Emerald Fennell: ‘Promising Young Woman’

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Writer-director, Emerald Fennell. Photo by Faye Thomas

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes writer, director, and actress Emerald Fennell, who is nominated for Academy Awards for best original screenplay, best director and best picture, as a producer, for her feature film debut “Promising Young Woman.” Fennell was the showrunner for the second season of the series “Killing Eve” and her acting roles include those in the series “The Crown” and “Call the Midwife.” Fennell tells The Treatment that casting decisions in “Promising Young Woman” were key in upending the audience’s expectations. She says she is fascinated by the minutia in stories, of how one gets from A to B, which she explored as head writer of “Killing Eve.” And she explains why the patterns of addiction are significant in “Promising Young Woman.”

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest, writer-director, Emerald Fennell, is nominated for three Oscars this year for director, screenplay and best film for her first film as director: "Promising Young Woman.” One of the things the film is about, and I keep thinking about this with "Killing Eve," is it's about perception and how wrong perception can be.

Emerald Fennell: Yes, absolutely. I think for me, it was always about how much easier it is to manipulate perception when you're a woman, because you're always invariably underestimated. It's an easy position to start from.

(L to R) Actor Carey Mulligan, writer / director Emerald Fennell, actor Laverne Cox, and actor Bo Burnham on the set of PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features 

KCRW: You're so often casting people against type here, starting with Carey Mulligan, the lead, but also the way you use Bo Burnham and Connie Britton and Fred Molina. There are so many ways you get to play with the way we as viewers have come to know these actors.

Fennell: I think that so much of the fun of building a world is you have kind of complete control over who is in that world and how they live in it. It seems to me, certainly, if you're making a subversive film in any way, or a satire, especially, if you're playing with genre, then we know that the audience has relationships with actors. We know really what those relationships are, so it feels like such a brilliant way to communicate with the audience. It didn't feel remotely strange to me to cast all of these weak, selfish, disgusting men with lots of really handsome, funny, charming people.

KCRW: I was wondering if Pedro Almodovar was an influence on you as well. 

Fennell: Probably. I think, if so, probably unconsciously, but I definitely think that his magical realism, or the heightened, allegorical way that he works is something that I really love. And yeah, most of the films I love and aspire to, they tend to be metaphorical, to some degree, and stylistic.

KCRW: The way he uses women and the perception of women and the way women are often underestimated or disregarded and left in the margins. I really felt, in so many ways, the impact in terms of color, in terms of tone, having both comic and melodrama and tragedy in the same frame. 

Fennell: Well, there's a sensibility that I really love, which is kind of bombastic, and we still have such a specific idea of how serious things should be discussed and how serious things should look, and we put an enormous amount of emphasis on subtlety and quietness and subtext. Those things are all incredibly important, but I don't mind things being more operatic. In fact, I find them much more moving if they are. I think maybe subtlety is an overrated quality in filmmaking.

KCRW: It's funny that you're saying that because there's a very subtle thing you do with the camera distance, the way you frame shots, but also, you don't really get that close very often, and when you go close, there's a reason for it.

Fennell: I suppose that stuff is in the detail, but I think the overall picture is one that has always felt to me a little bit like a fairy tale or an allegory, or a biblical story, quite straightforward in that regard, and quite heightened. There are lots of things and facets to this film, like there are to Cassie, but again, it's that tension between how things look and how they are, and I think probably like Cassie, the film looks more inviting and sweet than it is.

KCRW: Well, I guess I was thinking that camera distance being a little farther away than normal is something that, when you get closer, it can start to feel more like realism. And to make it slightly surreal, keeping it a little bit of a distance, but also keeping us a little distant from her because you're giving us information bit by bit, so if we get too close, it might feel too intimate.

Fennell: Definitely, I think that she absolutely keeps people at arm's length. And so to get too close to a character who deliberately keeps people far away, would feel maybe invasive. Also, she's an incredibly contained person; she's a deliberate person, and it was important that the camera work in this section had some of that formality. She is quite a formal person, I suppose. And it's really only when she starts to lose control of things, when she starts falling for Ryan, on their dates, we use steadicam, to loosen things up and make them more intimate and free. The only other times you see that camera work is when she's losing control: when she smashes the car window after the videotape by the tree. Those are the moments where we loosened things up, and they start to move and we feel some movement, but in general, I think the stasis is very important because she's stuck. 

