Saltburn’s cultural blueprint: the books, films and music that inspired the film

Oscar-winning filmmaker Emerald Fennell breaks down the cultural touchstones that helped shape her worldview and create her killer second film.

Saltburn is layered with multiple impeccable elements. A killer plot that digs into, as writer and director Emerald Fennell puts it, our sadomasochistic relationship with the aristocracy”. Ravishing performances from leading men Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan, supported by delicious capsule turns from Alison Oliver, Rosamund Pike and, in a to-die-for cameo, Carey Mulligan. Plus a short-but-sweet-and-sour appearance from the ever-excellent Ewan Mitchell. Exquisite costuming and period – we’re talking 2007 – detail. A grand, fuck-off house in the country. A healthy dollop of cringe. And knife-sharp, narrative-driving needle-drops galore, from Pet Shop Boys’ Rent to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Murder on the Dancefloor via Loneliness by Tomcraft.

But what are the foundational building blocks, the talismanic cultural artefacts – books, films, music, fashions – that actually inspired Fennell? From cocaine crucifixes to the perfect sex-fest”, below, the 38-year-old Oscar winner tells all. As she says with a devilish, very Saltburn smile: Let’s go all in…”

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (1953)

Obviously. With the classic opening line: The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ The novel is about a young, middle-class boy at a boarding school who becomes friends with a very rich, aristocratic boy. And that boy invites him to his house for the summer. Then the first boy becomes the go-between between the local farmer and the daughter of the house, becoming embroiled in a romance that he’s too young to understand.

Years later, our protagonist is clearing up his house and he finds lots of old things which take him back to this summer that transformed his life. A lot of that’s because he became part of this family, and he could never get over it.

For me, it’s the perfect example of the genre: the British gothic country house [story of] romance, friendship, class, envy, sex. When I read it as a teenager, I was very preoccupied with yearning. That very British, restrained love that can’t ever find resolution.

And the film, directed by Joseph Losey, is so evocative. So erotic and potent and sensual and excruciating. It’s from 1971 and it has that soft-focus fuzz of that era. And the hairiness! You can see everyone’s hair catching the light. It’s very human, in spite of its extreme beauty. And it’s that thing that Losey and [playwright and screenwriter Harold] Pinter did together so much, which is: there’s so much cruelty there. See also: their 1963 collaboration The Servant.”

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

Another brilliant opening line: Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ It’s that thing of unpicking something that can’t be gotten over. There’s a reason why Alfred Hitchcock kept going back to du Maurier’s books [to adapt them]. She’s so deviant. So fascinating. Every time that I read her, my sympathy lies with a different character.

Obviously, Hitchcock’s [1940] film is remarkable, but the book is so chilling. A little bit like The Go-Between, a little bit like [Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 novel] The Good Soldier, it’s the perfect example of the who, me?” innocent bystander. Because the Second Mrs. de Winter – as we only ever know her – is the perfect protagonist. It’s first person, so she’s describing herself. She’s this mousy little nobody. But obviously, she’s not because she’s got this enormous power.

It’s just so Gothic! The set pieces… the characters… Mrs. Danvers, one of the great villains of all time… They have a fancy dress party at Manderley, the house that the Second Mrs. de Winter becomes the chatelaine of. Mrs. Danvers persuades her to dress as the person in a painting at the top of the stairs. And when she comes down the stairs to this party – having not told her husband what she was wearing, because Mrs. Danvers told her it should be a surprise – she’s wearing the exact outfit that Rebecca, the first wife, who died, is wearing in the painting. Everyone gasps and everyone is shocked. It’s a point of total mortification.

That kind of set-piece, of precision, makes something so great. Looking at the birthday party scene in Saltburn: the idea of people singing Happy Birthday for you, and then only realising, just before the crucial point, that they don’t know your name… What that would feel like? Or what it would feel like [in another party scene] to be singing Rent on the karaoke and to only realise belatedly that the words were designed to humiliate you?”

Cruel Intentions (1999)

Let’s go all in! This was a film that just took over all of our lives at that age. I was 13 or 14 when it came out. It was a perfect encapsulation of everything that I love: completely over-the-top and full of unbelievably sexy actors, all of them kissing each other all the time, regardless – it was boy on boy, girl on girl, boy on girl on boy on girl. It was the perfect sex-fest.

It had cruelty and satire built-in. It was funny and it was self-aware. But it really got to you as well, even though it was so over-the-top. Dangerous Liaisons, which it’s based on, is amazing and also very baroque. But you just couldn’t help but love Cruel Intentions. And when Ryan Philippe got hit by that car, trying to save Reese Witherspoon’s life, it was the saddest thing that I’d ever seen in my life.

And, like Barry’s Oliver, you have Reese Witherspoon’s character – this ordinary, earnest, hard-working girl who gets drawn into this world. It was relatable in the sense that the heightened emotion was familiar.

