The Menu, why they seemingly gravitate to writing comedy, and so much more. Plus, they share some insight for those wanting to break into the screenwriting business - get your notebooks out.

[L-R] Ralph Fiennes as Chef Slowik and Anya Taylor-Joy as Margot in the film THE MENU. Photo by Eric Zachanowich. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

[L-R] Ralph Fiennes as Chef Slowik and Anya Taylor-Joy as Margot in the film THE MENU. Photo by Eric Zachanowich. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: Knowing that the two of you worked together at The Onion, and then treaded somewhat similar paths in the Late Night TV comedy world and so forth, was there a conscious decision to link up and write in the future?

Seth Reiss: Not in the future, but I think there was a moment when Will was at [Last Week Tonight with John] Oliver and I was at [Late Night with] Seth Meyers, and I'm still at Seth Myers, I think we liked working at our respective shows, but I think we wanted to do something that branched out of that. And that something was write movies. Will and I very much love movies. And so, we decided to write one movie that nothing happened with at all. I think people might have read it or if they did, they stopped reading it - we never heard from them. [laughs]

Will Tracy: Yeah, we'll never know. I don’t even want to. [laughs]

Seth: And then Will had this germ of an idea for The Menu. And that was very exciting. I think Will and I, from our Onion days, or just maybe how our brains work, we get very excited about an idea or a concept or as, 'Oh, we see how that works. We see how the people in that will act. We see kind of how the story will go.' And we know the tone of it immediately. And that's how I felt when Will sort of brought up his initial idea for The Menu.

Screenwriters Will Tracy and Seth Reiss

Screenwriters Will Tracy and Seth Reiss

Sadie: In that initial brainstorming session and building out that blueprint, for the characters and creating “the menu,” with the Chef at the center, what was that process like?

Will: My memory of it is that we probably began with just the idea of the menu and how a menu could serve as a really useful and kind of clarifying roadmap for a story and progressing through a story, the way you progress the way tasting menu chefs try to in their menus - tell a story and bring you through a progression and tell you about themselves and their philosophy of food and their philosophy of service and of the world. And so, I think we kind of started with that idea of what is the menu? What could the courses be? And then what could those courses tell us? Reveal with each successive course. Who the Chef is and then eventually kind of who the diners are.

It focused us from the beginning, because you're just essentially in one room. So, it's a very contained narrative. And then you're also kind of boundaried by that structure of that menu, which you don't depart from, we even put up title screens throughout. And so that gives you a feeling of rather than feeling constrained in some way, I think we found it kind of inspiring that, ‘OK, this is the road, and here's what it is. And here's basically what the path is going to be.’ And then trying to find out how to do surprising things within that structure. So, I think we probably started there.

And then I can't remember exactly when - I could be wrong, Seth. I felt as though we started with the Margot and Tyler characters being sort of an actual couple at a restaurant. And it wasn't till later that we decided to make that relationship not what it seems at the outset.

Seth: No, I think you're actually wrong! But it's OK, because this script went through some iterations.

Will: I mean, like the first couple days…

Seth: I think that from the very beginning, I don't think we knew exactly what she should be. But I think we knew that she should be the reason stuff happens. I think we knew that. And I actually think after we knew that, it was almost like the volleyball was set up and we just had to spike at home.

Will: That could be right because the first problem we encountered is, if everybody is there for a reason, and there's not the fly in the ointment that is Margot, essentially, you're just watching a guy kind of enact a plan. It's a pretty linear story.

Seth: Yes.

Will: You can still have fun with it. But it's a pretty, ultimately, that's a pretty linear story. You need Margot to kind of upset that.

Seth: And you need Margot to bring out stuff from him that he wouldn't show to the world if she weren't there. So, I think we actually had that pretty, pretty early on. And when we were outlining it really sort of drove the linear story of that. That's our straight path. And then everything else is how we get off the path and then back on the path. The Margot stuff I think, we knew that she was going to be an industry worker, and we knew that she would cross paths with Chef.

