Andrea Berloff cut her teeth in Hollywood writing movies, including the 2006 Oliver Stone movie World Trade Center and the 2015 hit Straight Outta Compton, which she co-wrote. But for The Kitchen, she decided to try something new: not just writing but directing too.
Based on a DC Comics series set in the 1970s, The Kitchen stars Elisabeth Moss, Melissa McCarthy, and Tiffany Haddish as three mob wives in the rough New York neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. After years of being relegated to the background by their husbands, all prominent figures in the local Irish mob, they decide not to be doormats any longer — and to take over the business when their husbands are sent to jail. But The Kitchen isn’t a triumphant “girl power” movie; what happens next demonstrates that power, violence, and revenge are complicated and dangerous, no matter who’s in charge.
The movie is a bold one, not least because two of its three leads (McCarthy and Haddish) are mostly known for their comedy and The Kitchen is a gritty mob drama that vividly recreates the ’70s and logs a high body count. (Get ready for some bone-cracking dismemberment.) And after spending years as a writer, Berloff was ready to try her hand in the director’s chair.
I talked to Berloff by phone, two weeks ahead of the film’s release. We discussed the movie’s design and casting choices, why she decided to give directing a shot, and what she’d tell women who are looking for their place in Hollywood. Our conversation, edited and condensed, is below.
You’ve gone from being a successful screenwriter to directing your own feature film. Why did you want to make the leap? And what was it like?
I wanted to try to make the transition for a while. For a variety of reasons, I wanted a bigger challenge. I felt like I love screenwriting — I will always write, it’s how I approach story — but I was ready to tackle a bigger project. I was ready to try something on a bigger scale.
But really, the question was, how do you do that? We’re very good in our society about putting people in a lane and telling them to stay there. And I had a really lovely career as a screenwriter. Who was ever going to give me an opportunity to direct a giant studio movie?
So trying to figure out how to do it took a bunch of years, and it all just happened really organically. I wrote The Kitchen and felt really strongly that this was the one I wanted to “raise my hand” on, for a variety of reasons. I felt like I knew these characters inside and out, and I still had a lot more I wanted to say with the story that wasn’t necessarily on the page. I felt like, Give me a shot to direct this, and I’ve got more to tell.
I had a very longstanding relationship with the guys at New Line and Warner Brothers — I say guys because they’re all guys — and they trusted me and gave me this incredible opportunity. And I’m grateful to them.
That trajectory is pretty related to the plot and themes of the film itself. Is that why you were attracted to this story in the first place?
It’s based on a DC comic book written by Ollie Masters and illustrated by Ming Doyle. New Line had sent me the comic book in February 2016, and I loved the story when I read it. I thought it provided an incredible opportunity to really explore what would it be like if women could take over a world. I was starting to feel really frustrated with my career, not sure that there’d be any opportunities to grow beyond where I was. So The Kitchen is a fantasy: What if I could play in that pond? What if I could take over the world? I thought that would be really appealing to many women. How would women run a world? How do they operate differently than men? Nobody’s going to give us the opportunity — we’re going to have to take it.
All of that stuff started to feel exciting to me when I read the book, and I got really invested in these characters and just went to town with it.
It’s a morally complex story — it’s not obvious what we’re supposed to be thinking about these characters right off the bat, and they change a lot as the story unfolds.
I think we are not going to have arrived at the next wave of feminism until we can accept that women don’t have to be angels. Right? So I anticipate that it will be shocking to people that particularly these [actresses] who are so beloved by America are not playing angels in the movie.
I felt strongly that nobody’s an angel, men or women. Just because women take over an industry doesn’t mean they’re going to be perfect little people. They’re going to be complex and messy, just like men are.
Now, that’s not to say they’re not complex and messy in a different way. But women have to be allowed to make mistakes. We have to be allowed to make a mistake and fail and get back up again. So I thought that showing imperfections, and maybe some bad decision-making along the way, felt a lot more real and a lot more interesting to me than showing a bunch of really good girls getting what they want, because I don’t think that’s realistic in any way.
Talking about feminism is interesting because this book and movie is set in the past — how did you approach that?
Being able to look at the past allows you to examine contemporary issues that we’re dealing with in a more blunt way. We think we’re so much more evolved now, but really we’re still wrestling with the same racism, and classism, and poverty, and lack of opportunity for marginalized people that they were wrestling with in the 1970s. It was just much more blunt then. Looking at those issues allows us to look at today’s society through a different lens that maybe we can reflect upon ourselves.
