Emerald Fennell On Directing Rape-Revenge Thriller, Promising Young Woman
The Carey Mulligan-starring feature upends genre tropes to tell an age-old story.
Warning: light spoilers for Promising Young Woman ahead.
In the opening scene of Promising Young Woman, Carey Mulligan appears as 30-year-old Cassie, an intoxicated woman slumped over at a bar, unaware of her surroundings — and is quickly and predictably preyed upon. Adam Brody offers to help Cassie home, putting on a nice guy act as he maneuvers her instead to his place, where he plies her with more alcohol and clearly intends to take advantage of her confused state — up until the moment she suddenly becomes dead sober and asks him, "What are you doing?" as he begins to slide her clothes off.
Caught in the literal act, Brody — and the ensuing roster of nameless characters Cassie pulls the same trick on throughout the film — rushes to defend himself and his impulses. Director Emerald Fennell says that question, "what are you doing?", is in some ways the center of a film that asks audiences to reevaluate what they believe about sexual assault victims and their perpetrators. We soon learn that Cassie's motivation for her DIY stings stems from the way her deceased best friend, Nina, was treated in the aftermath of an assault while both women were medical students. Now an aimless dropout and part time barista, Cassie spends her nights trying to shock men who believe they're good into seeing that they're part of the problem, too.
Fennell — who was also the showrunner for Killing Eve's Emmy-nominated second season, in addition to playing Camilla Bowles on season four of The Crown — says she "wanted to write a revenge movie, with all the tropes of a revenge movie, that had all the pleasures of a revenge movie," that centered a woman "behaving in a way I think a woman might actually behave." When it originally premiered at Sundance last year, it was to a raucous reception. Now, Promising Young Woman is in theaters nationwide — though due to the pandemic, most viewers will stream it on VOD, where it's available on Friday. NYLON caught up with Fennell to discuss casting and working with Mulligan (who's already won an award for her performance), what she hopes audiences will take away from the film, and why the film needed to end the way it did.
When did you first get the idea for Promising Young Woman?
I think it had been germinating for awhile. Certainly this kind of weird culture that I grew up with, where certain things are just completely normalized, how it was just something that hadn't really been properly interrogated. So, I've been living with that for a long time. I guess back in late 2016 I wanted to write a revenge movie, but with all the tropes of a revenge movie, that had all the pleasures of a revenge movie, but was actually with a real woman at the center who experienced something real — and behaving in a way I think a woman might actually behave. Because I don't really think women resort to violence very often. And when they do, if they do, as you see in this film, it doesn't go well. So I think that was the root of it.
I think the thing that really kicked it off, though, was the scene on the bed, the pre-title sequence, which has Adam Brody in it, which was a drunk girl, lying on a bed, with someone undressing her, and her saying, "What are you doing? What are you doing?" drunkenly, and then sitting up and saying, "What are you doing?" I guess the, "What are you doing?" is the central question of this whole movie, I think, for everyone.
Why was Carey [Mulligan] the right fit for Cassie?
I wanted somebody who was unexpected. In the same way that we cast so many heartthrobs, and trustworthy dreamboats, and trustworthy women that we love, because it's always the most disappointing when it's those people. And it's always harder to point fingers at those people, too, in, I'm sure, everyone's experience. So that was an important part of it, that as an audience, we have a natural inclination to side with those kinds of people.
Carey is so talented, and she's so brilliant, and she's an enigmatic person, as well. She maybe works once a year, because she's really particular about what she does. You only ever see her in something she really believes in, and then she sort of goes away, and lives her life. So she has this kind of quality that I think is quite outside. You're able to believe in her as an outsider. You're able to believe in her as a chameleon. I think she's so clever, she's so funny.
She's such a lovely, gorgeously warm, amazing person. But she's so good, that it gives her this power, that I don't even think that she necessarily knows that she has, that in every scene, people have to come to her. And everyone did, because they're all amazing.
But she's not f*cking around, and that's what Cassie needed, I think. And someone who didn't want to make her likable, somebody who understood the kind of film that I wanted to make, which was that it would be like, like a lot of things, fun until it's not fun anymore. Carey couldn't care less. She wants to do the thing that feels real. If it feels real to her, she's all in. And that's the thing. I think that it would have been difficult to have people who'd done similar things, or maybe had done lots of action, or even romantic comedies. It was important that it was somebody outside of that world.
Why was it important to you for the film to still be fun, even though it tackles such a serious topic?
Well, there are a few things. Firstly, I wanted it to be accessible. If you're going to make something that means anything to you, you want as many people to watch it as possible, and you want to make it accessible. You want this conversation not to be niche, not to be between those of us who were already been discussing it in great detail, for years. It needs to be a much more open conversation. So partly, that was what I was hoping for.
But also, "very serious movies," in inverted commas, are movies that I rarely watch. The movies that have meant the most to me, that have really shaken me, and made me think — when I think of Get Out, or Midsommar, or Force Majeure, it's those kind of movies that really are extensively genre, the horror or the dark comedies.
Force Majeure is just a masterpiece that makes you question what you would do in a situation. And Midsommar's just the most brilliant meditation on a toxic relationship. Just from a personal point of view, that's how I communicate. And certainly the way I communicate with my friends. My female friends are at their most savagely funny and hilarious and awful when we're talking about stuff that's very dark, and I just don't really subscribe to this idea that life is so binary. Looks can be so deceiving.
That's what this movie's about, whether it's Cassie, whether it's the man, whether it's the movie itself, this is about things not being necessarily how they feel or look, and how that is so difficult for us still — because we're still expecting things to tell us what they are, and people to tell us what they are. And life isn't like that.
