'The Kitchen' Writer-Director Andrea Berloff on Her Directorial Debut and New York Mob History

The Academy Award-nominated screenwriter behind 'Straight Outta Compton' discusses economic storytelling, making a new kind of mob movie, and recreating Hell's Kitchen, 1978.

Andrea Berloff The Kitchen
Warner Bros./Alison Cohen Rosa

Andrea Berloff has written all sorts of scripts, but her produced work tends to carry weight and grit. Most famously, she gave us the story of N.W.A. in Straight Outta Compton, a movie that doesn’t forget entertainment while depicting societal issues. The electrifying result earned her an Oscar nomination. She also wrote Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and later elevated gritty B-movie thrills with the highly enjoyable Blood Father. Her latest, The Kitchen, is also her feature directorial debut, and she believes it shares more in common with Straight Outta Compton than people might expect.

Loosely based on a Vertigo comic book miniseries written by Ollie Masters and illustrated by Ming Doyle, The Kitchen stars Melissa McCarthyTiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss as three underdog criminals taking control of Hell’s Kitchen in 1970s New York City. It’s got the soundtrack, the clothes, and the attitude that these kinds of films are known for, but Berloff saw the film as an opportunity to tell a new story in a familiar genre. In this interview, she tells us about creating a new language for the mob movie, as well as the overall experience of directing her first feature.

What were some of the signatures of mob movies you wanted to have in The Kitchen? What did you want that was familiar from the genre?

What I thought was important to retain, first of all, was a really fast-paced plot and some great twists. I think those are essential to crime stories. You want to see the plot unfolding in front of you and want it to move at a great pace. I don’t want a three-hour crime movie, because then it becomes a saga. Even from the very beginning, I felt the script was pretty tight, and the movie also came out pretty tight. That pacing, to me, was really important from the very beginning.

I also never wanted the audience to feel like they were ahead of the story. There are way too many movies I’ve sat through where I went, “Yep, I get it. Move on.” I feel like audiences are only becoming more sophisticated and smarter; in some cases, I was giving them the barest plot they needed, trusting that people would just figure it out and follow along. It’s fun to do that work when you watch a movie and let your brain work a little bit, and when you’re not spoon-fed exposition.

Also, warring sanctions, obviously. “Warring” is a really weird word to say out loud. I thought it was important to create, what is the war? Who is fighting that war? All those things I thought were important to keep. Beyond that, I really felt the freedom to play, and by that, I mean these are not simply sticking women in the same roles we’ve seen before in other mafia movies. You could not just swap men into these roles and have the story work. I needed to create a fresh language for how women would exist in this space because I don’t think we’ve seen that before. It was really thinking about how women would operate differently, what would their storylines be, and how would their experiences be. All of that, obviously, is very different from any other crime story.

I really like how in The Sopranos or Goodfellas the characters commit heinous acts, but they’re still very funny people. I think this is the first time I’ve seen that from women in a mob movie. 

You have to give them that respect. We have two of the funniest ladies in America in the movie. We could’ve reshot the whole thing and made it a comedy, but that would be taking away the weight of their experience and story. This is not silly or cute babes running around with guns, and we could’ve made that version of this movie. I feel like we’re all sick of the tropes women have been stuck in in this genre; it’s so embarrassing. Who wants another one with housewives wearing masks? Not a gangster mask, but a facial mask. Who wants another story about cute girls pulling off a caper? How about something fresh and different? How about real women operating in this space? It just felt like a no-brainer to me.  It would’ve been disrespectful to them, and us as women, to let this movie to descend into camp. This is not a camp movie, but a full-on gangster movie.

There’s some good dark comedy, though. 

Oh yeah, I think there’s plenty to laugh at. That was also intentional. I think if I took out all the humor, it would’ve been a bleak experience. You want to laugh and have a good time at the movies. Who wants to go out and have a bummer of a night? Nobody. I want people to leave the movie feeling great that the women were empowered, and worked together, and came together. I want them dancing in their seats to a really fun song at the end of the movie and having had some really funny dark laughs along the way. All of that makes it fun, but at its core, it’s still a crime movie.

How tough is the tone for a movie like The Kitchen?

