Last Call: Writer/Director Emerald Fennell on Promising Young Woman
“This movie is a tribute to the many genres I love—thrillers, rom-coms, horror,” says writer/director Emerald Fennell about her searing and fiercely confident debut feature, Promising Young Woman. “It’s a dark satire of those genres.”
It’s also, says Fennell, a Western of sorts—a continually surprising movie about a woman on a journey of justice. Self-styled vigilante Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is a medical school dropout determined to teach entitled male predators a life lesson, a calling that honors the life of her best friend Nina, victim to a horrific case of sexual assault years earlier. An actor whose credits include The Crown and the head writer of season two of Killing Eve, Fennell hopes her film will be recognized as one dealing with men, women and the empathy gap that can lie between them as opposed to a fleeting political story or polemic in the wake of overdue movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp. “A lot of the stuff that we’re talking about here is regrettably ordinary, run of the mill,” she explains. “I wasn’t looking at villains [with] out-of-the-ordinary behavior.”
Like everyone else, Fennell was caught off guard by the ongoing pandemic, which delayed the theatrical release of her film (distributed by Focus Features) from April to late December 2020. But she moved past that initial disappointment quickly, and both Fennell and Mulligan are figuring in the ’21 awards race. (Fennell received Best Screenplay from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, as well as a Promising Filmmaker award from the Chicago Film Critics Association.) “This is such an enormous global event with so many awful repercussions [that] you get over work stuff, even if it is about your film, very quickly,” she reflects. “I was lucky. I was in England with my family because I was working on Cinderella, the West End musical, with Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Zippel. My husband, our baby and I lived with my family in the countryside in England for four months. I was back in my childhood bedroom working. I’m just really grateful [for that].”
Conversing with Filmmaker recently via Zoom, Fennell discusses the making of Promising Young Woman, staying honest and practical on the page and how she pulled off such a seamless blend of genres and tones.
Filmmaker: I’m so glad that you stayed away from the clichéd rape-revenge thriller tropes. It’s more complex to make the story ultimately about justice instead of revenge.
Fennell: The movies and TV shows I was really interested in aren’t necessarily revenge thrillers. They are comedies, often rom-coms or sitcoms, where we see every single thing [that is] in this movie but framed from the male protagonist’s POV. It’s treated as a joke: the faceless women at nightclubs, on dates, in bed. I [thought], “What happens to that woman, the date-girl number three, when she’s walking home the next morning?” What is so useful about the revenge genre is, we’re all very familiar with it, [even] going back to biblical times—vengeance and justice. It’s useful as a filmmaker and storyteller to have tropes an audience is familiar with that you can subvert. Promising Young Woman is about taking people on a journey that they think they know, but they never quite do—I hope. That was the idea, that you don’t know where any scene is going or what the outcome will be.
Filmmaker: The opening sequence is a perfect encapsulation of this. We think something gruesome has happened, but then realize Cassie is just eating a hot dog. How do you handle seamlessly shuffling among tones and genres and making sure you aren’t leaning too much on one or the other?
Fennell: The root of [Promising Young Woman] was, “If one of these things we see or hear about happened to me or somebody I loved, what would I do?” So, I looked at how a real, ordinary and middle class woman would enact this kind of revenge. The [image] that first came into my head was Cassie on the bed drunk, saying, “What are you doing?” And as her knickers have been taken down, sitting up sober and saying, “What are you doing?”
That was the whole film for me. I knew it almost immediately. The way I work is—and it’s so helpful with directing, too—the whole thing gets written in my head before I put pen to paper. I work it all in my head, then write it all down. That means it’s visually locked in, too. I think that really helped with what you’re describing with the tone and all that.
As a first-time filmmaker on a low budget with limited days, I had to think practically. In order to get the kind of actors I [wanted] to work with and to give [the movie] as much value as [possible], I needed standout moments where people only needed to come in for a day or a scene. I find [these] parameters helpful. My brain gets scattershot if the world is my oyster.
