Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut Promising Young Woman could have easily been your classic revenge fantasy thriller, with its tale of Cassie, a grief-stricken, silently enraged woman on a mission to expose every last sexual predator in town. Only it’s so much more. Styled like an entrancing ’90s romcom, it wrongfoots the viewer at every turn with its fluffy-sweatered, heart-printed world, punctuated by cupcakes and pop songs. With Carey Mulligan’s blood-curdlingly underplayed performance as Cassie, Fennell leads us down a deceptively pretty garden path to the real truth about sexual assault and society’s turning of the other cheek, in a journey so twisty we never see its end coming. Antonia Blyth meets Fennell and Mulligan to find out how they disguised a truly thought-provoking shocker as a pretty pink love story.
“We’ve both gone completely potty,” Emerald Fennell says, as she fires off a text to Carey Mulligan during our Zoom meeting. It’s a GIF of an awkwardly dancing Theresa May, ex-UK Prime Minister. Deadline’s photographer has asked the pair to dance to capture some fun pictures, and this GIF is Fennell’s impression of the results. “I was like, I don’t know f—ing how,” Mulligan explains. “So, we did the macarena.”
“There’s an order to it. You can understand it,” Fennell deadpans. Both their faces twitch with suppressed laughter.
This is the sort of punch-drunk sisterhood that comes from either years of friendship or a very intense mutual experience—in this case, the latter, and the making of perhaps one of the most arresting and clever films ever to address sexual harassment and its consequences.
Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Fennell, follows Mulligan as Cassie, a med school dropout who spends her evenings in bars, faking the kind of lost-my-phone level of drunkenness predators can’t resist. The so-called ‘nice guys’ who offer to help her back to their place and then make a move on her semi-conscious body are petrified when she then suddenly reveals herself to be stone-cold sober, bolting upright with a testicle-shriveling “What are you doing?”
Where a lesser film would have made that the whole story, Fennell instead weaves an extraordinary exposé of our gray areas, our silent collusions and the darkest corners of human behavior, feeding it to us with a deceptively candy-flavored coating of nostalgic pop tunes, clean-cut Americana and pastel nail polish.
Writer and showrunner of Killing Eve’s Season 2, a series that twice earned her an Emmy nomination, Fennell is also known for her front-of-camera work as Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown. She brewed up Promising Young Woman almost wholesale, coughing it up “like a hairball”, she says. “It probably came out because it’s something that I find incredibly troubling and I wanted to talk about.”
And the story was this: Cassie’s nocturnal activities are a symptom of terrible grief. Her childhood friend and fellow med student Nina has committed suicide after being raped at a college party. And the perpetrators remain untouched, enjoying ‘good boy’ lives of privilege, thanks to an unscrupulous lawyer hired by rich parents, shallow friends, and a college dean who looked the other way. Cassie cannot and will not ever let this go.
As Fennell cooked up the screenplay, the soundtrack came with it, hand-in-hand. “I don’t write at all until the end when it’s done,” she says. “When it is I’ll transcribe it, and it takes not very long. The real bulk of the work is done entirely in my head, entirely with music.”
And that music is the siren song of rose-tinted, upbeat nostalgia. Like a sort of homage to Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, in the midst of tragedy and devastation, there’s a deliciously incongruous, soaring pop tune—an orchestral version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, or a surprise blast of Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning”. And instead of sugarcoating the bitter pill of rape and suicide, the contrasting sweetness skewers us all the more painfully.
From the very beginning, as the film came to Fennell complete with its soundtrack, she also had a rock-solid idea of how it should look.
On the set of The Crown, Fennell showed the script to co-star Josh O’Connor. “I thought it was complete magic,” O’Connor says. “She just knows exactly what she’s going to do. She was like, ‘This is how I’m going to make it. This is what it’s going to look like.’”
