Meet the Director of Promising Young Woman
You may know her from The Crown, her writing on The Drifters, or from her turn writing and producing season 2 of Killing Eve. But if you don’t know her name yet, you will soon: Emerald Fennell is on the rise. You will be impressed by the work and unique style she brings to her first theatrical film, Promising Young Woman; a film she created, wrote, produced, and directed!
Promising Young Woman is a revenge film starring Carey Mulligan as a young woman seeking revenge against men who cross her path. Fennell came up with the premise of the movie as an idea to “write a revenge story from a woman’s perspective.”
“I’ve always loved thrillers, especially old fashioned cinematic ones that had lots of twists and turns. So, I took that idea and started to think about how I would take revenge if I wanted to? What would that look like? Would it look different than the kinds of revenge we see in lots of movies? And since it’s a woman’s revenge, would it take a different type of form? Those were the nebulous things I was thinking about.”
As those thoughts percolated in her mind, she dove deeper: “Then I thought about ‘what would happen if I went into a night club and pretended to be drunk?’ I wouldn’t do anything; just pretend to be drunk. I wondered what somebody would say if they took me home and realized I wasn’t drunk. And would they feel weird about it and, if so, why? My feeling was ‘Ah, if they do feel weird it’s because they were caught doing something wrong!’”
That particular line of thought brought her to a larger theme of the cultural mores and customs associated with this kind of behavior. “I realized that’s what’s interesting! Our culture doesn’t say that that’s wrong. In fact, it kind of says ‘Oh, it’s a part of the seduction!’ Of course, this conversation has changed a lot in recent years, but even so it’s still a part of our courting ritual.
“So, I was interested in questioning the cultural and social norms we live with and asking questions about what they are and why they’re interesting. That meant investigating the grey area of this particular issue and the gap in experience between women and men. I mean, if we all think we are right and all think we are good, why is it that we can see one thing from two different angles? That’s where I guess it started from.”
Promising Young Woman doesn’t tread lightly, nor should it. As Fennell stated, diving into the grey area means leaving room for conversation and discussion after the lights go up:
“I remember seeing the 2014 movie Force Majeure with a group of friends. It is a kind of relationship drama. Afterward, I remember thinking the film was about “X”, but no one else agreed. Some thought it was about “Y” and others “A” or “B” or “Z”. And I thought that was proof of a super-effective movie if people can leave and feel ‘I’m not actually sure about this.’”
“I hope that my film can replicate that feeling: I wanted it to take lots of strange turns and be really entertaining and surprising — all of the things I really love in movies.”
Something else the director wanted to emulate was the cinematic style of some of her favorite movies. “I admire movies that are very naturalistic. But for me I wanted this to look as cinematic as possible.
“When I think of the movies that I love and watch over and over, movies like To Die For, Strangers on a Train and even Fargo, they have a slightly off-kilter visual style. And the thing about this dark comedy is that it needed in every way to be thought-provoking, engaging, funny and pleasurable to look at. That was very important to me.”
Fennell was specific in what she wanted, and very focused because of the limited amount of time to shoot the movie. “We shot Promising Young Woman on a very low budget in 23 days! So it was very important to me to have a style of its own, almost feminine in scope. That included the choice of music to accompany the visuals.
“I wanted to have an almost maniacally detailed selection of storyboards with sub-headings like ‘Cassie as Predator’ or ‘Cassie as Avenging Angel.’ Visual frames that we could use again and again. And the music was a group of songs done as covers, and the original score using themes again and again, but in different ways, so it could feel distinct cinematically, visually and emotionally.”
That distinctiveness was a telling sign of Fennell’s dedication to the project, and her needing it to stand out in a crowded marketplace. “With the glut of amazing movies we have on television and in theatres, people are really well versed now with all of the tropes out there. So it’s important to make this film as gorgeous as possible. We built as many sets as we could. We enlisted Nancy Steiner as our costume designer, Michael Parry as our production designer. These are two very experienced and very talented people who fleshed out my vision perfectly.”
Which brings us to the Promising Young Woman herself, Carey Mulligan. The director has nothing but praise for the actress, not only because she’s brilliant, but because of her professionalism. “The thing about Carey is that she is such a deeply talented actress and a chameleon in that she has a wonderful way to shape-shift in her characters. She is so good that you forget the breadth of the movies she’s been in. She’s been in so many movies because she’s so good at being different.”
Mulligan is also particular about what she does: “When I met her she told me that the first thing she wants when she does a movie is to have the instinct of “I don’t know how to do this”! That’s what she looks for: The challenge. She’s diligent and hard-working — a genius! She turned up to work every day as a delight in every single stage of the movie. And during the rushes, I don’t think she dropped a single line! That’s the kind of person you want in every scene of your movie.”
When it came to casting her love interest, the director cast the multi-talented director-actor-writer-singer-musician Bo Burnham to square off with Mulligan. “Bo is also a genius, but he comes from a different place as Carey. So it was exciting to see two people who are extremely talented coming to work in a different way, almost like a first date. It was so much fun to see them challenging each other.”
Through it all, the talent of Emerald Fennell shines through. Largely because she doesn’t let the details inhibit her creativity, spirit and work ethic. When asked about taking on so many roles for this title (i.e. writer, director, producer) and whether it can become complicated, she dismissed the idea. “Between my work on The Crown and Killing Eve and because of such a short window and the speed at which we made this film, I didn’t have time to dwell on that.”
“It is a very hard chore doing all of those roles, but it also gave me the assurance to know that I knew the movie inside and out, and to a degree, that I could react faster. People would ask me questions and if I didn’t know the answer I told them that. I’m not going to pretend I know. There’s a bit of false advice out there of ‘fake it to make it.’ But I strenuously feel, especially as a female filmmaker, that that should not be the case.”
“It’s feeling confident in something you know. And I was very confident. I knew the script. I knew the characters inside and out. I knew how I wanted it to look. Every single costume I wanted Carey to wear, the texture, the color palette, everything. So that was reassuring to me as the person who created, written and directed Promising Young Woman. I was confident to say what I didn’t know because I knew just as much.”
And after seeing Promising Young Woman in our theatres, you’ll be fascinated and impressed by the newest person in showbiz, Emerald Fennell.
From visionary director Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve) comes a delicious new take on revenge. Everyone said Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was a promising young woman...until a mysterious event abruptly derailed her future. But nothing in Cassie’s life is what it appears to be: She’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter is about to give Cassie a chance to right the wrongs of the past in this thrilling and wildly entertaining story.
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All images courtesy of Focus Features.