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Sadie: And how you guys structure that and weave that storyline throughout, with the twists and turns, is really a chef’s kiss. I love how you set up the menu first, because they are like these confrontational dishes for each person and how far you went with each one was very creative down to printing account information on tortillas - how far can you go with this stuff? And you guys did it.

Seth: Will is really good about that, because Will is definitely more of the foodie. The tortilla makes sense, because I think Will had in his foodie life had seen this sort of thing not done in this way…

Will: Yeah, laser printing on food has become a bit of a thing. This guy, Nathan Myhrvold who used to work for Microsoft and then retired with all his money to become sort of a Modernist Cuisine expert. And that's a technique that he kind of pioneered. And I think what we discovered with the course is that each one could be as you said, a provocation. But also, each course becomes a way to learn about our characters in a way that doesn't feel as though - because it's difficult when you it's contained narrative that kind of takes place almost in real time just in one evening - it's difficult to deliver information about our characters without it feeling like we're just dumping exposition on you. But if each course is sort of a provocation, in that provocation causes people to react a certain way and in their reaction, we learn a bit more about who they are, the pressures of their life, the contradictions of their life, and they become a bit more self-aware as well.

Seth: It's really good when you're able to dramatize exposition in a way that makes sense within the framework of the story. So then it doesn't feel, I think, to the viewer, of ‘Oh that was forced.’ I think when Tyler says, “I knew everyone would die,” that's almost like a classic type of exposition, but because of where it happens, and when it happens, and the way he rushes back into the restaurant to get the food and we haven't really gotten his sort of backstory yet, really, it doesn't feel dramatically right as opposed to it coming out too early or too late.

Sadie: It’s a perfect example of “show don't tell” and that's what you’re basically doing with all the food and how you're laying that groundwork. You don't need on the nose dialogue to deliver that information. With all these characters, they're essentially caricatures of what they represent. But you guys go three steps deeper into their lives. And as a viewer, you’re now questioning your own ethical and moral standards. When writing those twists, how do you know when enough is enough, not enough or if you’ve taken it too far? And how much were you guys tapping into your satirical writing from The Onion days to kind of service that and the story?

Will: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's probably they start, as you suggest, is kind of very satirical kind of archetypes of the types of people you see at restaurants like this, right? The older couple who never say a word to each other the whole night that you see at places like this, or the guys who are on the expense account dinner, being kind of loud assholes. And then the foodie character who's watched all the episodes of Chef's Table knows everything about the Chef. We start from the satirical archetypes that we can get good kind of energy and jokes and material out of. And then the question is, yeah, as you said, how do you go that next step deeper into a kind of self-awareness, and then flip it a bit, so it doesn't just feel like, ‘Oh, we're watching one-dimensional assholes get their just desserts’? And it's cathartic. And we're on the side of the Chef. The example Seth and I always talk about is, at a certain point in the movie, once the Chef has started to quote Martin Luther King, you kind of feel like, 'Well, who's really out of touch here?'

[ALL LAUGH]

Will: And so playing with that, and calibrating that is part of the fun, right?

Seth: Yeah. And I would say in terms of our Onion sensibilities, in two ways, the world is very specific. The world is very lived in. All the language in the world makes sense within the world. I remember a long time ago, I wrote an Onion story it was “Two Dozen More Bodies Found in Lake Wobegon” and it was like I knew of Lake Wobegon, but I didn't know all the language of Garrison Keillor, and all the town and all that stuff. But the people who are going to read that story, they're going to love their Garrison Keillor, so you have to do them justice and show that we've done our research to bring their world, that they're so aware of, to life.