Filmmaker: It’s provocative that you investigate rape culture as a whole. In addition to male predators, you have key female characters who are complicit.
Fennell: No matter what kind of movie you’re making, you’re striving to get down into the bones of something—you want it to resonate with people. In order to do that, the only place you can look is yourself. The first thing was [doing] my own moral inventory, which was impossible because we’re all so flawed. But I couldn’t kid myself that this [complicity] among young women was unusual in our culture. The kind of arguments that some of these characters [make] are arguments that a lot of people have made. So, I had to go back and think [if] there have been times when I could’ve spoken up more, been more helpful, asked more questions.
This is a movie about love more than anything, and Carey felt the same way. It’s [also] about forgiveness and redemption. I feel very strongly that you can only have redemption if you [can] admit to what you’ve done and apologize for it. That is so complicated in a world where so many things have been allowed to go on for so long, have been laughed at and made jokes [about]. Many people at first said, “Oh my god, this stuff is so terrible. I can’t believe X-Y-Z happens in this movie.” But I don’t believe anyone who’s been in the world has not heard stories [like these], has not known something that happened.
You’ve got to at least try to be honest. Obviously, the men are committing the bulk of the crimes [here], which is probably the truth with every crime in the world, but it’s not [entirely] gendered.
Filmmaker: When I first watched this movie at Sundance, I couldn’t help but think about certain real-world male predators excused by society to preserve their “promising” futures. I love how brilliantly the title of your film subverts this.
Fennell: The title is a steer for the audience about what kind of movie this is. It is an ironic title in many ways. It also isn’t because I hope she is promising to us as audience members. It is promising to me to see someone ask these questions. An interesting thing is the number of people who worked on this film [who] abbreviated it to “PYM.” I get “PYM” emails all the time. Somebody made [that] typo in quite an important file. It just goes to show how ingrained it is: Men are described as promising when they want to get away with something. Women are described as promising when they’re dead.
Filmmaker: Was there a specific event in the world or in your or a loved one’s life that was an entry point for you into the themes of Promising Young Woman?
Fennell: I was thinking about the kinds of films I loved, dark comedies and such. Tonally, that’s where I wanted to be. And [that’s] why we have the kind of opening that you described [earlier]. Or even before that, the opening shot of men in chinos gyrating in slow motion to Charli XCX’s “Boys” in a really tragic way. It was just establishing right from the get-go that this is funny. You have to laugh because it’s so awful and so endemic that actually I don’t know how else to have these conversations. And certainly, all these movies that are so inspiring—like To Die For or the [films of the] Coen brothers or even movies like Heavenly Creatures, The Shining—they are heightened but very real, troubling, familiar yet unfamiliar.
Filmmaker: Your costuming and production design truly speaks to this. We are in a whimsical, candy-colored environment juxtaposed against deeply serious themes. For instance, despite being someone whose life is on hold, Cassie wears sweetly hopeful outfits.
Fennell: We have this misconception that what we’re seeing is what we’re getting. Particularly with women, that isn’t the case. A lot of women’s lives, a lot of people’s lives, actually, [are not] candy colored, [though when you] look at Instagram, people go out of their way to make it look shiny. With Cassie, that is exponentially [the case]. Those two things might not be a juxtaposition, actually. When you’re feeling your worst, you often dress up. You try to better things. Horrible things happen in beautiful places. Horrible thoughts are in the minds of beautiful people.
We all feel that [ugly] things have to look ugly. But I don’t think that’s true. If you look at the casting of this movie, the kind of male predators [in it] are the heartthrobs that we love. With Cassie, yes, her clothes are hopeful. But in other ways, [they are not]. What I said to Nancy Steiner, the ridiculously talented and brilliant costume designer who did The Virgin Suicides and [recently] Twin Peaks was, “I don’t want somebody in gray with no makeup looking sad. What I want is a woman unbelievably adept at hiding.” It’s like anyone engaged in self-harm or addictive behavior. Cassie has spiraling addictive behavior. It is the classic loop: You feel bad, you do the thing, you feel better, then you feel worse. It’s the journey she’s been on for such a long time. And she’s become very good at functioning, doing [her] hair and putting on makeup, wearing soft, inviting, beautiful clothes because [then] nobody’s going to ask too many questions.
