Andrea Berloff might be one of the more interesting screenwriters working in Hollywood – mainly due to the projects she’s written, including her Oscar-nominated screenplay for the NWA movie Straight Outta Compton. With her new movie The Kitchen, Berloff makes the transition into being one of the more interesting directors in Hollywood as well.
The 2014 Vertigo Comics comic The Kitchen, written by Ollie Masters and illustrated by Ming Doyle, only ran eight issues but it explored the premise of three Irish mob wives in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen of 1978, who take over the business when their husbands are sent to jail. Berloff’s movie stars Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss as the tough women who battle the odds in a violent male-dominated world to turn things around for Hell’s Kitchen.
The Beat got on the phone with Ms. Berloff over the weekend to talk about how she discovered the comic and why she decided to make it her directorial debut. Frankly, I’m quite proud of this interview because Berloff has had quite an amazing career as a writer during a time when it was tougher for women to write the kinds of movies she has written. I also found out what her pitch was for Straight Outta Compton that helped change the course of her career. (Berloff also gets awesome points for having lived in Framingham, Mass, where this writer spent some of his childhood.)
THE BEAT: I knew about the comic that was out in 2014 and that New Line has a first look deal with Vertigo, so at what point did you come along? Had you read the comic? Was it something that was sent to you?
Andrea Berloff: New Line sent it to me in February 2016, and I’d not heard of it and not read it before, but I was sort of taken by the title right away because I had actually lived in Hell’s Kitchen for a year, and I thought, “Oh, that’s cool. I’ll read this as it’s about Hell’s Kitchen. I know that world.” I love this graphic novel in a way that I hadn’t loved anything in a really long time, and I just felt like this was the coolest thing, and I thought the idea of really doing an authentic gritty 1970s New York gangster movie but with interesting women at the heart of it felt like something I’d never seen before and just felt like a really fresh opportunity to talk about some really big ideas and create a really fun, big mobster movie.
THE BEAT: Because I know you lived in Framingham in 1979, I know you weren’t in Hell’s Kitchen in 1978…
Berloff: No… and I was also four, too.
THE BEAT: Did you feel like you had resonance from reading the comics from when you were there?
Berloff: When I lived in Hell’s Kitchen, it was sort of the beginning of the current day gentrification, so it was still lots of old Mom and Pop shops that were owned by mean old Irish people who were angry that these crazy artists were starting to move into the neighborhood. I really had a sense of who those people were and what that neighborhood looked like at the time that I was living there, which was probably even better than 1978. But it was still very rough. There were murders, and there was a park that you couldn’t go to, because that’s where the drugdealers were. It was definitely still a rough neighborhood, but I think it was even rougher in 1978.
THE BEAT: New Line sent you the comic and you were adapting it, so at what point did you decide you wanted to direct it as well? This is your first feature as a director, and it’s a big studio movie…
Berloff: I finished writing the script, and for the first time in a long, long time, I felt like I had more to say. That does not always happen with me as a writer. Many times I’m happy to finish the script and then hand it off to the director and say, “Enjoy! I’ll see you later!” But this time, I felt like I had a lot more to say. There was more to the story that was not on the page. I knew these women. I knew these characters. I knew this location, and I just so keenly felt that I wanted to continue telling the story. I just said to the studio when they liked the script and wanted to go hire a director and they were putting together lists of directors that they were going to meet with. I just said, “Can you please give me the opportunity to pitch as a director? It doesn’t mean you’re going to hire me but throw my hat in the ring and have me be one of the people that you’re considering,” and then they were nice enough to hire me.
THE BEAT: Did you go to film school? What was your background before writing films?
Berloff: I did not. I have a BA in theater, so I did a lot of studying of the Greek plays and Shakespeare and classic theater, and that’s it. Then somehow, here I am.
THE BEAT: Were Ollie and Ming Doyle involved at all when you were going to adapt their comic book?
Berloff: Absolutely. No, they were absolutely involved. I had their blessing and the freedom to take the ball and run with it, and there’s a lot of invention in the film that’s not necessarily in the comic book. They came to set and visited. They’re coming to the premiere on Monday. We’ve kept them involved as much as humanly possible, because it all started with them and their artistry, and I’m so grateful that they handed the baton off for us to run with.
THE BEAT: What’s interesting is that there have been a lot of gangster crime movies, and a lot of times they’re based in some form on reality whether it’s Goodfellas or Black Mass and even The Departed, which was also based on Whitey Bulger even though it was adapted from a Chinese non-fiction crime film. How do you proceed with something like that, especially since you have done true stories before?
