Emerald Fennell On "Nice Guys," "Crazy B--ches," and Relatable Vengeance In Promising Young Woman

"I'm not really interested in heroes and villains," says the first-time filmmaker. "I'm really interested in good people doing bad things."

by | December 23, 2020 | Comments

On December 25, Killing Eve Season 2 showrunner Emerald Fennell comes out swinging with her enthralling and incendiary first feature film as writer and director, the Certified Fresh Promising Young WomanStarring Carey Mulligan as an avenging angel of the #MeToo movement – one who feigns stumbling drunkenness in dark bar corners, waiting to teach a lesson to any so-called “nice guy” who moves in for the kill – the film premiered at Sundance to big laughs, loud gasps, and wide-ranging acclaim.

Critics applauded Mulligan’s performance as Cassie, whose life derailed after an assault on her college friend and whose journey into revenge has put her promising life on pause, as well as Fennell’s ability to balance big ideas with bold style. (This is a rape revenge tale that unfolds in bright pinks and neon, the action propelled by the music of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.)

Ahead of the movie’s theatrical release, we sat down with Fennell – whom you might recognize as Camilla Parker Bowles in the most recent two seasons of The Crownto talk about crafting a story free of clear heroes and villains, the joy of writing douchey dialogue, and why being called “a crazy bitch” is a compliment she welcomes.

Promising Young Woman

(Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace / © Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection)

Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: Congratulations on the film. When I saw it earlier this year, it took me by complete surprise because I think, like a lot of people, I’d gone in thinking I was going to get something a bit more Atomic Blonde or Britney from the “Toxic” music video, and this was a much more grounded, real story and went in directions I was not expecting. Was the goal to tell a more relatable revenge story?

Emerald Fennell: I love the revenge genre. I just think it’s one of the most pleasurable, cathartic things. But I think that I wanted, for a while, to see if it was possible to make a revenge movie that had all of the pleasures of the genre but had a very real woman at the center of it, kind of behaving in a way that I think real women do. So part of that was thinking: What would I do? If I really wanted to go on my revenge journey, what could I do? I’m not very handy, and certainly no good with a machete, so what’s within my power? And it started from there.

Do you think the fact that people might go in, like I did, expecting something more typical of the genre works to the film’s advantage?

Fennell: Absolutely. It’s sort of designed to undercut and use those tropes and twist those tropes. It’s always fun [when someone] has a familiarity with the genre so that you can kind of surprise them; that was always very much intentional and really very fun in the writing, trying to find those ways of being surprising. I hope that it’s just as gripping and enjoyable as the more traditional version would be, but it also kind of maybe packs a more personal punch.

Promising Young Woman

(Photo by © Focus Features)

One other thing that may surprise viewers is that you’ve chosen to examine the #MeToo moment and rape culture not by looking at a case that might be more sensational – sort of a Weinstein-esque, cut-and-dried, black-and-white case. Rather, this is more the stuff we hear about on college campuses all the time, stuff that we’ve probably touched in our real lives in some way – more “Cat Person” or Kavanaugh. Was that your entry point? To tackle #MeToo in a way many people probably have some connection to, even if they don’t think of it in that way?

Fennell: I guess, [but] it wasn’t as deliberate at that. I’m not really interested in heroes and villains. I’m really interested in good people doing bad things, and growing up as I did in the noughties, this was just endemic, just completely normal. It was the punchline of every Hollywood comedy movie, getting girls drunk. Every coming-of-age story was like: “Give her a drink.” “Is there a drunk girl here?” “Great!” It was on network TV shows. It was so normal.

And that is what is so deeply disturbing to me, is that it’s very easy when it’s villains, it’s very easy when it’s people that you don’t like. What’s very complicated is when it’s something that, as you say, almost everyone has an experience with, to some degree, because it was normalized. That’s chilling. And where do we go from there, then, when everyone feels slightly differently? Everyone’s kind of making their own excuses; nobody’s really willing to talk about it openly.

So that’s kind of where Cassie’s journey begins. If there isn’t anything wrong with this, why do you feel so attacked or freaked out? I think it’s just an interesting place to start.

