Andrea Berloff on the Hollywood experiment, casting unlikely heroes, and the music of The Kitchen
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Andrea Berloff, the writer and director of The Kitchen. Andrea and I met on the Warner Bothers lot and spoke for about fifteen minutes. We not only discussed multiple facets of the film, including the cast, music, and cinematography but also her thoughts on the current state of female filmmakers.
Andrea Berloff: Hi Scott. How are you? I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long.
Scott Menzel: No, not at all. I’ve been bouncing around from junket to junket today. So, my first question for you is since this film is based on a graphic novel, were you familiar with the graphic novel prior to being involved with the film?
Andrea Berloff: I was not. It was sent to me in February of 2016 by New Line, it was already in the DC Warner’s pipeline, and I was not familiar with it ahead of time, no.
Scott Menzel: Okay. The Kitchen is your directorial debut but it is also based on a graphic novel, did you have any reservations going into this project?
Andrea Berloff: None. I, from the day one, just thought this was the coolest thing I’d read in ages, and that if I was lucky enough to get a chance to tell this story, I better take that opportunity. It was, even the first time I read it, I just thought I’ve never seen anything like this before. A real gangster movie with women at the center of it felt fresh, and a little bit subversive. Certainly something different. So no, I did not have reservations. In fact, I’ve been the one, for three years, who’s like, “Come on, guys, we’re making a movie! Let’s go! Let’s go!” I’ve been the cheerleader for this for many years. So no, I had no reservations.
Scott Menzel: In terms of adapting a graphic novel for the big screen, what does that process look like? Can you walk me through that?
Andrea Berloff: Sure. Well, there are a few different facets to it. I kept the core concept of the graphic novel is the same. I did change quite a few characters. Tiffany Haddish’s character is not in the graphic novel; it was three white women. I was just coming off of all of the press for Straight Outta Compton as the novel was sent to me, and I just said, “I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but I know I don’t want to make a movie with three white women. I want to make one of these women African American, and I’ll figure out an interesting story around she arrives in the Irish mafia.” And then of course out of that, I thought, “Well, that would be cool if she had a mean mother-in-law.” And so the character of Helen played by Margo Martindale evolved out of that. I sort of changed around a bunch of characters, and then obviously graphic novels move very fast. They’re not fully fleshed out, they are more like this happens, and this happens, and this happens. So I was able to find the space within there to really think, “Well, why are they doing this?” Or, “What’s going on?” Or, “What’s the motivation?” I was able to let the whole piece breathe a little bit more.
Scott Menzel: I run the Los Angeles Online Film Critics Society and one of the big things that we push for within our organization is inclusion and the representation of underrepresented voices. Do you feel, as a filmmaker today, like change is finally happening within the industry?
Andrea Berloff: I think an experiment of change is happening within the industry. I think change is happening. I think a few more people are getting hired, and a few more different kinds of stories are starting to come through. I think they have to work in the marketplace if we want to see more. I think that’s my two cents, is that there’s not enough of us yet to believe that this is a movement, in terms of female directors. There are not enough people of color before the cameras, and behind the cameras, to believe that this is here to stay. I think these movies have to work. They have to make money. And if they do, they will continue.
Scott Menzel: Do you feel like studios are pushing these female-led movies as hard as they would male-driven ones?
Andrea Berloff: Well, I can only speak for my own experience, and I will say that I think Warners is doing a solid job marketing The Kitchen. I think they are out there, and they are spending money, there are billboards all over the city, I’m sure you’ve seen them. There are commercials everywhere. They are marketing this fully. They are not holding back. I think that if a studio is going to take the risk and spend tens of millions of dollars on a movie, you can’t stop there. You got to spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing, and they are doing that.
Scott Menzel: That’s very true. In terms of the characters within this film, and the casting of those characters, you mentioned that you didn’t want to make it three white women and you changed one of them to Tiffany Haddish’s character Ruby. What was the thought process behind getting each one of these actresses to play these roles?
Andrea Berloff: A theme in the movie is the idea that you give people an opportunity and step back and watch what they can do. I think that started with me, in some ways. Give me the opportunity to direct and watch what I can do. Once we settled upon this theme, the idea of casting people who don’t necessarily often get the opportunity to play roles like this, we realized, number one, it would allow me to punch above my weight in terms of being a first time director. If you of after actors who aren’t going to get these jobs, they’re going to want to say yes, because they want to play different roles than what they’ve always been playing.
