The writers of one of the year's funniest and most original thrillers share their secret recipes.
It's really rare to see a satirical film pulled off with deftness like this year's The Menu, and even rarer to see a project move from screenplay to screen with so much of the tone and humor intact. Written by Seth Reiss & Will Tracy, The Menu was a 2019 Black List script before it was picked up by producer Adam McKay and made its way to Searchlight. When I say this has been one of my most anticipated films for several years, it's not an exaggeration.
The script is easily one of my favorites. The snark and intelligence of the writers' voices, combined with tight pacing and jokes and characters that jump off the page, make it a fast and fun read. Sometimes if I'm in a creative slump I'll pull it up for inspiration and find myself reading the whole thing again.
It makes sense that Reiss and Tracy would have such biting senses of humor and honed sensibilities, both of them coming from a background at The Onion. Reiss went on to work on Late Night with Seth Meyers, and Tracy has written on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Succession.
So when the opportunity to speak with Reiss and Tracy came up, I leaped on it. The writers were kind enough to speak with No Film School via Zoom about their processes, inspirations, and best advice for working as writers.
Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: My first question is just about your partnership. What does it look like when you two write together?
Will Tracy: Yeah, so our general process is that we will kind of work together on an outline. So we'll meet at one of our places, usually my place, and I'll cook dinner or we'll order dinner. We don't like our sessions to go too long. I mean, there's that feeling after you've eaten dinner and when you maybe had a glass of wine and you realize it's not going to happen anymore. So we like to just stop when we're no longer feeling excited about continuing. And we will kind of meet that for maybe a period of a month or two whenever we can find time. And one of us, usually me, will type, and then we'll both be talking about and kind of keeping notes of everything we're saying. And then we'll pass these notes back and forth between us and email them to each other.
And they start eventually organically, hopefully, taking the shape of an outline. And then when we get to the point where we feel as though we have not only the shape of the story, but more or less kind of like a scene-by-scene outline, and we know what the comic or dramatic engine of every scene is. So it's not just, "Oh, Margot goes over here because we need to get her from point A to point B." I think we both are scared of those beats. We like to feel like every scene there, you can lock into a specific like what makes it funny, what makes it thrilling. And so we know how to write the scene hopefully. And then at that point Seth wrote... We usually then break up, and we don't write together the actual script in a room. We will kind of split it up so you take the first 20, I'll take the next 20, then doing passes on each other's bits and then joining them up at the end.
Seth Reiss: Yeah. And it's fun because when we're off sort of writing on our own, which is actually kind of the way Will and I—actually, kind of the way The Onion is put together in a certain sense. The staff would brainstorm jokes based on a headline, and so for the writer when the writer went off by herself or himself, would just write the story on her own or his own. So Will and I kind of did the same thing.
And what's fun about that is whenever I send my 15 pages back to Will, some parts of the outline haven't been filled in, and you can surprise your co-writer with things. And it's quite a joy to be able to surprise Will with a joke or a story turn or just something that we didn't see coming. And that really keeps up the sort of creative electric engine of writing the movie. It never really felt boring. It never felt like, "Oh, we got to get through this." It always felt pretty kinetic.
Tracy: Yeah. We never got too stuck.
No Film School: And I imagine it's easier to tackle it in those small increments also.
Reiss: Totally, totally. By the way, whenever we got to 110 pages, we just stopped because the script's 110 pages. So even if there was no ending, we just... "We're done."
No Film School: Yeah. That's how it works!
Reiss: Luckily it was right. But we were stopping no matter what.
No Film School: Can you talk a little bit more about developing the idea? I know that the movie's notes talk a lot about the actual experience of going to a restaurant like Hawthorne. But are there any other things you can talk about in terms of your inspiration?
Reiss: No, I think Will and I, we really thought of one, who are the types of people that would be in this type of restaurant on this type of evening to make that feel relatable and real, so we could ground the story in a sense of reality, but then also know and understand why they are there in relation to the chef and why they are there in relation to one another. And I think all the characters have a certain common sadness. I would even say starvation to them. All of them are quite sad people.
But then just in terms of telling a story to throw in an immediate like, "What?" Margot exchanges a weird look with Richard at the very beginning of the movie. So something's there. Something is there. And then Margot isn't supposed to be there. So it emits sort of this world that's very, very, very specific with language that's very specific to that world. We do have a very sort of normal inciting incident, which is someone who is not supposed to be there is there. And that is a problem.
Tracy: Yeah. And then also looking for—I mean, it's the old cliche, but I do think it's always useful advice that's true, is the "write what you know" thing. So part of that is putting in our actual knowledge and research that we did into the restaurant world and the food industry and how that works. But also trying to find, because we've never worked in a kitchen like this, trying to find that thing that connects with us emotionally. So although we've never worked in a kitchen like this, Seth and I certainly know what it's like to work collaboratively in a writer's room atmosphere or creative atmosphere where egos are being managed, where ideas are being pitched, where validation and approbation is being desperately sought after.
