Her Dark Materials

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. Photo: Focus Features
With her feature premiere Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell creates a funny, horrifying world unto itself.

Written by Lisa Rosen


Promising Young Woman had a smashing premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and was scheduled to hit screens with its timely #MeToo storyline on April 17. But too many other timely things happened to upend that plan. When the following interview was held on June 15, no new release date had been scheduled, but all parties involved still hoped to release the film in theaters somehow—no party more than writer-director Emerald Fennell.

Emerald Fennell. Photo by Faye Thomas

“This is a movie that needs to be experienced in a theater with other people, because it’s kind of a ride, and going on a rollercoaster alone with your own sad screen is not the same,” she says. “You want other people’s responses, because the laughter and the horror is designed to be an uncomfortable and funny and sickly pleasurable communal experience.” (Promising Young Woman was released in theaters on December 25, and on VOD January 15.)

The film is a dark comedy revenge thriller romance about a young woman named Cassie who is haunted by an event in her past. She goes out to clubs and bars at night and pretends to be drunk, waiting for men to take her home, and once there, while they are in some way trying to take advantage of her condition, she reveals she’s stone-cold sober. “It’s a sort of road movie on foot,” Fennell says. “It’s somebody’s journey through their past, visiting people on the way, to try to make sense of something that happened a long time ago that will just never ever make sense.”

This is Fennell’s first produced feature, but she has already amassed plenty of experience elsewhere in the industry. Born and raised in England, she wrote her first project, Shiverton Hall, as a TV show, but then wound up selling it to a publishing house as a book. While starring as Nurse Patsy in Call the Midwife, she took the time between seasons to write more books, several of which have been optioned. The last, Monsters, led her to writing on the British series Drifters, and then on Killing Eve. For Eve’s second season, Fennell was tapped as showrunner. She also assays the role of Camilla in The Crown.

Reached by phone at her parents’ home in the Berkshire countryside, where she is sheltering in place along with husband, child, and sister, Fennell notes, “It’s tough but invigorating to have so much thinking time.” (Spoilers abound, so watch the film first.)

Lisa Rosen: What was the impetus for this story?

Emerald Fennell: The seed of it, which I suppose happened a few years ago, was this idea of a drunk woman lying on a bed saying, “What are you doing, what are you doing,” as somebody’s pulling down her knickers. And then sitting up and saying, “Hey! What are you doing?” That was the thing for me that started it off. And I just thought, Oh right, I know what this is.

“I wanted to make a revenge movie that felt like a real revenge movie, with a real woman doing something that a real woman might do. I don’t identify with gunning up and murdering a ton of people with an AK-47, so I wanted to think, what is the thing you might do?”

It was happening a lot in England as well as America, these stories where things would happen to women, and there was a kind of cognitive dissonance. I’m terrified of not using that term right, so if I haven’t, sorry to the Writers Guild of America. There’s an empathy gap between what the girls are saying and what the boys are saying. I suppose the thing I felt very strongly and noticed was that it wasn’t “he said/she said” in the way we expect and talk about. Both people are saying the same thing happened, but they disagree fundamentally on what that meant. And the issue you have when you’re a young person—in particular when there’s alcohol and drugs involved, when it’s a friend—is you often find that it’s messy, it’s blurry, it’s ill-defined. I wanted to make a movie about the people who we all know and love, who’ve lived in a culture that I certainly grew up in: watching movies where stuff like this happened all the time.

This is a very roundabout way of saying nothing in my film hasn’t been used in a joke in a comedy or a romantic comedy in the last 15 years. Every single thing you can name, a TV show or a movie has used as a joke, or the Cassie character is just “Nameless Girl in Bar.” That was the thing I wanted to interrogate: why suddenly, if you follow that person with one line home, you see that the experience is a lot less funny.

Why did you make that choice, to take every one of your moments from pre-existing comedies?

The thing that was really important was to not let any of us off the hook, including myself. The rule was it had to be something you’d laughed at in something before. If people gasp and say, “That’s terrible,” it’s going to be because they just realized it’s terrible. I wasn’t interested in writing something about monsters who do monstrous things. To every victim of Cassie’s, I would say, “You’re in your own movie, you’re the hapless cute guy who’s saving someone from his skeezy friends, and she smiles at one of your jokes and you think you have a connection and then you go back to your apartment.”

[L-R] Carey Mulligan, writer-director Emerald Fennell, Laverne Cox, and Bo Burnham on the set of <i>Promising Young Woman</i>.

