Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut Promising Young Woman might have simply been your traditional revenge fantasy thriller, with its story of Cassie, a grief-stricken, silently enraged girl on a mission to show each final sexual predator on the town. Only it is a lot extra. Styled like an entrancing ’90s romcom, it wrongfoots the viewer at each flip with its fluffy-sweatered, heart-printed world, punctuated by cupcakes and pop songs. With Carey Mulligan’s blood-curdlingly underplayed efficiency as Cassie, Fennell leads us down a deceptively fairly backyard path to the true reality about sexual assault and society’s turning of the opposite cheek, in a journey so twisty we by no means see its finish coming. Antonia Blyth meets Fennell and Mulligan to learn how they disguised a really thought-provoking shocker as a fairly pink love story.
“We’ve each gone fully potty,” Emerald Fennell says, as she fires off a textual content to Carey Mulligan throughout our Zoom assembly. It’s a GIF of an awkwardly dancing Theresa May, ex-UK Prime Minister. Deadline’s photographer has requested the pair to bounce to seize some enjoyable footage, and this GIF is Fennell’s impression of the outcomes. “I used to be like, I do not know f—ing how,” Mulligan explains. “So, we did the macarena.”
“There’s an order to it. You can perceive it,” Fennell deadpans. Both their faces twitch with suppressed laughter.
This is the form of punch-drunk sisterhood that comes from both years of friendship or a very intense mutual expertise—on this case, the latter, and the making of maybe one of the vital arresting and intelligent movies ever to deal with sexual harassment and its penalties.
Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Fennell, follows Mulligan as Cassie, a med college dropout who spends her evenings in bars, faking the form of lost-my-phone stage of drunkenness predators cannot resist. The so-called ‘good guys’ who supply to assist her again to their place after which make a transfer on her semi-conscious physique are petrified when she then instantly reveals herself to be stone-cold sober, bolting upright with a testicle-shriveling “What are you doing?”
Where a lesser movie would have made that the entire story, Fennell as an alternative weaves a rare exposé of our grey areas, our silent collusions and the darkest corners of human conduct, feeding it to us with a deceptively candy-flavored coating of nostalgic pop tunes, clean-cut Americana and pastel nail polish.
Writer and showrunner of Killing Eve’s Season 2, a sequence that twice earned her an Emmy nomination, Fennell can be recognized for her front-of-camera work as Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown. She brewed up Promising Young Woman nearly wholesale, coughing it up “like a hairball”, she says. “It in all probability got here out as a result of it is one thing that I discover extremely troubling and I wished to speak about.”
And the story was this: Cassie’s nocturnal actions are a symptom of horrible grief. Her childhood good friend and fellow med scholar Nina has dedicated suicide after being raped at a school social gathering. And the perpetrators stay untouched, having fun with ‘good boy’ lives of privilege, because of an unscrupulous lawyer employed by wealthy mother and father, shallow buddies, and a school dean who regarded the opposite approach. Cassie can’t and won’t ever let this go.
As Fennell cooked up the screenplay, the soundtrack got here with it, hand-in-hand. “I do not write in any respect till the tip when it is carried out,” she says. “When it’s I’ll transcribe it, and it takes not very lengthy. The actual bulk of the work is finished completely in my head, completely with music.”
And that music is the siren music of rose-tinted, upbeat nostalgia. Like a form of homage to Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, within the midst of tragedy and devastation, there’s a deliciously incongruous, hovering pop tune—an orchestral model of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, or a shock blast of Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning”. And as an alternative of sugarcoating the bitter tablet of rape and suicide, the contrasting sweetness skewers us all of the extra painfully.
From the very starting, because the movie got here to Fennell full with its soundtrack, she additionally had a rock-solid concept of the way it ought to look.
On the set of The Crown, Fennell confirmed the script to co-star Josh O’Connor. “I assumed it was full magic,” O’Connor says. “She simply is aware of precisely what she’s going to do. She was like, ‘This is how I’m going to make it. This is what it’ll appear like.’”
Margot Robbie’s manufacturing firm LuckyChap had been early believers in her idea, and her deceptively candy, subversive strategy to a heavyweight topic. “I really feel like Emerald had an extremely intelligent strategy in luring us—particularly these of us who grew up within the ’90s—into nostalgic territory,” Robbie says. With “the acquainted ’90s rom-com relationship dynamics we have now been accustomed to seeing in movies”, Robbie says Fennell is knowledgeable at “pulling the rug out from beneath us and smacking us within the face”.
