Oscar-nominated screenwriter Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton) makes her directorial debut with the gritty, violent Irish mob film The Kitchen. Starring two comedy stars that are cast against type and with female leads in roles usually reserved for men in similar gangster pictures, Berloff defies many a convention with her new movie.
Below is the official synopsis for The Kitchen, which is out in theaters now!
“New York City, 1978. The 20 blocks of pawnshops, porn palaces and dive bars between 8th Avenue and the Hudson River owned by the Irish mafia and known as Hell’s Kitchen was never the easiest place to live. Or the safest. But for mob wives Kathy, Ruby and Claire–played by Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss–things are about to take a radical, dramatic turn. When their husbands are sent to prison by the FBI the women take business into their own hands, running the rackets and taking out the competition…literally.”
We talked to her about working with a star-studded cast and adapting a graphic novel to the screen. Stay tuned, as well, for her thoughts on working with DC in the future and her previous experiences writing scripts for the likes of Oliver Stone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
LRM Online: It was definitely surprising to me that it was a straight-up gangster picture.
Berloff: That’s right.
LRM Online: Just gender-swapped, and that was a good change of pace.
Berloff: Yeah. That was the idea. I absolutely love Mafia movies. They’re among some of my favorites, but when I took a step back, I couldn’t really see myself in any of them. When I first read the comic book, I got really excited by the opportunity to take a genre that, as moviegoers, we all think we know so well and really turn it on its head and make what I hope feels like an authentic story of how women would behave in this circumstance. Not just as simple as sticking women in the men’s roles, but rather creating a real-world and a real circumstance and a real story that evolves out of these characters specifically. Yeah, I was just so excited to have the opportunity to play in the sandbox of one of my favorite genres.
LRM Online: That’s interesting because everybody is talking more and more about representation these days. That’s cool to see women in these roles that you’re used to seeing like 99% of the time played by men.
Berloff: Yeah. Or a hundred percent.
LRM Online: 100. Yeah.
Berloff: Yes, I agree.
LRM Online: Were you familiar at all with the source material or did it get introduced to you when you were offered it by the studio?
Berloff: I was not familiar with it. Then New Line, which is Warner Brothers, which is also DC, sent me the comic book. I just loved it right away. It’s rare that I read material that I just feel so connected to so quickly.
LRM Online: Choosing something to direct as well, besides just write, was it what you had mentioned earlier that was so special about it that made you want to direct it as well?
Berloff: Yeah. Well, it wasn’t a one-step process. It was a multi-step process. I wrote the script. I was only hired to write and the studio was happy with my work, which is always a nice thing, and they wanted to go hire a director. I asked them just for the opportunity to pitch as a director, just to have a meeting as a director because this script, unlike some of the ones that I had written before, I just felt like I had more to say than what was on the page. I felt like I really had many more details that I wanted to get out and many more things I wanted to explore through these characters that I felt like I really was like, “If you like the script, let me tell you more that we can put into the movie because all of this other stuff is not on the page, but it’s all in my head.” I just felt excited and connected to this story in a way that I never had before.
LRM Online: Whose idea was it to go against type with the casting by casting comedic actors, people who are mostly known for that versus dramatic actors for the leads.
Berloff: You know, it evolved organically that we finished the script, they hired me as a director, and just as we were beginning the casting process, Girls Trip opened. The Monday after Girls Trip opened, our producer, Mike DeLuca called me and said, “I just had lunch with this woman who I think is going to be a major star. You need to go see Girls Trip and you need to go meet with her.” I went and saw Girls Trip and saw just how talented Tiffany was, but I was like, “Okay, maybe she can do it. I don’t know.” Then I met her and saw what Mike saw, which is that she is so smart and so thoughtful and has such depth to her and is so soulful and charming. It is no surprise to me that she has become a major star because the world is now seeing what Mike and I and many other people saw two years ago. I just knew the second that I met with her that she could handle the role of Ruby. Once we had Tiffany locked in we began a search for Kathy, the role of Kathy. It’s actually someone at CAA who said to me, “Melissa McCarthy might be great for the role.” At that point, Can You Ever Forgive Me was still in post-production, so nobody had seen it. I didn’t know that she was looking to do different kinds of work. We approached her and she said yes, which I was just so excited by. We might have paused for 45 seconds about the idea of casting two comedians against type, but that was it because all you needed to do was sit with those women and know that they were going to knock this out of the park and that they wanted the opportunity to do these roles and that they were going to do a great job at it. Period. I think also you have to create a reason for people to go to the theater right now. People are not going to the movies in the numbers that they used to. What is the reason to go to the theater? I think a big reason to go is to go see two of your favorite actresses do something that you’ve never seen them do before. It creates a conversation point. It creates a buzz. It creates a reason to go to the theater, which ultimately is what we need.