Obviously later, when things get really dark, it was important for me to say, “Ok, if somebody you haven’t seen for a long time comes and finds you in the middle of nowhere and they tell you they want to wreak revenge, if this is your movie, and you think you’re a good guy, this person is a psycho, this is a horror movie where you’re a victim.” The only way it made sense to me was if everyone thinks they’re good. Every person in this movie has a slightly different argument, a slightly different perspective, a slightly different take on what happened. But none of them, bar one, will admit [to doing anything wrong]. They all do what we all do, which is double down. When they’re presented with it, rather than say, “Fuck, this is terrible you’re right, I hadn’t thought about it,” they say, “Oh come on, it was years ago, she was drunk, they were friends, it happened to all of us, we sucked it up, innocent until proven guilty.”

I suppose what I wanted to do was not make a movie just for people who think very, very deeply about [consent]. I think we all take for granted that these are things everyone has spent thousands of hours thinking about, reading up on, knowing all of the most up-to-date arguments. That’s not the case. I want to make something that everyone wants to watch, that’s as accessible and interesting to people maybe on the villainous side, as it is to the people who are already very much in this world and aware of this world.

The second part of that is I wanted to make a revenge movie that felt like a real revenge movie, with a real woman doing something that a real woman might do. I don’t identify with gunning up and murdering a ton of people with an AK-47, so I wanted to think, what is the thing you might do? It was so much to do with shame and retribution, and it was so much darker and more complicated and biblical than just hurting someone.

Where did your writing process go from there?

For any of the things I write, it will start with one very specific moment, and then everything else kind of gathers around it like metal filings. So what I tend to do is—this sounds so unbelievably pretentious, but I don’t really know how to describe it—I sit with the magnet and kind of rub it around, and it will pick things up. I wrote books before I wrote scripts. Part of publishing, and the book-writing process, is you do a lot of planning, a lot of outlines, and all of that kind of stuff. And with TV, with Killing Eve, you’re doing all of that too.

With film, for me, it’s letting things come to the middle. So I will literally just listen to music and think about the idea. I have a playlist for everything I’m doing. It gets longer and longer and I end up with hundreds of songs. And then I live in that world in my head for a while, until it’s finished, and then I’ll start writing it. It’s not a very useful process for other people, but it’s the way that works for me.

So when you finally sit down, is it one marathon session where you must be reminded to eat, or do you make outlines and put cards on walls?

Outlines and cards on walls is my most feared situation. I do like that method if you’re working with other people or in a room. But for me, I know when it’s ready because I can feel that I need to do it. You get kind of itchy fingers. Then I will sit down and it will be done within a week usually, or a few days. It’s usually a year or two of thinking and then a week of getting it down. I’ve had the conversations a million times in the bath or on a walk. All of the characters, all of the conversations are ready. Often when I’m writing, I’m talking aloud. That’s the thing about being an actress as well, you often find something can look so good on paper, and then it’s like “Uch, gross,” once you say it. So I like talking as I go.

The thing that really kills me is endless redrafting. Not because I don’t love taking notes or collaborating. And there are some things that need changing. But very personal movies like this, you can only lose its luster and its truth and its intensity by over-kneading it. As a producer and an actress and a director and other things I’ve been lucky enough to persuade people to let me do, I often find that the first draft is better than the one that is going into prep. It might have little problems, but for me the thing that feels vital and honest, and the dialogue that feels fresh and real and idiosyncratic, and maybe not perfect, usually is more right than super subtext, super metaphorical, super thematic. There are avenues you can go down where it is a film, it’s no longer a living thing.

It’s so fun to talk about this stuff. I’m so interested to hear how other people do it, too, because it is so idiosyncratic, and there is no obvious answer. Often you feel a bit shy, because having just sort of disclosed that, I’m like, “Oh no, now people will read it and think, Oh god, of course there was only one draft, because it was sloppy as hell.” It feels very personal the way you write, and it is a bit shaming. I write in bed, in my pajamas mostly. It’s not posh. It pulls back the curtain into a very sorry little state of affairs. I used to sit at my computer and smoke in a very glamorous way, and now, like everyone, I gave it up in my 20s and I’m just so sad about it.

The opening scene is such a great take on something we’ve seen a million times, but now it’s close-ups of men’s asses dancing in slow motion, instead of women’s. Was that a metal filing?

[L-R] Director of photography Benjamin Kracun, writer-director Emerald Fennell, Sam Richardson, and Carey Mulligan on the set of <i>Promising Young Woman</i>.

I definitely wanted to open it with the subversion of ‘the girls in the club.’ One of the things for this movie was making a film that flags up the sheer absurdity of how we shoot women and how we make movies. What I wanted to do at the beginning was really establish that it was a comedy, and a world we’re familiar with, and also not familiar. We’re going to be in a romp, but also, it is the most embarrassing thing in the world watching men after work wearing chinos dancing. Because actually we all look ridiculous dancing, men and women, apart from the lucky few of us who are gifted in that regard, but it just shows how absurd it is to shoot people in this lascivious way. It’s like sex. If I ever made a sex scene, or wrote a sex scene, I’d want it to be the same type of thing—sort of embarrassing.