As quickly as she’d learn the script, Mulligan was on board. “For ages earlier than this movie got here alongside, individuals had been like, ‘What half would you like? What have you ever not carried out that you simply need to do? What’s your dream half?’” Mulligan says. “And I could not describe what it was. I’d simply say, ‘Well, I simply know it is not that, and I do know it is not that. I do know it is not the spouse to that nice man or the girlfriend who’s a ‘troubled particular person’. I knew what it wasn’t. And when this got here alongside I used to be like, ‘Oh, it is that. That’s what I need to do.’”
Fennell had a temper board that had “a lot of angels” she says. “It had To Die For, Psycho and The Virgin Suicides, a lot of Sweet Valley High, a lot of tactile garments and multicolored manicures. I wished it to show that not solely was it going to be snug and shiny and interesting, form of like Cassie is, however that it might be considerably allegorical, as a result of if Cassie is a a part of this factor, doing one thing fully actual, in some ways it’s a form of classical journey, the allegorical story. And so, I wished the world to really feel considerably like that too.”
That allegorical issue would later, through the shoot, show nearly too alluring.
In a scene the place Cassie confronts the lawyer (Alfred Molina) who ensured Nina’s attackers went free, he begs forgiveness at Cassie’s toes. “I used to be like, ‘Guys, here is a image of the Pietà,’” Fennell says. “So, for those who might simply discover a approach, as naturally as you’ll be able to, of being within the place of Michelangelo’s Pietà by the tip of this? Then we’ll pop a shaft of sunshine on you.’”
Fennell laughs. “The shaft of sunshine truly bought nixed as a result of, even I within the edit was like, ‘Well, that is completely foolish. Too a lot.’”
As a Brit, her option to set the movie in Anytown U.S.A. felt essential. “It was necessary that no one might say, for instance, ‘Oh nicely this occurs in England as a result of they’ve a totally different tradition.’ Or, ‘This occurs in New York, as a result of ladies in New York are a little quick.’ It needed to be essentially the most accessible place, and since all of us have grown up on American tradition it felt like one thing the place the less people who might be let off the hook, the higher.”
To obtain her picture-perfect American popular culture imaginative and prescient, she went to the supply: Michael Perry, manufacturing designer on that fabled TV teen froth, Sweet Valley High.
“When I first met Michael, he gave me Todd’s letterman jacket,” Fennell says, referring to Sweet Valley High’s lead heartthrob jock character. “Every time I give it some thought my complete physique will get like… Sometimes I put on it. If I’m feeling actually peppy, I’ll simply pop on Todd’s letterman jacket and assume, This is it.”
Fennell had additionally admired Perry’s work on It Follows. “It was extremely low-budget; a very quick shoot time. And the best way that he simply gave it inherent, spooky femininity; these form of mushy shells. It was attractive, however horrifying. It was sensible. I stated to him—and I do assume that is true—that he is in all probability answerable for millennial pink, at the very least partly.”
She was amused when somebody tried to derisively counsel Promising Young Woman regarded like a ’90s Lifetime film. “I used to be like, ‘That is actually the best praise anybody might give me.’ Could there ever be a extra violent, female world than the world of the Lifetime films of the ’90s?”
Fennell and Mulligan constructed Cassie by an ongoing dialog. And the consequence was a character who principally seems emotionless on the floor, like a form of angel of justice. This was one thing that required a lot inner emotion with so little floor pressure. But, says Fennell, Mulligan was completely reduce out for the job. “You see what’s occurring with so little. She’s bought that factor that is so uncommon to search out, the place she does nearly nothing, and it is nearly every little thing.”
Lone Scherfig, who directed Mulligan’s breakout, An Education, noticed this explicit high quality in her from very early on. “I knew that we needed to see a lot from her eyes, or by her,” she says. “And she has that sturdy detector for what’s true. She would not like phoniness.”
Paul Dano, Mulligan’s longtime good friend who directed her in Wildlife, noticed it too. “Even when taking part in a character that has some edge or some darkness or some harshness or some shadow, Carey continues to be someone you’ll be able to have a look at and perceive,” he notes.
An actual potential pitfall for Cassie was the kick-ass, ‘girl scorned’ trope.
“I believe there would have been a temptation for different actors to possibly make Cassie form of badass,” Fennell says. “It was necessary, actually to me and to Carey, that she felt actual; she felt like a traumatized individual.”
