Andrea Berloff has made quite a name for herself in Hollywood, as one of the most talented writers in the business. Her first feature film screenplay, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, demonstrated her ability to transport viewers to a singular moment in space and time, and her work on the N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton, earned universal acclaim and box office success.
The Kitchen marks Berloff’s directorial debut. A 1970s crime thriller based on the DC Vertigo comic book, The Kitchen stars Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elizabeth Moss as a trio of mob wives who decide to take matters into their own hands when their husbands get busted and sent to prison. The film is tremendous in its depiction of 1970s New York City, which Hollywood is notorious for failing to truly recreate for the movies. However, thanks to a combination of location shooting and cutting edge CGI, The Kitchen truly feels like it transports audiences to a lost era in New York history.
While promoting the release of The Kitchen, writer/director Andrea Berloff spoke to Screen Rant about her work on the film, and her long road towards getting to finally direct a studio picture. She discusses the massive effort put into making The Kitchen look authentic to its iconic setting, and her unique approach to casting the film.
First off, I really appreciated the score and soundtrack in this movie.
Bryce Dessner’s score is amazing. And the soundtrack is also awesome, but Bryce’s score is so exquisite. I think he did such a nice job.
I’m always interested in how licensed songs get chosen for movies. Are you the person who picks which songs are going to be played? Do you work with a music supervisor? How does that work?
Ultimately, yes, the buck on everything stops with me. We had an incredible music supervisor, named Deva Anderson. She provided me with options and ideas, and would press me to think outside the box. We had a really skilled music editor, Mitsuko Yabe, who could take those songs and cut them into the film to see how they would play during the scene. Those two women, together, are just incredible at their job, and provided me with an incredible toolkit. But ultimately, I made the decisions on which songs went into the film. That’s one piece of the music puzzle, and another other piece is collaborating with Bryce, the composer. We really talked about what the musical needs were for each scene and how to achieve that. The third musical piece was recreating The Chain with the Highwomen for the closing credits. Music is so important to me. I’m passionate about the power of music on film, and all three of those components, we spent a significant amount of time working on it.
I loved that cover of The Chain over the credits. That was made for the film?
Didn’t they do such a good job? Yes, it was made for the film. We were originally just going to use the original Fleetwood Mac version, because it works really well, but then we explored remaking it, making it a little more rock and roll, a little edgier, a little harder. This was late in the game. I don’t think we finished the song until April. We sort of looked around and learned that The Highwomen were in the studio in Nashville, recording. They’re this country supergroup comprised of all of these great singers, and we thought it would be cool to take a group of super strong female voices and remake that song. Yes, it was done with intention for the movie.
When I watched this movie, and then learned it was your directorial debut, I was really surprised. It felt like there was such a vision for this. Sometimes, you can see a timid touch with first-time directors, but there is such purpose and clarity in this film. Was directing on your radar for years, or was there something about this project in particular that compelled you to take the reins?
I think the answer is, across the board, yes. I had wanted to direct for a few years, but I truly didn’t know how to go about getting that opportunity. I mean, really, how do you get somebody to hand you tens of millions of dollars to go off and make your dream come true? It’s not easy. I couldn’t quite figure out how to make that transition. The book came to me, and I wrote the script, and I just loved this world in a way that I hadn’t loved any other script I’d written in a very long time. And I felt so passionate about this one, that I had more to say than what was on the page, that I knew these characters, and this world, and these topics better than anyone. When the studio was happy with the script and were going to begin a director hunt, I said to them, “Could you please give me the opportunity to pitch as a director? I’m not going to make you hire me or anything, but just give me a shot to come in and explain my intentions with the movie and why I want to do it.” And they were nice enough to hire me after that! Ya know, it’s not for nothing that I’ve worked with this studio a lot over the last 15 years. These guys know me really well. I think we’re coming to an era where they know they’re gonna have to give a few women a shot. That’s gonna have to be through support and encouragement, and I got it from them. They already knew me and were already in business with me. I’ve also had the incredible fortune of a really nice writing career for many years. I’ve been on lots of sets, I’ve worked with lots of directors. There’s no better education than watching how other people do it over and over again.
Do you remember the first time you were on the set of a movie you had written, and you wanted to tell someone, “Ooh, what if you put the camera over here?”
I never felt like that. I never felt like, “Ooh, I can do it better.” Um, for the most part. The first time I was on the set of my own work was World Trade Center with Oliver Stone. And I certainly could not do it better than him! Especially at that time! So, no, never did I feel like I knew where to put the camera better than they do. I feel like I watched so many directors go down the road of making a movie. There’s so much work that goes into it on pre-production, even before the cameras begin rolling. You don’t necessarily know, as an outside observer, how one shot is going to go with the next, how it’s going to add up and cut together. You don’t have the full picture. I never sat around thinking, “I know better than you,” because you don’t know the big picture idea of what someone is thinking.
And the picture is so big when it comes to making a movie. It wasn’t until I got this job and visited sets that I really got to appreciate how mammoth an undertaking film production really is. And to be the one person, like you said, the buck stops with you, and then produce something so good!
So, I’m a New Yorker, and I always get skeptical, not only when a movie is set in New York City, but particularly in this era, the 1970s. It’s so hard to describe that era without seeing footage from it, but it’s almost impossible to capture it in the modern age. That being said, I think The Kitchen absolutely nails it.
Thank you. It was really hard to create the look of 1970s New York. New York does not look that way anymore. We had an exceptional production designer in Shane Valentino, and he really went out of his way to, like, find the one block in The Bronx which may not have been gentrified, or the one building in Brooklyn that we needed to work in. We shot in every borough but Queens, and that really fed us. Not to mention, there’s an incredible amount of CGI in the movie. Dan Schrecker, our visual effects supervisor… I don’t know how he achieved what he achieved; adding buildings, taking buildings away, making it feel authentically 70s. It was a real effort to make it look right. The crosswalks aren’t the same today as they were in the 70s, so every shot with a crosswalk, we had to go in and make them look appropriate. The amount of detail work was a lot, but it was so fun, and I’m glad we had the resources to make it work.
