It started with a single scene. Filmmaker Emerald Fennell claims to be a “bit of an amnesiac” when it comes to parsing out the origins of her biggest ideas, but she does remember the first moment in which her candy-colored, pitch-black revenge thriller “Promising Young Woman” presented itself to her. It’s a scene that still exists in the film’s finished form, a first feature that Fennell is pleased as punch to report is very close to the big, wild idea she started pitching back in the spring of 2017.
“What usually happens with me is a scene comes into my head first, and for me it was the scene with Cassie on the bed,” Fennell said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “It was this idea of a woman lying on the bed, drunk, somebody taking her pants down and her saying, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?,’ very drunk. And then switching up and saying, ‘What are you doing?,’ very sober. That came in fairly fully formed, and that really uncracks what this film is going to be.”
Fennell’s film stars a career-best Carey Mulligan as Cassie, the seemingly-drunk-but-oops-maybe-not mastermind who drives the raucous film — somewhat cheekily billed as “a #MeToo rape revenge thriller with bite!” by this writer at Sundance — into entertaining, if often uncomfortable territory. The film hinges on twisted expectations, just like its unpredictable heroine, who opens the film playing one of her favorite games: pretending to be drunk out at a club, snagging a “nice guy” bent on “helping” her, and doling out some righteous fury when they (inevitably) turn into icky predators.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t, well, fun. It is, but then it’s…not. Fennell revels in the idea of taking a “very established genre, like a revenge movie or a thriller” and upending the audience expectations that come with it. “It’s just part of the fun of making something, the smoke and mirrors and the misdirections,” Fennell said. “I love all that stuff, all of my favorite movies have that sort of thing in them. It’s very interesting, isn’t it, how much we want violence, how much instinctively as an audience we’re begging for blood.”
Fennell’s first short film, “Careful How You Go,” tipped into similar territory. Billed as “a darkly comic three part short film about malevolent women,” Fennell built the festival favorite on the premise of “how could you hurt someone without touching them or threatening them in any way? How could you just fuck up someone’s life in a very unexpected way?” All of that fed into “Promising Young Woman.”
“I’d been thinking a lot at the time about the way that rage and anger manifests itself, particularly in women when we don’t traditionally, in spite of what most revenge movies tell us, resort to violence,” she said. “It was looking at the different ways in which women act on those feelings, if they do. … And it was pretty hot on the heels of it becoming a much bigger, more global conversation.”
Wounded after a horrific act of violence against her beloved best friend, Cassie has long been using her wiles to teach some serious lessons to bad dudes, punishing predators while avoiding the real villain of her life. In the years since the inciting incident (the details of which are slowly meted out over the course of the film, Fennell is nothing if not wonderfully patient), Cassie has flattened into a person wholly consumed by her need for revenge, no longer the titular promising young woman she used to be.
The introduction of an acquaintance from her misbegotten med school days (a charming Bo Burnham) offers both unexpected hope and fresh information that pushes her one-off missions to more targeted ends. As Cassie attempts to balance two very disparate parts of her life, Fennell’s panache for genre-bending delights, and “Promising Young Woman” manages to be funny and sexy and smart and absolutely terrifying, all in one stylish package.
Fennell, who is also currently starring on Netflix’s “The Crown” as a young Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall — yes, she really can do everything — knew she was treading in tough territory for her first feature. “Cassie has two paths in front of her, and one of them is Candyland and one of them is decidedly not, it’s scorched earth,” Fennell said.
In order to explain that dichotomy between Cassie — the lollipop-sucking sweet-shop worker with a massive affection for the dulcet tones of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, but also the wily revenge-seeker who carries a notebook filled with the names of her “victims” — Fennell crafted mood boards. They included all sorts of shiny reference points, from ’60s French films to “Sweet Valley High” books, a multicolored manicure, bright clothing, all the better to sell the soft sweetness of Cassie, before flipping it into far darker territory.
“I know how the script reads, this is what it’s going to feel like though, because it needs to feel like Cassie feels,” Fennell said. “It needs to feel soft and pink and inviting and sweet and innocuous. And then it’s going to, as Cassie says, going to be ‘a real kick in the cunt.'” She added with a laugh, “I was amazed they let us say that.”
“In every facet of this film, when it comes to the music, when it comes to the costumes, when it comes to the art direction, the cinematography, it was always, this needs to feel safe. It needs to feel fun until it isn’t, and that’s it,” she said. “Always it’s approximating Cassie’s interior life, but it’s also the feeling that so many people have, which is, oh, this is fun. And then it’s not fucking fun anymore. In many ways, it’s Cassie’s story, but it’s also an allegory, it is supposed to come at you.”
Fennell is relying on her audience thinking they know where it’s all going, exactly how Cassie might exact her final revenge, when the cycle will end, the happy ending that ties all that pain and glitter up. That’s the point. “It was important that we as an audience are rooting for the very thing that she’s trying to stave off,” Fennell said. “So much of it is trying to make all of us watching it complicit in what our culture and our society does, which is say, ‘Forget about it. Look how easy it would be.'”
The final twist: it’s not that easy, certainly not for Cassie, who has spent so many years doing the hard thing, the worst thing, the painful thing, that it can really only end in one way.
“We talked a lot about the cycle of addiction, and that she’s always on this spiral,” Fennell said. “She’s either feeling terrible, building up, building up, building up to letting off some steam and then she lets off steam and that’s going to these nightclubs and then she feels better and amazing and fucking brilliant. Then there’s the come down and the horror and the self-loathing. And of course, all of these cycles, generally they go in one direction.”
A few months before Fennell debuted the film at Sundance, she and her producers set up a test screening to gauge the reactions of a wide audience. They gathered a diverse bunch, crafting a group of early watchers that included all ages, genders, and races. Fennell quietly tucked herself into the theater’s back row to watch. And then things got a little wild.
“During one of the scenes, a fight started between two audience members,” she said. “My producer told me afterwards it was that one person was very angry about a scene, and the other person was saying, ‘Well, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it,’ or ‘If you don’t like it, you can leave’ or ‘If you didn’t like it, you can sit down.’ It was quite visceral and that was quite shocking because obviously I wanted to make a film that was thought-provoking that people talk about, but I wasn’t expecting that.”
Nearly a year on from the film’s lauded debut at Sundance, Fennell said she’s still trying to let go of all the reactions, the good ones and the bad ones and the ones that might push people to scream at a total stranger in a movie theater.
“What I’ve been trying to do this year is really detach myself from it and just say I made the thing that I wanted to make and was lucky enough to do that,” she said. “It was close to the thing as I’d hoped it would be. Some people won’t like it, or some people will disagree with parts of it, but that’s okay. If you don’t want people to have a reaction at all, you make a different kind of film. I wanted to make a film that meant something to me and meant something to other people.”
The film, once set for a spring release from Focus Features, will now arrive in limited domestic theaters on Christmas Day, an amusing bit of programming that Mulligan recently told IndieWire she thinks is “so perfect,” though Fennell is even more jazzed about the film’s UK date: Valentine’s Day.
“It feels like something you want to talk about,” Fennell said. “Obviously in the dream world, and for all sorts of reasons, this year would have been different, and more movies would be able to be in movie theaters. But even if they’re not, just the idea of people having heated discussions over their turkey about something that’s important,” she paused to laugh, then added. “Well, it’s not quite as trolling as much as Valentine’s Day. I think Valentine’s Day is a sensational time for it to come out.”
Focus Features will release “Promising Young Woman” in select theaters on Friday, December 25.
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