Irish mobster wives of New York: ‘This is not Goodfellas for girls’
Writer-director Andrea Berloff of female-centred mafia movie The Kitchen is keen to avoid comparisons with the Scorsese film
Never mind Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. The most unusual comic book film to hit cinemas this season is The Kitchen. A new female-centred mafia movie, adapted from a series published by DC’s Vertigo imprint, the film stars Oscar-nominee Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss as three unhappily married housewives whose Irish mobster husbands are sent to prison in the late 1970s. Left with virtually no income, the trio, assisted by a damaged Vietnam veteran (Domhnall Gleeson) take over their spouse’s various Hell’s Kitchen rackets with surprising ease. In fabulous period dresses and flicked hair.
It’s impossible not to think: Goodfellas for girls. But writer-director Andrea Berloff is keen to avoid comparisons with the Scorsese film, and with Steve McQueen’s similarly-themed Widows.
“I was not interested in making a female Goodfellas,” says Berloff. “First of all, that’s one of the best movies ever made and I do not welcome comparisons for that reason! But I also did feel very strongly that it could not just be a case of putting women in men’s roles and having them run around with guns. It had to be a much more authentic story about women. What were their struggles? What were their trials? And how would those be different from men in the same position?
“I saw Widows and we read it sometime before we began production because we knew they were going first. I was rooting for them. I think it’s a very different movie from ours, in terms of tone and storytelling, from top to bottom. I think one reason we need more movies with women in the marketplace is so that we don’t end up drawing comparisons with every other movie that has women in it.”
It’s rather poignant to encounter a movie adaptation of a Vertigo comic sequence in the current climate. Earlier this year, DC announced it would be shuttering the adult-oriented imprint, the source for such diverse movies as A History of Violence, V For Vendetta, and The Fountain, following a year of corporate clashes and scandals.
Last December, DC cancelled the original series Border Town after accusations of past sexual misconduct surfaced against writer Eric Esquiviel. Earlier this year, it released the rights of Second Coming, a comic about Jesus returning to earth, back to the authors, after lobbying by CitizenGO, an ultraconservative European advocacy group.
An interesting moment
Berloff arrives to the fray at an interesting moment. She first encountered The Kitchen’s source series, as written by Ollie Masters and illustrated by Ming Doyle, in February 2016 while she was still doing press for her Oscar-nominated screenplay, Straight Outta Compton. Larger conversations around those awards, and the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, a campaign which ultimately prompted the Academy to overhaul and diversify its membership, inspired Berloff to make important changes to the original Vertigo series.
“The comic is wonderful and it has been a very collaborative process,” says Berloff. “Both Ollie and Ming are actually coming over to my house tonight. When I was handed the comic book in February 2016, I loved it and immediately thought, well, I’ve never seen anything like this and if we could get away with making an authentic, gritty, fun movie about women and the mob, that would be an amazing thing to do. But we were all very clear from the beginning that the comic was a jumping-off point.
“Some of the scenes in the comics are very similar to ones that we have kept in the movie, And we’ve kept the central story. It’s still about women taking over the Irish mafia in 1978.
“But when I was also finishing the press for Straight Outta Compton I became embroiled in this national conversation on race and I didn’t want to cast three white women. So I said to the studio that I wanted to make one of the women African-American and that I wanted to create an interesting story around that character. And that’s where Tiffany Haddish came in.”
That diversity underpinned the entire production, on both sides of the camera. Veteran French cinematographer Maryse Alberti (Velvet Goldmine, Creed) served as DOP alongside various female heads of department.
“I have been thinking about directing for a few years before I raised my hand for this one,” says Berloff. “But it was more about figuring out how to do it and what the right opportunity might be for me to go after. Frankly, times have changed and things have changed very quickly over the last couple of years. I’m quite sure I am a beneficiary of the times that we’re in.
“If you look at this material, you have to think it would be really untoward to have a man directing it. And I think the studio agreed. They looked around and realised they just don’t have enough women in the studio system. So they’re going to have to reach out and support and elevate them.”
Predictably, not everybody was cheering The Kitchen on. Echoing some of the toxic responses that met Paul Feig’s 2016 gender-swapped Ghostbusters and last year’s Ocean’s 8, random tweets on the Vertigo Twitter feed include: “Must be an Obama Production” and “You went woke . . . now you are broke’’.
There’s been an additional online kerfuffle following a throwaway remark about Batgirl. And no: the director is not confirmed for Batgirl.
“This is not a thing,’’ she laughs. “I opened my mouth and said something without thinking and then it was out all over the internet. Oh God. What a lesson. And the lesson is don’t say anything. I should know better. I don’t know. Maybe we have to all need to shut the internet down?”
Shortly after graduating from Cornell’s drama department, the Massachusetts-born Berloff relocated to New York, where she worked as a paralegal between acting jobs. In 2006, she made her screenwriting feature debut with World Trade Center, a dramatisation of the events of 9/11, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Nick Cage.
Her subsequent career has been a chequered affair. Her screenplay for Ridley Scott’s biopic on the Italian fashion designer Aldo Gucci has languished in development hell for more than a decade following objections from the Gucci family. Her sequel to the 1982 film Conan The Barbarian, written as a vehicle for Jason Mamoa, has faced various setbacks. Blood Father, a 2016 thriller starring Mel Gibson and co-written by Berloff, premiered in Cannes to rave notices, yet received a nominal release.
Straight Outta Compton, a 2015 American biographical drama, scripted by Berloff, chronicling the rise and fall of the gangsta rap group N.W.A and its members Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr Dre, was an unalloyed success, securing an Oscar nomination for Berloff, and grossing more than $200 million worldwide to become the second most successful musical biopic of all time. (It took the $700 million smash Bohemian Rhapsody to leapfrog over the record.)
“I don’t think anybody believed that it was going to be as successful as it was,” recalls Berloff. “We thought we were laying the appropriate groundwork but it was a very pleasant surprise. Even up until the week before release, it was not expected to to open as big as it did. We were all pretty shocked but very happy that it seemed to touch a nerve.”
While Berloff is aware that the MeToo and TimesUp fallout allowed for her “big swing”, she’s equally cognisant that there is no time for complacency on the equality front in Hollywood. Following on from Ry Russo-Young’s The Sun Is Also a Star and Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light (both of which, in common with The Kitchen, were released through Warner Bros Stateside) and Gail Mancuso’s A Dog’s Journey for Universal, The Kitchen is only the fourth female-directed studio title released in the US this summer.
“I think the real problem is that, yes, things are starting to change,” says Berloff. “A few of us have been given opportunities. But it is not yet in movement lest anybody think that it is. Right now, I think we’re having an experimental bubble. But I think these movies have to work; they have to make money. People have to go see them. They have to support them. If we want to have more content like this, if we want more female-driven content, if we want more women behind the camera, you got to go to the theatre and you got to buy a ticket.”
The Kitchen is released on September 20th