The atmospheric elements in the movie—the pastel colors, florals, sundresses, that belie much of the darkness—literally present a night versus day personality. When did that come in?

This is the first film I’ve been allowed to direct, but in my head visually it’s done even if I’m writing it for someone else to direct. I know what it would look like. For me it looks like a woman’s life. My life is full of sparkly phone covers, and I’m wearing a pink sequined embellished T-shirt, and I love Britney and Paris Hilton, and I don’t think that makes me vapid and light. I don’t think that has any bearing on what is happening inside my body and my head. I think a lot of women feel like that, a lot of us feel like the stuff we like isn’t valid because it’s not a rainy street and World War II and a lamppost and a trench coat and men having conversations in a dark smoky room. I love all those films; I don’t mean to be disparaging. I’m just saying that there’s a huge difference in terms of gravitas given to films that feel important. I simply do not understand why Britney Spears is not as important as Puccini. That doesn’t make sense to me.

And part of it too is that, certainly for me, I know who I need to be every day. I think women are very adept at being who people want them to be, and that’s partly safety, and partly a way we’ve learned to exist in the world. When Cassie goes to the first bar, it’s a bunch of people after work, so she’s wearing a suit with a white shirt. The next time she’s with a hipster guy, and she’s got feathers in her hair and crazy dark makeup, and a leopard print skirt. Then she goes dressed in a bodycon dress. What she knows is if the predators come in every guise, then so do their prey. What I didn’t want anyone to say was, “Well of course guys like that pick up girls like that, if you’re wearing a mini skirt.” She has honed this—she makes this sacrifice, this offering, and it’s so clever. For her she’s had to be so clever about it.

For me the way things look is so important, and that’s just as much in the writing. You have to be specific about the manicure, about the way she presents herself, about the hair. It’s the detail, it’s a freebie, especially if you’re making films for not very much money, as we did with this. Every single detail will give you value, because people can learn something. They can learn something from the way her parents’ house looks.

We haven’t yet touched on the charming romantic comedy in the midst of this revenge fantasy.

It’s a bit spoilery, but when you’re in love, you are an idiot, and everything does feel heightened, and it does feel like a montage to Paris Hilton in a magical store. In Beauty and the Beast, the original movie, there’s a bit where Beauty’s dad has a cart, and there’s this comedically beautiful warm sunny road, and then there’s a road full of bats and wolves and snow, and he’s like, “I’ll take the one with the snow and the bats.” For this movie, we need to know that Cassie is making an active choice. We see her sitting in the fork of the road and seeing the rainbows, and making a decision of what she wants to do. For ten years, she’s been living this kind of half-life. Do you choose love, or do you choose revenge? Does she love her friend more than she loves him? The pull on Cassie needed to be huge. So the love story, for her to choose whichever route she takes, it needed to be impossible to resist, for everyone, because we need to root for her life to get better. But the thing is, if we root for her life to get better, if we root for her and Ryan, we also say it’s easier to do what everyone says, which is shut the fuck up and forget. So that needed to be really appealing. I love romantic comedies; I love them so much. In many ways that’s the heart of the movie. It’s a movie about love, really.

It goes back to making something pleasurable. In all of the Hitchcock movies that are my ultimate dream, and reading Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier, who I think are the best thriller plotters in the world, it’s just the plot. It’s amazing how often things can be meandering and atmospheric, and I love movies like that too, but for me, what I really want is to be able to apply pressure until it’s almost unbearable, and then release it, and then make people laugh, and then make them gasp. That’s the dream, to surprise people. As a rule, I didn’t make anything easy for people. I wanted to make it pleasurable but hard.

For all its vengeance, the story hinges on forgiveness.

When it comes to this issue, and I guess lots of issues now, so many people want forgiveness without apologizing. Especially when you look at religion. Yes, forgiveness is a huge part of religion, but don’t forget you have to get on your knees and confess first. So who gets to decide that they don’t need to do that? Who gets to demand forgiveness and roll their eyes and tell people to get over things and shut up? It had to be a movie about retribution, it had to be a movie that was about forgiveness or punishment, a film about an avenging angel who comes with her two hands closed, and in one hand is forgiveness, and in the other is retribution, and the forgiveness is only given with an apology and an acknowledgement.

My feeling is that people, and women in particular, have a fucking bottomless well of forgiveness frankly, but you don’t get that if you don’t admit what you’ve done. So many people just can’t go there. I understand, because it’s really distressing to admit that you’re not as good a person as you thought you were. God, right now we’re all in that position, very much so, in realizing how we all could have done so much better in so many ways. The truth of it is that for everyone in the world to improve, for the world to improve in general, we have to be able to forgive, and be forgiven, but we need to acknowledge stuff too. That is honestly the oldest idea in the book, that’s going back to the Bible and the Greek poets. Bear in mind, I don’t think I’m Aeschylus.