KCRW: In that way, the film feels as meticulous to me, as, in so many ways, she is, and so in those modes you're talking about when we see the control go away, like when she takes the tire iron to the truck, that's the moment we actually feel a personal connection to her, or I should say, a more emotional connection to her.

Fennell: There were a lot of conversations in the development of the film: why don't we see Nina? Can we see Nina? Can we have a flashback? But the thing is about that is they give us the audience an insight that everyone else around Cassie doesn't have. It makes her easier; it makes her more accessible, more likeable; we can be more emotionally engaged. It's important that this film is about how these things often don't make you likable. They often don't make you communicative and easy to sympathize with. It's important that the things that happened in this film are a long, long time ago, and that everyone else has forgotten, but one person hasn't. But if we've seen, if we're in her head, and we see, too, it's too easy. So it was always about empathizing profoundly with her and admiring her, and understanding why she's doing things without losing our hearts.

Carey Mulligan stars as 'Cassandra' in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Photo by Courtesy of Focus Features.

KCRW: Thinking about your work as an actor or even your work on writing "Eve" and you're often working with these dual poles of formality versus intimacy; how much do you let in?  Again, whether talking about "The Crown" or "Killing Eve," it's also about perception, and maybe not really ever stepping inside what we want to know about that person.

Fennell: I think that is probably true. But I wonder how much that's the case of most performances. Whether you're acting or writing or directing, you're always making a decision about what you show and what you don't, actually in a much more considered way than in life. 

I love reality television. I love it for lots of reasons, but mostly, it will never stop being fascinating and also slightly disheartening to see how little we conceal in real life: how obvious our motives are, how clear our body language and the way we talk is. No matter how subtle we think we're being, no matter how clever at concealing ourselves, we're not. But I think it's very interesting in a funny way that when we watch fiction, or we read fiction, what we really need as an audience is to be able to crack a code or ferret out the truth underneath everything, when actually what's so funny in real life is the truth is so palpably obvious.

KCRW: I guess it is in reality TV, too. If we're looking at "Killing Eve" or "Promising Young Woman," what ends up being more important than the procedural information is the emotional information. And there's a thing you like to do where you promise this idea of giving us all the facts, and by the end, the facts turn out to be not nearly as material as we think.

Fennell: Certainly, with something like "Killing Eve," that world and the dynamics in that world were set up so beautifully by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Luke Jennings, who wrote the books as well. And so up to a point, I was taking the reins on that one. But I do think that it's the same in all of our lives, isn't it? The procedure of how things work or how we get from A to B really is as interesting as our emotional interaction with them. 

The thing that I've always found fascinating about "Killing Eve" isn't just the relationship between these two women, but it's the minutia of everyone's life, the fact that if you are a spy or an assassin, you still have to go to the loo. You still have to cook dinner, do the laundry. Those are the kind of moments that are interesting. 

With the opening of the second series, which was the one that I wrote, it starts immediately after the stabbing of the first series. We didn't do what you would expect and what you would normally see in this kind of genre, which is: cut to six months later, when everyone was healed. What we did was dwell in the space that I find incredibly interesting. What happens after you stab someone when you're a real person? How do you get home? What do you do with the knife? If you find out you're waiting in the queue, and your coat's about to go through a scanner at the train station, where does the knife go? Well, if you're a woman, then the first place I would hide it would be a sanitary bin, where people put their Tampax because no one ever looks in that. You need sugar because you'd have a hangover, so you'd get so much candy that you're like an insane person. It's those sorts of behavior, the aftermath of things is just as exciting to me as the big event itself. It's how we cope with those things.

KCRW: Those beats that you're talking about are really part of that second series of "Killing Eve," but also in "Promising Young Woman." Each point when the imposture disappears, we're left with all these people who are stuck with: what do I do? 

Fennell: Absolutely. And I think "Promising Young Woman" is all about the aftermath of something terrible and a long time after, too. When you look at the genre, and the way that we played with the genre, there's usually an inciting incident that you have to see that is very horrible, which is maybe what you would expect when you see this drunk woman in the club, you're expecting to see the thing that's going to start everything off. What you're not expecting is that thing has happened a long, long time ago, and she's finding a very perverse way of trying to rectify it. So I think the aftermath is very rarely dwelt on, actually, because we want to see action. That's how we're kind of primed. And that's not to say I don't think there is action in both of these things.  In "Promising Young Woman" and in "Killing Eve," there's an enormous amount of action, but how do you reassemble everything afterwards? How do you move forward? How do we all react differently to things? That's the thing that I find most interesting.

