Emerald Fennell has just arrived at her Los Angeles Airbnb ahead of the Academy Awards, where her first movie, “Promising Young Woman,” is up for five Oscars including Picture, Director, Actress, Original Screenplay and Editing. Her wifi is “unstable,” the actress (“The Crown”), writer (“Killing Eve”), and director warns our “Promising Young Woman” Zoom panel.
“Welcome to America,” said fellow actor-writer-director Jay Duplass. “It’s unstable. The message is coming through loud and clear.”
Soon Fennell, Duplass, and filmmakers Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen,” “Twilight”) and Angela Robinson (“True Blood,” “The L Word”) were engaged in a lively back-and-forth about how the writer-director constructed her entertaining yet dead-serious revenge thriller.
From the opening montage of dancing dad bods, the movie gives audiences permission to laugh. “It seems to take the traditional male gaze by design,” said Robinson, “and apply the same leering slow-mo way to these dudes. I was so in from the jump.”
“You establish what kind of movie it was,” said Fennell. “It was going to be dry and funny and sometimes a bit silly and use music ironically. Otherwise, if we just plunge straight into the scene where the guys notice Cassie, it felt too dark and relentless. It needed to establish itself as something people wouldn’t be afraid to laugh at because of the subject matter.”
She was prepared for a divisive film that might not play well to mainstream audiences. “I believed in the decisions we made for it, whether difficult or provocative,” she said. “I felt okay, because I knew that if people didn’t love it, I could understand why, rather than I was presenting something that had been compromised. We [had] such a low-budget movie that we were able to make the thing we wanted to make.”
The film premiered at 2020 Sundance Film Festival to great reviews, but it was nearly a year later when Focus Features opened it on Christmas Day. More raves followed. “It’s so weird when you make things for everyone to watch communally,” Fennell said, “relying on everyone’s reactions for a domino effect around. That’s why we waited so long to see if things would open up quicker.”
From the start, we watch Cassie (Carey Mulligan) slowly reveal the underlying motives for her vengeful behavior. “As we are proceeding, we’re having fun watching Cassie mess with the guys,” said Duplass. “What I loved so much about the movie, it’s not packaged, not branded in a way. You’re constantly questioning, ‘What kind of movie is this?’ I remember early in the film, I started to realize Cassie wasn’t going to be a perfect person, wasn’t going to be a model for morality.”
Fennell winds through several types of movies in “Promising Young Woman,” from romantic comedy to revenge thriller. “In my mind, [the revenge movie] doesn’t work,” said Duplass. “It’s not a viable [genre], they’re dead in the water for me early on. You see a false morality around revenge, it won’t get you somewhere good. There was not that feeling; terrible things were going to happen, too. I find questioning morality super exciting, that’s what clued me in: ‘We’re in for quite a ride.'”
Hardwicke, trained as a production designer, asked how Fennell crafted Cassie’s character with the look of her house and her clothing. “So much about her character is using her femininity as a weapon,” said Fennell, “and using it as a disguise. It was important that her house felt like everyone in her family it was in stasis, it was stuck in time… The doily over the dining table is plastic. It’s, ‘Look but don’t touch.’ We created that as a place where Cassie comes from, where women don’t get questioned if they brush their hair and wear makeup and pink sweaters.”
Where Cassie comes from reflects the ways that her culture supports the status quo. “My takeaway is that everyone is complicit,” Duplass said. “I felt complicit in a good way. I don’t think I’ve ever had the feeling as much in a piece of art, that to do nothing is to contribute to a piece of injustice. Everyone in the film is complicit in some way, even the Bo Burnham character. When they have their final moment, ‘Have you not done anything wrong?,’ she pauses… It starts with toxic men, but goes way deeper.”
Fennell agrees. “We are all complicit in prioritizing our own comfort, pleasure, and privilege over other people,” she said. “So many women may laugh it off as ‘Uhh, an embarrassing party story’… The dean of the university works in a place made entirely of wood panels and portraits of old men.”
Clearly, Cassie is coping with survivor guilt as she seeks to avenge her friend. “So much of it is about being a survivor of something like this,” said Fennell. “It seems to be particularly female that you would do this on someone’s behalf. Women are too practiced at dealing with their own shit because they have to be, but when it comes to somebody they love, that’s when it gets dark. I didn’t believe it was a journey you’d go on on your behalf, in a strange way. So much of the film is about how hard and lonely the path she takes is and how she’s making it unpleasant for everyone else.”
Finally, what fascinates Fennell is “How would we all justify ourselves, when the angel of retribution comes to your door?” she said. “What have you done to help the homeless? Where did your phone come from? Are the [people who made it] okay? In a very generał sense, we all know we are not good, to some degree, and we’re frightened of being asked to explain ourselves … Some people expected violent retribution. I’m not frightened of violence, but I am frightened of being bad and wrong and unforgiving. Maybe it’s easy for me to say, I’ve never lived with the threat of violence. It’s the moment when you see the scales fall from people’s eyes and they realize they are not good. If we get the ending we want — violence and retribution and a burning building behind her — it just ends in jail and she’s a psycho. There’s no meaningful or useful revenge journey.”
No matter what “Promising Young Woman” wins on Oscar night, Fennell can write her own ticket going forward. Not a bad place to be.