Emerald Fennell jumps on the phone from England the day after winning a Writers Guild award for Best Original Screenplay for “Promising Young Woman.” A week earlier, she’d been nominated for three Academy Awards for the film—her first feature—for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. While we’re talking, news breaks that she’ll write the script for the Warner Bros. movie “Zatanna,” about the DC Comics superhero magician. And she’s starting rehearsals on “Cinderella,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical for which she wrote the book, which is set to open in London’s West End in May.
It’s a lot all at once—plus, Fennell has a toddler son at home, whom she was seven months’ pregnant with during production on “Promising Young Woman.” But the 35-year-old is thoughtful, funny and expansive on a number of topics relating to her brash and insightful filmmaking debut. Carey Mulligan gives a ferocious performance as Cassie, a traumatized and vengeful woman who dresses up and hits the clubs week after week, pretending to be blackout drunk, only to turn the tables on the supposedly “nice guys” who try to take advantage of her. It’s one of my favorite movies of 2020, so I was thrilled to chat with Fennell about Mulligan’s work, establishing a tricky tone between horror, drama and dark comedy, and the role of alcohol in telling women’s stories.
What has the last week or so been like for you? You’ve earned three Oscar nominations and now you’ve just won a Writers Guild award.
It’s been, honestly, as a writer it’s impossible to describe … It’s been incredible. It’s unexpected when you make a film like this, you just hope it will kind of find its audience somehow. The idea of Academy Award nominations or winning a Writers Guild award is just so amazing. It’s beyond.
And then beyond this week and awards season and all that, “Promising Young Woman” has started a lot of conversations, provoked a lot of thoughtful discussion about relationships and consent and women’s power. What has that been like for you?
You can’t really prepare yourself for the reactions to something like this because it’s something we all feel so personally about and it’s so complicated, and so it’s just been incredibly moving, actually—the people that have spoken about this film to me and in their own articles and in their own conversations. You can’t really prepare yourself for how moving and how profound an experience that will be. It’s something that we all think about, we all know about, we all want to talk about. Certainly I want to talk about it, which is why I wanted to make the film because it seemed like an impossible thing to talk about.
But in placing it in—at first—this playful, high-energy, candy-colored setting, it’s sort of an entryway into the more serious and more complicated conversations.
Well, I think so. Part of the challenge is making it not feel like medicine, making it feel like something you’d want to go and see on date night, and then discuss it afterward. By that point, it is not in any way a conventional horror movie, but it’s why I think horror has always been used to kind of discuss the darker, more problematic things. I think of “Get Out” and how expertly it made both the most pleasurable brilliant, funny terrifying film in the world, and nobody left that movie theater feeling or thinking the same way. It’s an extraordinary experience. And then you go back to, like, “Frankenstein” and people’s worry about science replacing God, or “Dracula” and kind of concerns about sex. I think pleasure and enjoyment is a really important tool if you’re going to be discussing stuff that is difficult. And especially if you want to attract people who maybe haven’t thought that deeply about these things. We’re incredibly lucky, I think—those of us who think and talk about all of this stuff very openly, if we have friends who are very open about this stuff. It’s so important. But there are very many people who still haven’t been able to talk about this stuff, so if this helps them then it’s just wonderful.
I just watched this again over the weekend after having watched it a while ago and I realized the second time around how much of a horror movie it is, from the dripping titles to the slow camera push in the lunch scene with Alison Brie to the strings in the score. But it is also funny and it is also heartbreaking. So as you’re writing this movie, how do you find that balance? It’s so tough but it all plays together so seamlessly.
Oh, thank you so much. It’s such an interesting question because I don’t exactly know. Half of it is that it’s like a crossword puzzle, and so I think the fun for me is working out what an audience might be expecting and then being able to sort of both deliver that but in a way that they weren’t anticipating. So much is in the writing, I think, in the decisions of: Oh, what would people be expecting at this stage in this kind of movie? What are the story beats? What are the character arcs we traditionally see here? And then kind of twisting it. So that’s an incredibly fun exercise. But in general, tone is a really tough one to describe because a lot of the time it’s something that, it sort of feels, not innate but it doesn’t feel necessarily like a decision. The thing about writing a film and then getting to direct it is, it sort of exists to you. It just exists—it’s just the facts of life and it’s just about trying to then explain it to other people. It’s a weird thing. I wish I could be more articulate about how tone works.
It’s tricky. And then as an actor yourself (Fennell played Camilla Parker Bowles on season three of “The Crown”), what kind of conversations did you have with Carey Mulligan going into this to find this character who is so fascinatingly complicated?
I mean, Carey’s just such a genius, the moment she read it, it kind of came alive, really. I suppose the one thing is with tone and the genre and the trickery that goes on—the filmmaking element of this movie—the most important thing was that the characters have to be completely real. They had to be played completely straight, that people weren’t playing the genre. And then the most important thing was Cassie. And Carey is so expert at existing, at being that person. She doesn’t do too much, she doesn’t signal the things. We know exactly what she’s thinking, but it’s so still and so considered. That was the thing that was really important, was that whoever played Cassie wasn’t going to play a kick-ass, whip-smart, bad-ass bitch, you know? That it wasn’t sort of “iconic,” as they say. That any temptation to do that was going to be kind of pulled away. She needed to feel like what Cassie is, which is an incredibly traumatized, grieving woman who cannot find an outlet for her anger and cannot find any justice. And that was a very hard person to play, and Carey was just amazing because she not only makes her believable, but whether we like her or not—you know, I love her—but whether people like her or not, we understand what she’s doing and why she’s doing it.