And also where the opinion and status and approbation of a more powerful kind of boss-like figure who you're seeking to impress. We know how that works as well. And we can definitely connect to that. And we can also connect to the kind of... In our pathetic way, I think we can connect to the artistic temperament, the artistic ego that wants a certain kind of control and wants a certain kind of—and is considering issues of legacy and the criticism and the customer and all of that stuff. I think we try to tap into the maybe less appealing parts of our psyches where we understand that.
Reiss: For people who have seen the movie, Will is definitely the chef character, and I'm sort of the Jeremy Louden character.
No Film School: That's such an interesting analogy. I don't think I thought of it that way, but it makes sense!
Reiss: No, no, I'm being silly. No, I'm not.
No Film School: How do you manage that balance between satire and drama and thriller?
Reiss: Luckily I will say, I think this is one thing that Will and I should never even try to analyze because I don't think it's something we ever really talked about.
Reiss: It was just, I think, the way we went about writing this specific story, I think we were very aware of what the tone—we never talked about tone ever. It was just, I think, we instinctually because we worked together for so long and we're so aware of one another and we have a very similar taste level when it comes to this specific type of story, that it was always going to be what you read, and it was always going to be without much discussion about it. And I actually rather—almost I'd rather never talk about it because I think once you talk about something like that and over-intellectualize it, you kind of ruin it.
So whatever that brew is in terms of what we have in common and what our taste level is, that's what created the script. I will say that writing it is a lot easier than shooting it and putting it together. Getting that tone on screen is a huge challenge, and that necessitates a director, Mark Mylod, who absolutely got what we were trying to do, and our actors who knew exactly what we were trying to do, and our editor who knew exactly what we were trying to do. And that's a whole different beast.
Tracy: Yeah. And it felt to us like the comedy and the suspense and the food were all fueled by the same pressures. And so it felt very hand in glove. All those things were supporting each other and didn't feel like you were seeing a food movie, a thriller, and a comedy mashed together. It kind of felt like they were all of the same piece. Hopefully it comes off that way, but it certainly felt that way when we were writing it.
But as Seth says, once we do whatever we do on the page, it takes some real craft and skill from the actors and the director and the editor and the crew and the music and everything to make all of those elements feel as though they're getting along. It's a lot of things that we would never consider writing on the page about a music cue or a specific kind of cut or a performance note that we weren't considering when we were writing, because in our heads we know what it should look like and sound like, but in reality sometimes that can be very difficult to pull off. And it's to the credit of the amazing collaborators on the movie that I think that we were able to hopefully do that.
No Film School: I do think, again, having been such a fan of the script and seeing it realized is just so satisfying, because I think it is exactly what you said. Everyone understood what you were trying to accomplish. It could have gone so wrong so, so easily in terms of tone and performance.
Tracy: And you'll see it whenever you watch a first cut of anything, the rough cut. You all see it, and everyone knows it. You'll see all the ways it can go wrong, but everyone also agrees on the, "Okay, here's what we need to do to fix it." But no one should be discouraged, too discouraged when they see that rough cut of anything that they make, because the whole point is to make it better from there. And you're never going to get something perfect the first go around, and that's where you fine-tune everything from there.
No Film School: Can I ask what your favorite part of the film is?
Reiss: I think my favorite is when Chef tells Tyler to cook. I think that sequence, I think that's actually the only—it's quite cathartic for the audience. He had different fates throughout in various iterations of the script. And I'm so glad we ultimately landed on this one with him actually cooking and failing. I think that's like... There's nothing more humiliating for him than to fail in front of his idol and to know in the moment that everything that he espouses to be is complete and total horseshit. And that's like, you very rarely get those opportunities in your life when somebody around you who's completely full of shit gets to see how completely full of shit he or she is. And that's that moment.
And I also really love the way Mark shot it because there's some lovely cutaways to the kitchen staff watching him sort of very dead-eyed but satisfied way. And then the way Margot's watching him, it's a pretty full moment. And it's funny. It doesn't lose what's funny about the movie either.
Tracy: Yeah, that's a good choice. The other one that I think of, because I think it was one of the few scenes that was kind of working in every single cut, was probably the bread-less bread, I felt like was always kind of working.
Reiss: Yeah. Always good.
Tracy: Yeah. It always felt like the movie was—it was a new thought or a new energy was suddenly entering the movie, and you could feel what the movie was saying, what it was doing changing in that scene. And that's always felt... Yeah, it's always felt satisfying.
Reiss: Yeah. You can't lose that part of the movie.