Then the afterglow of it, thinking about all those characters, listening to the soundtrack, imagining yourself in the film – it was that thing of seeing something at that age that really speaks to you. That feels really personal and fun, and lets you be a part of it.

I totally wanted people to feel the same way about Saltburn, that they could be part of that world. Cruel Intentions is set in the Upper East Side of New York, a place I’d never been in my life. Where girls that look like Sarah Michelle Gellar have cocaine crucifixes and wear corsets on a daily basis and are trying to encourage their brothers to put it anywhere. This was a world that regrettably I had no familiarity with at the time! But made it all the more decadent and sexy and fascinating.”

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Best film ever made. A film that was self-banned by [director Stanley] Kubrick in a moment of madness. But also, fair enough.

A Clockwork Orange [by Anthony Burgess] is such a crazy book. In many ways you’d read it and think: this is completely unadaptable. This is an unwieldy, impossible, complicated thing with its own language and its own structure.

Then Kubrick comes in and makes something so outrageous and audacious and disturbingly sexy. With a protagonist who is pure evil, that you would sleep with any day of the week. The most iconic costumes. The most unbelievable framing. The use of classical music. The colour. The cruelty. The acknowledgement that goodness and decency are inherently phoney, inhuman things. This film is impossible to get away from once you’ve seen it.

I must have watched it as a 16-year-old. And maybe there is something quite childlike in the glee it takes in just burning it all down. But I found it really relieving because it felt like a film I was supposed to hate – as a feminist, as a good person’. It was so bad that it made people violent [hence Kubrick’s ban]! Everything about it, I should have disapproved of. It felt like being complicit in a crime. And that’s so exciting.

I wanted people who watch Saltburn to feel complicity with all of the characters. You should definitely completely understand where Oliver’s coming from and not be able to resist. For it to be effective, you have to let go of not just whatever your sexual hang-ups are, but everything. It doesn’t have to be real. But it has to make you feel something.

We can thrill to the transgressive behaviour of [violent gang] the droogs in the way we can thrill to the transgressive behaviour of Saltburns utterly entitled snobs. You can’t shoot [A Clockwork Orange lead] Malcolm McDowell, up from between his wide-open legs, in a pair of white, tight trousers, in that unbelievable outfit, with that unbelievable score, with him with all of the power and sex appeal in the world, and say, this is bad’.”

Zadok The Priest by George Frideric Handel (1727)

Zadok the Priest – composed for the coronation of George II – is [played at] the beginning of Saltburn because it feels like the absolute apex of Brexit Britain. Tea and scones, Oxford, Brideshead Revisited Britain. It’s got the thing that we export – the jingoistic stuff. So that was always the opening for my film, the idea of: here we are, good old England!

When me and [composer] Anthony [Willis] discussed the score early on, I said I wanted Zadok to be our lodestar. That we begin and end with that. [So viewers understand] that it is a coronation. It’s about rebirth and a new regime and all of that. But it’s also sort of orgasmic, overblown and in-your-face.

That’s the thing about this film: it should tell you from the beginning that it’s not what it is. Oliver’s not what he is. Saltburn is aware of the thing that it’s pretending to be. And we can all enjoy it because it’s not just a satire about class. It’s a satire about our fixation with films like this. So it was important to start it with the biggest bang in the world.”

Jacob Elordi’s eyebrow piercing

Clothing-wise, Jacob’s character Felix is an interesting one. The clothes in this film are so great, the family is so beautiful, everyone’s so stylish. Yet, because it’s 2007, it’s also crap. Felix is one of those people who is an abysmally bad dresser. All of his clothes are slightly too big. Everything’s got moth holes. Everything’s frayed at the bottom. He’s got a cringe carpe diem’ tattoo and wears a LIVESTRONG bracelet. But that only enhances his beauty.

Then Oliver turns up, wearing a suit and buttoned-up shirt. He’s done everything properly and the right way. And he just looks absurd. But the studious disregard he has for the way he looks only adds to his allure.

But then there’s Felix’s eyebrow piercing. That to me is the absolute epitome of a hot boy in 2007. I fought incredibly hard for the eyebrow piercing. I got a frantic call from the studio: Why would you do that? Why would you sully the most beautiful man in the world’s face with an eyebrow piercing?’

And I was just like, I’m so sorry for you if you never went to [peak millennial Chelsea nightclub] Crazy Larry’s in 2007, and you never ended up falling for a man with an eyebrow piercing. But unfortunately, there is not a woman in the world who will watch this film and think that Jacob Elordi looks worse with an eyebrow-piercing.’

But the studio really didn’t want it and really fought against it. So eventually I said, Well, can he have it at Oxford if he doesn’t have it at Saltburn?’ They said that was fine. So I had to make up the line in the script about his mother [played by Pike] having a phobia of stubble, so she’s also got a phobia of his stud.

And I don’t like to gloat but… the studio were wrong. Because the eyebrow stud is devastating. Devastating!

Saltburn is in cinemas from Friday 17th November

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