Berloff: I tried to infuse a lot of true stuff within the movie. It’s obviously not a true story. The women obviously did not take over the Irish Mafia, however there really was an Irish Mafia in the 1970s and 1980s Hell’s Kitchen. They really did go to war with the Italian Mafia over the building of the Javits Center. There really was a Vietnam War hitman who cut up bodies and threw them in the river, so I tried to take the comic book and infuse lots of true stuff. Unemployment was high in 1978, so what does that look like and feel like and just make it feel as gritty and real as humanly possible. And then on top of that is the fictitious story of the women taking over the mob. I feel that sense of authenticity really makes the movie come alive. No matter what work I do, I always try to do research and make it feel as specific as possible.
THE BEAT: What about recreating Hell’s Kitchen? I’m not sure how much you shot in New York?
Berloff: Everything was in New York. We did one week in a soundstage in Long Island and that was interiors of some of the apartments we built on the soundstage, but everything else was shot on the streets of New York.
THE BEAT: What’s involved with that? I moved here in ’87 so I’ve been here a long time, but by the time I got here all the Irish pubs were replaced with Blarney Stones at that point.
Berloff: Yeah, it’s not the same city. It’s really different, so it was really challenging to try to authentically recreate the city, and we ended up shooting in every borough but Queens in various locations and doing a tremendous amount of production design work. Shane Valentino, our production designer, moved mountains and quite frankly, there’s a ton of CGI in it. At least 50% of the movie has visual FX work in it, because the city just does not look the same anymore, so we had to recreate it.
THE BEAT: What’s it like shooting in New York? I’ve heard horror stories about trying to make movies in New York…
Berloff: I am so grateful I got to shoot this in New York. What if I had to shoot this in Toronto or Atlanta? It wouldn’t have looked the same, and it wouldn’t have felt the same, and this is a New York story. It belongs in New York, and yes, are there challenges? Absolutely, but also, that energy of people on the streets. We were shooting last summer, as I said, all over New York, and I’d be out on the street with Common and 500 women would pour out of the women and scream, “Common, we love you!” and then I’d be like, “He loves you, too, but you gotta be quiet right now because we’re trying to shoot!” But that kind of energy of that support. New Yorkers are not shy – I don’t need to tell you — but that energy really fed us and made it feel that much more vital and exciting.
THE BEAT: What about casting the three women? You went with Tiffany, which is very different from the comics but how did you go about finding them? I think Elisabeth Moss is kind of a no-brainer. She’s amazing in everything she does, and I believe her as a mobster.
Berloff: No, they’re all amazing. How lucky am I to get these three actresses to do these roles? Without question, they’re some of the best actresses working today and more than anything, they really wanted to do these parts. They wanted the opportunity to do something different, to step outside their boxes, and we were excited to give them that opportunity.
THE BEAT: I do a lot of box office predicting and this movie is very hard to gauge…
Berloff: Can you tell me a number? Because we can’t tell… I’m kidding! It’s a little early.
THE BEAT: It’s interesting, because the trailers have been fantastic. I first saw one at CinemaCon.
THE BEAT: They’ve done an amazing job with it, but obviously, the crime genre has always been male-dominated, both in terms of actors and directors and also the viewers. It’s interesting to have a movie like this that’s so dominated by women. Have you done test screenings? Do you know how women react to it?
Berloff: We have. I’ve hosted two screenings, one Thursday night and one Friday night here in Los Angeles, and the reaction was pretty exuberant from women. It was really gratifying is all I really have to say. People really, really connected to it.
THE BEAT: I obviously have a lot of women friends including movie writers who are true movie fans, but I’ve never heard one of them say that Goodfellas is their favorite movie. Is that because they never had a gangster movie geared towards them?
Berloff: Because where is their experience reflected within Goodfellas? The housewives who have masks on their faces? Listen, there are amazing female characters in Goodfellas. There’s amazing female characters in all sorts of genre movies, but women are never at the center of those stories. They’re not movies that have been made for us. They’re movies that tell a different person’s story. I love those movies, and I certainly would not want to even pretend that I’m playing in the same field as those movies – I’m not. I’m making my own kind of movie with my own kind of voice, and my own style. We’re telling a different story, and I think that this is a movie that women are going to want to go out with their girlfriends and have a fun night out, or they’re going to want to take their husbands or boyfriends and say, “Guess what? We’re picking the movie tonight.” I hope everybody walks out of there feeling really empowered and ready to take on the world. That is the goal. I think women are really going to respond to this.
