There are layers in the subversive storytelling of “Promising Young Woman.” While on the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, director Emerald Fennell talked about how, like her protagonist Cassie (Carey Mulligan), she made specific choices to guide the viewer through her black comedy to its unexpected ending.
That applied to the film’s careful use of color, and Fennell’s collaboration with costume designer Nancy Steiner and production designer Michael Perry (who joins Fennell on the second half of the podcast). The DGA-nominated director also made it clear these were also colors and images she personally liked.
“I like ‘Sweet Valley High,’” Fennell said. “I like Paris Hilton, and I like Britney [Spears, making reference to older music videos], and I like pink. I think we still have a very specific idea of how serious things look, how serious people look, how they dress, how serious movies look — you know, wet streets, cigarette smoke, sort of a blue filter on everything — but that is arbitrary, completely made up.”
Fennell made it clear that many of the choices were not a conscious effort to be bold. “This felt natural, really,” she said. “If you’re describing a woman’s life and a woman’s world, not to say that all women like the things that I like, but it didn’t feel strange to me at all that these spaces would be colorful.”
The writer-director went on argue that diversity behind the camera won’t just lead to different stories and characters, but movies adapting a wider visual and aural palette.
“What do I want to see, what do I like, what do I respond to? But also why shouldn’t we make films that look like this?,” said Fennell. “I hope things will start to change. Not that everything will necessarily look this way, but I do think with more diverse voices telling stories you naturally will end up — it’s not just the storytelling, it’s the craft of the film, and [movies are] going to look and sound different, and that’s exciting.”
Costume designer Nancy Steiner, who has worked on number projects with a dark twist (“Twin Peaks,” “Safe,” “Enlightened,” “Killing of a Sacred Deer”) was instantly drawn to the Fennell’s “non-vanilla” approach.
“Cassie is really a costume designer. She is finding these clothes to conceal herself in so many different ways,” Steiner said. “In her day wear – which Emerald wanted her to be this beautiful candy-colored, feminine, soft, and frilly girl — where that’s a costume as well, to just conceal what’s inside, all that pain and suffering.”
Cassie’s layers also defined production designer Michael Perry’s process. “Usually I run colors through my movies, especially location movies, so they feel part of a world,” said Perry. “With this one, it was also a peeling back, until we get to where we get. But first we don’t tell you anything about her. We show you as time goes on.”
Both the production and costume designers keyed on the early scenes in the courtship between Ryan (Bo Burnham) and Cassie as being where the various layers no longer conceal her emotions.
Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection
“Prior, she wasn’t trying to be attractive in my mind, it was more like a candy wrapper,” Steiner said. “And when she let herself be open to this new love, she was shining from within and therefore her colors got brighter. It was a whole emotional awareness for her to let herself be vulnerable to love again.”
Perry keyed in on the scene where the two dance to Paris Hilton in the aisle of a pharmacy. “The scene in the pharmacy, I always believed, was the Cassie who could have been,” said Perry. “If she hadn’t had this moment [at med school], and dealt with it the way she did, she’d be in a Paris Hilton video. That for me is a very pivotal moment where we see what she could have been and we tried to reinforce that as much as possible.”
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.