‘The Kitchen’: How Andrea Berloff Fought to Direct a Female Mob Movie
The Oscar-nominated director of “The Kitchen” opens up to Melissa Leon about demanding a seat at the table and how far Hollywood has to go when it comes to female representation.
It was just three years after landing her first Oscar nomination when screenwriter Andrea Berloff found herself in a rut familiar to many women in Hollywood.
Her second screenplay, 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, co-written with Jonathan Herman, had become the highest-grossing musical biopic of all time with its retelling of ’90s gangsta rap group N.W.A’s rise and fall, and had competed for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Highs and lows followed in the two years ahead: first Blood Father, a critically praised crime thriller Lionsgate buried in a quiet digital release, then Sleepless, a Jamie Foxx cop drama with minimal box office returns. That’s when Berloff paused to survey the opportunities coming her way. “Despite my fancy Oscar nomination which, really, nobody cares about,” she laughs, “many of my male peers were making more money than I was and were getting better opportunities than I was. And I got really unhappy with that.”
Enter New Line Cinema’s appeal to Berloff to adapt The Kitchen, a comic book series published under DC’s Vertigo imprint, which told the story of three women’s ascent to the head of the Irish mafia in 1978 Hell’s Kitchen. Three housewives “declaring what they want and making power for themselves” in a power vacuum created by their imprisoned husbands’ absence ignited Berloff’s imagination—and a drive to emulate a degree of their ambition (short of murder, money laundering, bribery, and extortion, of course). After the studio greenlit her script for The Kitchen, Berloff pumped herself up to go a step further: she pitched herself to direct the movie, too.
To her delight, it worked. With Melissa McCarthy, Elisabeth Moss, and Tiffany Haddish as the comic’s central trio—Kathy, Claire, and Ruby, respectively—Berloff’s directorial debut summons a vision of Hell’s Kitchen as a grimy wonderland of antiheroes, blood vengeance, and killer-cool style. In her hands, the movie is as much about women seizing power as it is about being held hostage by it; relationships strengthen and fracture, then bind together again in moments of desperation. As Gabriel, a skinny if deadly hitman, Domhnall Gleeson turns in a tender romantic performance, too, one of several spots of warmth amid the movie’s iron stomach for violence and Machiavellian turns. (Not to mention an endless appetite for ’70s nostalgia: Fleetwood Mac and Heart, big hair and sunglasses, and New York City as a neon-lit crime capital, wild as the Old West.)
The Daily Beast spoke to Berloff by phone from Los Angeles about ambition, both in The Kitchen and in her own career, how not to write women’s relationships, casting Tiffany Haddish as a mobster, and the responsibility audiences have in affecting change in Hollywood.
How did you go about advocating for yourself to direct this movie after you’d written the screenplay and New Line was trying to get it made?
I just said to them, can I please have the opportunity to just meet as a director on this movie? Obviously, I’m not expecting you to hire me but please, at least give me the opportunity to meet. They were nice enough to allow that and I just went in there and told them what I would do with this movie and why I wanted to direct it and all the tons of ideas that I had in my head that were not on the page. And they were nice enough to hire me.
You had never tried to direct another script you’d written?
I had not tried to direct before. First of all, there’s the personal stuff: I didn’t feel ready. I needed to spend more time watching other people do it. I sat on a bunch of sets and watched a lot of people direct. Some did it well, some did not do it well, and I learned tons of lessons. So in terms of just the maturation of my career, I felt like I was ready at that point. But also, the industry was changing around me. They hired me to write the script pre-MeToo and then were ready to hire a director in January 2018, just post-MeToo. And I think they knew by 2018 they could not hire a man to direct this movie. It had to be a woman. So I think the timing was just right for me on many fronts.
How do you feel about the timing of that and how it influenced that decision? On the one hand, it’s great that you got the job. On the other, there’s always an element of frustration—like, why did it take something so drastic for Hollywood to rethink the way things work?
Yeah. I mean, listen, let me be very clear: I don’t think things have changed enough, really. I think that we are now having a couple of test cases but if female-driven stories don’t make money, if one after another they fail at the box office, there’s not gonna be more in a couple of years. So if audiences care about seeing women in front of and behind the camera, they have to go out and buy tickets. And they haven’t yet. That’s incredibly frustrating because this is not a permanent situation. There aren’t even that many getting made right now. What happens if people don’t support these movies? They’re not going to make them. So am I frustrated about this? Yeah, because I feel like society says they want change and yet people are not understanding that they have to connect to that change, that it is a movement. Somehow that message is not getting to audiences.
I’ve heard some grumblings about the way the film’s been promoted, that its trailer hasn’t played in front of many other films in theaters.
I will tell you that it has played on a lot of movies. However, people aren’t going to the movies. Right? So, did we perhaps place it in the wrong movies or the right movies, who knows? It was on a lot of movies. I have a list. But I have heard the same criticism—that people didn’t know about it, didn’t see it coming. I can’t tell you why that is.
Tell me about how you wanted to approach the conflicts that each character in the movie faces. Kathy, for instance, finds her roles as wife, mother, and mobster increasingly at odds with one another as the stakes get higher, which isn’t the kind of tension you typically see in most male-fronted mob movies.
I wanted to really open up the idea of “the female experience,” if you will, and try to explore it through lots of different angles. So let’s look at Kathy, Melissa’s character. I think lots of women can relate to the idea of “I’m supposed to have a super-high-powered career and be an awesome mom and take care of my husband—it’s impossible to do all of that, so what is my priority?” I think that juggling act is really universal among contemporary women, and certainly among me and my friends. And of course the stakes in the gangster world are that much higher, so you add that tension and it becomes a really dramatic storyline.