Michael Perry was [our production designer]. He is such a genius; he did It Follows. One of his first jobs was the Sweet Valley High TV show, which I grew up with. When we first met, I said to him that he’s responsible for millennial pink because every woman my age who grew up with that show knows the pastels, the softness, the aggressive femininity of it. He was just the perfect person to create this misleadingly safe and pretty world.
Filmmaker: There’s also a kind of period unspecificity to it. I felt that similar timeless texture in It Follows, too.
Fennell: That was a deliberate choice. We felt very strongly that we actually shot it in LA for Ohio. We’re probably the first production that did that [and not] the other way around. We wanted was it to feel timeless and also placeless. One of the things I said early on to locations is, “This is not [just] any town, it’s your town.” It’s in the same way that Cassie wears different outfits to go to different clubs and attracts different men. I didn’t want anyone to say, “Well, of course this happens in LA, in New York, Las Vegas, the city of sin or whatever.” Michael is so good at, as you say, texture. He’s so good at being on the right side of uncanny.
Filmmaker: Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography is also astonishing. You feel like you’re in the real world but also surrounded by an otherworldly, dreamy layer.
Fennell: He is just the most amazing DP. I’d [previously] worked with him briefly. Often, it’s a chemistry thing. You get a sense of what [someone is] going to be like to work with. In order for a film like this to work, we were going to have to stretch the budget and add value in every way we could. Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted. It’s not enough to turn up on the day and write your shot list. [You need to] get it done in the way you want it, and try and make it look like a movie. You’ve got to just plan it meticulously. Poor Ben was tormented by me daily, hourly, nightly.
We used Steadicam very sparingly, only in the rom-com scenes with Cassie and Ryan. We wanted those to have a new surface—you suddenly get the feeling that things are opening up. The rest of the movie is quite contained and austere. I remember the first day we got out the Steadicam, I was like, “Oh my god. This would’ve been so much easier.” [Laughs]. We were usually locked on a dolly.
Filmmaker: You really do have a cinematic look. There is grain and texture even though you didn’t shoot on film.
Fennell: [We shot with Alexa] and Panavision G Series lenses. The lenses we chose were degraded deliberately, scratched a bit so that you’d have this sense of peering through a window. That’s so difficult [with] digital: Everything often looks the same. You don’t have that thing, which is shooting through a silk stocking to make it look beautiful. That is important when you’re watching a movie; you want a sense of [physical] detachment [while being] emotionally invested. But you also want to know that somebody’s made a deliberate decision at every stage, [not] quickly or cheaply. And Ben is incredibly generous, letting me interfere with all of that. It was a real joy.
Filmmaker: I understand the appeal of shooting in L.A. thematically. Were there any other incentives or particular hardships of shooting there?
Fennell: At the time, I was between Killing Eve and The Crown. I was also very pregnant. Because my husband and I lived in L.A., the producers made a brilliant call. But also we could get the kind of cast we were looking for. If you need [an actor] to just do one scene, flying somewhere for little money is a big ask. Whereas if a car can take them 20 minutes away from where they live, that is a different prospect.
I bet everywhere would have their own constraints and huge pluses. But I suppose it was tough financially—it’s much more expensive, [being the] city where the industry is based. I don’t believe we got any tax breaks. Your dollar does not go as far, for many reasons. But you also have amazing people. I loved it. As a movie nerd, as somebody obsessed [with cinema], I didn’t really expect my first film to be shot in Los Angeles with a team like this. It was just so overwhelmingly exciting. Just having the Hollywood sign looking over you is magical. It has stardust. You can’t deny it.