Promising Young Woman

(Photo by © Focus Features)

It’s interesting to hear you mention the noughties pop culture. You and I both grew up as teens in that era. When you mentioned that culture, all these films came flooding back to me. There’s been a lot of talk about grappling with those cultural artifacts; and regarding the ’80s, we saw Molly Ringwald’s essay in The New Yorker doing just that, looking at the John Hughes films that she was a part of. Do you have a view as to how we look back on those things, now that elements of them do feel problematic when put under a modern microscope?

Fennell: Well, I think the way you hope that society and culture moves on is that we learn as we go, which means you have to find merit in things that maybe have stuff that’s problematic. Obviously, I think lots of people think that this film is very sort of scorched-earth, but actually, I do think that, for me, so much of the movie is about forgiveness and redemption and the possibility of those things. But those things only come after some honesty and some self-scrutiny and apology.

I do feel like certainly some… I’m sort of careful never to shame any particular movies, because I think actually times do change, and there’ll be things in 20 years, I’m sure, that my children will find problematic about stuff. So, I think in order for any of us to move forward in any artistic medium and as a society, [we have to] understand things will change, and that’s okay. At the same time, ignoring it isn’t useful, so I think it’s just important that we acknowledge that there’s some stuff that isn’t great. But that’s of its time, I suppose.

Promising Young Woman

(Photo by © Focus Features)

You’ve said that you wanted this film not to be a treatise, but to be fun and to entertain. One of the things I think people will love, in addition to the thriller elements and the revenge elements, is the hilarious dialogue, particularly from some of the boys Cassie “picks up.” I was thinking about the scene with Christopher Mintz-Plasse in the apartment, where he tells her about his novel and offers her “kumquat liqeur.” It’s so cringey. How fun was it to write the most dickish things guys could possibly say in that situation?

Fennell: So fun. I love all that stuff, and also stuff like the costumes – giving Sam Richardson a leather trilby and boot-cut jeans with leather shoes. And with Neil, who’s Chris Mintz-Plasse’s character, we designed the name of the fake album that he’s snorting coke off, and we decided to be very, kind of, culture-y appropriate-y. So there are a lot of dreamcatchers. Every woman who worked on this film in the crew, when we went to the set after it had been dressed, they all went: “Yeah, I’ve been in this room.”

There’s so much pleasure in that. That’s why I think, partly, the only way of communicating this kind of stuff really effectively is with humor. Because although it’s hard material – there are moments in this movie that are abjectly not funny – for me, communicating anything really serious, I’ve only ever been able to do that like this. I’m only sad that the Chris Mintz-Plasse scene is much shorter than it was [originally], just because the movie is long; the details of his novel are missing [in the final film], but there’s a lot of detail about his novel, set in the first person, over the course of one night in New York, from different people’s perspective… it goes on and on and on and on and on. And there was lots of great stuff about him making her breakfast in bed and his pronunciation of eggs hollandaise [said with a silent “h”]. That stuff, that’s so much fun, always.

Promising Young Woman

(Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace / © Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection)

And Cassie’s [dialogue]… I love writing, I just love it, I find it so pleasurable. I really, really did want to make a movie that was accessible, that wasn’t just for people who’d considered this stuff very deeply, but it would be enjoyable and appealing for everyone to see. I never wanted it to be a very bleak, depressing, earnest film. Even though it is, in many ways, all of those things. I tried as best I could to make it a pleasure to watch.

Speaking of dialogue, the first spoken words you hear in the movie are “f–k her,” and I was like, okay, that’s a bold start and a statement! And the other thing that stood out was how frequently characters used the phrases “crazy bitch” and “nice guy,” which are the exact phrases we so often see people instinctively go to when it comes to labeling men and women, particularly in a he-said/she-said situation. Was that repetition conscious?