The understatement of the performance is what gives it a lot of power, I think—the fact that she’s not wink-wink, nod-nod, she’s quietly simmering and you feel that rage and that gives it an understated urgency.
And that’s Carey’s genius but also, like: Isn’t that how women do experience rage? Isn’t the stillness and the consideration and the quietness part of it? It’s not bombastic … maybe on “Real Housewives,” my favorite female stereotype. But in real life, I said to someone recently, it’s like an ingrown toenail. It’s that kind of pain. It’s not, you know, a gunshot wound. It’s what I think Carey’s so brilliant at: She’s become an expert at hiding her feelings or nearly an expert. We just see glimpses of what’s going on.
I want to talk about the role of alcohol in this movie and in stories like this. I read that you stopped drinking yourself, is that correct?
Yeah, I stopped drinking when I was … 22? Yeah.
I’ve been sober for three years myself, so …
To you, as well! So I very much notice now the role of alcohol in telling women’s stories. Why is it that usually in movies, we see a drunk girl like this and she’s either the object of scorn or the object of hilarity?
Yeah, or the object of desire, as she is in this. Or not even desire, but an opportunity. Why do we see this in movies—what a huge, impossible question—but it’s because movies generally reflect real life, and I still think that as a culture we have this idea of ‘asking for it.’ I had a very difficult conversation with a male journalist who said some people would argue that women make themselves vulnerable by getting drunk.
And I was like: “Oh! Buckle up my friend.” And it’s something that we’re talking about in the U.K. so much right now, it’s a conversation that feels kind of ever-changing and alive, but the truth of it is—and this is what I was trying to explain—is that we are vulnerable by existing. We are vulnerable by sitting. We are vulnerable by having hair. We are vulnerable by having hands and skin and wearing trousers or a skirt or a bikini or, you know, anything. Women exist at the mercy, really, of the men in the room. And we are very, very lucky, I think in the world that we live in, if those men are kind and good—which certainly in my life, most of them are. But it’s such a difficult (thing) to explain to people, that it kind of doesn’t matter what you do. Because really the alcohol is just an excuse for people to get away with things they couldn’t get away with when somebody was lucid. That’s the thing, and it’s something that’s so difficult to talk about because it’s so complicated. … If somebody’s son passed out drunk at a party and he woke up on a couch—regrettably, I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen—but there would be no expectation that that would be an invitation to be interfered with. There’s something about women’s bodies that makes them—we’ve all been brought up to think like, they have to be attained by any means necessary. Alcohol just happens to be one of those means.
Alcohol sort of excuses away all that bad behavior. Like: “Oh, I was drunk, she was drunk.”
Of course! It’s also been a cultural—it’s been a joke. And it’s been banter for years. So that’s made women and girls ashamed to talk about it or to even believe that it wasn’t right. And also it’s too complicated to believe it because it’s so endemic. That’s the other thing. It’s just a huge mess. [laughs] That’s what this film is about. It’s not about traditional predators. It’s just about good people who’ve just, they’ve been given a loophole by the culture and so they just don’t think too deeply about the loophole. They just don’t look at it.
It’s easier to laugh at the prom queen who’s shitfaced in “Sixteen Candles.”
I still have never seen that movie! Everyone references it. But totally. … It’s remarkable how much the culture has changed. Think of the Peeping Toms looking up girls’ skirts and peering through windows to see them changing. These were just, like, part of coming-of age stories for boys.
I want to ask you about some of the responses to your film from some women critics who had trouble with either Cassie’s motivation or the way the film ends, some women who’ve been sexual assault survivors themselves who’ve had difficulty watching it. What’s your response to that?
When you’re making a film about something like this, I would never dream of saying that it reflects everyone’s experience. It can’t possibly. I would never. And also, for so many of us, this stuff is immensely personal and of course that will have huge bearing on the way that you interact with the film. And so I think it’s incredibly important, just as a director firstly to say that you make the thing that you make because it feels true and right to you, but that the audience has no obligation to agree with you at all. And also as a woman, I just respect anyone’s feelings about this stuff. I would never kind of argue. But for me, the film is about one woman’s journey, it’s a specific journey. For some people, the end is the most important part of it and the best part of it or the part that made them feel the most, and some people understandably for various reasons didn’t, and that’s OK. I think that was always going to be the difficulty of making a film like this. I can only make something that feels like the kind of conversation that I would have with my friends, where there are not necessarily answers, where sometimes you’re just talking, you’re just thinking. That’s the thing. It’s a really difficult one, making anything like this because of course you can’t reflect everyone’s experience—and also, it would be wrong to try. It sounds Pollyanna-ish but I’m incredibly moved by the conversation, and for those people who it’s not for them, I just completely understand.
You were seven months’ pregnant during production—which, as a mom myself, I salute you. What was the biggest challenge of being that extremely pregnant while making a movie—your first movie?
It just wasn’t that bad. I think that’s the important thing. Like a lot of women, I was terrified that it would stop everything in its tracks. But women do much harder things—much harder things—than direct films when they’re seven months’ pregnant. Lots of women have done it before and will do it again, but the thing that’s important to say is that it was completely possible and it was completely fine. I was just incredibly grateful that I was working with people who were so cool about it. I think women can just do whatever they want to, really.