THE BEAT: Going back to the actors, was that part of the appeal to them when you first pitched them the characters?
Berloff: Well, everyone is living in the same society here, right, so everybody’s feeling the need to tell different stories from different points of view with different voices. I think we’re all responding to the same feeling confined by the sorts of stories that have come before and wanting to do something fresh, whether you’re an actress or whether you’re an audience member. It’s always fun to do something new and exciting. I think they all really wanted the challenge of stepping outside the traditional roles that they have done. I think there were many reasons that they wanted to take on this job, and I think they all absolutely killed it, so I can’t wait for people to see it.
THE BEAT: I love the cast in this movie. Margo Martindale is one of my favorite actors…
Berloff: Oh, she’s so good.
THE BEAT: And Bill Camp is so underrated. He really appears in so many movies and he just destroys every time he’s on screen.
Berloff: I know. Everybody’s kept going on about how good he is, so he’s a very busy man, so he’s shooting a lot these days. But he really, really gave a fine performance in this film.
THE BEAT: Looking at the movies you’ve written, a lot of them have been in male-dominated genres. Mel Gibson’s Blood Father was an amazing revenge thriller, so how were you drawn to that world?
Berloff: Well, because I wanted to work and those were the only movies that were getting made, quite frankly. (chuckles) Yeah, how about that? If ten years ago, people wanted to make female-driven gritty movies, I would have been all over it, but nobody was looking to hire for those kinds of movies, so I had to fight and claw my way to stay employed, and if I wanted to do that, it was about writing male-driven stories.
THE BEAT: Straight Outta Compton was very much a breakthrough. I’ve interviewed Ice Cube a bunch over the years, going back maybe 15 years, and I always asked him about the NWA movie since it was always brewing. How does a nice Jewish woman from Framingham end up writing it?
Berloff: (laughs) Yeah, I know. How does that happen? It really was all Cube’s effort. He was the one that pushed that rock up that mountain. He wanted to make that movie, and it was not easy to get that movie made. He was the one who was the cheerleader for it. For me, it came to me – and don’t quote me on the year but it was something like 2011? – they were interviewing writers and hearing pitches from writers, and I just went in and said, “Listen, I don’t think that this is a movie that’s a biopic about a band. The music is nice and the band’s story is nice but this is a movie about police abuse and first amendment rights and freedom of speech, and these are big ideas, and this is a big event movie. You can take the story of the band and turn it into a big event movie where you can explore all these themes.” That was my big pitch, and I think Cube heard that and thought, “I want the big event movie version, please.” And they hired me.
THE BEAT: I spoke to O’Shea a few months ago, and I asked if they’d ever do another movie about Ice Cube’s life post-NWA. He’s done a lot since then…
Berloff: Yeah, he has.
THE BEAT: Are you actually writing a Conan movie, too? Is that also in progress?
Berloff: That was a long time ago. I worked on a Conan movie many years ago, yeah.
THE BEAT: Is there anything else you’re working on now that this is finished?
Berloff: I don’t know. I don’t want to say, “Here’s a specific genre that I want to go work in,” because I tend to bop around and do lots of different genres. I do think I look for stuff that scares me a little, that feels a little bit difficult and a big idea that I feel like, “Wow, I’m going to take a big swing and hopefully audiences will come along and follow me.” Whatever it is, it’ll be something that at least I haven’t seen before is sort of my goal.
THE BEAT: You mentioned Batgirl in a recent interview as something you might want to tackle.
Berloff: Wait, that’s not a thing. Let’s stop it with this. I had one guy [ask about it] but it’s not a thing.
THE BEAT: But if it’s something of interest to you, would you at least come up with a proposal or pitch so if somebody reads that and says “Let’s give her a meeting to hear her thoughts,” are you going to try to do that?
Berloff: We’ll see. We’ll see. No, I don’t know. I have many thoughts and many things stupidly come out of my mouth, so we’ll let that one go.
THE BEAT: I don’t think it’s that stupid an idea, but how do you feel about directing after finishing this movie? Would you want to continue directing all your scripts now?
Berloff: I certainly don’t need to do it for all my scripts. Like I said, sometimes it’s very nice to write a script and hand it off to somebody else, but I will say that I loved directing and I look forward to doing it again.
The Kitchen opens on Friday, August 9, with previews Thursday night. Look for my review sometime on Wednesday.