Fennell: Definitely, I think so. It’s hard to have these discussions in a very, completely unique way, because actually, we fall back so quickly on the clichés. You see it with Dean Walker [Connie Britton; in the film, Walker dismissed a victim’s story because the accused was a “nice guy”] and the way that she speaks: “Well, you know…” It’s all of the things we’ve heard with these incidences. And I think, again, it’s a mark of people who haven’t really interrogated something themselves very much, that actually they just speak in these quite clichéd, old-fashioned terms. Certainly, the “crazy f–king bitch” thing. As Carey’s present, I gave her a necklace that said “Crazy F–king Bitch” on it, because I do just think, honestly, I’ve definitely come to a stage in my life where I really think of that as a compliment.

Promising Young Woman

(Photo by © Focus Features)

When it came to casting the so-called “nice guys” of the movie, it feels like you went through a Rolodex and said, Who are the nicest-seeming men in Hollywood? You’ve got Adam Brody and Max Greenfield and Sam Richardson… Was the idea to cast these people that we know and love from other roles?

Fennell: Well, it’s a couple of things. I think they’re all genuinely brilliant, so I knew that they’d be able to do this, but they’re kind of playing parts… All of these guys think they’re nice guys. What is a nice guy? All of them think that they’re “nice.” I said to Adam, when we were doing all that stuff, I said, “This is the rom-com. You are the star of a rom-com; this is the beginning of a rom-com. This is the messy night where you guys meet, which becomes the love of your life.”

It’s just that often, people don’t notice, in real life and in rom-coms, that the girl isn’t really having the conversation in the way that they think she is, you know? So that’s also really fun, because really, that first scene, or the second scene, rather, in Jerry’s [Brody] apartment, it’s the beginning of a romantic comedy; it’s just that she’s not talking. Which most romantic comedies are [like], actually.

Promising Young Woman

(Photo by © Focus Features)

The other thing that makes the movie so much fun is the style – the colors and framing and all that great stuff. The thing that really stuck out, though ­– and it’s the noughties teen in me – was this use of pop music: “Stars Are Blind,” “Toxic,” “2 Become 1.” Bo Burnham and Carey spoke to us about the music at Sundance, and they were talking about how the film reclaims a lot of these songs as quality, not just pop dross to be dismissed. What was your thinking behind the musical selections?

Fennell: [I chose them] because I love them, I suppose, is kind of a weird answer. But I think that pop music, often female-led pop music, is a bit like nail polish and a bit like wearing pink: it’s kind of an indication that you’re not a serious person. And that’s useful: If the whole movie is kind of about appearances being deceiving, then making it feel as fun and innocuous as possible was good.

But also, they’re really powerful, these songs, because we’re bringing so much to them. The “Toxic” version that’s in this movie, it’s a mixture of all the different parts of “Toxic” and it’s slowed right, right down, so we slowed down the orchestra. But what’s so thrilling about it is that everyone instantly recognizes it, even though we’ve really abused it and stretched it and kind of changed it. Then the audience is bringing in so much of their own stuff, because they know the lyrics, they know what they mean. It’s about using those personal relationships with the music in a positive way, and also looking at lyrics.

“It’s Raining Men” [also featured in the film] is a good example of a lyric that is quite sinister when you put it in this context. And the first lines of the movie, even before “f–k her,” are sung, and they’re Charli XCX, and they’re “I was busy thinking about boys.” And I think that’s what Cassie’s been doing, that’s what I’ve been doing.

Finally, speaking of lyrics, my favorite musical moment, or the one that sort of made me go, wow, is your use of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Something Wonderful.” Which is markedly different from most of the other songs.

Fennell: Yeah.

What was your thinking behind including that particular standard, which – when you look at the words – is so potent?

Fennell: Again, I just think it’s such a moving song. It’s one of the most romantic songs ever written, I think, and Rodgers and Hammerstein are just geniuses at that kind of deeply felt romance. But it’s also all about an incredibly cruel man who occasionally does something wonderful. When the song is playing over the thing we’re seeing, it’s a song that excuses behavior.

That’s always going to be the perfect thing that you’re looking for, and that’s what we’re looking for all the way through this movie, which is stuff that was sort of both on the surface immensely pleasurable, but then underneath, also kind of troubling. And funny, darkly funny.

Promising Young Woman is in theaters December 25, 2020.

Thumbnail images by Rich Polk/Getty Images, ©Focus Features

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