Scott Menzel: Smart.
Andrea Berloff: But number two, they wanted to do it. They wanted these parts. All three of these women, you’ve never seen them do anything like this before. They all wanted the opportunity. I think, again, it’s a theme of the movie, and I hope that audiences leave feeling that theme. Feeling what can I do if I’m given a shot. What can I do that’s outside of my comfort zone. Give me a little power and watch me go. I think everybody feels… connects to the idea of feeling stymied, and stuck in their own little box, and everybody wants that moment to go out and get something fresh and new for themselves. So whether you’re a first time director, or a comedian doing a gangster role, or an audience member sitting there, whatever your job and occupation is, I think everybody’s going to connect to that feeling.
Scott Menzel: I think Melissa McCarthy over the past few years has proven that she is a tour de force.
Andrea Berloff: She’s on fire. I agree. Isn’t she so good in this? I couldn’t believe it. There were times that we would do a scene, and I would sit there for a second and think, “Oh my god.” I was just so completely blown away by her skills. She is the total package.
Scott Menzel: I agree. As someone who grew up in the ’80s and the ’90s, and grew up watching Tarantino, Scorsese, and mob movies or tv shows liked The Sopranos, this film is like the perfect film for the Me Too era as this film is about a woman’s world down to even some of the music choices.
Andrea Berloff: Thank you.
Scott Menzel: Can you talk a little bit about those music choices?
Andrea Berloff: Yes. I worked really hard on the music. We had just a fantastic music team from Deva Anderson, the music supervisor, and Mitsuko Yabe, the music editor. We worked really, really hard. We auditioned several thousand songs for each one of those cues. If there was a song out in the ’70s, Deva listened to it. I think music is so powerful on film. Obviously, I had the experience with Compton of watching what music does to an audience. It’s so powerful. Again, coming off Compton, I just felt like even when I went into pitch as a director, I went in with USB drives for everybody with playlists on them, saying, “Let me clear. What’s cool about this is that we’re going to have music across genres. It’s not just one genre of ’70s music. It’s bubblegum pop, and rock and roll, and disco, and all sorts of music across the spectrum.” I think part of that creates a fun, celebratory atmosphere. You want to go to the movies because it’s fun. I think, to me, that’s the only way people are going to go to the movies right now. It’s got to be a good night out. Otherwise, why go? We’re living in really awful, yucky times. If you’re going to go out to the theater, you want to walk away being like, “That was so fun.” And part of what’s so fun is that you’re going to sing along with some of these songs. You’re going to move a little bit in your seat because this music makes you feel happy and good.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, and I think it’s interesting that you pointed that out because I think a lot of us critics have been noticing a lot more now, are having disconnects with major audiences, because you’re like, “Why are there people watching these movies?” And it’s because of what you just said. The world sucks. So you want to go to something, and you want an escape. I think your film gives these people a nice escape from reality.
Andrea Berloff: I hope so. And then maybe on the car ride home, we can talk about some issues. Because they’re all there for the taking. The themes are all there. So this was a big lesson I learned off of Compton, right? Compton was a big, fun piece of mass entertainment, but also talked about police abuse, and first amendment rights, and all of those really great, important themes that we should be discussing as a society. But most importantly, it was a fun night out. It created an event. And that’s how you’re going to get people, I think, to go to original content. Create an event. Why do you want to go to the theater? You’re going to have a great time, and there’s something a little juicy to talk about on the ride home. I think, for me, these eventized adult movies are the only way they’re going to survive in the marketplace right now.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. Do you feel like these types of movies, like The Kitchen will open doors for more types of films like this? Where, again, we were talking about Scorsese’s best known for the mob movies, right? You opening a door and being one of the first to create something like this, do you feel like this is going to be the first of many more to come?
Andrea Berloff: I mean, it’s a little early to say that, the movie hasn’t opened. So let’s see what audiences… I haven’t seen a single review, I haven’t talked to any audiences, so let’s just see. We’ll see.
Scott Menzel: Okay. You’ve written a lot of different types of films leading up to this one. That means you worked around a lot of different types of directors, including someone like Oliver Stone. Is there something that you’ve learned from each of the directors that you’ve worked with?
