In Promising Young Woman, which might be the most vital, timely and joltingly entertaining film you see this year, the first music audiences hear is Boys by Charli XCX.
“And the lyrics are, rather wonderfully, ‘I was busy thinking about boys,’” says Emerald Fennell, the film’s writer/director and recipient of three Oscar nominations and three BAFTA shouts. “And it seemed that I had been busy thinking about boys, so I really wanted that to be the opener of the movie.”
Promising Young Woman stars, in a killer, Oscar-nominated performance, Carey Mulligan as Cassie. She passes her days as a bored Midwestern coffee shop barista and medical school drop-out. But she spends her nights as an avenging angel out to make predatory men pay for the brutal sexual assault of her best friend at college seven years previously.
Cassie, dolled up to the nines and (seemingly) pissed to the gills, is picked up by “concerned” bros in bars, whose “concern”, once they get her home, turns a bit “rapey”. Then Cassie makes her move.
This is a revenge thriller as ultra-black comedy, a romcom as stiletto-skewering of insidiously pervasive misogynistic culture, its aesthetic summed up in the soundtrack’s woozy, strings-drenched, full-of-dread, pitched-down version of Britney’s Toxic that purposefully echoes Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock. As Mulligan told the Hollywood Reporter: “Emerald always talked about the movie being a beautifully wrapped piece of candy, except when you open it and put it in your mouth, you realise it’s full of poison.”
Fennell – a 35-year-old Londoner before now best known as the actress who plays Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown and Nurse Patsy Mount in the BBC’s Sunday night phenom Call the Midwife (ask your mum) – explains how the modern Hollywood romcom tradition is, in part, the reason she chose to set her directorial debut in the US and not the UK.
Yes, her idea was picked up quicksmart by Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap production company (“I just pitched the pre-title sequence verbally to people”), and they’re Los Angeles-based.
“But it was really useful [for the film] to be set in America because so much of the culture we see – those bawdy comedies that show this kind of behaviour – came from America. So it was quite nice to be able to answer to that in the same place.”
As evidenced by her first film’s incredible awards season run – Promising Young Woman has five Academy Award noms overall, and Fennell is the first British woman ever to be nominated for a Best Directing Oscar – she’s astonishingly and diversely talented. As well as those no-small-beer acting gigs, Fennell was Head Writer and showrunner on series two of Killing Eve, a gig she got because (a) she’s brilliant and was the perfect person for the job, and (b) Phoebe Waller-Bridge is an old pal and collaborator. She writes novels, fantasy/horror yarns for little kids and big kids. This summer, Covid protocols permitting, her retelling of Cinderella as a stage musical, produced by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, opens in London’s West End.
And as if that wasn’t enough strings to her bow, she’s going to need a bigger bow: Fennell has just signed on to the DC Universe to write the big screen adventures of comic book heroine Zatanna.
Emerald, what were the beginnings of this story?
Fennell: “I had dinner with some very good university friends. We were evenly split between men and women, and one of the girls was talking about the everyday sexism that girls and women experience. And it was really interesting because she mentioned it and, as so often happens, another woman mentioned something that had happened to her. And the anecdotes kept coming.
“I realised how ashen-faced the men were. This conversation had never been had in front of them, and they had no idea just how unbelievably common all of it was, that it was a part of life they had never had to think about.”
And obviously these are men with whom you had a lot in common…
“Even though we lived very similar lives, we’d gone to the same university and we were working in similar-ish areas, there was this gap in experience that was so huge. It made me think so much about how one of the more insidious parts of all of this stuff was how women didn’t really feel they could discuss it very openly.”
Carey, a question less about Emerald’s script than about the message of Promising Young Woman: why was it important to make this film?
Mulligan: “To be perfectly honest, I didn’t approach it from that perspective. It felt honestly, on a really selfish level, just a gift of a part. It wasn’t something I read and immediately thought about the consequences or the reception in terms of what conversations it might start. My initial response was just that I was so happy to have gotten my hands on such brilliant writing.”