Margot Robbie’s production company LuckyChap were early believers in her concept, and her deceptively sweet, subversive approach to a heavyweight subject. “I feel like Emerald had an incredibly clever approach in luring us—especially those of us who grew up in the ’90s—into nostalgic territory,” Robbie says. With “the familiar ’90s rom-com relationship dynamics we have been accustomed to seeing in films”, Robbie says Fennell is expert at “pulling the rug out from beneath us and smacking us in the face”.
As soon as she’d read the script, Mulligan was on board. “For ages before this film came along, people were like, ‘What part do you want? What have you not done that you want to do? What’s your dream part?’” Mulligan says. “And I couldn’t describe what it was. I would just say, ‘Well, I just know it’s not that, and I know it’s not that. I know it’s not the wife to that great man or the girlfriend who’s a ‘troubled individual’. I knew what it wasn’t. And when this came along I was like, ‘Oh, it’s that. That’s what I want to do.’”
Fennell had a mood board that had “a lot of angels” she says. “It had To Die For, Psycho and The Virgin Suicides, a lot of Sweet Valley High, a lot of tactile clothes and multicolored manicures. I wanted it to show that not only was it going to be comfortable and glossy and appealing, kind of like Cassie is, but that it could be somewhat allegorical, because if Cassie is a part of this thing, doing something completely real, in many ways it is a sort of classical journey, the allegorical story. And so, I wanted the world to feel somewhat like that too.”
That allegorical factor would later, during the shoot, prove almost too alluring.
In a scene where Cassie confronts the lawyer (Alfred Molina) who ensured Nina’s attackers went free, he begs forgiveness at Cassie’s feet. “I was like, ‘Guys, here’s a picture of the Pietà,’” Fennell says. “So, if you could just find a way, as naturally as you can, of being in the position of Michelangelo’s Pietà by the end of this? Then we’ll pop a shaft of light on you.’”
Fennell laughs. “The shaft of light actually got nixed because, even I in the edit was like, ‘Well, this is absolutely silly. Too much.’”
As a Brit, her choice to set the film in Anytown U.S.A. felt necessary. “It was important that nobody could say, for example, ‘Oh well this happens in England because they have a different culture.’ Or, ‘This happens in New York, because girls in New York are a little fast.’ It had to be the most accessible place, and because all of us have grown up on American culture it felt like something where the fewer people that could be let off the hook, the better.”
To achieve her picture-perfect American pop culture vision, she went to the source: Michael Perry, production designer on that fabled TV teen froth, Sweet Valley High.
“When I first met Michael, he gave me Todd’s letterman jacket,” Fennell says, referring to Sweet Valley High’s lead heartthrob jock character. “Every time I think about it my whole body gets like… Sometimes I wear it. If I’m feeling really peppy, I’ll just pop on Todd’s letterman jacket and think, This is it.”
Fennell had also admired Perry’s work on It Follows. “It was incredibly low-budget; a very short shoot time. And the way that he just gave it inherent, spooky femininity; these sort of soft shells. It was sexy, but frightening. It was brilliant. I said to him—and I do think this is true—that he’s probably responsible for millennial pink, at least in part.”
She was amused when someone attempted to derisively suggest Promising Young Woman looked like a ’90s Lifetime movie. “I was like, ‘That is truly the greatest compliment anyone could give me.’ Could there ever be a more violent, feminine world than the world of the Lifetime movies of the ’90s?”
Fennell and Mulligan built Cassie through an ongoing conversation. And the result was a character who mostly appears impassive on the surface, like a kind of angel of justice. This was something that required so much internal emotion with so little surface tension. But, says Fennell, Mulligan was thoroughly cut out for the job. “You see what’s happening with so little. She’s got that thing that’s so rare to find, where she does almost nothing, and it’s almost everything.”
Lone Scherfig, who directed Mulligan’s breakout, An Education, spotted this particular quality in her from very early on. “I knew that we had to see a lot from her eyes, or through her,” she says. “And she has that strong detector for what is true. She doesn’t like phoniness.”