If you look at Ruby, I know plenty of women who were sitting on the sidelines and people thought that they’re very quiet. And then watch out, here they come. So many women are not allowed to speak up and not given a chance, and then suddenly they open their mouths and you’re like, oh my goodness, I did not see any of that in there. I know people say be careful with the quiet ones. But it’s about understanding that just because someone is sitting quietly doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot going on.
And with Claire, I felt like what I thought would be interesting and fun with that character would be to give her every human emotion over the course of the movie. So whether it’s fear or grief or power or love or loss, everything that can be experienced, I thought it would be really cool and challenging to try to say, OK, let’s try to figure out every big emotion and put it all into one storyline.
Claire’s romance with Gabriel is one of the warmest, most joyous parts of the movie. He’s introduced as he saves her from an attack, but it seems you wanted him to be more than either just a savior or a killer, too.
What I thought was really interesting about him was, he’s clearly a damaged guy, and we allude to the fact that he’s a veteran. But first of all, I cast Domhnall because I specifically did not want someone who just looked like a big thug. I thought a skinny Irish guy, you don’t see coming and is a lot more interesting to watch than someone more stereotypical in that role. The casting is very different in a lot of roles—Bill Camp as an Italian gangster doesn’t make a lot of sense but he actively killed the role as Coretti, I think. But for Gabriel, I don’t think it’s interesting to have evil people be evil. I wanted him to be good and kind and to love Claire and be amazing, and be a hitman. Because I think that’s much more realistic. There’s nobody who’s just one thing or another, all good or all bad, we all have duality within us. And I thought it would be interesting to portray this very romantic, very sweet guy who also just happens to be a killer.
In terms of casting against type, we’ve seen Melissa McCarthy do dramatic work in movies like Can You Ever Forgive Me? But this is the first time most people will have seen Tiffany Haddish in this light. What made her seem like the right fit for Ruby?
I obviously had seen her work in Girls Trip but that was really all I’d seen at that point. (Laughs) I sat down with her at the W Hotel in Westwood and she blew me away. I had never met anybody like her and I still say that. So thoughtful and soulful and smart and driven and ambitious. It felt like she encapsulated every quality that I wanted for Ruby. I just sort of knew in a heartbeat that this role belonged to her and she would do things with it that people wouldn’t believe. She really steps outside the box that we’ve all seen her in and completely delivers such an amazing performance. She was the right choice, that’s for sure.
The Kitchen is also a story about the crumbling relationship between two of these women, Kathy and Ruby, even as the rest of the mob world turns against them. So a lot of the film is not as simplistic as just “rah-rah, girls gotta stick together,” instead they’re second-guessing and trying to outwit each other, too.
I will say, we have to open up the idea of what a female-driven movie is. If I see one more movie like what you just described, I’m going to scream. (Laughs) Women can have relationships that are complex and messy and we still at the end of the day have each others’ backs. That doesn’t mean that we’re one-upping each other with witticisms or rah-rah, let’s go get the boys. Come on, there’s so much more to us. We’re human beings. We’re just as complex and interesting as all of the millions of male-driven stories that have come before. We have got to open up the palette of what we give to audience members and what you and I know to be women’s intrinsic experience which is, yeah, sometimes we can bicker and disagree and the relationships can disintegrate. And then it comes back together because in the end, no matter what, we still have each others’ backs. There’s so much complexity to the women I know, I would be doing them a disservice to not put that on screen.
You were nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for Straight Outta Compton and, four years later, you’re making your directorial debut with The Kitchen. From the outside, it seems like a straightforward, upward trajectory but have opportunities really been easier to come by since 2015?
I know it sounds ridiculous because I’ve had a very lucky, lovely career that I know many, many people would want, and I have so much gratitude for what I have. But I definitely reached a point a few years ago right before I raised my hand to direct where I was looking around and despite my fancy Oscar nomination which, really, nobody cares about—which is fine!—many of my male peers were making more money than I was and were getting better opportunities than I was. And I got really unhappy with that. I mean, there’s a reason that this story appealed to me at that time in my career because it was about women going out and declaring what they want and making power for themselves, which is exactly what I had ambitions to do. So I think that this story is very reflective of me and where I was at that time in particular. So no, it has not always been easy, that’s for sure.
That you stepped up and said, “I can direct it” is a pretty cool thing. For women, it’s common to get caught in self-doubt about going for a job we don’t feel 100 percent qualified for, while men tend not to let that problem stop them.
Yeah, there’s been studies done about that—that before women raise their hands, they feel they need to be sure that they know how to do the job, and men don’t. Yeah, absolutely. But listen, we’ve got to break that in women. I recognized it within myself as well. Was I scared? When I say I put myself up to have a meeting to direct, that was my big ambition at that point. (Laughs) Just to have a meeting. And then I got the job and was like, uh oh, I better figure out how to direct pretty quickly. I would call up any director I knew and ask them any question. I’d just say, listen, I know this is a super dumb question, I probably should know this before I go make my movie, but how do you do this, whatever the question of the moment was. So you also have to set the ego aside. If you really want something, you’re going to have to put yourself out there and potentially embarrass yourself, and that’s OK. Because nothing comes from sitting in your room and waiting for someone to tap you with a wand on your head. It’s just not going to happen.
How much control did you have over the final cut of the film? Have you seen the movie with an audience yet?
I did, I’ve seen it a couple of times, obviously with the premiere Monday night and then I hosted three, I think four screenings over the course of the last week. It’s been so fun and so gratifying and I know this sounds crazy, but I’ve had women coming up to me and just telling me how meaningful it was to them, which was really, really gratifying. And the final cut is mine. For better or worse, it’s all me. (Laughs) The studio has been incredibly supportive the whole time.