And so, I think we were able to do that with the restaurant. But I also think another way that it's very Oniony is that throughout the movie, the service remains excellent. And the language of service remains completely present. And I think if we were brainstorming The Menu in The Onion writer's room, if someone said, 'And then the waitstaff laugh maniacally,’ or something like that, we'd be like, ‘No, I don't think that's right.’ I think it's actually better if Elsa calmly brings Arturo's character back to his seat. And Ralph is assuring them this is all part of the menu. I think The Onion writers would have blanched if Ralph's character was too mustache twisty or something.

And it makes it funnier, right? Everyone there is actually calm and doing exactly what they would be doing. That's way more interesting to watch than like everybody go nuts.

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Sadie: Right. It's creepy and real in some odd way of being in a real restaurant like that. It's also very cultish with Chef.

Will: Yeah.

Seth: They want the evening to be lovely for their guests.

Sadie: No matter what. What was the overall creative collaboration like working with your director Mark Mylod?

Will: Great collaboration. Mark and I have worked together before on Succession, so we kind of already have a working process with each other, and then Seth just fit right into that. The three of us really collaborated very smoothly and Mark kind of allowed us on set every day - we were kind of right there with him at the monitors - and he's still he's very much in control of the movie, but he would hear our notes and also kind of allowed us to speak with the actors and suggest alt-lines and improv and it was great.

Having come from Succession where the rigorousness about getting the world right and getting the research and the details right, put it at such a premium, I think he brought that same kind of rigor to The Menu. And he didn't go in knowing a lot about that world, but I think he wanted to really do it justice, and wanting to make sure we have to get the best food consultants. So, we had Dominique Crenn, three Michelin star chef consulting. And then we have to make the food shots and the plating look as good as it does in Jiro Dreams of Sushi. And so, the director of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, David Gelb, actually helped out towards the end, doing some second unit actually, in shooting some of those beautiful shots that you see in the movie. It was a very smooth, great collaboration.

Seth: I think Mark has talked a lot about like an equal lateral triangle of comedy, thriller and horror, and him being very conscious in the shooting of it, and the editing of it to make sure that triangle always remained an equal lateral triangle. And honestly, I can't imagine how hard that would be shooting it and editing it. [laughs] I mean, writing it is way easier than putting it up on its feet and making it sing on a screen. Then bringing in the music component of it to bolster it as opposed to taking away and Colin Stetson did this amazing job, because everyone got the tone that we were trying to go for. But to put it all up on its feet is really fucking hard.

Will: Yeah.

Sadie: But the three of you guys did it. The perfect triangle!

Seth: That's what we call ourselves whenever we go out.

Will: [laughs]

Seth: And we say, ‘All right, another night for the perfect triangle!’

[ALL LAUGH]

Seth: And then one of us gets punched in the stomach by somebody. ‘The three dorks in New York are out!’

Sadie: Better watch out, they're on the loose again! [laughs] What is it about the comedy genre that informs your writing in the narrative space?

Will: I think sometimes with comedy, if you allow yourself to write this certain kind of comedy, you may be allowed to make characters say and do things that you're not in life typically allowed to say and do, but you can actually say something about. A character can say something that you think, ‘Oh, that's a terrible thing to say. And you shouldn't say that.’ But maybe some part of you might think, but there is a 30% kernel of truth in what they said, as well. It's harder to express some of those viewpoints. And in a narrative, where you're really supposed to dramatically or in a way relate to the hero, or like them, or think that they're a great person, or some sort of Avatar for how you're supposed to live your life, it's fun sometimes to within a comedy to kind of write the opposite of that. But in doing so, maybe be a little bit more honest, or communicate some truths that would be hard to do in another type of story.

Seth: Maybe this goes back a little bit to The Onion stuff, or just why Will and I were even drawn to The Onion in the first place, there's something about the comedy of melancholy, also, that so everyone in that restaurant, I think, is quite sad. And I think that uniform sadness kind of allows some actually sad moments. Like, when Jeremy presents his course "The Mess" Chef talks about Jeremy, I think that allows that scene to feel tonally correct. As opposed to, ‘Why is this more disturbing thing happening?’ It feels like it makes sense.