Paul Dano, Mulligan’s longtime friend who directed her in Wildlife, saw it too. “Even when playing a character that has some edge or some darkness or some harshness or some shadow, Carey is still somebody you can look at and understand,” he notes.
A real potential pitfall for Cassie was the kick-ass, ‘woman scorned’ trope.
“I think there would have been a temptation for other actors to maybe make Cassie kind of badass,” Fennell says. “It was important, certainly to me and to Carey, that she felt real; she felt like a traumatized person.”
Thus, Cassie’s actions are also consistently underpinned with realism. No, she has not learned to wield a samurai sword, nor will she Jiu-Jitsu her way through those who have done her wrong. Because that is simply not truthful. “There’s a reason women do not resort to violence,” Fennell says. “Because they f—ing lose when they do.
With flip-the-script expertise, Fennell sends in Adam Brody as predator number one in the opening scene. Not some beefed-up frat guy, but a man immediately recognizable as an old teen favorite, The O.C.’s nice-guy-on-wheels, Seth Cohen. (“We called him Seth behind his back all the time,” Mulligan jokes.)
Brody’s apparently thoughtful, feminist guy rolls his eyes at his co-workers’ sexist remarks during after-work drinks at a tacky club. “Sorry about them,” he tells a fake-wasted Cassie as he gets in a cab with her. And yet he will soon press a huge drink on her, wait for her to (pretend) pass out, and then he’ll attempt to sneakily whip off her panties.
Having now seen the film, O’Connor calls it, “A blend of nostalgia and realism.” The Seth Cohen-ness of it all certainly smacked him in the face, he says. “It put you in this place of, certainly from my point of view, sexual discovery, like when all those Britney songs [were hits], that music, that color scheme, Seth Cohen.”
Bringing in teen dream references, particularly the kitschy ones, was so key to Fennell’s vision. “I think certainly for women of our age group, that’s the pleasure center. For me, Clueless does something to my brain. That yellow plaid, that fluffy pen. When I see those things, I get what I imagine some men feel when they see a football player that they loved when they were growing up. I’ve never not bought a fluffy pen if I see one. It does something to me. It brings me back to that place of, ‘I could be that person.’”
But she also wanted to look at how and why we disregard these ultra-feminine stylings. “I love getting dressed up, I love having stupid nails, I love Britney,” she says. “I’m really interested in what part of our culture diminishes that stuff, that makes that stuff silly. So partly for me, this movie was also about interrogating why that is. Why should it be this gray?”
And in the ultimate ’90s romcom homage, she brought in the love montage. When Cassie reconnects with fellow med student Ryan (Bo Burnham), his self-effacing, goofy charm breaks down her walls, and they fall for each other. Set to the Paris Hilton tune “Stars Are Blind”, the couple dance in a pharmacy, posing with cans of food, giggling and generally looking adorable—a scene Mulligan found intimidating.
“It’s so easy to cry on camera and that’s the territory I feel comfortable in,” she says. “But laughing and being free and happy, without ego and self-awareness, I think is much harder. That’s why I have such an immense respect for comedians.”
She definitely did not want to dance, and tried the tactic of telling Fennell she didn’t imagine Cassie would do that.
She confesses, “It was definitely me hiding behind my character saying, ‘Oh, Cassie doesn’t want to do it,’ but I think it was Carey not wanting to do it. A great note from Emerald was, ‘Of course you feel that way, but when you’re in love you look like an idiot from the outside. Everyone thinks you’ve lost your mind. You’re so annoying.’ And Bo, from the beginning, God bless him, was just totally comfortable doing it. He says he wasn’t, but he was immediately picking up the [can of] spam. So much of the levity, and so much of Cassie’s lightness and vulnerability, was just because Bo was so hilarious and charming in that role. I can’t imagine a different actor doing it.”
But there was also the problem of singing along to Paris Hilton.