Filmmaker: Speaking of your producers, it’s an impressive list that includes Margot Robbie. How did she come on board?
Fennell: I met Josey [McNamara] and Tom [Ackerley], the producers at LuckyChap [Entertainment], along with Margot. I’d met them a few years before for a TV show that I’d written. They were so impressive, clever, cool and lovely. When I was writing Promising Young Woman and pitching around town, they were among the first people I wanted to see. Their roster speaks for itself. They were able to get Promising Young Woman made so fast because they’re just practical. And Margot is just an exceptionally brilliant person, so wise. And she gives brilliant notes. They want to make interesting and surprising stuff; they know that’s what people are looking for. I think Margot is as talented a producer as she is an actress, which is saying something because she is world class at both.
Filmmaker: This is among Carey Mulligan’s career-best performances. She has a certain blend of strength and vulnerability that fits so well here.
Fennell: What I wanted for Cassie was somebody that we wouldn’t expect. Carey is an old-fashioned genius. There’s something so enigmatic about her. She’s very private. I wanted somebody [who] would bring that kind of center to this movie. Our process was just talking, talking, laughing. She’s an incredibly funny, clever and kind person. She just felt it immediately. She would be generous and say I had a huge amount to do with it, but actually, I think once she’d read it, she knew who Cassie was. Sometimes, I would push her to do more. But generally, we just listened to a lot of Paris Hilton [and] talked. We were close and trusting. You want all of your actors to know you’re not going to fuck them over. For me, the only way of getting the performances I [want] is creating a space where people feel they could play around for an element of surprise.
Carey [was] in the room all the time. She eats lunch with everyone. She’s a member of the team properly, which makes a huge difference. As an actress, she’s so in it when the camera is rolling that it’s seamless. It’s like watching someone being possessed, like a sleepwalker.
Filmmaker: I don’t want to spoil this film for readers, but I do want to talk about your bold decisions about major character twists and that dark ending. It’s a powerful and provocative place to take the story.
Fennell: In very general terms, I wanted to write an ending that felt true to the character and the world. If you’re going to make a film about this subject matter, the last thing you want, and the worst thing that could happen, is everyone leaves the theater and says, “That was great.” It all goes back to writing, being as honest as I could be. If this genre is one that relies on violence, it was important to me that the moment an actual weapon was introduced, that weapon is used in a way that it would be used under those circumstances.
[I was] trying to give the audience a sense of what the stakes were; how high and steep the mountain seems. The whole thing about this movie is how impossible and harrowing [Cassie’s] life has become because she’s refused to roll over, and how easy it would be to just get on with it. We all have parents and friends who [would say], “If you just maybe forgot….” Here’s one road [of] daisies, sunsets and skipping around. And the other road [is] made of fire, your feet are bleeding. Nobody in their right mind would take the road on fire unless they know that they’re right. That was important to me, that we get a sense of what justice looks like and how far away we still are from it.
[The ending] owes [a lot to] the discussions in the beginning. But [it’s] really interesting that it was the last third of the movie that made people want to make it—every actor and head of department—because they felt it.
Filmmaker: Was that climactic bachelor party scene between Cassie and Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) difficult to shoot?
Fennell: It was really tough, but we all trusted each other. [That particular scene] is shot in real time. I feel very strongly that if you’re going to show violence, particularly violence against women, the very least you can do is not shy away from what that is. Don’t make it titillating. It’s much more grotesque to treat it glibly or draw a veil over it. I asked my father-in-law, a retired policeman, how long it would take [for that particular scene]. He said two and a half minutes. So, it’s just over a two-and-a-half minute shot. Chris gave such a committed performance. My direction was, “You absolutely think you’re a good person. You’re about to marry the woman of your life, and this woman from the past that you don’t even remember shows up. In another movie, we would be cheering as [you] do what [you do]. But this is your fault.” He had to believe it.