Emerald Fennell on our sadomasochistic relationship with the aristocracy”

Saltburn, the writer-director’s second film, is a wicked satire of sex and class starring Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi. As it launches the London Film Festival, Fennell spills the Earl Grey.

Where to begin with the sizzling, salacious Saltburn?

Well, the 2023 London Film Festival for one: Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to Promising Young Woman has, tonight, its international premiere at this year’s event, where it’s the Opening Night Gala.

And rightly so. This knotty psychological drama of mind-and-sex-games is a wickedly humorous, near-contemporary Gothic update on the classic country house thriller: toffs (and not-so-toffs) gather at a bougie mansion; deeds that are fun, filthy and foul ensue.

In 2006, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is a scholarship boy going up, as they say, to Oxford University. A Scouser from, he says, a chaotic family background of poverty and addiction, he falls in, first, with Ewan Mitchells Michael Gavey, a fellow Northerner and fellow outcast. Then, by hook, crook and tactical rounds of shots in the uni bar, Oliver gloms onto the set buzzing, like bees around honey (or flies around shit), on the charismatic figure of Felix Catton.

Played by Australian actor Jacob Elordi – last seen as Euphorias toxic boy-king Nate; next seen as the actual King, Elvis Presley, in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla – he’s the epitome of swaggering, lantern-jawed, landed gentry entitlement. All the boys want to be him. All the girls want to shag him. And some of the boys want to shag him, too.

Taking a shine to the fellow fresher he immediately rechristens Ollie”, Felix takes him under his wing, eventually inviting him to spend the summer at his parents’ ancestral pile, Saltburn. There Ollie must navigate the eccentricities of camp-fabulous mother (Rosamund Pike), daffy-old-buffer father (Richard E. Grant) and damaged, sexually incontinent” sister (Conversations with Friends’ Alison Oliver).

Themes of death, decay and disorder (familial, eating) abound, but so do brilliant needle drops and killer, hilarious one-liners.

Oh, that’s so nice to hear,” says a relieved Fennell, still getting used to early reactions to her film ahead of its theatrical release in November. Honestly, I think that’s the crux of this movie. I’m always full of dread when I go and watch it with people because I know if they’re not laughing, I’m really fucked! The tone requires a certain amount of [humour]. It is a dark, dark comedy really.”

To say any more would be revealing too much about this deliciously satisfying, pitch-black feast of class, sex, ambition, trauma and dead-eyed emotion. But here, for now, is 37-year-old Fennell – an Oscar-winner for her Promising Young Woman script – with an amuse-bouche about the creation of her second modern masterpiece.

When, how and where did this story begin?
It was Oliver. And it was the bathtub. I thought two things. It was [Oliver saying]: I wasn’t in love with him.” And it was a man licking the bottom of a bathtub. And I just thought: Oh, well, that’s a lie. That’s somebody who is already lying to me. So I want to know who that is.”

You’re referring to the surely soon to be-iconic scene where Oliver slurps up Felix’s bath after he’s been doing more than washing himself in it…
Even out of [that] context, if you look at somebody licking the bottom of a bathtub, even if it’s their own bath, that’s a whole other interesting twist, isn’t it? That kind of image is the thing that starts everything for me, usually. I knew it was immediately about sex, and immediately about wanting something you couldn’t have. Because you’re not going to lick the dregs of someone’s bathwater if they’re your [partner]…

How quickly did the setting for Saltburn become a lovely country house?
If Promising Young Woman was looking at the revenge thriller genre, [with] this, I’m obsessed with the Gothic novel or film. That specific British thing where something happens at a country house one summer: The Go-Between, Rebecca, Brideshead Revisited, The Remains of the Day, Maurice.

There’s usually an unreliable narrator who says at the beginning something like: This moment changed my life forever. Now we’re going to go back and unravel it.” That’s what I wanted to look at: if that genre could be squeezed really tightly. And what would pop when it was squeezed.

You say themes are always gross”. But what are the themes?
What our relationship is with the things that we really want, but will never love us back. Why we’re all engaged in this sadomasochistic relationship with famous people, the aristocracy, handbags that cost 10 grand… What is it that we are all in such a permanent, pulsating state of want, for things and for people?

That’s what it feels like the last few years has been, especially with Covid, when we’ve been separated. We’re in this permanent space of longing.

You recently said you wanted to make something sexy” and to make something about boys”. I understand the first part of that, because we all want that. But why did you want to make something about boys?
It helped that when Oliver crept into my mind, he was a boy. But apart from Promising Young Woman, before that [I worked on] Killing Eve, and [2018 short] Careful How You Go and my [2015 adult horror] book Monsters. For the last maybe 10 years, I’ve been writing with female protagonists. So I wanted to look at relationships between boys.

There was a world [after] Promising Young Woman where lots of people offered lots of money to make something very similar. But I would never want to go over old ground. So it felt nice to have some distance from something that personal.

Saltburn is set in 2006. What did that time-frame do for your story?
A lot of things. Firstly, that Gothic structure requires that looking-back moment: This thing destroyed my life…” You know what kind of movie you’re in when you see that framing narrative. And it needed to be that enough time had passed. That somebody had never gotten over something. It’s not couple of years ago. This is 15 years of pure, obsessive thought. That was important.