In creating the look of the ’70s, I had an incredible team around me. It was really difficult. So [costume designer] Sarah Edwards and I sat down and looked at all of these clothes from the ’70s. Our guideposts became, “It has to be authentic ’70s clothes, but they have to be clothes that look cool to our eye today.” Some 1970s clothes don’t look cool anymore. And I didn’t want the women not looking cool. I wanted them to look great. So we sorted out what survived the ’70s and still looked great.
Shane Valentino, production designer, found incredible locations and dressed them to make them look authentically ’70s. As you know, New York is largely not the same as it was back then, so we had to do a lot of work to make it look like the ’70s. There’s a lot of visual effects work in the movie. We had to take out buildings, then create new buildings and backdrops. So it was quite a bit of work. We were really determined to try to remind people what New York felt like [during that time period], how dirty the city was. We had all of this trash that we would cart all over the city.
Even now, Hell’s Kitchen still kind of has that vibe.
Yeah. Gritty and a little dirty. But it was really — obviously we pulled photos from the time — it was really dirty. It was shocking what was going on in the city, because the city was broke. They didn’t have the money to pick up the garbage, particularly in the poor areas. So in the wealthy areas, they would pick up the garbage, and in the poor areas, they just wouldn’t. We really felt like you can see that reflected in the movie, for example, when the ladies go to Brooklyn; it’s suddenly this nice, beautiful, clean neighborhood, which is a stark contrast to the world they live in.
This is a drama through and through, but two of the three stars, Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish, are known predominantly as comedians. That’s a bold choice to make — what led you to decide on that casting?
One of the only ways for a female-drive movie of this size to get attention is to be provocative, to give people a reason to talk about it. I’m not sure we’ve ever had a true mob movie centered on women, and putting people you would not expect in these roles was also provocative and interesting.
As a first-time director, I decided I was going to take a big swing. If I did a little $5 million indie, that was very sweet and very well written, everybody would’ve said, “Good job,” and patted me on the back. And then what? How would I have gotten my opportunity to go direct a big studio movie? If you’re going to go for it in life, you’ve gotta go for it.
These women wanted this opportunity, and they knocked it out of the park. I think Melissa and Tiffany absolutely killed it in their performances.
Everybody knew Elisabeth would be amazing, because she’s an amazing dramatic actress, but Melissa and Tiffany wanted the opportunity. We were excited to give it to them, and we also had faith that they are incredibly talented.
And that’s what gives people a reason to go to the theater. If you’ve never seen your favorite actresses do this kind of thing before, that’s a reason to go out that night. Get some girlfriends, go to the theater, and have a good time. It’s really hard to get people to go to the movies anymore. You’ve got to give them a reason. You’ve got to make an event out of it. And we felt like casting them would give the movie some reason for being.
Studio movies tend to play it really safe, trying to hit as wide an audience as possible. But you’re really saying, “This is the story, this is how it wants to be told, and this is how I want to tell it.”
Yes, that’s right. And you know what, how lucky am I that Warner Brothers backed me up with that? That these guys were on board and went for it with me.
So what did you learn from this big-swing experience?
Talk to me in a year and I’ll tell you how it changed me. Having been on many, many movie sets over the course of my career, I had a pretty strong sense of how I wanted to do things, how I wanted my set to run. There was not going to be any screaming on this set. I wanted people to feel safe and valued, and I wanted everybody to feel free to come to me with any thoughts or problems or ideas.
I’ve been in too many situations where people are afraid to speak up because they’re afraid they’re going to get yelled at. Nobody likes to be yelled at. It just shuts people down.
So I felt like if I was hiring the very best around me, and I had that opportunity, then I could create an environment in which everybody felt comfortable and felt they could do their best work. That was something that made the production run really smoothly. It allowed all of us from top to bottom to do our best work. I would take [this experience] with me to future movies.
There’s so much talk about diversity in the film industry, and about what it will take to get studios to let women take those big risks and helm big movies and keep trying, even if they sometimes fail. What would you say to women who are eyeing the industry and thinking about that?
Again, I think you have to live in the world of big swings. I don’t think this is an easy industry to break into, male or female. You have to really put yourself out there, and say, “This is my voice and this is who I am,” in a really bold way. I think people respond to boldness and people respond to originality.
Every time somebody asks me, “How do I start screenwriting, what should I do?” I say the most important thing to do is to not read any of the screenwriting books. Do not do that, because then your screenplays turn out like everybody else’s screenplays. Why would you possibly want that? What’s so unique about you? What’s original about you? What’s fresh about you?
The same goes for directing: You’ve got to just be bold and declare who you are, and if who you are is interesting and talented, hopefully people will find you.
The Kitchen opens in theaters on August 8.