Tracy: Yeah, right.
Reiss: Totally would mess up all the pacing.
Tracy: Right, right.
Reiss: Yeah. And escalation.
No Film School: What's your advice to up-and-coming writers?
Reiss: My advice is—and this is helped very much by Will because when we were done with The Menu, which is something that we wrote for free, and we took a lot of big creative swings that we had no idea what would happen with the movie. I think Will would say that maybe this will help get us more work. I think the idea of us seeing it produced, made was not what our immediate goal was, but when it was done, I knew that it was a cool thing that no one else could write but us. And when we sent it in, Will said, "Look, if this is on a pile of scripts, people are going to be excited about it."
I was like, "No one reads anything, no one cares, no one's going to read it." And Will was 100% correct, and I was completely incorrect. And that did really instill in me when it comes to film writing, if you have a really cool idea and interesting voice behind that idea, people will pay attention to it. And I think Will has experienced that a couple more times, and I've experienced that a couple more times. And specifically with narrative, I don't know.
Tracy: I agree with that. I would only add just in terms of advice, practical advice, there was the aforementioned "write what you know" thing which is... I always very much agree with that advice, which sounds very obvious. I always thought that used to mean, "Oh, if you worked for NASA, then you should write something about the space program." But I think it can also mean... Seth and I have never worked at a high-end restaurant, but this type of restaurant was a sort of personal obsession of mine. And it was the thing that I would always, during my lunch break, I would watch YouTube videos about Noma and Marco Pierre White, and I read Greg Atkinson's biography, and this was kind of a thing that I threw myself into for years before ever contemplating writing something about it.
Not realizing that, "Oh, that's part of write what you know too," whatever that thing is that you're obsessed with. You have six dog-eared books on your bookshelf about this one topic. Maybe you should write about that, because even if you didn't experience or live it firsthand, if you sit down as a dramatist or as a writer to write a scene set in that world, you already have a leg up, and that scene is going to feel more real and lived in and detailed because you have some of the details and some of the processes of that world in your head already. And so it's just going to kind of read a bit more authentic than if you just try to throw yourself into a subject you don't care that much about.
And I would also say that the other thing that I sometimes... Maybe some people might think this is bad advice, but I found it to be kind of true. A lot of people say when you're starting out, just say yes to everything. Write everything. Just write all the time and take any kind of opportunity. And I think sometimes that can be true. And I would also say obviously there are financial pressures and you need to do what you need to do to make money and to get by as a writer and to subsist and to make formed connections.
But people, you can get too comfortable with that. And you can kind of say yes to a lot of stuff that you don't feel really that interested in. And then before you know it, you're three or four years into writing on staff for a show that you don't actually care that much about, but it's kind of comfortable and the money's good. Or you're writing the kind of movies that you think you should be writing because those are the type of movies that sell. And because you are really just trying to use it as a stepping stone to do this or that. And at a certain point, it's like maybe do away with the stepping stones and just write the thing that you actually want to write and try to do that and be a little picky. Be a little bit picky.
Reiss: Yeah. I think I've taken that advice from Will more times than I think I've even told him about. I think the last thing you want to do is be... Writing a movie takes a long time and working with those people takes a long time, and there's rewrites. So you could be spending a year of your life having to be very focused on something that you're not very passionate about. And I agree. I understand what Will's saying about the financial component. I mean, you might have to do that, but if you can avoid that, I would avoid that. I've had some people who said, "I'm working on this thing, this is what sells." Honestly, I've never then had a follow-up conversation where that person says, "I sold it."
Tracy: Yeah. Right.
Reiss: I really haven't. It's never happened. That cold calculated thing of, "I was thinking about this thing. I saw what everyone was doing, and then I was like, 'I'm going to do mine,' because it's selling." I don't think that's true. I think that's only true if you're already within a system, and that system wants to create their "this." But if you're outside the system, you have to write something that's interesting to people who are inside the system.
Tracy: Otherwise, they'll read your script, and they can smell it. They can smell that—
Reiss: They can smell it.
Tracy: Kind of like, "Oh, this person wrote this because someone told them that this is what's selling."
Reiss: Yeah. And they don't want to feel that way. They don't want to feel like they're walking, talking cliches. They want to feel like, "No, we're still making smart choices. We're trying."
Tracy: We like to think we're doing the cool version of something or the new version of something and not just a retread. Yeah.
Reiss: And I would say that—not to be a real company man, but it's a real credit to Searchlight that from the beginning to the end of this movie, they were only helpful. Only helpful. I mean, they only gave notes that made the script better. They were smart notes. They never said, "If we take out this, we can make it a little more"—I'm sorry for a pun—"a little more palatable here." Never said that. And they were always bringing people and adding people to the team that were going to make the movie what it was supposed to be.