“The lyrics are quite complicated to learn,” Mulligan says, with absolute seriousness. “There are bits of it that don’t really make sense. It’s like learning a Radiohead song. It’s not a narrative. They are strange bits in it that are… I mean, it’s a brilliant song, don’t get me wrong, I loved it. But it’s not straightforward to learn, so we did have to print the lyrics out and practice them.”
Fennell and Mulligan always excitedly planned to invite Hilton to the premiere, and then the pandemic got in the way. “My biggest disappointment of 2020 was not getting to meet Paris Hilton,” Mulligan says. “I hope she likes it.”
As Fennell said, in reality, violence from women against men usually doesn’t end well. And when Cassie does finally attempt this against Nina’s rapist, played by Chris Lowell, the consequences pop the balloon of the traditional Hollywood revenge fantasy. Reality crashes down on the pop-culture.
“It comes back to that honesty thing, and trying to do justice to telling the truth,” Mulligan says. “It’s just statistically true. Once she’s introduced a weapon, it just isn’t honest [to have her win that]. There’s no way I could out-fight, or ninja my way out of a fight with Chris Lowell. It’s just not going to happen.”
This confrontation was perhaps the toughest scene of the shoot. First, the actors watched the stunt team do it. “I started watching them, and then after two-and-a-half minutes, everyone in the room was just like, ‘Oh, it’s just f—ing horrible. Horrible,’” Mulligan says.
When it was her turn to play the scene, Mulligan found she had got her position wrong and couldn’t breathe. “But he [Lowell] didn’t know. And I was like, ‘Well, I think I can get out of this.’ Then I realized that 10 seconds later I couldn’t. I couldn’t breathe at all and I couldn’t get out of it.”
She gave a pre-arranged hand signal to stop. “It was all very funny. Then I went outside and just burst into tears. I couldn’t explain why it was so upsetting. I’m so of the school of acting of, it’s pretending, it’s playing. But it was one of those moments where, I think watching it happen to somebody else, doing it yourself, understanding how horrendously common that kind of stuff is, it was really way more upsetting than I thought it would be to actually shoot it. That surprised me because I’m usually pretty unmoved by things. So, I think I was particularly aware in that scene of the broader picture and women’s treatment in general. It just felt really, really sad.”
“I remember everyone standing around the monitor in the room with their hands clamped to their faces,” Fennell says of that day. “It feels so horribly real. The thing for me was that it seemed like a plausible possibility, and all the things we’re used to feeling: It’s so unfair, it’s so unjust, and it’s the experience of being in a woman’s body… Inevitably there’s an imbalance.”
Even the crew struggled with the ending. “Emerald was steadfast about it from the beginning. She was absolutely clear,” Mulligan says. “And I’m sure she heard objections. Even when we were working on it, [the crew] were saying, ‘Oh, I just wish [that didn’t happen].’ But that’s just not reality. The film does live in this slightly heightened world, and I think there’s a tendency for people to want that to carry over into the storyline. But the storyline stays in truth. And I’m so proud of Emerald for standing firm on that.”
Mulligan had, pre-shoot, watched The Hunting Ground, which details the covering up and denial of rape on college campuses. There’s a scene in that documentary in which a young woman is asked why she didn’t fight off a man twice her size. The question arises, why would a woman filmmaker perpetuate that delusional and damaging idea, given the choice? Fennell would not.
But also, there is some resistance to the idea of women on revenge missions at all, Fennell says. “I do think that Cassie is a very particular person, and blokes go on these dangerous missions—revenge missions—all the time and no one minds. But when women do, people are frightened by it.”
“The other day, someone said, ‘Yeah, but is she just crazy at the end? Has she just gone mad; has the grief driven her mad?’” Mulligan adds. “The point is that we have countless films about men who go on crusades on behalf of their loved ones and we never say they’re crazy or that they’ve lost their minds from grief. They’re going around having shootouts and ninja fights in every scene. That is objectively insane. What Cassie’s doing, by comparison, is fairly mild. It’s just an interesting reaction because there’s a huge amount of logic, actually, to what she’s doing.”
