Speaking backstage at London’s Barbican Center before an appearance, Emerald Fennell, the writer and director of 2020’s “Promising Young Woman” and now, the dark comedy “Saltburn,” leans into her reputation.
“I’m not trying to be deliberately contrary, but I don’t think it’s possible to make something really good and also completely digestible,” he says. “Even movies from the past that I love (the canonical, perfect movies) come back and they’re not perfect. That’s why they are so interesting. “I have been lucky that they have allowed me to do things that are not so simple.”
Frictionless is the last word you’d use to describe “Promising Young Woman,” starring Carey Mulligan as a woman on a harrowing path of revenge. Nor, despite the film’s five Oscar nominations (including an award for original screenplay), could it apply to Fennell’s own career. She had been slowly rising in Hollywood for more than a decade.
Fennell, 38, began acting on British television after graduating from Oxford, and was eventually cast as the lead in several seasons of “Call the Midwife” and as supporting characters in films such as “Anna Karenina” and “The Danish Girl.” ”. Phoebe Waller-Bridge tapped her to write the Emmy-nominated second season of “Killing Eve,” the first hint of Fennell’s darker obsessions.
But it was “Promising Young Woman,” released at the height of the #MeToo era, that fully unleashed Fennell’s cinematic instincts.
“It was terrifying,” Fennell says, recalling that she only had two weeks of preparation in Los Angeles, where she had never worked before. “I gave birth three weeks after filming finished. “I loved it, but it could have been a disaster.”
This was not the case. His awards success offered him the opportunity to make another unusual film with more time and a bigger budget.
“I told my lovely agents and manager from the beginning not to send me any offers,” Fennell says of that post-Oscars moment. “I really felt like I wanted to do my own thing as long as someone would let me. In a way it was quite liberating because it gave me a lot of confidence.”
Mulligan, who also appears in the new “Saltburn” (now in limited release), believes Fennell would have always stuck to her instincts, even if she hadn’t won an Oscar.
“She’s not in the business of making things as a strategic path to anything else,” Mulligan says. “She’s just a storyteller.”
“Saltburn” comes from an idea that Fennell says has been in her head for seven or eight years, along with many other stories that she says are constantly circulating. “It’s kind of like: How many crushes do you have at any given time?” she offers.
The film follows new Oxford student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a withdrawn young man looking for a connection. Oliver makes his way with his popular and handsome classmate Felix (Jacob Elordi), whose aristocratic English family lives in a sprawling country mansion called Saltburn.
When Felix invites Oliver to his house for the summer, Oliver quickly becomes transfixed by Felix’s parents, Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) and James (Richard E. Grant), and his sister Venetia (Alison Oliver). His intentions seem confusing at first, but it soon becomes clear that they are not entirely pure.
Fennell wrote the script quickly after years of working the story in-house, waiting until she had “had every conversation, been in every room, done every setup a million times for it to stop changing,” she says.
“The more I rework something on paper, the more lifeless it becomes,” Fennell explains. “It’s not until after rehearsals and after you’ve talked to the actors that things change a little.”
“Saltburn” grew out of Fennell’s interest in doing modern gothic in the vein of “Rebecca” or “Brideshead Revisited.” It’s a genre she describes as sober, ready to be revisited.
“I thought it was fun to try to see what would happen if you completely uncontrolled it and let it go,” says the writer-director. “I thought it was a very interesting way to talk about longing and desire and how voracious our current desire for things and people is.”
Mulligan plays Pamela, a peculiar hangout of the Catton family. She begged Fennell to let her play her role, even though it was more of a cameo of hers. The actor finds Fennell’s “crystalline vision” compelling.
“If she called me and said, ‘Let’s make this movie about trees,’ I’d say, ‘Great,’” Mulligan says. “Because I know it would be the craziest, most vibrant but heartbreaking movie about trees. I want to work with her until she dies.”
On “Saltburn,” Fennell was given complete creative freedom. Margot Robbie, whose company LuckyChap produced “Promising Young Woman” and “Saltburn,” confirms that she would have followed the director anywhere.
“She taps into those little dark crevices of your mind and plants a seed there, and as she lets her story unfold, you realize that in some way you’re complicit with her,” Robbie says. “What she pulls off is a pretty extraordinary trick.”
She continues, “If you feel like you’re being pampered, be careful, because the rug is probably about to be pulled out from under you.”
“Saltburn,” in fact, forces the viewer to watch some cringe-inducing situations, none of which are worth revealing here. After pandemic-forced distancing, Fennell was curious about human contact.
“All of us [were] in this strange position of just observing other people’s lives and not being able to touch them,” he says. “I wanted to do something about touching people: about the sweat, the blood, the semen. “There is something liberating about interrogating that feeling of consuming other people.”
There’s a tactile sense to “Saltburn.” Body fluids flow freely. Fennell feels that you can tell a lot about a viewer by how they react to certain moments.
“The best response to this movie, that some people have, is that they are quite physically shocked,” he says. “Afterwards they have a lot of adrenaline. That’s when it’s really exciting. They say, ‘I could kill someone!’ Or, ‘I could fuck someone up!’”
Visually, Fennell turned to production designer Suzie Davies and “La La Land” Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren to bring her carefully imagined story to life. They found a private property in Northamptonshire to perform while the fictional Saltburn and Oxford scenes were being filmed. Reference points included the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, Joseph Losey’s 1971 film “The Go-Between” and the paintings of Caravaggio.
“The script was very visual when I read it,” Sandgren says. “Obviously it has dark humor, but it is also sensual. “It’s disgusting, beautiful and ugly at the same time.”
Sandgren shot the film in “Academy’s” 1.33 square aspect ratio, an unusual choice that results in a kind of on-screen claustrophobia. He also allowed Fennell to fill the frame with close-ups of faces and, at one point, Elordi’s armpit. (He created a mood board about armpit hair, which Fennell considers sexy and transgressive.)
“The standard for someone appearing in a movie is perfection,” he says. “I don’t mean the perfection of beauty; I mean, literally, people would just be groomed, because people wouldn’t like to see messy eyebrow hair. But I like to see that stuff because it’s really crucial information.”
The annoyance is a continuation of how Fennell approached the “promising young woman.” For her, a chair cannot be just a chair.
“There are 100,000 chair options in the world that you can choose from, so why that one?” she says. “And how do they sit on it? And it’s a little too low, meaning they can’t get out of it gracefully? “For me, the joy of watching and making movies is knowing that every detail has been forensically chosen.”
Sandgren confirms her director’s precision, “but she is also willing to make concessions,” she adds. “She respects everyone a lot and, at the same time, if she feels that something is important, she is always very honest.”
Fennell has continued acting, most recently as Camilla Parker Bowles in two seasons of “The Crown” and as the pregnant doll “Midge” in “Barbie.” However, a singular shift toward film is imminent. Her next film has been leaking for a long time.
“I need some time to think,” Fennell says of when production on the idea would realistically begin. She has two young children with her husband Chris Vernon, who occupy much of her time. But she is optimistic that the wait “won’t be long.”
For now, Fennell is content to observe the reaction to her wild and disturbing latest news: divisive, too, but to her any reaction is worth it if it gets people talking.
“She doesn’t see film as a way to teach people,” Mulligan says. “She’s a real artist who makes things and puts them out there, and people can respond in any way.”
Fennell demurs, describing herself as a people-pleaser “so natural and slippery.” “I’m such a coward,” she says. “I will do anything to make people like me.”
But when it comes to making movies, he says, “that’s the only place where I don’t have that quality.”
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