Thus, Cassie’s actions are additionally constantly underpinned with realism. No, she has not realized to wield a samurai sword, nor will she Jiu-Jitsu her approach by those that have carried out her improper. Because that’s merely not truthful. “There’s a motive girls don’t resort to violence,” Fennell says. “Because they f—ing lose once they do.
With flip-the-script experience, Fennell sends in Adam Brody as predator primary within the opening scene. Not some beefed-up frat man, however a man instantly recognizable as an old teen favourite, The O.C.’s nice-guy-on-wheels, Seth Cohen. (“We known as him Seth behind his again on a regular basis,” Mulligan jokes.)
Brody’s apparently considerate, feminist man rolls his eyes at his co-workers’ sexist remarks throughout after-work drinks at a cheesy membership. “Sorry about them,” he tells a fake-wasted Cassie as he will get in a cab together with her. And but he’ll quickly press a large drink on her, watch for her to (fake) go out, after which he’ll try to sneakily whip off her panties.
Having now seen the movie, O’Connor calls it, “A mix of nostalgia and realism.” The Seth Cohen-ness of all of it actually smacked him within the face, he says. “It put you on this place of, actually from my perspective, sexual discovery, like when all these Britney songs [were hits], that music, that shade scheme, Seth Cohen.”
Bringing in teen dream references, notably the kitschy ones, was so key to Fennell’s imaginative and prescient. “I believe actually for ladies of our age group, that is the pleasure middle. For me, Clueless does one thing to my mind. That yellow plaid, that fluffy pen. When I see these issues, I get what I think about some males really feel once they see a soccer participant that they liked once they had been rising up. I’ve by no means not purchased a fluffy pen if I see one. It does one thing to me. It brings me again to that place of, ‘I might be that individual.’”
But she additionally wished to take a look at how and why we disregard these ultra-feminine stylings. “I like getting dressed up, I like having silly nails, I like Britney,” she says. “I’m actually occupied with what a part of our tradition diminishes that stuff, that makes that stuff foolish. So partly for me, this film was additionally about interrogating why that’s. Why ought to or not it’s this grey?”
And within the final ’90s romcom homage, she introduced within the love montage. When Cassie reconnects with fellow med scholar Ryan (Bo Burnham), his self-effacing, goofy attraction breaks down her partitions, and so they fall for one another. Set to the Paris Hilton tune “Stars Are Blind”, the couple dance in a pharmacy, posing with cans of meals, guffawing and customarily wanting lovable—a scene Mulligan discovered intimidating.
“It’s really easy to cry on digicam and that is the territory I really feel snug in,” she says. “But laughing and being free and glad, with out ego and self-awareness, I believe is far more durable. That’s why I’ve such an immense respect for comedians.”
She positively didn’t need to dance, and tried the tactic of telling Fennell she did not think about Cassie would try this.
She confesses, “It was positively me hiding behind my character saying, ‘Oh, Cassie would not need to do it,’ however I believe it was Carey not eager to do it. A fantastic observe from Emerald was, ‘Of course you’re feeling that approach, however once you’re in love you appear like an fool from the skin. Everyone thinks you have misplaced your thoughts. You’re so annoying.’ And Bo, from the start, God bless him, was simply completely snug doing it. He says he wasn’t, however he was instantly selecting up the [can of] spam. So a lot of the levity, and a lot of Cassie’s lightness and vulnerability, was simply because Bo was so hilarious and charming in that position. I can not think about a totally different actor doing it.”
But there was additionally the issue of singing alongside to Paris Hilton.
“The lyrics are fairly sophisticated to be taught,” Mulligan says, with absolute seriousness. “There are bits of it that do not actually make sense. It’s like studying a Radiohead music. It’s not a narrative. They are unusual bits in it which can be… I imply, it is a sensible music, do not get me improper, I liked it. But it is not easy to be taught, so we did must print the lyrics out and observe them.”
Fennell and Mulligan at all times excitedly deliberate to ask Hilton to the premiere, after which the pandemic bought in the best way. “My largest disappointment of 2020 was not getting to satisfy Paris Hilton,” Mulligan says. “I hope she likes it.”
As Fennell stated, in actuality, violence from girls in opposition to males often would not finish nicely. And when Cassie does lastly try this in opposition to Nina’s rapist, performed by Chris Lowell, the implications pop the balloon of the standard Hollywood revenge fantasy. Reality crashes down on the pop-culture.