The tone was probably the most difficult thing throughout all of this because, in many ways, we had to establish our own language, to some extent. First of all, audiences look at Melissa and Tiffany and want to laugh, so Melissa raised an eyebrow a certain way and people were laughing at the scene when it was not the intention for people to laugh at that scene at all. We had to be incredibly careful to make sure we were portraying the two of them as closely to the genre we were living in as possible. We only allowed those funny moments when we knew they’d enhance the story and not take away from the story, when we knew it was time to break the tension. In the bathtub scene [when they’re cutting up a body], it’s a lot and gruesome. How do we handle that? We’re not showing anything, and it’s all suggestion, but it’s all really funny. It’s really trying to allow audiences to have fun, play around, and see it as fantasy. Yeah, tone took a lot of work.

When you cast a group like this, do you have to look at casting the whole ensemble instead of thinking of the roles individually?

Yeah, you have to think of it as a group. The chemistry is everything. I think one of the strengths of the movie is these people have great chemistry together. The three women like each other and work together. Domhnall Gleeson and Elisabeth Moss have fantastic chemistry together, and they really are the emotional heart of the movie. It wouldn’t work if you didn’t have actors who worked well together. It’s all different pieces of the puzzle.

I read that Domhnall Gleeson’s character was loosely inspired by a real Vietnam War veteran. Is there a lot of info about this guy online? 

There is. I’m even a little hesitant to say his real name, but there was a real hitman in Hell’s Kitchen. I will say this: the character Gabriel is in the comic book, so that’s where I got him from. Once I started researching Hell’s Kitchen mafia, the Westies, I realized he’s based on a real character — a real Vietnam veteran who was a sharpshooter, I believe. He came home and became a hitman for the Irish mafia, and he’d cut up bodies and throw them in the river.

There’s a couple of really good books on the Westies. By the way, one of the guys was caught [dumping bodies in the river], because he did not stab out the lungs and the abdomen floated to the top, so that’s where that came from. It actually happened, if you can believe that [Laughs]. There’s some great stuff out there.

What were some other details you learned from your research that ended up in the movie?

I will tell you, the lungs and stabbing out the air I learned from the research, but Domhnall came to the table with how to dissect the knee part [Laughs]. He was like, “I’ve really been thinking about this. Here’s how I would do it.” I was like, “Wow, okay. We’ll go with that.” The cutting up stuff, well, I’m not an anatomist, maybe that’s how you cut up the body.

In doing my research, the building of what we now call the Javits Center, which is the convention center in the movie, it really did kick off a mob war between the Irish mafia and the Italian mafia over the contracts for the jobs there. I thought, well, that’s a great way to integrate the Italian mafia and get them involved, and that plotline is a large part of the movie. There’s so much I got out of research that, I think, makes the whole thing feel more real.

One of the connections between this and Straight Outta Compton is the intimacy among the ensemble. Both as a writer and director, what are some the more subtle ways to portray or suggest closeness? What makes these relationships authentic for you?

You’re absolutely right. I keep waiting for people to realize there are quite a few similarities between Compton and The Kitchen. They’re both people who feel disrespected, want more out of life, and figure out how to go out and get it. They use their unique voices, offer what they have to the world, and make their dreams come true. I think both storylines are the same storyline.

In terms of intimacy, I love to sit in restaurants and just listen to people talk. You hear people don’t talk in full sentences. Like, you’re recording me, and if you go [listen] back, I’m not speaking in paragraphs but phrases. The better people know each other, the more that’s true, right? I don’t need to give you a full sentence; you know what I’m saying. We’re communicating together. So, I really love to listen to speech patterns, and I think that gets reflected in my character work. When people really know each other, you fill in the blanks for one another. I think it’s the dialogue work in both these instances, in particular, that becomes really nuanced, detailed, and more intimate. I do think that’s what makes it emotional and interesting, no matter what story you’re telling, by seeing people care for another, or being involved in one another’s lives, and knowing what they’re feeling.

I’m not familiar with the comic book, but did you feel you had to be faithful to it at all?

I didn’t. I mean, it is faithful in that it’s the same story: three women that take over the Irish mafia in Hell’s Kitchen. The original story had three white women, and two of whom were sisters. When the comic was sent to me, it was February 2016, and I was just finishing all of the awards press for Compton, and I didn’t want to make a movie about three white women. I felt I wanted to continue a conversation on race and make space for that. I said to the studio, “I’m going to figure out a way to make one of these women African-American.” They were very supportive of that. Once I made that decision, I thought, wouldn’t it be really fun if she had a mean mother-in-law she had to contend with? Obviously, the entire Ruby plotline is intricate to the telling of the movie, but none of that was in the comic.