Wow, I guess that’s a testament to how far we’ve come with CGI, because I had no idea. Maybe, when I see the movie again and look out for it, maybe I’ll be able to tell what’s CGI, but the illusion was perfect for me.
At least half of the scenes have CGI. Can you believe that?
Amazing. I was thinking, “How did they recreate this on a backlot? And you didn’t! You shot it in the city!
Yes, we shot on location. We had one week on a set in Long Island, so we did some interior apartments were sets in Long Island, but other than that, everything was on location. And then it was Dan’s magic making it all work with VFX.
Maybe it’s just because I live here, but New York is one of those cities where you just can’t fake it.
I also think we’re living in an era where you almost can’t fake anything anymore. Have you seen The Graduate? There’s a scene where Dustin Hoffman drives across the Golden Gate Bridge on his way to Berkeley. That’s not where the bridge is or where it goes. (Laughs) I think we’re living in an era where people are much more savvy. When you see something wrong, it really bugs you! I don’t think we can get away with that in moviemaking anymore.
I agree completely. I was raised with that. My dad spent 17 years as a bus driver in Manhattan and The Bronx, and he would always get so mad whenever a show or movie would take any geographic license.
That’s so funny.
One of the big selling points of this movie is its cast. You’ve got these three incredible women in the leads. Melissa McCarthy, at this point, needs no introduction. Tiffany Haddish is on such a meteoric rise, it’s amazing. And Elizabeth Moss is just the heart and soul of this movie. Her arc is just beautiful in so many ways.
She does such a nice job.
Their chemistry is so amazing, I wonder: did you cast them together, or one at a time?
We cast them one at a time. First, we cast Tiffany. Tiffany came to us. She read the script and came to us before we had even begun casting. Girls Trip had just opened in theaters, and the Monday or Tuesday afterwards, our producer, Mike De Luca, called me and said, “I just met this woman who’s going to be a star. I want you to meet her because I think she could be Ruby.” And so I went to lunch with her that week. I saw what Mike saw: yes, she’s sparkly and funny and amazing, but is so smart, and has such depth to her, such soul, and is just such a lovely person who has been through real stuff in her life. I knew, immediately, she was right for it. And I’m so happy she came to us, because I don’t know if we would have been smart enough to pursue her. Then we settled on this idea of, “Wouldn’t it be really exciting if she became the guide for all our casting?” Like, what if we cast people against type for every role? Next, we could not believe Melissa McCarthy was interested at all. And we got her involved right away. Once we had the two of them, we knew we were off to the races with something really special. When we approached Elizabeth third, I thought, “she’s never gonna say yes to this!” But she said yes within 24 hours. And then we continued with the idea of casting against type with every role. Bill Camp is not who you think of when you think of an Italian gangster. And Domhnall Gleeson is not who you think of as a hitman. Brian D’Arcy James, Mr. Broadway, is not who you think of as an Irish mobster husband thug! On and on and on. I wanted to get amazing people, and I wanted to give them a shot, give them the opportunity to do work they hadn’t done before. I think it really paid off.
That’s so great. There’s so many stories of actors who get typecast in a certain way, and it’s because the creatives behind these projects aren’t willing to take a chance and let these actors act, right?
We know them all, we know they’re so talented and great. When you start thinking about it on a larger scale, the movie is about how to “give people a shot” and watch what they can do! I was trying to obey my own theme and my own lesson, and we saw no reason not to do it.
I want to ask you about the momentum of the editing in this movie. I don’t know if I’m describing this correctly, but it feels like many scenes start having already been in progress. Like, there are opening beats to many scenes which are skipped in the movie itself. I think it adds a sense of claustrophobic momentum.
I would say, at the end of the day, it was written that way. We didn’t cut the front of those scenes. In terms of a dramatic tool, it is something that’s done a lot, cutting off the front or the end of the scene; you realize, when you’re reading and acting, you need to ramp up for a few lines to get to what the scene is actually about, but the audience is already one step ahead and doesn’t need it. So, once you have it shot, you look at it and you’re like, “we get it, we don’t need those first few lines, we can just cut them off.” I would say I did more of that in the beginning of the movie, cutting off the first few lines of scenes, than we did at the end. The end is pretty much as it was scripted.
There were just multiple times in the movie where I had to just stop and realize I was holding on to my seat, full white knuckle, but they’re just sitting around eating dinner. Maybe I’m just tightly wound! Okay, so you’ve been in the Hollywood racket for a while now; you talked about World Trade Center, which was 2006. Stepping back a bit, when did you decide to become a filmmaker? What were your cinematic inspirations?
I was not one of those people who was like, “I want to do that!” I did not know I wanted to be a writer. I think, when you’re young, you don’t realize there’s so many jobs to making a movie. I did not understand that, but I did love movies. When I got a little bit older, there were two movies that really blew me away: Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night. They were both so beautiful and so well-crafted, so emotional. They spoke to the sensation of what it is to be a human being, what it is to try to get through life. I just was undone by both of those movies, and I thought, if I could do that and make people feel that way and think about big ideas, like, “what are we here for?” I would have a happy life. Seeing those two movies pushed me into filmmaking.
Thank you so much. I’m such a huge fan of your work, and I have to say, Blood Father is an underrated classic.
(Laughs) You and my parents are the only people who have seen Blood Father, but thank you, I appreciate that.
More: Read Screen Rant’s The Kitchen Review