Equally, telling stories about real women is paramount to you…
“That’s the only aim or strategy I have in the work that I do – I want to play women who are real to me, and to tell honest stories. And in spite of this being quite a heightened film in terms of its production, the costumes, the make-up and the look of the film, there’s something so honest about the story and portrayal of women, and of this woman in particular. That’s what I grabbed onto and was so excited to do.”
In the film’s production notes, you said you were “scared” initially. Of what?
“That was straight off the bat. I read it and thought: ‘Wow, this is a tightrope walk, and it could be really bad if I fell off!’ Because it is handling really serious stuff, with comedy in a lot of it. And it was only really [after] getting a playlist from Emerald and looking at her moodboard of visuals, and then spending five minutes talking to her, [that] I didn’t feel scared anymore.”
Emerald, what was on that playlist, apart from Charli XCX?
Fennell: “I had Paris Hilton’s Stars Are Blind, which is the backdrop to a romantic comedy [style] montage. First and foremost, it’s an absolutely brilliant pop song. But I also needed to think of a song that, if a man knew every word to it, you’d like him more. It seemed there was something just delightful and charming and very guileless about a man who was just happy to make a spectacle of himself.”
You also have more classic Hollywood references in the film, for example to the music in classic 1955 chiller The Night of the Hunter. Are there others?
“Another [on the playlist] was Something Wonderful from The King & I, which is one of my favourite songs. And it’s probably one of the most famous romantic songs of all time. It’s about a man who is cruel and neglectful – but, occasionally, he does something wonderful. But it’s not his fault because, you know, what can he do? He’s just a guy. [This said very wryly – Ed.]
“That’s not to say that all of it is that arch. But it’s too fun for me to [not include pop music].”
So you like pop music?
“I love pop music! I think it gets a raw deal – people still think of it as not being very serious. But I feel very serious about it. It means you can use songs like It’s Raining Men, and suddenly you’re thinking of what it would actually be like if men really were raining from the sky and hitting the floor! That’s a lovely treat for those that are listening.”
Carey, what are the benefits of working with a director who’s not just a writer but also an actor?
Mulligan: “Emerald just gets it. She gets what it feels like when you’re stuck in a scene, and you feel paralysed, and you think everything you’re doing is terrible, which happens to me quite a lot! She’s so in tune with the feeling of being in front of a camera and the things that that can bring up.
“I’ve certainly in the past felt like I was struggling with stuff in silence. And you don’t want to say: ‘Oooh, I don’t feel like I’m getting this right…’ because you just want to get [on]. The majority of films that I do are so small budget and have so little time – this film had 23 days’ [filming] – so you don’t want to waste time for people.”
Emerald, what are your memories of first meeting Phoebe Waller-Bridge on the set of the film Albert Nobbs 10 years ago?
Fennell: “It was love at first sight. It was such an amazing film because obviously you had Glenn Close and lots of incredibly famous A‑list actors – then me and Phoebe were coming in to do a couple of lines each. We had to be in Dublin for a couple of weeks, and both of us just couldn’t believe we were there. We were so excited.
“She’s just an exceptional person. Partly the reason is that not only is she a genius but she’s just a one-off as a person. I’ve never, ever met anyone like her. She’s just exceptional in every way, fascinating, hilarious, kind… After Albert Nobbs there was no way that Phoebe, poor thing, was ever getting away from me ever again.”
Carey, what did you think of Emerald’s Camilla in The Crown?
Mulligan: “Ha ha! I have only seen one scene of her Camilla so far, but it was extraordinary. And it’s always irritated me because Emerald likes to downplay her work as an actress, and she always belittles her performances. And it’s irritating how remarkably good she is at acting considering she can do so many other things as well. So, yeah, I can’t wait to watch the rest of it!”
Emerald, would you like Promising Young Woman to have an educative element? Played in schools in colleges, for example?
“I don’t know… The first thing you want is for people to enjoy it and appreciate it as a film. And then if they talk and argue about it afterwards, that’s wonderful. Certainly there’s stuff in this movie that I think will bring up a lot of things, and it may make people think twice when trying to take somebody drunk home. But in general I hope that, if it has a long life, it will be because people like it as a film, and that they find it challenging.
“But anything that feels too much like medicine – well, none of us want to have medicine, really.”
Promising Young Woman is on Sky Cinema and NOW from 16th April