“It comes again to that honesty factor, and making an attempt to do justice to telling the reality,” Mulligan says. “It’s simply statistically true. Once she’s launched a weapon, it simply is not sincere [to have her win that]. There’s no approach I might out-fight, or ninja my approach out of a battle with Chris Lowell. It’s simply not going to occur.”
This confrontation was maybe the hardest scene of the shoot. First, the actors watched the stunt group do it. “I began watching them, after which after two-and-a-half minutes, everybody within the room was identical to, ‘Oh, it is simply f—ing horrible. Horrible,’” Mulligan says.
When it was her flip to play the scene, Mulligan discovered she had bought her place improper and could not breathe. “But he [Lowell] did not know. And I used to be like, ‘Well, I believe I can get out of this.’ Then I spotted that 10 seconds later I could not. I could not breathe in any respect and I could not get out of it.”
She gave a pre-arranged hand sign to cease. “It was all very humorous. Then I went exterior and simply burst into tears. I could not clarify why it was so upsetting. I’m so of the college of appearing of, it is pretending, it is taking part in. But it was a type of moments the place, I believe watching it occur to someone else, doing it your self, understanding how horrendously frequent that form of stuff is, it was actually far more upsetting than I assumed it might be to truly shoot it. That stunned me as a result of I’m often fairly unmoved by issues. So, I believe I used to be notably conscious in that scene of the broader image and ladies’s remedy generally. It simply felt actually, actually unhappy.”
“I keep in mind everybody standing across the monitor within the room with their palms clamped to their faces,” Fennell says of that day. “It feels so horribly actual. The factor for me was that it appeared like a believable chance, and all of the issues we’re used to feeling: It’s so unfair, it is so unjust, and it is the expertise of being in a girl’s physique… Inevitably there’s an imbalance.”
Even the crew struggled with the ending. “Emerald was steadfast about it from the start. She was completely clear,” Mulligan says. “And I’m positive she heard objections. Even once we had been engaged on it, [the crew] had been saying, ‘Oh, I simply want [that didn’t happen].’ But that is simply not actuality. The movie does reside on this barely heightened world, and I believe there’s a tendency for individuals to need that to hold over into the storyline. But the storyline stays in fact. And I’m so happy with Emerald for standing agency on that.”
Mulligan had, pre-shoot, watched The Hunting Ground, which particulars the overlaying up and denial of rape on school campuses. There’s a scene in that documentary through which a younger girl is requested why she did not battle off a man twice her dimension. The query arises, why would a girl filmmaker perpetuate that delusional and damaging concept, given the selection? Fennell wouldn’t.
But additionally, there’s some resistance to the thought of girls on revenge missions in any respect, Fennell says. “I do assume that Cassie is a very explicit individual, and blokes go on these harmful missions—revenge missions—on a regular basis and nobody minds. But when girls do, individuals are frightened by it.”
“The different day, somebody stated, ‘Yeah, however is she simply loopy on the finish? Has she simply gone mad; has the grief pushed her mad?’” Mulligan provides. “The level is that we have now numerous movies about males who go on crusades on behalf of their family members and we by no means say they’re loopy or that they’ve misplaced their minds from grief. They’re going round having shootouts and ninja fights in each scene. That is objectively insane. What Cassie’s doing, by comparability, is pretty delicate. It’s simply an fascinating response as a result of there’s a large quantity of logic, truly, to what she’s doing.”
Fennell’s daring ending is each the factor that makes the film, and breaks the viewers with its painfully sharp left flip. Brave and divisive, however essential, LuckyChap stood behind it. “They’re simply wonderful,” Fennell says. “They did not understand it was going to finish the best way it did, and once they known as me after they first learn it, I believe we had a very transient dialogue about it, however they had been fully on board. The complete factor is you could not actually change something about it as a result of in any other case it might then simply develop into the factor that it is making an attempt so arduous to not be, which is a generic revenge thriller.”
LuckyChap co-founder Josey McNamara, lead producer of the movie, says, “It was so assured and particular and fully authentic… It evaluates our tradition and pondering, and asks the query of how are all of us a a part of this knot we have to unpick.”
With a film that seems so fairly on the floor, Fennell completely factors to that knot, to what lies beneath, what goes unsaid. “I believe for me that simply looks like so many ladies’s lives,” Fennell says. “I do assume that we’re so practiced at overlaying issues up and making issues seem functioning, interesting, glad, placing a courageous face on all of it… That’s the movie actually, as a result of it is [Cassie’s] movie. It’s a lot about appears to be like being deceiving in each approach.”