LRM Online: I could see if they were doing the same old comedy that people might feel like, “Oh, I’ve seen this before. Maybe I don’t have to go to the theater.”
Berloff: “I’ll see it later.” Right.
LRM Online: If you like those stars, you want to see them stretch and do something different.
Berloff: That’s right, and there are some crazy twists in this movie and hopefully it picks up buzz like, “Oh my God, you’re not going to believe what happens. I don’t want to tell you the ending. You have to just go see it,” and becomes that, “Oh I got to get to the theater because I want to know what the twist is and I want to know what the buzz is.”
LRM Online: Elisabeth Moss was a standout in it, and she has done so much great work on television before. Were you a fan of hers from Mad Men or any of her other television work?
Berloff: All of it. I mean, all of it. Right? I love Mad Men. I love her work in Handmaid’s Tale. She’s fantastic, and we got really lucky. When we decided to approach her about playing Claire, I just felt like, “Well, she’s definitely going to say no,” like, “She’s getting offered everything in the world. She just won an Emmy. There’s no way she’s going to say yes. We’re wasting our time. We should focus on someone who’s going to say yes,” but we’re like, “Oh, fine, let’s take a shot.” And we sent her the script on a Sunday and she said yes on a Monday the next day. When I got on a phone with her that afternoon, I was like, “I can’t believe you’re saying yes.” She said, “I’m not an idiot. I know a good part when I see one.” It’s a really cool role of Claire. It’s a microcosm of every emotion that exists as a human being, right? It’s loss and grief and love and hope all in that. It’s one journey that Claire goes on through this movie. I think that we needed an actress who could hit all of those emotions and really, really bring it because she is the emotional heart of the movie. I think Elisabeth, she nailed it.
LRM Online: You definitely connect with her and the love story she has and the growth that her character experiences.
Berloff: Great. Yeah. That was my hope.
LRM Online: A quick aside, you had mentioned Michael DeLuca producing the movie.
LRM Online: I remember back in the day, he used to run New Line.
Berloff: That’s right.
LRM Online: He rose from the bottom to be the studio head. Do you know how that was for him being back at his old stomping grounds?
Berloff: Oh, I think it was great. It’s a real homegrown effort. I started many years ago as the assistant to the founder of New Line, his family’s assistant. I worked in their house many, many years ago.
LRM Online: Oh, wow.
Berloff: I’ve known these New Line guys for, I don’t know, 18 years or something like that. It felt really comfortable, I think, for all of us because we all trust each other and I think that’s part of what made the process go so smoothly.
LRM Online: You were working with friends and/or family.
LRM Online: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about this. I know that this is based on a Vertigo graphic novel, and that’s all now lumped in as part of DC.
LRM Online: If they were to give you carte blanche to deal with any of their properties, is there anything you would want to get your hands on?
Berloff: Oh, my goodness. Oh, there’s so many. There’s so many. Gosh, you would think that I would have already thought that through because what an obvious question. Why don’t I just go to them? Yeah, I have not thought it through. Is it a real thing? I think it’s a real thing. I think they’re working on it. Yeah. I would say maybe Batgirl. I think that’s up for grabs. I would say Batgirl.
LRM Online: I remember a couple of years back that Joss Whedon was developing it and I’m not sure if he’s still attached or not.
Berloff: I know that was my memory, too. What happened with that? That was exactly what I was remembering, but then I haven’t heard anything in a long time. Yeah, Batgirl.
LRM Online: That would be cool.
Berloff: That would be awesome.
LRM Online: Seeing your work on this, I could definitely see you doing that. They’ve had so much trouble with that other Batman movie that you could probably even get it into production quicker than that one.
Berloff: Well, they’re working on it. They’re working on it.
LRM Online: I was going to talk a little bit, if it’s okay, about some of the past movies you’ve worked on.
LRM Online: On World Trade Center you were dealing with the legendary director Oliver Stone.
LRM Online: How did that script start? Was that a spec or were you hired on to it?
Berloff: It was not a spec. I was hired. This is going to make me sound ancient. It was a previous era in which producers actually had something called discretionary funds where the studios would give them a small pot of money to develop projects in house. It was never the big payday projects, but they were little projects that producers could develop in house. I was hired by Michael Shamberg and Stacy Sher out of their discretionary fund. Debra Hill, who has passed away, Debra Hill has options on the life rights. She was a producer. She optioned the life rights of the last two men pulled alive out of the rubble, Will Jimenez and John McLaughlin. Debra partnered with Shamberg and Sher, and then they hired me to write the script.