And also piggyback on what Will is saying, I don't think people need to be likable. I think though, people try to be redeemable that you will kind of like them, and like Ralph's character is looking for some sort of redemption, whether you agree with it or not. He's striving for it in some way. So, I think we're willing to go on that journey with him. You don't need to be likable. Like in Succession, those characters are in some way trying for some sort of redemption and always sort of failing, but you kind of like them, because they're trying in some way. [laughs] It’s terrible, you know it's not gonna end well, but Go,d they're really trying and what they believe is trying.

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Will: And because they don't care. Those characters are a good examples, because they don't really care about how they come across, because they live in such an insulated world, and they're so powerful. They can say things you're not supposed to say that you might actually sort of say, well, that's the thing that nobody says but their kind of thinking. And comedy kind of allows you to do that. Or at least the comedy I like. A lot of comedy really you're supposed to love and relate to the lead character and find them very likable and they're supposed to behave in a very virtuous way, but that kind of comedy doesn't often make me laugh.

Sadie: Yeah, I was thinking of the guys from Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Will: Yeah, there you go.

Sadie: They’re always two years ahead of us and saying everything we wish we could say.

Will: [laughs] Exactly.

Sadie: Any advice for those who are writing a dark comedy, or just comedy in general, what's a rule of thumb that has guided you through your writing career?

Will: I don't have an original sounding one…the one that I like which I think is true, is write what you know. Which I think I used to interpret as it has to be something that you've experienced firsthand, so write something that happened to you. But that's not really - that could be what it means. But it could also mean, whatever that subject or area of the world that you're sort of obsessed with, that you have six dog eared books on your bookshelf about, your private little obsession that you kind of know about, write about that, because you already immediately will have a leg up because you really care about it. And you kind of know the world. And when you start writing a scene in that world, it will have a veneer of authenticity to it, right? Because you kind of know the contours of that world, you know the details of it. If you're obsessed with the Space Program for years, then when you write a scene in Mission Control, it's probably going to feel more authentic than someone who doesn't really care about that world going in, and sort of maybe just trying to write a good story in that world. So, I think, write what you know.

Sometimes you'd be surprised. Food was something that I really, really, really cared about for years. But I never thought about something to write about. It was just sort of my, 'That's my thing that I enjoy.' And in the typical self-punishing writer way, I turned the thing that I enjoy into homework. And so now I don't really enjoy foodstuff as much as I used to. [laughs] But it's not a bad idea for when you're trying to think of ‘What should I write about?’ What's the thing that you are currently obsessed with - your private passion?

Seth: I think it's to be rigorous about your initial concept. And know in your heart, ‘Oh, this is interesting’, or know in your heart, ‘this isn't interesting, people have seen this before. When I'm done with this, people will have known the tone of this.’ I think that self-editor from the jump is very important.

And then I would say there really is no, I guess, better calling card than a script that executes an interesting idea in a tone that is uniquely yours. And I don't know if that gets made or not. But I do know that if you execute an original idea in a tone that is uniquely yours, it seems like with narrative fiction, in script form, it seems to really resonate with people and they get excited about it. And that can only be good for people to get excited about your writing. I guess in the long and short of it is don't write something because you think it will sell. Honestly, people have said that to me, ‘I'm writing this because I read they're doing a lot of these,’ and you check in with that person, like two months later, ‘Did it sell?’ And they're like, ‘No!’ [laughs] because that's not what people are really looking for when you're sending stuff in. I think they're looking for something unique.

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Sadie: Yeah, don't chase that trend. Great advice on both fronts. Will, I hope you enjoy food again at some point.

[ALL LAUGH]

Seth: We're all pulling for Will.

[ALL LAUGH] 

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The Menu is in Theaters and set for a digital release on HBO Max on January 3, 2023, and available on Blu-Ray/ DVD in early 2023.


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