KCRW: We're clearly with somebody with Cassie in "Promising Young Woman," who has not let go of the past yet and has been doing this for so long that, when she's making herself up in the mirror, she's not even really looking at herself anymore as much as she's basically trying to create an effect. Everything she does is either to be seen or not to be seen. 

Fennell: Absolutely. And I think that's the first lesson I suppose, as a woman is: learning how to disappear or learning how to attract attention, and so it makes total sense that she would be expert at that thing. 

Carey and I talked about addiction with regards to this film and self harm, and I think, certainly, the pattern of behavior that Cassie follows with her nighttime excursions are akin to that kind of thing. There's a build up of tension, which needs to be released. And then that's followed by a moment of elation, which is then followed by shame and self loathing, and it starts again. I think that was something that felt very truthful about being in this kind of position. 

KCRW: I was thinking about this, not in terms of power, although there is certainly power to be derived, but this obsession, that's kind of like an addiction to make all these people who did this to her friend feel the way she must have felt?

Fennell: There are two very distinct paths for her with this film because when we find her, the thing that she has been doing, which is with strangers, is different. The thing that happens in this film that changes everything is meeting Ryan, and realizing that she has to address the thing that she hasn't been looking at: the actual people, the real root of it. And I think once she does that, it's a different relationship. It's something much darker and more upsetting. And yes, I think that the lesson she's trying to impart is much more specific; it is very much: you didn't believe it? Well, let me show you how it feels. Do you believe it now? It's a different experience for her and for them what she's doing and inevitably it gets more out of control.

KCRW: This feels to me like it's an ideal project for someone who is an actor because it's about trying to set these things into motion between performance and persona, and not giving too much away. I was wondering if those were the conversations you had with Carey Mulligan about doing this. 

Fennell: I don't know how much of that was conscious, but I think you're probably right. I'm very preoccupied with the appearance of things and how easily they can be manipulated. But when it comes to Carey, the reason I think that she's so amazing, is that she is much less preoccupied with the part that's being played. What I think is so genius about her performance and why I so desperately wanted her to do it was because she's never really playing a part. She's going through the motions and a bit like putting the makeup on, as you say, she knows how to do what she does. But the pleasure for us as an audience is actually seeing her all the time.

It's the little moments where, as an example, when she's at Neil's apartment. Neil is played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and he asks if she wants some coke, and she says no, and then he tries to make her snort it and she blows it away. And then finally, he puts his finger in her mouth and rubs it in her gums, and it's one of my favorite moments of the whole film, because the way that Cassie looks at him, is the most furious I've ever seen anyone look at anyone. It would be impossible for Neil in the world to say she was looking at him in any strange way at all. It's the most pure look of hatred possible for any human to give, and he wouldn't notice it, giving it to you. What's so genius about what she does, is we know what's happening, even if it's not, in any way, signposted.

Carey Mulligan (left) stars as "Cassandra" and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (right) stars as "Neil“ in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Photo by Courtesy of Focus Features.

KCRW: This is a really physical performance from Carey Mulligan.

Fennell: The thing about Carey that's so interesting as a performer and as a person is that she is not method. She didn't speak in an American accent at all except when we were filming. We talked a lot about Cassie; we talked a lot about Nina; we talked about addiction and pleasure and fear and all of those things, of course. But she comes to set; she's there all day. She never goes to a trailer; she hangs out with everyone. She has lunch with everyone. She is her own stand-in unless she has to change or whatever. She's completely present, completely adorable, completely herself until the camera starts rolling. And it's quite chilling. It's like watching somebody be possessed. And I think that it means that whatever it is that happens with Carey is completely unconscious. And that's not to say that she's not incredibly diligent and hardworking. She is, but it's just an innate understanding of the thing that's happening. 

And so all of the physicals, all of it is just, it's something that happens. And it's always right, because it's completely intuitive because she's just there in the room with the person, which is quite unnerving sometimes, because two seconds before, she’s been hilarious and adorable. And then suddenly, she's terrifying.



Rebecca Mooney