Why Emerald Fennell cast sweet men to do bad things in Promising Young Woman
Fennell tells EW about weaving guilt and complicity into her meditation on rape culture.
Former Killing Eve showrunner and The Crown star Emerald Fennell sets Carey Mulligan loose on a wild rampage against toxic men — retribution for the brutal assault of a classmate — in her Sundance breakout Promising Young Woman (in theaters Dec. 25). Here, the writer-director reveals why revenge is a dish best served while wearing pastel sweaters and cherry lip gloss.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: One of the biggest misconceptions people have of this film is: This movie was not made in response to the #MeToo movement, right?
EMERALD FENNELL: It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment where the film first started churning around in my mind. The thing about the #MeToo movement, it’s stuff we’ve all been talking about among ourselves, together. Some of the details were a shock, but none of it was a shock to anyone who’s lived in the world as a woman, unfortunately. As I was writing it, this huge thing was happening at the same time.
Usually, we see rape-revenge stories presented all in a very similar, dramatic way. Did you consciously approach this film and this story as a deconstruction of how you’d seen rape-revenge stories presented in the past?
Absolutely. I had an advantage as a writer and filmmaker because you can use the audience’s expectations and subvert them. There’s a type of movie with a female protagonist that we’re used to, and I wanted to look at that and fashion something that felt the same, but completely different, and use those tropes, kept the beats, kept the things you’re expecting, but deliver them in a completely different way. Apart from the political side of a movie like this, I want to make films that people enjoy, which is a funny thing to say about a movie on this subject. When I say enjoy, I don’t mean they’ll come away from it saying “Woo-hoo!” but they’re on the edge of their seats. At some point, it’s a ride. I’m using that tension and release to shift moments that are almost unbearably difficult to deliver a macabre laugh.
Plot-wise, we’re typically introduced to women in rape-revenge movies who are victims, or they’re victimized but then find their strength. Cassie enters the film as a strong and confident aggressor in what she’s doing already. Why was it important to you to show a woman who was so unabashedly filled with rage and unafraid to be this prickly, thorny character who pursues this mission at the cost of her own sanity and safety?
I never made that decision consciously. The best way for me to do it, is to say, “If I really was the protagonist of a movie like this, what would I do?” Given the physical limitations of being a woman, given the world being as it is, what could I do? What’s within my skillset? If Cassie has any power, it’s her meticulousness and her planning. But I also think she makes a lot of decisions that aren’t nice. That was important to me too. I wanted to be realistic about taking the kind of road she takes in that movie and what that does to you. The scene where she smashes a stranger’s car window, the thing about that is the aftermath. Without spoiling it for people, it’s what you do next, looking at how you respond physically and emotionally to acts of aggression as a normal person. Looking at acts of violence, I believe that if you’re going to show them in movies, you have to be honest about what they are, which sometimes makes the movie a harder watch than the fun stuff people are expecting.
How did you land on the film’s neon-colored visual palette as complementary to that approach?
My best friend, who I’ve been friends with since I was four, she saw it and was like only you could’ve made this film because it’s all the stuff I like. I didn’t make any decisions to be ironic. I made a film that I wanted to make, and I love “Stars Are Blind.” I had to think of a song that, if a man knew every line to it would make me love him more. It’s obviously Paris Hilton “Stars Are Blind." Before Carey came aboard, I sent my working playlist and mood board to everyone. I said, “This is not a gray movie; she’s not in the rain, looking out of a window and feeling sorry for herself.” It’s the opposite: It’s something I think of as being quite feminine, which is, the worse you feel, the better you look. The more you want to hide, the more normal you appear. When the women I know are in dire circumstances, they tend to put on more lipstick because they don’t want any questions asked. All lives tend to have these collisions…. I don’t think our lives are strictly genre-d. A collision of different things — that’s how life feels to me.
That brings me to the Paris Hilton music cue, “Stars Are Blind,” in the drugstore. Did you get the rights to that song from Paris herself?
I did. I wrote to her. Whether it got to her herself, I don’t know, but I wrote to her and her team and explained. We had to get the rights before we shot it, which is quite an unusual circumstance. Usually, you do those deals after. I really wanted that song more than anything. I think when you see Bo Burnham and Carey in that scene, you understand why [they work, and] they let me have it. I met Paris at a Golden Globes party last year for Killing Eve, and I went over and thanked her for letting me use it, and she was just as amazingly beautiful and charismatic and Paris as I could’ve imagined.
It’s one of my favorite songs. I needed a song for this movie that, if a boy that you liked knew every word to, you’d be incredibly impressed, and you’d know he had good taste. The thing about “Stars Are Blind” is: it’s a brilliant song, it’s one of my ultimate bops. I guess I wasn’t so interested in someone who knew the whole Rolling Stones catalog. It’s like, good for you, of course, you do.
How did you film that scene? Did you just let them improvise and pop chip bags to their hearts’ desires?
I think most of what ended up in the movie was scripted, but when you’ve got Bo, you tend to let him [go]. I said in the script she’s mortified, and the more mortified she is, the more that Ryan sort of does the most over the top thing in the world. It was a real pharmacy, we added a lot of the neon in there, [our] brilliant DP, I spent my whole time tormenting him. He was saying, “There’s a rainbow setting on this pharmacy sign and I didn’t want to tell you because I knew if I told you, you’d make me use it.”
Their chemistry is so brilliant and the different methods they have, the different worlds they come from as actors, so much felt real because it was real. Bo is so charming, and Carey is so brilliant and clever, and between them making each other laugh, it was so wonderful.
That’s what’s interesting about the men here. A lot of them — especially those Cassie tempts at the bars — are written so charmingly, and they turn out to be monsters, but the casting enhances that. Most of these actors are known for comedic, boy-next-door types: Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson… Why did you cast these actors?
If you’re making a movie about a complicated subject, it’s very easy to talk about this stuff when the people involved are people you don’t like or respect, or you’ve always thought were sleazy. Where this subject matter is tricky is that these people you love and respect. The ones that people love, people tend to, rather than say, “I love this person, it’s a real shame that they do terrible things, but I love them!” They say, “I love them so it can’t be true.” It’s endemic. It’s a culture we grew up in. Every moment that feels shocking in my movie is something we’ve seen in comedies and TV shows over the last 10 years…. Part of it is admitting — as a filmmaker, as audience members — how complicit we all are in this culture, and that complicity is made much easier when the people you like [are doing bad things]. And it’s not just men, but Connie Britton, Alison Brie…. everyone is people we trust.
I’m not interested in villains, I don’t believe in them. There are outliers and dangerous people, but they’re very rare. Every single actor who came on board for this…. I just said to everyone at the beginning of every day, “This is your movie, you’re the delightful protagonist of this movie. You woke up this morning knowing you’re a good person, genuinely believing you’re a good person, and somebody’s going to come into your life and tell you that you’re not.” How would any of us feel about that?