AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Andrea Berloff is best known as the Oscar-nominated screenwriter for "Straight Outta Compton." Now she's making her directorial debut with "The Kitchen." It's a mob movie set in 1970s Hell's Kitchen - only this time, the women are in charge.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KITCHEN")
MELISSA MCCARTHY: (As Kathy Brennan) This neighborhood has been family-run since we got to America. This is our land, and this door is your birthright. And if anybody screws with that, we will deal with them.
CORNISH: That's Kathy Brennan, played by Melissa McCarthy. Kathy's husband and other Irish gangsters running the neighborhood have been sent to prison. There's no money. So Kathy links up with two other women to take over.
I spoke with Berloff the other day, and I started by asking her about the themes you see most often in movies about the mob.
ANDREA BERLOFF: Gangster movies have a certain element of escapism in them about people taking power, getting power back, giving power, demanding power. So there is a certain amount of fun to be had through all of that. There's a certain amount of violence to be had, and there's a certain amount of working out of our society's problems - the push and pull of the issues of the day. I think that those are always common in gangster movies.
CORNISH: Right, but you work them out without the institutions - right? - without the cops, without the judges, without the law.
BERLOFF: Right. We handle problems on our own.
CORNISH: We often see the women in those movies on the sidelines. They may or may not be complicit. But I haven't seen characters explored like this maybe since "The Sopranos." Can you talk about that? I don't think I have seen the role of women in this world explored since that show.
BERLOFF: Well, that's great. Thank you. You know, I think we are living in a little bit of an experiment - is what I've been calling it - the idea that we are finally allowed to make a few movies that explore women's stories. I think there's a huge breadth of women's experiences that I think audiences would love to experience, but they're going to have to, you know, be a demand to see these movies in theaters.
CORNISH: The character of Kathy is actually the granddaughter of a gangster as well. And there's another intriguing character - Elisabeth Moss. She plays the character of Claire. This is a character who suffers from a lot of abuse from the men in her life. But when she reaches the moment where she is, quote, unquote, "saved," she's not exactly happy about it. And I wanted to talk to you about that moment 'cause I think maybe that's the kind of moment lots of women experience sitting in the theater where they think, oh, she got saved.
BERLOFF: Right. The complexity of that moment is that she got saved, but she couldn't save herself. She needed somebody physically stronger than her to save herself and how frustrating...
CORNISH: But that used to be a given. That used to be expected and OK and embraced and part of love stories.
BERLOFF: Right. And it is a part of her complex love story, but it is also really upsetting sometimes to not be able to do things like that for yourself. And part of her journey is to acknowledge that she hasn't been able to take care of herself as fully as she would've liked and that she figures out how to do just that.
CORNISH: You've said that there's a little bit of you in each of these women. What are some of those parts?
BERLOFF: Well, I think in Kathy, Melissa McCarthy's character - I think what I and my friends would relate to is the idea of, you know, a mother who's also struggling to have a career and trying to take care of her family. And you know, how do you express your power when you're also having to run around after kids on a playground, right?
I think the character of Ruby, Tiffany Haddish's character - she's pretty quiet most of the movie, and then you realize by the end that she's got quite some plans going on. And I think the idea that a lot of women will, you know, sit quietly in the office and observe - and people walk right past them, but you kind of have no idea what's brewing behind those eyes.
And with Claire - her character, I keep saying, experiences every emotion that a human being can have, whether it's grief or loss or love or longing or hope or excitement. And I think the idea that, you know, everybody wants to have that moment where you have an experience that you really find yourself and you know who you are, and you have love, and you have your job, and you have everything, and life is just working right - that's the goal for everyone. So I just tried to break down different women's experiences amongst the three characters.
CORNISH: How did you begin to come into your own power? Is there a moment in your career or an anecdote you can think of where you realized that you didn't have to be in the background?
BERLOFF: Well, I would say this - that I don't know that there was one specific moment, but through the writing of "Straight Outta Compton," I can tell you why I got that job, and maybe that was the moment.
You know, on paper, it's not obvious that I would be hired to write "Straight Outta Compton." Let's be clear. But I went in with a different approach. When they were hiring writers, I said, this is not a biopic about a band. This is a big movie about First Amendment rights and police abuse, freedom of speech - all these big ideas wrapped up in a really great story of - with fun music. So you can have a really fun night out at the movies, but then you can also give people something to chew over on the way home.
And the reason I went in - number one, that's the real - what I really believed with the story. But number two, I realized you're not going to get anywhere unless you take big swings. You've got to take big swings. If I write a movie or make a movie like everybody else's movie, why are they going to go see it? What's special about me and my voice, and what do I have to say?
And so the experience of going in and pitching "Compton" and getting that job because I had taken a very big swing, I think, was a turning point for me, realizing I don't have to write like everybody else. I don't have to direct like everybody else. I have to do what I think is right and what I think is entertaining. And hopefully, audiences will come along.
CORNISH: Do you mind if I ask kind of what your parents did growing up? You grew up in Massachusetts.
BERLOFF: Sure. My mother had a career as an advocate for people with disabilities, so she eventually ran the Massachusetts Office on Disabilities, where she was responsible for the Americans with Disabilities Act in the state - for enforcing it. And my dad was an attorney.
CORNISH: You speak with the forcefulness of both, kind of...
CORNISH: ...To be frank.
BERLOFF: Thanks, Mom and Dad.
CORNISH: Yeah. I mean, is - was that always the case? Did you grow up kind of with a very intense personality, or did you, like - it seems like you're built for directing or running something.
BERLOFF: Well, thanks. You know, I think I grew up with a mother who was passionate about civil rights and advocacy for people who needed advocacy. And so I think that's probably always going to be in my DNA in some way.
CORNISH: What have they thought of your films?
BERLOFF: They love it. Are you kidding? I have two Jewish parents. They're dying. They're so excited.
CORNISH: (Laughter) Did they expect you to make gangster films? You make violent films.
BERLOFF: I think that they have gotten used to my body of work over the years. Let's put it that way.
CORNISH: (Laughter) Have you said, huh, I think I need to do a comedy?
BERLOFF: Well, listen. Let's be clear. I have written many things over the years. And by the way, most of them have been, you know, male protagonist at front and center because nobody wanted female protagonist at front and center.
BERLOFF: So you know, hopefully - truly. So hopefully, the world is opening up and we can tell all sorts of different stories moving forward.
CORNISH: Does this mean you have a stack of scripts under the bed with female protagonists?
BERLOFF: I don't because, you know, there were many years where there was almost no point in writing them.
CORNISH: Really? See, I always think, like, oh, maybe you might write them and then just switch the gender. But you're saying, like, even as a writer, the message to you was, like, don't bother.
BERLOFF: Don't bother. And if you want to - you know, I need to work for a living. So if you want to work for a living, let's not waste time. Let's write what's - somebody's going to pay me for.
CORNISH: Do you think people are going to pay you to write women now?
BERLOFF: Well, I certainly hope so. But I will say this, and I mean this sincerely. You know, a couple of female-driven movies have not worked this summer - have not made money at the box office. Let's put it that way. It's not even about the quality of the film. And I had a president of a studio say to me 10 days ago, we're not going to make any more of these kinds of movies.
So if people don't start going to the theater to see female-driven content - and you know, Hollywood is a business. That means you got to go buy a ticket. If people don't go do that, there aren't going to be more of these movies. So I think we're living in a moment that, you know, studios are taking a swing. And let's hope it works.
CORNISH: Well, Andrea Berloff, I hope you keep taking big swings.
BERLOFF: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEETWOOD MAC SONG, "THE CHAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.