Andrea Berloff talks all-female mob film, directorial debut
Melissa McCarthy. Tiffany Haddish. Elisabeth Moss. Holy crap.
Two of the biggest names in comedy have joined forces with the star of The Handmaid’s Tale to become gangsters.
The three traveled back to 1978 Hell’s Kitchen for their new film, The Kitchen, which follows mob wives Kathy (McCarthy), Ruby (Haddish) and Claire (Moss) as they figure out how to deal with their husbands being sent to prison by the FBI. Having been accustomed to being supported by their husbands, the three are shocked to realize the remaining members of the gang they belong to won’t help them, so they must learn to help themselves. The three band together to seize control of their husbands’ businesses, rising to power as gangsters.
“I think we’ve never seen a true mob movie with women at the center of it,” said writer and director Andrea Berloff, who was previously nominated for an Oscar as a screenwriter on Straight Outta Compton. “That mashup has never happened. Women are always caricatures in traditional mob movies—they’re the wives, the girlfriends, but the story has never revolved around them. And so that to me was just revolutionary and that was something I thought our audiences were just going to respond to. People are craving something fresh and unique and that’s what this is. Even from the very beginning, that was my intent.”
The Kitchen is based on a DC Vertigo comic book series of the same title by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, which Berloff received from the studio in February 2016.
“I loved it,” she said. “I thought it was so fresh and so interesting and the idea of a true crime gangster movie with women at the heart of it in an interesting and different way was so compelling to me. I signed on at that point to do just the screenplay, so I did that for them and they were happy with it. Then they wanted to hire a director and I said to them, ‘Give me a chance to meet as a director. I’d love to have that opportunity,’ and then they were nice enough to hire me.”
Berloff explained that while she had to tell a great story like a “little one-woman show” to get the writing gig, to nab her directorial debut she had to pitch what the movie would look like and sound like.
“I had tons of photos and slides that I shared with them about the costumes and the hair and the sets and the cars, and also from the beginning music was always going to be a big piece of the puzzle and so I handed out USB drives with playlists on them to the executives to set this feeling for how the movie was going to sound like,” Berloff said.
To shoot the film, 1970s Hell’s Kitchen was recreated by production designers. Workable streetscapes were found and modern buildings were dressed in signage and sets to reflect the era. Period cars from a Chevy Nova to a Dodge Aspen filled the streets and skylines were digitally adjusted and augmented. In order to capture the graphic novel style, Berloff and the production team took a noir approach.
“If you like the comic book and you like 1978 gritty New York gangster movies, we’ve got one for you,” the writer/director said. “I first and foremost really feel like it’s really important to respect the original material and to that end I made sure I included the original writers. I tried to include them as much as humanly possible just so that they were part of the process, because it started with them. I got their blessing to take their fantastic work and turn it into a movie. I feel very strongly that a book is a book and a movie is a movie and they have to live in two separate spaces, so you have to be able to let the movie breathe and be its own thing.”
Using the comic book, which is set around three white women—two of whom are sisters—as a jumping-off point, Berloff decided to make some changes for the crime drama.
“With coming off of Straight Outta Compton at the time that I was sent the comic book, I just didn’t want to make a movie about three white women and I felt I could continue having a conversation of race through this movie, so I created the role of Ruby and off of Ruby came this idea it would be fun to have a difficult mother-in-law, so then along comes the character of Helen, so I definitely had the freedom to go in lots of directions,” explained Berloff, who also noted that the most rewarding part of making the film was the respectful environment that was created.
While Berloff didn’t envision any specific actresses while writing the screenplay, the three work in harmony to create the dramatic vibe of the film.
“We had to make sure we were adhering to the genre, which is a crime story, so there were moments of humor that pop out, but it’s very dark humor that’s purposely put there to relieve the tension at some of the more difficult moments,” Berloff said of what it was like to bring the three together tone-wise, being that McCarthy and Haddish are known for their comedic brilliance. “When we were working on the editing, anytime we were too far into one direction or the other we had to bring it back and remind ourselves what genre we were working in.”
While on screen is a serious crime drama, behind the scenes seemed like anything but. Berloff recalled a moment on set where the three were shooting a serious scene on the streets of New York when a car rolled by loudly playing Dr. Dre. While at first the lead females tried to pretend they couldn’t hear the music, Moss and Haddish broke character and began laughing and dancing.
“It was as fun as you would think and I’m not kidding,” Berloff said. “It is not every day you get to have a front seat to two of the funniest ladies in America tearing it up with each other and they really genuinely did. We’d be in these very serious scenes and then we’d yell cut and everybody would start dancing and cracking each other up. It was really joyful. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
McCarthy, Haddish and Moss started serving up mob life in The Kitchen, presented by New Line Cinema and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, in theaters on Aug. 9.