“The Crueler My Friends Are, the Funnier I Think They Are”: Emerald Fennell on Saltburn
“I wanted to make something about a desire so intense that it destroys everything around it,” says Oscar-winning writer-director Emerald Fennell of Saltburn, her opulent sophomore psychodrama about class, obsession and longing set in an English countryside estate. “That locust cannibal obsession that I think we’ve all felt about someone that makes you completely lose your fucking mind.”
In Saltburn, it’s Barry Keoghan’s humble and unknowable Oxford novice Oliver Quick who feels that fixation. His object of desire and fascination is Jacob Elordi’s dreamboat Felix Catton, an upper-class cool guy who welcomes Oliver into his inner circle, and later, to his family’s summer estate in Saltburn. His parents—played by Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant—as well as an array of peculiar characters (residents and guests played by the likes of Carey Mulligan, Archie Madekwe and Sadie Soverall) also accept Oliver during his extended stay, but not without a cringey dash of savior-ism they dwell in with all the privileges they possess.
In many ways, Saltburn is a lushly twisty thriller adjacent to The Talented Mr. Ripley, a wicked and stylish genre exercise through which Fennell freely stretches her filmmaking muscles to further extremes after her striking debut, Promising Young Woman. It’s also a testament to Fennell’s big and bold vision, one that proves the confidence she’s put forth with her first feature was no coincidence.
Below, Fennell discusses her latest film’s relationship to genre, her collaboration with her cast and DP Linus Sandgren, her instincts towards writing characters non-judgmentally and the time period of the aughts she purposely chose for Saltburn where “everything looks a bit like shit.” Saltburn opens in select theaters from Amazon Studios and MGM this Friday, November 17 and expands nationwide November 22, 2023.
Filmmaker: There’s a great tradition of gothic mystery-thrillers set in outlandish estates. Was that a way for you into your story?
Fennell: I love to look at genre—not just my relationship with it, but an audience’s relationship with it. The more familiar we are with a genre, the more fun it is to make it uncanny and uncomfortable, and push its emotional, physical and structural boundaries to extremes. I love genre and an important part for me is to always be in dialogue with the things that have come before. We all come with our own library of references and that is something worth interrogating.
Also, from an emotional standpoint, I don’t know that we often see the kind of [human] stuff that is embarrassing, degrading, intimate and not picturesque. It’s not too beautiful, people rubbing up against each other, hairless and sweatless. The more complicated stuff we wouldn’t want anyone to know that we even thought about or did is [a lot of what interested me]. I wrote Saltburn during COVID, when we couldn’t even be in the same room together, let alone touch each other, let alone lick each other. This is a film really about not being able to touch. Now, especially, we have an extra complicated relationship with bodily fluids.
Filmmaker: It sounds like you wanted to let loose, unleash a beast we all have in ourselves that was so oppressed during lockdown.
Fennell: That certainly felt like one of the motives. There’s nothing that is more of a rigid structure than the British country house and the aristocracy, nothing more impenetrable. So yes, to unleash the viscerally human into that arena was so much of it. And Barry is just such a pleasure to work with, because he’s like me. He just wants to get under your skin. A very kind girl said, after she saw the film a few weeks ago, “I feel like you put your hand inside my body and rummaged around my organs.” And I said, “God, put it on the poster.” I think that’s what you can do with cinema.
Filmmaker: And in your cinema, you think big and epic, even when telling a smaller-scaled story like in the great Promising Young Woman.
Fennell: I think we are living in a world where subtlety is the only artistic medium that is rewarded. It’s not to say that I don’t [love subtle art], but there is also room for the gothic and the baroque. To always be dealing in subtext is inhuman, because we don’t live in a world of subtext. This is a gothic movie, and the gothic is supernatural to a point. And even if that supernatural element is less straightforward, I still think you want to make something that is strange and troubling and beautiful, and you can use mise-en-scene to [to tell the story] say as much as dialogue. That’s all just so exciting to me.
So much of what we see now is so frictionless, so smooth, so consistent. And I feel like cinema—without being so grandiose and pompous that I want to dash my face against the wall—is designed to be watched in a dark room of strangers, and it can be expressive, it can be to some degree metaphorical. When I look at the people (filmmakers) that I love, when I look at David Lynch or Kubrick, these are people who are making films that I feel in my body.
Filmmaker: Why did you pick the aughts to set your movie in?
Fennell: For the most part, the film is set in the summer of 2007. When we shot it, 2007 was exactly 15 years before. And 15 years is a really crucial time period, particularly if you’re making a film like this, because it’s not back in fashion. It’s not cool. Everything looks super lame. And when you’re dealing with the most beautiful people in the world, there’s nothing more humanizing than being the richest, most gorgeous person in the world and still having the worst fake tan and most embarrassing tattoo and badly shaped jeans.
If it was set now, everyone would just feel gorgeous and cool. We don’t yet know what are the things now that in 15 years’ time, people are going to say, “Oh my God, can you believe it?” Is it going to be the shape of our nails? Is it going to be our eyebrows? We don’t know, because we’re all so deep in it. Also because of the nature of this genre, a young man is looking over a time of his life that ground everything to a standstill. That meant they could never quite get on with the rest of their lives. And that’s the go-between, like in Rebecca, Brideshead Revisited and Atonement. So, that was a necessary part of the structure and genre. This film needed to happen in the past, and I was trying to very specifically find the past that was not going to be sexy, because it’s humanizing.
Filmmaker: Yes, this time period is the perfect limbo in a way.
Fennell: Yeah, it’s shit. Everything looks a bit like shit. Also, summer 2007 was the last time in England you could smoke inside. Nothing will make something period quicker than seeing someone smoke a cigarette in a pub.