Then, I was at university at Oxford then. And I like having a certain amount of [personally observed] detail that you can bring. The thing about something like Oxford is that often it’s so beautiful, so mysterious, so walled-in, so elite”, I suppose. But, of course, in the rooms, they’re shitty and people are throwing up in their sinks. That’s the constant [disparity] I’m wanting to look at. There’s this [lovely place] but you’ve still got Nuts magazine by your bed and screwed-up tissues.

And what does it do for the characterisation?
There was a danger with this film that, if it was set now, everyone is super-sexy, super-cool, cutting-edge. It’s a photoshoot. And if it’s 90s, or even Y2K, everything’s back now – that makes it [Paris Hilton voice] iconic, that fashion nostalgia. But the thing about 15 years ago, 17 years ago, is: it’s never cool. Wherever you are in history, 17 years ago is chronic.

So with this it’s the bumpit. The little, girlie quiff. The terrible, thousands of different Accessorize accessories. The tiny scarves. The off-the-shoulder top. The push-up neon bras. The bad tattoos. The patchy fake tans. The bad extensions. Men’s sideburns being too long.

What all of that stuff does is humanise [the characters]. If you’re saying these are the most beautiful people in the world, you’re also saying: they’re impermanent. They’re just human, and they’re just as likely to fall for a terrible accessory as the next person. That, weirdly, made that tension between the family watching Superbad and living in that country house feel a bit more real.

You cast Barry first because, as you say, he’s exceptional”. But aside from his towering hunkiness, what did Jacob bring to the role of Felix?
Complete and utter authenticity. Which sounds like a twee, boring cop-out. But the truth of it is: we saw so many people for that part, and so many of them were absolutely brilliant. But nobody quite got the thing that I was looking for. Which is: the character is kind of a doofus.

For all that he is beautiful, and rich, and charismatic, and a sweet person, he’s actually weak and entitled. For example, when his character has to kiss girls, I would always be like: Jacob, you’re not good at kissing! You’ve never had to be good at kissing. I want to see a full-on clamp!” The same with sex. We’re just talking a couple of thrusts.”

Felix is the sort of person who is really nice to his male friends. Then he’ll just pick up a girl with a spank on her bum and not even speak a word to her or look her in the eye. The thing with Felix and with every character in this is, I’m always looking to push the audience’s allegiances and [challenge] what they think is acceptable.

Now: we need to talk about Ewan Mitchell. As Michael Gavey, he doesn’t have lots of screen time. But he’s pretty pivotal in the early going in the movie, isn’t he?
Yes. Being a director, up to a point you’re kind of a vampire yourself. Where somebody has the exact thing that you’re looking for…

In the auditions, because nobody was allowed to see the script, I asked them to read a little Pinter monologue. It’s called Homecoming and has lines like this is my big finger, this is my little finger”. It’s a man who’s a torturer in a post 9/​11 world. It’s a really peculiar, funny, sinister, perfect bit of Pinter nastiness. It felt like a useful steer, just in general for everyone, tonally.

And doing that, Ewan bore a hole through the fucking camera. He has the very rare thing where you just sit forward immediately. It’s a kind of stillness. But it’s a stillness that implies that something is about to erupt. Again, one of the nicest people in the world. But he has this ability to make you feel like he’s put a lid on some Pandora’s Box. And if he lifts it, it’s gonna fucking go. And that is the thing that you want.

In the script, it said Michael has the smell of the outcast”. There’s an almost biological feeling that we all have [about that]. Again, I should state very quickly that Ewan himself does not have that!

Ewan Mitchell is Method, but not so Method that it gets on your tits. He’s Method in a way that is incredibly respectful to everyone else”

And, given what we know about Ewan’s rigorous commitment, presumably he was all in?

His dedication to the character: he carried all of his stuff around in an old Tesco’s carrier bag. He’s Method, but not so Method that it gets on your tits. He’s Method in a way that is incredibly respectful to everyone else. But that means he adds detail: on his cargo shorts, he’s got a little USB stick attached to a carabiner. That was Ewan’s idea,.

That is the level of detail that you’re looking for when you’re making a film like this. I said to him: Can you eat the Crunchie like it’s a Big Mac?” Rather than do what a lot of actors would do, which is be like what? What do you mean?”, he completely got it. Oh, yeah, of course that’s how Michael would do it.” He’s just really exceptional.

Also, it speaks to all the stuff that maybe Saltburn is dealing with. Look at his character in House of the Dragon – the fact that everyone is obsessed with [a baddie] is very interesting. It says a lot about where we are. What our relationship is with the things that we desire. The kind of characters that we respond to.

Like Promising Young Womans soundtrack, Saltburn is full of brilliant needle-drops. We won’t go too much into Murder on the Dancefloor, used in another legendary scene. But can we talk Cheeky Girls?

Have a Cheeky Christmas was crucial. Because Christmas songs are so perennial, it’s really difficult to find something that’s of the time. So we looked at Crazy Frog. Turns out Crazy Frog cannot be contacted. I don’t know if he’s in some kind of den having burned himself out or been arrested for exposure! So we couldn’t have Crazy Frog, which in hindsight probably was a good thing, actually. Because maybe it was just too arch.

But then we remembered that The Cheeky Girls had a Christmas song. And, it turns out, it’s a fucking brilliant Christmas song.

Saltburn screens at LFF on 4th, 5th and 8th October, and is in cinemas on 17th November. Crazy Frog denies any and all made-up allegations.

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