How The Onion Helped Screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy Create ‘The Menu’ [Exclusive Interview]

Clearly, Ralph Fiennes has such a distinct voice. But what did the chief’s voice sound like on the page?

Reis: Ralph Fiennes’.

Tracy: Ralph Fiennes’. We were basically writing it for him at one point, hopefully thinking we could get it. Even before he was fully involved, there had been interest from him. And so, then we really started writing it towards him. He has a surprising liveliness.

Reis: A surprising casualness that the film is dark, but it never ceases, at least I hope the viewer does, it never ceases to be funny. It never stops being funny because of Ralph. He is light on his feet.

Tracy: He doesn’t look like he’s playing heavy. He can be creepy in a way, but he can also be quite charming and lighter than you’d expect in his tone. I mean, the guy, he’s the same actor who plays the guy in “Grand Budapest Hotel” as the guy in “Schindler’s List.” In a way, we wanted him to bring those two skills.

Reis: There is a difference between naughty and mischievous. He’s more mischievous, and I think being mischievous is funnier.

He’s a very sad character.

Reis: Oh, that’s extremely sad. Extremely sad. I mean, I love talking about the sadness of these people. Ralph is so sad. Tyler is not only by far the most psychotic person in the restaurant, but I think the saddest as well. What his life is like when he’s just alone must be brutally sad.

Tracy: The leader is at least human enough to know, yeah, the only thing that matters to me is this place, but he at least seems to know that it’s awful that he’s taken over his life.

I enjoyed, by the way, one of the nasty features of this movie is a character telling someone not to touch their food until they photograph it first.

Tracy: There is such an art to photographing food. And most people, they don’t do it right. They sort of do it from chest level at an angle and usually don’t make sure the flash is on or off, and it makes for a very unflattering photo. I think a lot of restaurants, that’s part of the reason they don’t like it because you’re not going to photograph it properly. You’re not going to do that with perfect lighting. Usually it’s best done from above, you’re looking directly down, it’s the most flattering way to photograph food.

I also remember hearing a story about a chef who shouldn’t be named because it’s not a flattering story, but someone in one of his restaurants was taking pictures of the food and the chief took him aside and said, “Can I talk to you?” I took him aside and brought him back to the kitchen and said, “Are you trying to steal my recipes? And the guy thought he was joking. He said, “No, you tryin’ to steal? ‘Cause you can’t do what I can do. Even if you tried to do it, you couldn’t do it. So good goddamn luck if you’re trying to steal my recipes.” The guy just thought, I’m not trying to steal your recipes.

It’s a really tough world, a very competitive world. He eventually made it to the top as a chef and he probably had his recipe stolen before and he had probably faced people who weren’t as good as him but were moving up the ranks faster, and that made him very , very paranoid. Now when he sees a customer photographing his food, he thinks you’re trying to steal my recipes.

It’s a really tough life because your proprietary stuff is so… Technically, yes, someone could cook your food if they had the recipe. It’s also so fleeting, you do it and someone eats it and it’s gone. And so, it’s not the same as the filmmaker makes his film and there is no recipe for a film and it exists forever. So it’s hard to be an artist.