Cassie's relationship with Bo Burnham's character, Ryan, really highlights that.
With Ryan — it's the biggest illusion in general, that a boy's going to save us, that romance will make things better, and fix things. It's all of this stuff. The easy, most simple thing just is never quite real. It's usually too good to be true.
It relieves the tension for awhile, but then...
Exactly. That's what this movie is about. It's very much the thing that I love so much about a movie being so contained, especially in theaters, and it's just, this year has been so strange, for so many reasons. But it's particularly difficult for a film like this, when it's designed to be communal viewing. But it's so much about the kind of tension and release. And as you say, completely, the falling into a false sense of security, only to have that undermined.
Do you expect men and women to take different things away from the film?
I don't know, is the answer. I had to come to terms with, quite early on, the fact that it was the film that I wanted to make exactly as it is. Therefore, how other people respond to it is something that's completely out of my control, and something that's been difficult to disentangle myself from. I wanted to make it, as I say, accessible. Also, what Cassie's really looking for is forgiveness. It's to forgive the thing that happened, but it's to forgive herself, as well. All she wants is someone to tell her that she's right, and she's not insane. Nobody does. Or someone does, but it's, by then, it's quite late in the day.
Although the film itself probably is, well, I know it is, kind of difficult, in lots of ways, I hope that the underlying message is one of hope. Even if I'm not sure how much there is to be found in the film in general, I hope that the responses will mean that there is a big enough conversation. I mean, it will be hard to pick up a drunk girl in a nightclub after watching this movie, I hope.
There are little things like that. In terms of men and women, there seems to not have been a huge amount of correlation actually, weirdly. I'm trying not to get too involved, because obviously, it's a very personal thing. You can't climb into the internet, and be like, "Guys, no, please let me explain something." Some people would like the film to be a different film, but that's fine. If the film is compared to a film that's in somebody else's head, there's very little that I can do about it.
But in general, everyone, men and women, and all ages, have been pretty receptive. And they've at least, even if they didn't like it, they usually understood the hows and the whys, which is the most you can hope for. I was saying to someone the other day, I don't let anyone off the hook in this movie. Certainly not men, but there are women, too. And Cassie herself does things that are very troubling.
And I also didn't let myself off the hook. There was a version of this movie that would have been easier for everyone, including myself, but I didn't believe in that movie. And I didn't think it was true or honest.
Easier for yourself in what way?
I think that if you make something that is subversive, or difficult, necessarily you'll get a lot of conversations about it, that can be tricky. But I mean, there is the badass version of this movie that would probably have made life easier on all of us. But I wanted to make a film that made me feel something, as well.
Why was it important for Cassie's fate to be what it was?
We talk about fate, but I don't think it's as simple, certainly not as simple as that. I mean, for me, if you're making a revenge movie, the assumption is that, we're going to go into rooms, and we're going to torture and kill people. Nobody minds that, weirdly. Nobody minds somebody going to someone's house, and tormenting them, and assaulting them physically. What we find incredibly disturbing is somebody challenging us, challenging what how we think we are, opposite from our perception of ourselves, whether we think we're good people or not.
That's why what Cassie does is so awful. Because she kind of does nothing. What she does is very difficult to pin down, and it's very meticulous, and it's very frightening, but it's also gone. It's gone. Then you couldn't say for sure what had actually happened, maybe.
I think we're just so used to seeing men who are sad, go to a nightclub, or go to a bar, and punch someone's lights out, because they're angry, or kill someone on the streets, because they're furious. These kinds of moments, where men break bad and resort to violence, are just something we don't even think about anymore, even though it's completely monstrous and mad.
And so, I thought, "Well, the first thing for me is that I don't believe women resort to violence." As I said earlier, when they do, statistically, but also just in terms of, in my soul, I know that it doesn't go well.
And if the audience is there saying, "Go on, go on, go on, do it," which is what we're asking, as an audience of this kind of movie, we are complicit in the baying for blood. Everyone there wants her to take revenge on him, but it's not that simple. That's why this stuff sucks so much, because it doesn't work like that.
There's a reason we don't do that, because we don't win. It just felt completely bogus to me that she would, I don't know, cut his head off and leave that cabin in flames, in slow-mo, to, I don't know, like "Red Right Hand." I mean, it would have been an epic ending, and everyone would have left with high fives.
But nobody would ever have thought about it again. It would be fixed. It's not fair, and it's not true. The thing for me was that for Cassie, she is meticulous. She plans minutely, she is obsessed, but she's also unraveling. And there's a reason that she hasn't looked at this stuff directly, there's a reason she's been doing something else for years, because she knows that she can't control herself, really, with these people.
And so, it makes sense that for me, when she goes to that place, she does not, she hopes that she's going to have the badass ending for herself. But I think she knows there's an enormous chance that it could go wrong. And so, she's made a contingency plan, so that at least there will be some kind of modicum of justice.
But then, if it had been the other way, if she had had her badass ending, what then? She goes to jail, she sits in a jail cell. Where's the justice? That's the thing for me. It's like, there's no happy ending in this stuff.
That's not to believe that I don't think that people can't find it for themselves. But I think for this particular character, she hasn't been able to.
And so, it just seemed, it was the only, it was really the only ending that made any sense to me, and the only ending that I think, as a woman, having seen all this stuff happen, again and again and again. What I've never seen, especially in a movie, I've never seen this sort of thing feel the way it feels, which is so unfair, and so frustrating, and so unjust, because that's what she's talking about. And unless we feel that, then the movie isn't truthful for me.
Promising Young Woman is in theaters and available on Premium VOD everywhere.