Emerald Fennell tells EW how she convinced Hilton to let her use the 2006 hit for a wonderful dance sequence between Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham.

By Joey Nolfi
December 23, 2020 at 09:00 AM EST
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Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features; Inset: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

If, amid sequences of dark cinematic peril, you've ever found your thoughts wandering to Paris Hilton's legendary single "Stars Are Blind," writer-director Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman has the perfect scene for you.

Between the rape-revenge thriller's frank meditation on female rage emerges a romantic relationship that speaks to the unexpected vibrance of love that can, on the surface, shine through darkness. As her furor during a plot to avenge the sexual assault of a former classmate subsides, ex-medical student Cassie (Carey Mulligan) falls for an old acquaintance, Ryan (Bo Burnham), and their attraction peaks in a spontaneous, neon-lit dance to the Hilton classic inside a drugstore.

The whole thing feels both whimsical and unsettling at the same time. Its adorable absurdity — chip bags explode like fireworks, hips shimmy past multivitamins on the shelves, the dull "pharmacy" sign above the counter bathes the couple in candy light — lulls viewers (and Cassie) into a sense of short-lived comfort amid the chaos of her quest for retribution, thanks in part to Fennell's knack for tonal juxtaposition.

"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," she tells EW of selecting the bright, reggae-tinged song to contrast with the grit found in the rest of the film. "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."

Because she wrote the song into the script, Fennell says she wanted to make sure she had Hilton's permission to use it when cameras finally rolled. So, she wrote a letter to the enduring celebrity to get her to sign off on the scene.

Hilton agreed, with Fennell chalking the moment up to the 39-year-old likely understanding the importance of interrupting the film's overall tone with the sequence.

"When you see Bo and Carey in that scene, you understand why [they work, and] they let me have it," Fennell says. "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 as Paris as I could’ve imagined."

Filming on the day was similarly electric: "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 that Cassie is mortified, and the more mortified she is, the more that Ryan sort of does the most over the top thing in the world."

Though the scene is cheerful on the surface, Fennell calls the bright dressings a facade — at all times — for Cassie's trauma, and the "Stars Are Blind" scene is no different.

"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," Fennell says of the film's aesthetic. "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."

Promising Young Woman is now playing in theaters.

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