LRM Online: How was it working with Oliver, then?
Berloff: It was fantastic. I know nobody believes me, but I had a really great experience with Oliver. At any point, he could have fired me because he’s a fantastic writer himself. He could have just started doing the rewrite work himself and taken over. He didn’t. He brought me along and had me on set and allowed me to have a front-row seat to watch one of the greatest directors do his work. I learned a ton from him. It was certainly not easy. The subject matter, it was all very, very challenging and Oliver is demanding in the best ways. It was a lot of work and it was hard, but I learned a ton from him and he was very respectful of me.
LRM Online: Oh, that’s great.
LRM Online: Then another big one on your resume, of course, is Straight Outta Compton.
LRM Online: Were you a fan of the group before becoming involved with it or were you just aware of them?
Berloff: Yeah, I was absolutely a fan, but I was not a hardcore, crazy person fan. It wasn’t like I knew every word to every song and followed them around the country, but I was absolutely aware of their music and I was a fan.
LRM Online: I remember when the Oscar nomination for screenplay came out, it was a bit of a surprise. I was just wondering how the award season was for you? What do you think of that because it’s such a trip when I hear about it. There are people spending months just traveling the circuit promoting themselves.
Berloff: Yeah. It was definitely overwhelming, but also with that specific movie, we really became part of a national conversation on race. The award season for me was having all of these fascinating conversations with fascinating people about race in America. It’s no coincidence that, for example, this is great in terms of the comic book of it all, the comic book was sent to me in February 2016 right as I was finishing up award season. I was embroiled in this national conversation on race. When they sent me the comic book, it was three white women and so I said to the producers, “Listen, I’d love to write this. I think it’s amazing, but I don’t want to write about three white women. I’m going to figure out a way to take one of these women and create a different character and have it be somebody who’s not white. I will figure out how a way to do it organically and have the story make sense, but I want to keep this conversation going.” I still felt like I had a lot more to say about it.
LRM Online: That was an interesting layer that definitely added to it. Tiffany’s character and her place in the family, she’s part of it, but she’s not really welcome.
Berloff: Right. Right.
LRM Online: That’s good, too, that you were able to have those conversations on the awards run rather than, like a lot of other people, just talking about themselves and their work. You had a bigger topic to engage with.
Berloff: Yeah, I think it kept it interesting and less exhausting because I was having these really provocative, thoughtful conversations.
LRM Online: There’s one other past project I wanted to ask you about, which the people that read this would be interested in, and that’s Legend of Conan.
LRM Online: Where did you come into that and where did you leave it? Because obviously it wasn’t made.
Berloff: It wasn’t made. No. Well, at least yet is a good way to put it. I was hired by Universal to basically do King Conan. He’s been on the throne and now what? It was going to be with Arnold picking up all those years later and really having it be a next installment in the movie franchise. Not a reboot or anything like that, but just continuing the franchise forward at that point. For a variety of reasons, it hasn’t worked out yet, but we’ll see. Maybe someday.
LRM Online: Do you know if Schwarzenegger is still game to be involved?
Berloff: I don’t know. It’s been a few years at this point since we’ve talked about it. I really don’t know.
LRM Online: Going back to The Kitchen. We were talking about mob movies, and I was curious what some of your favorites were or ones that influenced your filmmaking on The Kitchen.
Berloff: When it came time to direct, I love mob movies and I’ve seen them all, but I really did not want to be referring to them in any way because I felt like I needed to find my own voice and do my own thing and not try to ape somebody else’s beautiful work, but rather try to figure out my own style. I would say the movie that I referred to most was Thelma and Louise, because Thelma and Louise is about these two really amazing women who are also antiheroes. They’re not angels. They’re not perfect. For me, that was really inspirational, the idea of taking your heroes and messing them up a little bit. We haven’t seen a lot of female antiheroes on-screen, so it became a big reference point for me.
LRM Online: I could see that. Maybe one day they could show your movie & that as a double feature at one of the repertory cinemas around L.A.
Berloff: If that actually happened, I would die happy. That would be amazing.
LRM Online: Well, in wrapping things up, I wanted to know if there are any projects that you’re currently working on that you’re able to discuss, like what’s next for you?
Berloff: No, I don’t have anything that I’m public with yet, but soon enough hopefully.
LRM Online: Okay. The Kitchen 2, if they come to you after opening weekend, are you game?
Berloff: I have a lot more to say. Let’s put it that way.
LRM Online: Okay. Well, I wish you luck with the release of this film and thank you for being so nice.
Berloff: Thank you.
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SOURCE: Momentum Pictures