It’s Alison Brie’s character, Madison, who exemplifies the added toxicity of cover-ups and the ugliness of collusion. She’s the faculty good friend with the seemingly excellent ‘good lady’ existence: a rock on her finger, a wealthy husband, twin infants and a meticulously-curated Instagram. But she has additionally sickeningly justified her resolution to take care of a friendship with the favored, profitable guys who violated Nina, as a result of she says, Nina was drunk, and he or she “slept round” anyway.
Then there’s Connie Britton’s school dean. Her politely blinking, bland protection of these ‘good boys’ with vivid futures who could not presumably be rapists. All of this, horribly, hauntingly acquainted; all tales we have heard documented in so many real-life campus rape instances. When Cassie calmly brings her to her knees, crying tears of regret, it turns into maybe one of the vital satisfyingly set-up film scenes in current reminiscence.
Being over seven months pregnant and directing your first characteristic in solely 23 days in a international nation might need apprehensive a totally different individual, however Fennell simply leaned proper into it.
“I used to be so pregnant and I believe that actually helped, as a result of generally, I care deeply, pathetically what individuals take into consideration me. I simply selected the worst doable profession in each approach for that character trait,” she says. “The concept of individuals not liking me and pondering I’m tough, all these issues, is simply dreadful to me. But fortunately, once you’re carting round a huge child and also you’re about to offer delivery, you do not have the time to be concerned. I used to be like a literal ticking time bomb, which I believe gave me this bizarre energy for myself.”
She was so thrilled to be residing her lifelong dream, she was “like a competitors winner” she says. “My solely rule for myself was to not fake I knew one thing I did not. So, I attempted to be as clear as doable after I did not perceive, or I did not know one thing. I’d simply be like, ‘Sorry what’s that?’ Because in any other case you are like, ‘Yeah, yeah yeah,’ and you then’ve agreed to shoot your movie in black and white. I assumed, the issues I would like from this movie I do know inside-out. If I do not know the title of a explicit cable, it is not the tip of the world. I can be taught that, that is fantastic.”
This can-do perspective is simply who Fennell is, says O’Connor. “Three months after the movie she got here and did The Crown Season 4. I stated, ‘How was it? Was it mad?’ Most filmmakers, once they make their first characteristic they are saying, ‘Yeah, it is unimaginable and I need to make extra, however it’s hell and my relationship suffered, and I’ve misplaced my home.’ All that carnage round their life occurs. But she was identical to, ‘Oh no, I had one of the best time of my life, and all of the actors had been unimaginable.’”
Mulligan sees Fennell’s artistic genius as a part of a “new technology of girls”, together with her personal explicit model of actual, twisty, darkish humor. “It does really feel in step with that form of work that [Fleabag creator] Phoebe Waller-Bridge has been doing, and Michaela Coel [who wrote and starred in I May Destroy You].” They are “a marvel group of girls,” Mulligan says, creating new—and distinctly distinctive—work that’s giving voice to a complete technology of girls.
She factors outs that there’s a hugely-popular, recent viewpoint on girls’s tales that is pushing actual change. “That’s what’s so thrilling, as a result of these reveals have huge audiences and so they’ve been large hits,” she says. “I believe it is simply a actually good signal to all of the individuals who make the selections, however truly there’s a huge viewers for tales about girls, and so they do not must be excellent, or look excellent, or act excellent… These aren’t the issues which can be interesting to simply girls or simply feminists or some form of area of interest group. Everyone—everybody—loves Fleabag. Barack Obama loves Fleabag for goodness sake.”
Still, with comparatively little or no trade precedent for tales of actual girls who make actual selections, and who do not at all times have issues neatly work out, making Promising Young Woman required the dedication to face by these daring decisions all through the method.
“What’s so good about it’s that Emerald, in our movie, made no compromises,” Mulligan says. “And she would not play all the way down to anybody. She places her full religion within the viewers. Nothing is overly defined. And you get the ending that you simply get.”
The movie’s ending will not be the fantasy we count on, nevertheless it might be the truth we want. And with it, Fennell crests a courageous new wave of storytelling.
A extra ego-driven filmmaker would possibly now be telling us what to consider their topic. Not Fennell. “I do not essentially, regardless of what the movie is about, know any solutions,” she says sadly. “I haven’t got any solutions, as a result of it is so unbelievably sophisticated and hideous.”