I did feel the freedom to jump off, but I will say, the comic book was written by Ollie Masters and illustrated by Ming Doyle. They were involved the entire time, came to set, and came to the house and had dinner Sunday night before the premiere. I kept them a part of what I was doing. I think all too often, especially for artists in making movies, people tend not to be respectful of one another as we should be. We all know how hard it is and how vulnerable it is to put your work out there and have someone else come along and do something with it, so I wanted to make sure they were a part of the experience and understood why I was making the choices I was making.

Fifty percent of the movie has VFX work, which was surprising to me. Seamless work.

Good. Thank you.

Was that concerning at all, though, knowing how much was going to be done at a VFX house?

I mean, I did a screening last night for 300 people. Someone asked how I got a shot, and I said, “It is entirely fake. There’s a ton of VFX. Fifty percent of the movie is VFX.” Nobody could believe it. You just can’t tell. I feel like if I didn’t have faith in it, I would be hiding it, you know? I don’t think people are noticing, because it’s great, top-notch work. Our visual effects supervisor, Dan [Schrecker], did an incredible amount of work. I think it’s kind of cool if people know that [about the movie]. Why not?

And the movie still has that lived-in quality for a New York movie. How did you and your cinematographer want to create that kind of tangible city environment? 

I wanted to feel as realistic as possible, meaning I didn’t want to take on a big stylized comic book kind of thing. I knew this story was a lot, to ask audiences to go on this journey with these women, but if I created a stylized version of this, it would put you at a remove. I want people to see themselves in these characters, to understand them and why they’re doing what they’re doing. I wanted it to feel real. If we made it stylized, it wouldn’t have felt real and created a distance, which was something I talked about quite a bit with the DP.

Also, the DP, Maryse Alberti, is one of the best in the business. She’s shot like 50 movies, I don’t even know how many. We had an incredibly tall order, which is this: it has to look gritty and dark and be a gangster movie, but the women have to be beautiful in every frame. We still live in a place where we expect our women to look great on screen. So the duality of that — making the actresses look amazing while having to light a gritty gangster movie — is a really tall order. I think she did it perfectly, combining those two elements seamlessly.

We did the best that we could with our production design. I think Shane Valentino, our production designer, did fantastic work, but the truth is, it’s not 1978 anymore. We can put as much trash and graffiti on signs and cars as much as we want to on set, but still, the traffic lights, the crosswalks, and these tiny details are just not the same. You have to change all of that out and make it look like 1978, so that’s where the visual effects come in. Also, the skyline of the city is not the same, so there are entire shots that are computer-generated. New York is just not the same city. Authenticity meant everything to us.

Earlier, you talked about basically creating a new language for a mob movie, and the visual language of mob movies is so well-known. Was there anything about the visual style of the genre you wanted? Any movies you had in mind? 

I don’t think so. I think the answer is no [Laughs]. You know, I mean this sincerely, I know that they’re in there, because I’ve seen all of those movies numerous times, but I really stopped watching them while [shooting] and before we went to make the movie. I did not want my movie to feel like it was theirs. I didn’t want to pretend I can play in the same sandbox, and I’m making my own movie in my own language, and I gotta figure out what that is. It was more about doing tons of photo research about what 1978 Hell’s Kitchen looked like. We did so much visual research rather than referencing back to other movies.

Which photos left a big impression?

There’s this great book called, I think, A New York Then and Now. Somebody found a series of photos that were taken throughout the 1920s, and then in the 1970s, they went back to the same locations and took photos. The point of the book was to show the evolution of the neighborhoods between the ’20s and the ’70s. There were basically photos from every neighborhood in New York in the 1970s, and they were not the glossy tourism photos that still, even in our research, are really prevalent. The photos were gritty, “Here I am standing on 31st and 9th in 1977” kind of photos. That book was super helpful, but there was a ton out there.

The city was broke in the late ’70s. The way they handled that is they stopped picking up trash in poor neighborhoods and pulled back on police units in poor neighborhoods. When you see photos of Hell’s Kitchen then, it was filthy. They were not picking the trash up off the streets. That, to me, was much more of an influence for the look of it all than other movies.

