Theatre alumna debuts as director with DC movie, ‘The Kitchen’

Andrea Berloff ’95 hasn’t read many books on screenwriting – in fact, only one — but she did study many a Greek play and the works of Shakespeare during her time at Cornell.

And she thinks that, combined with her unique voice, has a lot to do with her success as a screenwriter, and now a director. Her directing debut, “The Kitchen,” starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss, comes to theaters Aug. 9. She also co-wrote the script for “Straight Outta Compton,” which was nominated for an Academy Award.

Cornell Cinema is planning a screening of “The Kitchen” Nov. 15 in Willard Straight Theatre, which Berloff hopes to attend.

“I felt in my soul I wanted to tell this story,” she said of the movie, an adaptation of the DC/Vertigo comic book series “The Kitchen,” which tells the story of three women who take over the Irish mafia in the 1970s when their mobster husbands are sent to jail. “But I had more to share than what I had written on the page.” So, instead of just agreeing to write the screenplay, she pitched herself to Warner Brothers/New Line Cinema execs as the director.

Berloff, a theatre major, took a directing class from Professor David Feldshuh in performing and media arts. Feldshuh was a mentor to her, she said, and she uses the foundational knowledge from that class in her work. She learned more about the intricacies of directing from her 15-year career in film.

"I remember Andrea as a very smart, hard-working student who was determined to master directing techniques that could ignite theatrical moments in a narrative,” Feldshuh said. “She has  acquisitive imagination, capable of finding dramatic connections and sculpting stories from a jumble of facts that might overwhelm a less skillful writer. I’m delighted to be able to celebrate Andrea’s success. She’s earned it."

Berloff, left, with 'Kitchen' stars Tiffany Haddish, center and Melissa McCarthy, right (Photo provided)

Shortly after graduating from Cornell, Berloff headed to New York City, where she worked as a temp paralegal and sought out acting and producing jobs. But she never felt it was the right fit for her, so she headed to Los Angeles and tried her hand at screenwriting.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, but I think there are pros and cons to that,” she said. “I got one screenwriting book early on called ‘How to Write a Movie in 21 days.’ It was kind of ridiculous, “ she said. “But I did a lot of studying of Greek plays and Shakespeare and so I know the basics. Good storytelling comes from those two models.”

Her liberal arts and sciences education also helped, she said. “I think having a diversity of educational experiences is imperative to being an interesting storyteller,” she said. “I wanted the opportunity to study archeology, Spanish, literature and a million other things. That’s why I went to Cornell to get a BA and not a BFA.”

Her screenwriting career took off in 2006 with her script, “World Trade Center,” earning her a place on Variety Magazine’s list of 10 screenwriters to watch. More success came when she was tapped to co-write “Straight Outta Compton” in 2015.

The “Kitchen” script came at a time when she was questioning her future, Berloff said.

“I was definitely at a place where I was starting to feel frustrated about what I thought I could achieve as a woman, what opportunities I would be able to create for myself,” she said about the scarcity of female leaders in the industry. “But things have definitely changed in the last 18 months. People realize they need to hire more women.”

Still, there’s a need for the public to step up and support female filmmakers.

“It is really all about buying tickets and showing up,” she said of recent movies such as “Booksmart,” directed by Olivia Wilde, which had a disappointing $9 million opening weekend in May. “If you care about seeing women behind the camera, you need to support their movies.”

For Berloff, she is already on to her next project and looking forward to more opportunities to direct, as well as write.

“I’ve just had a lovely run of things, being able to work on and write movies that I value and that I would want to see,” she said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t have to be super weighty or important, but I’ve got to believe that it’s entertaining and fun.”

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Andrea Berloff directing on set of "The Kitchen"