James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, and Zach Snyder are just some of the directors that have been given not only the opportunities and freedoms to write complex female characters, but also the critical praise for doing so. Cameron often gets credited with bringing some of the first empowered female action heroes to life, like Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in Terminator 2. Similarly, Tarantino’s Kill Bill franchise is often praised for how it captures female rage. And though it was director Patty Jenkins who ultimately brought 2017’s Wonder Woman to fruition, Snyder, as head of the DCEU at the time, often walks away with all the praise for finally giving audiences a female superhero to cheer for.
Noticeably, the same can’t always be said about female creators themselves, women who write and/or direct complex female character-driven films. It’s especially rare to see women create traditionally male movie roles—like violent, get-it-done-by-any-means mob bosses—for women themselves. First-time feature film director Andrea Berloff, who wrote 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, attempts to change that narrative with The Kitchen, a film about three women who fight to become the heads of the organized crime crew their incarcerated husbands left behind.
Based on a DC Comics graphic novel of the same name, The Kitchen stars Oscar-nominated actress Melissa McCarthy and Emmy winners Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss as three mob wives who band together to make money once their husbands end up in prison, after the “family” that was supposed to care for them starts to cut them out. Beyond the straightforward mechanics of its plot, the movie goes deeper in its explorations of misogyny and racism—like how Kathy (McCarthy) was overlooked to lead despite it being her family who heads the Irish mob; or how Ruby (Haddish), a black woman who married an Irish mobster, is scorned by her mother-in-law and told she isn’t family; or how Claire (Moss), a domestic abuse victim, actually has a talent (and taste) for violence. The Kitchen is, in that way, a true testament to Berloff’s desire to push past a genre film’s conventional boundaries.
GQ sat down with the writer-director to discuss The Kitchen, becoming a director in Hollywood’s rapidly changing landscape, and how writing Straight Outta Compton helped her see the complexities of racism in America.
GQ: The Kitchen is based on a DC graphic novel, but you wrote and directed it very similar to a Scorsese-esque mob drama. What was it about the graphic novel that initially made you want to write this film?
Andrea Berloff: I thought it was a really special piece of material that I had never seen. Women at the center of a mob story? I thought, oh my god, that is so delicious and exciting. What if women really could take over the mob or, by extension, any industry? What would that be like? It just got my writer brain flowing.
And now it’s become your first feature film as a director. What was it specifically about this story that made you say, this is the one I want to direct?
I finished writing the script and, for the first time in a very long time, I felt like I had more to say. I was so filled with ideas about things like what the costumes should look like and what the sets should look like. And there was so much backstory on the characters that was not necessarily on the page that I had in my head. I just felt a sense of urgency to keep going with this one in a way that I really don't think I ever have before.
A key difference from the graphic novel is that in that original text, all three women are white. For the film, you cast Tiffany Haddish as Ruby. Why did you make that decision and what kind of research did you do into the racial dynamics and challenges of Black women in the seventies?
The comic was sent to me in February 2016, which was right when I was finishing up the press and awards stuff on Straight Outta Compton. So, at the time, I was embroiled in this giant national conversation on race through that movie. I had done quite a bit of research and work throughout the years of working on that film about: What is racism in America? What does it feel like? So when the graphic novel was sent to me, I just said to the studio, “Listen, I would love to write this, but I don't want to make a movie with three white women right now. I want to make sure that one of these women is African American. I don't necessarily know how I'm going to do it, but it's going to be authentic and integrated and interesting.”
It's not as simple as, as colorblind casting. It's not as simple as just writing a role and casting an African American actress in it. [The studio] gave me the space to do that, and encouraged me to do it. Listen, I have the ability to create space for a diversity of stories and a diversity of people telling those stories. I feel like my job is to make that space, lay the foundation, and then let people talk about it. I certainly don't feel like I'm the end all, be all in this conversation in any way. I just think that, in some ways, I have the obligation to make the space to continue that conversation.
In your own experience working in Hollywood, with your notable screenwriting work, you still had to pitch the studio to be the director. There are very few female directors in the industry right now. Is that something that you were thinking about when you pitched yourself?
Well, I did not think they were going to hire me. Let me be very clear about that. I have no experience [directing]. It was much more about, “Just let me get in the room and have an opportunity to meet with you guys. I know the story better than anybody else who's gonna go through those doors and let me start sharing with you all the stuff that's still in my head.” I think they were excited that I knew how much more there was to tell the story. But yeah, things are so not good for women directors and not good for women-centered films. If audiences want to see these movies, they have to go to the box office and they have to buy a ticket. If you care about diversity, on [screen] and behind the scenes, you've got to buy a ticket. There are no two ways about it.
This film is one of the latest to take on complex, empowered women on the big screen, something that is slowly starting to happen more often. But less and less so are women allowed to be anti-heroes like the three women here. Is that something you thought about when you were writing these characters?
Yes. We are not yet at a place where people embrace antihero women at all. It has been a complex journey in terms of my own storytelling. I have written scripts over the years with other antihero women and people were like, “Why is she doing that? Why is she behaving that way? What happened to her in her childhood?” Sometimes you just want to say, “You wouldn't say that if it was a Steve McQueen movie.” People just accept men as anti-heroes but don't accept it as much in women. I'm so excited about this opportunity ‘cause I think they are classic antihero women and I think people were ready for that.
After watching The Kitchen, what is it that you want audiences—particularly women—to think about?
I want them to feel empowered to go out and get what they want. I want you to sit in that theater and realize what in your life have you not gone out and taken for yourself. You know, open your mouth to speak up, get what you want. We are so powerful. And yet we, we tell ourselves not to speak up. We tell ourselves to stay quiet. So it's really about finding that strength and that voice within you. And I want them to walk out of that field theater feeling empowered and strong and alive and go get it. Go out there and get something.
Originally Appeared on GQ