Filmmaker: Smoking—bad in real life, but so cinematic on the screen.
Fennell: It’s always a character choice. These characters, the age they are, the social strata they belong to—they completely believe that they’re impervious to disease, that they’re immortal. Everything that they do, whether it’s drugs, sex, drinking, smoking, it’s like nothing can touch them. Felix’s chain-smoking is just a total disdain for his own wellbeing. There’s an important moment early on in their friendship where Oliver says, “I don’t smoke,” then we immediately see that he’s taken up smoking because Felix is lighting a cigarette. He’ll hurt himself too if he needs to.
Filmmaker: You have such style and a sense of humor with costume design and production design. I can’t get over that tiny TV in the giant house.
Fennell: Well, I’m obsessed. The detail is everything. The thing is that you have to make a thousand decisions a day. Every single decision can be added value to the characters, to the film, to everything.
[Points to a cup she’s holding]: So, I’ve been given this lovely cup, with this background, to go, to drink my coffee in. I wouldn’t in my everyday life. But if this was the film, there would be a conversation about the 38 different cups we could have. For example, Richard E. Grant had a chipped mug that said, “His Lordship” on it. It was obviously a joke that somebody had given to him. And for me, the details are funny, like the Livestrong bracelet.
We spend so much time not just looking at color, but like, how does light absorb velvet versus silk? How does the wallpaper in the bathroom mimic both smoke and muscle? How do we make a place feel masculine but beautiful, and dark and creepy but unbearably sexy? The art department eventually had what they called “Emerald’s table of shit,” because what I can’t bear is something to be too perfect and beautiful that it’s inhuman. So, it’s always about filling that bathroom with rubber ducks and clothes on the floor, or having cheap shampoo. The thing about this family is that they’re not going to have shampoo that costs 30 pounds a bottle. That’d be absurd to them. And, as you say, the small TV [in] the room that they all live in, even though the house has 127 rooms.
Filmmaker: I love the way you wrote the Cattons. I loved them sometimes, found them grating other times. They were so unaware of their privilege, acting like they’re these saviors. But there is enough sympathy there too. How did you find that balance?
Fennell: As a writer and director, the first thing you have to do away with is any moral feeling. I can’t make any moral judgments on characters in the same way that I don’t make moral judgments on my friends. The crueler my friends are, the funnier I think they are, and I don’t particularly think I’m a nice person. I would hope I am, but I know that I’m probably not, and that’s important to acknowledge. We all think of ourselves as good and probably there are at least a handful of people in our lives that really don’t think we are, whether it’s our own mother or our child or close friend, or somebody who we work with, or [a] person we once interacted with and don’t even remember the way we were cruel to them.
There is no tension if you don’t first have a tension within a character, and that tension is about their own self-delusion. [The] Cattons should be like Saltburn itself. The audience need to understand why you would want to be there, even though it’s absurd to care about these stupid made-up rules. They have been brought up to be disarmingly charming. “Disarming” was the word that we used all the time. It means it takes someone’s power away. The thing about someone like Elspeth, and why Rosamund Pike’s performance is so merciless and deft and brilliant, is Elspeth knows what people assume about her and she plays with that. She is giving a performance herself. And how could anyone resist Felix, who we are told from the get-go is a dick? Oliver is looking at him resentfully, and then will give him anything he wants. That’s the game of the film. We all want to go there. We all want to lick the bathtub. We all want them to love us back. It’s crucial that they have a savior complex, that this is a vampire movie and they’re sucking the life out people just as much as Oliver is.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about Barry Keoghan. I think he is one of the best actors working today. He has a performative edge to his character, too. How did you work with him to craft Oliver?
Fennell: Well, I think he’s just exceptional, not just now but for all time—someone like Robert Mitchum is a good comparison. There are actors who have a thing that nobody else has had before, and I think Barry has that. Oliver is our first person narrator, but the more we find out, the less we know about him, and that’s the performer Barry is. He says everything and nothing. He’s so extraordinarily charismatic and surprising. When it comes to the stuff in this movie that is sort of a bit more visceral, he’s like, “I want to make something we both want to get inside of.” The weird thing when you’re making a film is, [I felt like] I’m Oliver. I’ve been Oliver for seven years. He’s been in my mind. And then suddenly Barry comes and Barry’s Oliver, too, and we have this strange telepathy. It was the same with Felix and Jacob.
There were moments here when we knew there was only one way of doing things, and the most complicated, difficult, excruciating, funny, perverse thing was going to be the thing that we were interested in. And Jacob is, I think again, a once in a lifetime. It’s easy to underestimate how difficult his part is, how easily he could have just been a cipher. But Jacob gives Felix so much nuance and specificity: capricious and spoiled and adorable and gorgeous and a piece of shit. A person who is so beguiling, whose charm is so intense that the audience, as well as Oliver, is ready to do anything. It’s a very interesting supplicant position for all of us to be in that Jacob puts us in really hard.
Filmmaker: You are working with Linus Sandgren here, one of my favorite cinematographers. What went into the decision of shooting this within the Academy ratio?
Fennell: The aspect ratio is a combination of so many things. We went to the house. The house is so tall and square that we knew immediately that to shoot anamorphic was going to slice it in all the wrong ways. You’ve got the practical consideration that Jacob and Archie are six foot five, and you can’t really do two shots standing if you are shooting on a wider lens. And all of the references Linus and I had—as much as we were using cinema, we were using paintings, and they tended to be portraits. To do that formal framing, if you’re looking at Caravaggio or lighting in a Joshua Reynolds and that kind of blocking, it is so much easier the more square you are. And I like extreme closeups, especially when you’re talking about sex and intimacy and inhuman beauty. If you’re 1.33, you can have a full face. It can fill the frame completely.