You tell a lot of story in The Kitchen, similar to Straight Outta Compton. After succeeding in covering so much history in that bio movie, what was learned or affirmed about the best ways to condense a story?

The Kitchen is a lot shorter than Compton, but I do think the economy of storytelling is important. For me, I think we’re living in a world where the two and a half hour movie is going to become more and more difficult for audiences, particularly younger audiences, for real. I don’t know your feeling, but my attention span is diminishing. People are becoming used to, “Maybe I’ll sit at home and stream a movie for an hour or two.” Maybe that’s the longest I’ll get them. I do feel an urgency to pick up the pace on storytelling because that’s what audiences are going to want. That’s not to say there isn’t a movie out there that doesn’t deserve the biggest story, but for me, I’m much more interested in being as economical as you can, because that’s where the world is headed, and that’s where my brain is going. I realized I’m picking up the pace and other people are as well.

I do think maybe there’s some upside. You mentioned earlier how audiences sometimes pick up on things faster now, and maybe that’s a result of it. 

I think that’s a part of the effect of flipping around to different channels and shoving stuff into our heads so much more quickly. Our brains are learning how to process a little faster. Maybe storytelling will evolve, I don’t know.

But I agree, I noticed my attention span has shortened from it all. If a show or movie doesn’t grab me after a while, I start thinking of all the other things I could be watching at that moment. 

Right. You gotta keep it moving and interesting because the moment you slow down, I’m off wondering about what I’m going to have for lunch [Laughs]. You gotta keep it interesting.

What was your experience like editing your first movie? 

I loved editing. The editor, Chris Tellefsen, was probably one of the most profound creative partnerships I’ve ever had in my life. We somehow developed a shorthand, and it was really a great experience. Although you can see from the pacing, we really tightened up scenes and cut dialogue out of scenes, there were very few scenes we ended up cutting. The script was already short. It was important to ask, “What is this scene about? What is the core idea? What are we trying to communicate?” Anything extraneous has to be there for a reason. If there are extra lines, it’s going to get boring. We sculpted every moment we possibly could to get to the heart and truth of what we were going for in the moment.

When you got to the editing room, did you ever notice scenes taking on a new meaning?

No, that didn’t happen. Like I said, we were very focused. Also, I was a first-time director, and we didn’t have enough time to shoot. We only had 38 days to shoot 100-day scenes, so it’s a monstrous schedule. That meant I did a lot of preparation ahead of time, so before shooting and when we were preparing, I would go in and ask, “What is this scene about? What is essential in this scene?” If I couldn’t answer that, I’d cut it out before we even shot it. I knew we had such little time I wasn’t going to screw around getting extra stuff. I needed the essentials.

There’s something about biopics I wanted to get your opinion on since you’ve written them in the past. Lately, people seem increasingly more critical of facts being altered or dramatized for storytelling. When you’re telling a true story, are there certain lines you wouldn’t cross? When does it go too far for dramatization? 

I think it totally depends. I don’t think you could paint it all with one brush. I will say, for example, World Trade Center was 95 percent true. Straight Outta Compton, it was not. Does that bother anybody? I don’t know. I think both those movies exist on their own and are successful on their own. There’s definitely fiction in Straight Outta Compton, and I don’t think anybody cared and people loved the movie. I think it’s all about what line are you crossing. Are you crossing a line where you’re saying something offensive? Are you crossing it because you think dramatizing it is just going to make it better? What is the line? It’s about the storytelling, and why you’re crossing the line, and how it ultimately serves the movie. Certainly, I don’t think it’s okay if it’s a moral decision to make someone look like a better person than who they were; I’m not into that. I think it depends on what the story needs.

On the subject of true stories, you wrote a Gucci movie for Ridley Scott, correct? I would love to see that. 

[Laughs] I did.

It sounds like it presented a lot of challenges, though. Did it?

Yeah. I don’t think it’s ever going to get made. It’s a tough one in that, the story of the Gucci family is amazing and fascinating. There’s a murder at the heart of it, and they were a big, messy Shakespearian family. You know, it’s complicated. Do they speak English when we really know they’re Italian? How do you make that movie? I don’t know. It’s a complicated one.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.