Andrea Berloff: Absolutely. Don’t we all, even when you’re in the weeds on any… I talked last night about how I started off for five years working as the assistant to the founder of New Line’s family, Bob Shaye’s family, and his wife Eva, for five years, helping out with their household. Did I think that that was a direct line to one day making a big movie for Warner Bros.? I did not. But a lot of the assistants that I worked with at that time are now running the studio. I think we all go through life having these experiences, and we can’t necessarily see how they’re going to add up to being something, but it’s all about being open minded, watching, conducting yourself with grace wherever you go, and you just don’t know where life takes you. It’s such a crazy journey, always.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. It’s pretty amazing to think the industry itself right now… I was looking at the movies that you wrote. You did two movies that were inspired by true events, and then you did Sleepless, and then you, of course, did this. All of which I feel like are all wildly different.
Andrea Berloff: They are, but weirdly, three of those movies have opened the same weekend. The second weekend of August. The Kitchen, Compton, and World Trade Center all are opening the second weekend of August. Which I think talks about yes, they’re all over the place in terms of genre, but I write a certain kind of movie. Which is a big event, adult, drama. Whatever the story might be, they’re all similarly sized movies. I think Compton and The Kitchen are in many ways the same core theme. Which is people who feel disrespected, who want to have an opportunity in life, who want something more, who have to go out and find their voices and they have to take it. I think it’s not coincidental that they’re opening the same weekend.
Scott Menzel: Is there a genre you would like to tackle next?
Andrea Berloff: I never look at it in terms of genre.
Scott Menzel: Never?
Andrea Berloff: I never do. To me, it’s always about what is a story that I’ve never seen before that feels exciting to me, that if I was an audience, I’d want to go see it. What I won’t do is the 17th installment of something somebody’s seen before. I just don’t know how I would bring something fresh to that. What I care about is that I haven’t seen that before, and that feels a little risky. To me, I want to feel a little afraid when I take something on. A little bit like, “Are people going to go along on this? We’ll see. Let’s take a swing.” I think it’s the only way to get a movie made, is to go big. So I’m much more interested in figuring out what’s fresh and different.
Scott Menzel: How did you go about picking the cinematographer for this film? Because that I thought was fantastic.
Andrea Berloff: She did a beautiful job, Maryse Alberti. Well, Maryse is, male or female, by the way, one of the more accomplished cinematographers out there. She has a very, very long career. I was lucky enough that she was interested in the material. She’s also worked at New Line before. They had a really good experience with her. I just thought that she had a really clean, interesting aesthetic, and she understood that the women needed… Imagine the balance for the cinematographer. The women need to look beautiful in this movie, so that it becomes aspirational so that you are rooting for them, so that you want to go along with it. But it’s also a gritty gangster movie. So how do you balance those two things. You wouldn’t have to worry about that if it was men. You would just make them look gritty, and it doesn’t matter if they look bad. But we had to balance both sides of that coin. It was incredibly challenging, to really make them look gorgeous, and also make it look gritty and run down. It was just two opposite sides of the spectrum. But Maryse just did it beautifully.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I think she did a fantastic job. What was the total shoot time for this?
Andrea Berloff: 38 days. Really fast shoot. Really tight.
Scott Menzel: Wow, that is crazy. My last question for you is in about the film as a whole; there are a lot of big moments in the movie, so was there one in particular scene that you found to be more difficult to bring to life than the others.
Andrea Berloff: Difficult? Just purely in terms of logistics, the day that we were shooting in the water. We had two scenes. One with Elisabeth in the water, and one Domhnall Gleeson in the water. Water is tough to work with. It turns out it doesn’t want to cooperate. It was very challenging, both that was a very long night, and it was really, really hard. Of course, we would finish a take, and then we’d have to turn a barge around with cameras on it, and then they were wet, because they were in the water, and we’d have to start over and dry them, and the whole night was like, “Oh my god. This is crazy!” It was not easy.
Scott Menzel: Well, thank you very much for chatting with me today. It was very nice meeting you and talking to you.
Andrea Berloff: Thank you. So fun, thank you.
Scott Menzel: Thank you.
Andrea Berloff: Good questions, by the way.