Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
“We have to allow space for women to be anti-heroes – to be complicated and messy.”
Living in fear doesn’t get one anywhere, but for the women in writer-director Andrea Berloff’s THE KITCHEN, it acts as an empowering tool for their survival. The story, adapted from the DC/ Vertigo graphic novel by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, is about three Irish mobsters wives – Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) – who take control over their husband’s turf in Hell’s Kitchen after they’re sent to prison.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, I spoke with Berloff (who makes her directorial debut working from her script) about everything from properly capturing complicated women, to recreating the retro landscape, to how she harnesses her own fears for personal gain.
History is cyclical and the moments that were true then are still sadly resonating now.
That’s the idea, yes.
Was that sort of disheartening to realize, but ultimately gratifying to build in that empowerment aspect that you do?
The nice thing about a period piece is that you have the opportunity to look at racism, sexism and classism through the lens of the 1970’s and face it more head on. It gives us an opportunity to dissect it and look inside. Those issues have never gone away. They’ve been couched and have evolved.
Was the plan always for you to adapt and direct this project?
No. I was hired to write it originally. We got to the end of the writing process and it was the first time ever in my writing that I felt like I had so much more to say. I was bursting to tell more about this story – like I knew what I wanted the costumes to look like, what the music to sound like, everything. I said to the studio, who were putting together a list of who they were going to approach, “Could you please give me the opportunity to pitch as a director?” I went in and told them why they should hire me and they were nice enough to do that.
Was there any level of intimidation adapting this graphic novel?
Listen, it’s all intimidating. There’s never been a script I’m not scared to write. They all are terrifying. There’s always a lot of pressure. It’s very public and when people examine your creativity and artistry, it’s always terrifying. But I tend to say, if I’m not feeling a little afraid, I’m not going to take the job. That little bit of fear really pushes me and makes me realize there’s something special here. If I find it easy and boring, then I don’t know why I’m doing it. Yes, I was absolutely intimidated, but that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with being a little intimidated. That pushes you to do better work sometimes.
Did you look at other mob movies to see what you could do differently?
No, because I didn’t want them in my head. Obviously I’d seen some of those movies. But I specifically said, “I’m no longer watching them right now.” I know they are in there somewhere. But the last thing I would want is so-and-so’s style. I really wanted to give myself the freedom to find my own style. I would say, more than anything, the movie I looked at was THELMA AND LOUISE. Those women are genuine anti-heroes. They’re not angels. They do bad stuff and yet you root for them the entire time. Even in the end, which is pretty tragic, it’s actually very uplifting and empowering. I knew that, by the end of my movie, I wanted you to feel really great about having gone on this journey with these women and feel empowered and be celebratory. It was trying to balance the tone right and portray women as anti-heroes because it’s still a very hard thing to do.
I loved that these women show a dynamic range of females and their power. They are complex and not always likeable.
That’s right. We have to allow space for women to be anti-heroes – to be complicated and messy. There have been too few opportunities to see that on screen. Hopefully, that will change.
What works so well is that you capture the bottled tension of the time, location and pressure-cooker situation for these characters.
The pressure cooker of poverty, racism and sexism is profound. Once you understand these forces these women are up against and the challenges they had, you understand why they are doing bad things and you’ll follow them anywhere because it’s survival. Yeah, the pressure of the time absolutely feeds into who these women are and the lengths they have to go to.
Was it difficult to retain these characters’ POV the entirety of the film?
We didn’t have enough days to shoot the movie. We had 38 days to cover 80 scenes, which is incredibly ambitious. What that meant was I had to be very organized and economical before heading in. I would ask, “What is the point of this scene? Why is this scene in the movie? And what is this one thinking at this point?” I had a little cheat sheet for every scene. I would go through all the main characters and know this one is thinking this and this and spell it out for myself. As things got stressful and we were moving quickly, at least I knew what the focus of what we’re doing was so I was sure we got what we absolutely needed to communicate in this story.
There seems to be a harmony in creating dramatic tension in the editing process. Did you find that working with Christopher Tellefsen was helpful in regulating that tone?
[He’s] one of the best editors out there and I went after him hard. I was really lucky to get him. I knew that I needed a high end editor for this since this was my first movie and the area I had the least experience in was post-production. I was willing to take money out of other areas and put it into that area so that I could get one of the best. Chris was one of my primary collaborators throughout the entire process. He and I worked really, really hard to figure out the proper tone of this thing.
If you allow one second longer of comedy, it would mess up the whole tone – especially coming from these actresses, who are so naturally funny. You can’t allow for that. You have to hold the course. It’s a gritty gangster movie and in the few moments of black humor where you break the tension, you have to be really mindful of where those laughs are. We worked really hard to find that right balance.
You touched on it earlier, but the wardrobe is fantastic. I need it in my closet like yesterday.
[laughs] I feel the same. I think a few pieces may have walked off with the actresses. When I sat down with Sarah Edwards, our costume designer, we had a long talk of what the look would be. The idea was that these women have to look gorgeous at all times. That’s the two-sided coin of telling a female-fronted movie. You have to want audiences to go with them and be inspired by them, so they gotta look good. That’s just how it is. But it’s also gritty. That was the challenge also with the cinematography and also with the costumes. There’s a lot of styles from the Seventies we look at now that we think, “that’s awful and embarrassing.” We only wanted to use the styles that actually looked cool to our eyes today. Sarah threaded that needle perfectly.
It’s Herculean effort to make a period piece these days.
Especially in terms of what you needed here. With gentrification becoming more rampant, was it harder to find those locations to shoot so it still looked like Seventies Hell’s Kitchen?
Yes. It was so hard. Our production designer, Shane Valentino, did incredible work dressing sets. We were all over the city. We only shot one week on a stage – some of the interiors of the apartments in Long Island. Everything else was on location in New York. We shot in every borough but Queens. I don’t know why we didn’t go to Queens – it wasn’t intentional. We would blast it and spend a few days dressing it like 1978 and put it all back and start over again. It is not the same city anymore, but between all the production design work and about 50% of the movie has visual effects in it that you wouldn’t necessarily notice, but there’s quite a bit of CGI in it. Those two pieces went hand in hand. Then you put great period cars and costumes and it all starts working together.
What surprised me was how littered the streets were at the time.
Oh yeah. Particularly in the poor neighborhood. The city was broke, which meant they had to choose where to spend their resources and it wasn’t going to be in the poor neighborhoods. They stopped picking up the trash. If you look at photos from the time, it was filthy.
We had all of these boxes of trash that we’d cart around the city and just throw trash everywhere. All of these poor nice people are like, “You’re trashing up our block!” We would be all, “We’re sorry! We’ll put it back. We promise!” We’d trash the place and then clean it all up at the end of the day.
Was it easy to line up the actresses with their roles?
Oh yeah. No question that Elisabeth was a Claire, and Melissa was a Kathy. They so embodied those roles. Yes, they were on the page, but they also so brought themselves to that experience. You’re going to see a Melissa McCarthy that is much closer to the Melissa that I know. She’s a fierce mother, who is bright, and stands up for herself. I don’t know that anyone’s seen that version of her on screen before. It was something to sit in the front row and watch these ladies work. What a ride working with them.
Is there stuff that you wrote that, when they performed it, blew you away?
The scene with Melissa and her dad in the church, I knew it was going to be a big moment and that she was saying something important. But I did not know how she would just nail it. We finished take one and I sat there silently, and was like, “Oh my goodness! It was amazing.” I had goosebumps. There were definitely quite a few of those where it felt so much better than it was on the page. That’s the thrill of working with amazing actresses is that they can do that.
THE KITCHEN opens on August 9.