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Boiling Point: kitchen nightmares

Much to the dismay of popcorn lovers everywhere, there are a lot of third-rate movies about the culinary world out there. Then came the British drama Boiling Point, which will go down in cinematic history as a stand-out film in its genre.

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    Nora Bouazzouni
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Much to the dismay of popcorn lovers everywhere, there are a lot of third-rate movies about the culinary world out there. Then came the British drama Boiling Point, the latest feature film from actor and director Philip Barantini (best known for his roles in Band of Brothers and Chernobyl), which will go down in cinematic history as a stand-out film in its genre. In this immersive single-shot movie, filmed in a prestigious London restaurant, Stephen Graham puts on a phenomenal performance as an alcoholic, hot-tempered chef surrounded by a team of individuals collectively on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The director and his lead actor sat down with Le Fooding to discuss their recipe for this semi-autobiographical film.

Philip, you used to work in the restaurant industry. Did you personally experience everything that happens in this film?

Philip Barantini: I was an actor for twenty-five years. During that time, I needed to make money because I wasn’t that successful at it. I started working in kitchens because I was so passionate about food. My grandfather was a chef and my cousin is also a chef. It was always in my blood, you know? I worked everywhere from small independent places to Michelin star restaurants, and then gradually became a head chef after ten years in the business. I worked in the industry for fifteen years in total. I’d wanted to direct for many, many years, and in 2018 I made a short film, which eventually became Boiling Point. Everything that’s in the movie was based on something that I personally witnessed: what it’s like working in a kitchen, the customers, the celebrity chefs, the Instagram influencers… The only thing that I didn’t personally witness was the racism experienced by the character Andrea, the waitress played by Lauryn Ajufo. I really wanted to shine a light on that because I know it happens. I sat down with Lauryn and we talked about it for hours, it was important to me that every moment in the movie be believable. By giving the viewer a peak behind the scenes into the world of hospitality, Boiling Point tackles societal issues: racism, mental health, or even addiction, something I’ve personally struggled with. If someone who works in a professional kitchen watches my film and says “wow, I see myself in that character” or “I know somebody who is going through that, maybe I should reach out and see if they’re ok,” I would consider my work a success.

Especially since realistic representations of this particular professional environment are quite rare on the silver screen.

Philip Barantini: The restaurant world, as it’s portrayed in Hollywood movies and on television, is always glamorized and idealized… But I think the hospitality world is so ripe for being put on film because it’s never been done in a believable way. I showed this world as real and gritty, based on what I’ve personally witnessed in my fifteen years in the industry. Some people, chefs in particular, might watch the film and go, “that’s not what it’s like anymore.” But it is.

Do you think the film will help the restaurant industry move forward by raising public awareness about the issue of kitchen violence?

Philip Barantini: If you’ve worked in hospitality, hopefully you will be able to go, “wow, I can relate to that. I understand that, it’s bringing back flashbacks.” And if you’ve only been a customer, you might go, “oh my gosh, I never knew it was like that,” or “I didn’t realize they were going through all that when they were making my beautiful meal.” A restaurant is blood, sweat and tears.

Stephen Graham: Some people are just paying for the service and don’t really care what else happens as long and their needs are being met. People have been thanking us for how truthful and real the film is. It really captured the anxiety of working in those conditions. In life, I think we need to try to be as compassionate and understanding as we possibly can. Hopefully we’re creating a model, hopefully it’s a more transparent world that we live in now, a more humane world. What we’re trying to do with Boiling Point is to hold a mirror up to a society.

It’s a very dark film. The plot focuses both on the personal anguish of the main character and the stress of a very fast-paced dinner service…

Philip Barantini: A restaurant or a bar is a cross between a small society and a family. Nine times out of ten, you’ll see that family more often than you see your real family, which also has a huge effect on people’s relationships with their loved ones. I’ve been sober for almost seven years now, but I remember when I was at my lowest point, my wife went through a terrible time back then. I wanted to drip feed all of those things that the chef has been going through into the movie: he’s suffering from addiction, he’s just broken up with his wife, he’s stopped seeing his son… It’s a dangerous moment in his life, things can’t get any worse for him.

Playing a role inspired by a friend’s life is a huge responsibility! 

Stephen Graham: The fact that some of the elements were loosely based on Philip’s life drew me to the film straight away – that, and the idea of filming it in one shot. Philip and I really wanted to make the film as real and as truthful and as authentic as possible. We’ve been good friends for over 20 years now, we’ve always kept in touch and I knew about his experience. He was very candid and honest and open about his experiences in the industry. He explained to me how stressful the job was, and at that time he was suffering from depression, drinking heavily, and taking drugs recreationally. That’s kind of socially acceptable within that environment, where you work really long, hard shifts and at the end of the day, you relax with a couple of drinks. You can find yourself in a downward spiral… Philip’s experience was invaluable to me as an actor.

Your 2018 short was filmed exclusively from the chef’s point of view. Why did you decide to include additional perspectives in the feature film?

Philip Barantini: I wanted the audience to basically be one of the staff members, like the maître d, for example, to see the cracks in people, their vulnerability – because everyone has a forward-facing mask and a private mask. Since we decided to do the feature in one take, we gave ourselves one rule: the camera was never allowed to leave a person without a reason. That was essential to creating an immersive experience, the camera couldn’t just float off to that table over there, because then you sort of take the audience out of the moment.

Very few films are filmed entirely as one continuous shot –  Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria or Alexandre Sokourov’s Russian Ark come to mind. How did you accomplish this technical challenge? 

Philip Barantini: A busy service in a restaurant is one take, you don’t get a chance to stop and break for five minutes. That’s why I think it works so well. We found the location before we started writing the script. A friend let us use their restaurant in London. I just went to the location while it was open and busy and watched how it moved and flowed. Then James Cummings (the co-writer, editor’s note) and myself started writing the script.  After that, we sort of mapped out the camera moves and brought the actors in for ten days of rehearsal. While the front-of-house guys were rehearsing, the actors who played the kitchen staff were in a real kitchen, learning how to chop things and hold a knife. I think I hired the only actors in the UK who had never worked in a restaurant before!

Stephen Graham: If I’m being honest, it was the most zen experience I’ve ever had as an actor. It was also the most challenging experience I’ve ever had, and the most rewarding. We have this philosophy and ethos of acting; great drama teachers will tell you that you have to be in the moment. And with this film, you truly have to be in the moment. There was no way you could hide, there was no second chance, there was no “let’s give it another go.” When we were filming, the collective consciousness of the experience was driving us forward like an express freight train, everyone was on the same page, all trying to achieve the same objective. The energy was tangible, it was amazing.

Philip Barantini: During filming, I always said, I’m not going to call cut, even if somebody falls over and hurts themselves. I said to the actors, just keep going. Originally, we had given ourselves four nights to shoot the whole thing, in eight different takes. But it was the beginning of the pandemic… In the end, we only had time to do four takes, and we used the third one. I didn’t have any grey hair before the movie, but now I’ve got loads!

One could argue that there are similarities between being an actor and being a professional chef, namely that both jobs require you to summon up all of your energy for a very short period of time, almost to the point of exhaustion. 

Stephen Graham: That’s a very good comparison, actually. In a way, preparing a restaurant meal is similar to preparing for a role as an actor. Before shooting, you look through the script, analyze it, do your research about the character, try to understand what your character is about… It’s a similar process for a chef: you have to know your ingredients and then be able to combine them. That’s where creativity comes into play. Finally, the food is served, it gets eaten and then it’s gone. It’s this beautiful organic process of creation and moving on to the next thing.

Interview by Nora Bouazzouni


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