Fennell’s bold ending is both the thing that makes the movie, and breaks the audience with its painfully sharp left turn. Brave and divisive, but necessary, LuckyChap stood behind it. “They’re just amazing,” Fennell says. “They didn’t know it was going to end the way it did, and when they called me after they first read it, I think we had a very brief discussion about it, but they were completely on board. The whole thing is you couldn’t really change anything about it because otherwise it would then just become the thing that it’s trying so hard not to be, which is a generic revenge thriller.”
LuckyChap co-founder Josey McNamara, lead producer of the film, says, “It was so assured and specific and completely original… It evaluates our culture and thinking, and asks the question of how are we all a part of this knot we need to unpick.”
With a movie that appears so pretty on the surface, Fennell perfectly points to that knot, to what lies beneath, what goes unsaid. “I think for me that just feels like so many women’s lives,” Fennell says. “I do think that we’re so practiced at covering things up and making things appear functioning, appealing, happy, putting a brave face on it all… That’s the film really, because it’s [Cassie’s] film. It’s so much about looks being deceiving in every way.”
It’s Alison Brie’s character, Madison, who exemplifies the added toxicity of cover-ups and the ugliness of collusion. She’s the college friend with the seemingly perfect ‘nice girl’ existence: a rock on her finger, a rich husband, twin babies and a meticulously-curated Instagram. But she has also sickeningly justified her decision to maintain a friendship with the popular, successful guys who violated Nina, because she says, Nina was drunk, and she “slept around” anyway.
Then there’s Connie Britton’s college dean. Her politely blinking, bland defense of those ‘nice boys’ with bright futures who couldn’t possibly be rapists. All of this, horribly, hauntingly familiar; all stories we’ve heard documented in so many real-life campus rape cases. When Cassie calmly brings her to her knees, crying tears of remorse, it becomes perhaps one of the most satisfyingly set-up movie scenes in recent memory.
Being over seven months pregnant and directing your first feature in only 23 days in a foreign country might have worried a different person, but Fennell just leaned right into it.
“I was so pregnant and I think that really helped, because in general, I care deeply, pathetically what people think about me. I just chose the worst possible career in every way for that personality trait,” she says. “The idea of people not liking me and thinking I’m difficult, all those things, is just dreadful to me. But luckily, when you’re carting around a massive baby and you’re about to give birth, you don’t have the time to be anxious. I was like a literal ticking time bomb, which I think gave me this weird power for myself.”
She was so thrilled to be living her lifelong dream, she was “like a competition winner” she says. “My only rule for myself was to not pretend I knew something I didn’t. So, I tried to be as clear as possible when I didn’t understand, or I didn’t know something. I would just be like, ‘Sorry what is that?’ Because otherwise you’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah yeah,’ and then you’ve agreed to shoot your film in black and white. I thought, the things I want from this film I know inside-out. If I don’t know the name of a particular cable, it’s not the end of the world. I can learn that, that’s fine.”
This can-do attitude is just who Fennell is, says O’Connor. “Three months after the film she came and did The Crown Season 4. I said, ‘How was it? Was it mad?’ Most filmmakers, when they make their first feature they say, ‘Yeah, it’s incredible and I want to make more, but it is hell and my relationship suffered, and I’ve lost my house.’ All that carnage around their life happens. But she was just like, ‘Oh no, I had the best time of my life, and all the actors were incredible.’”
Mulligan sees Fennell’s creative genius as part of a “new generation of women”, with her own particular brand of real, twisty, dark humor. “It does feel in keeping with that kind of work that [Fleabag creator] Phoebe Waller-Bridge has been doing, and Michaela Coel [who wrote and starred in I May Destroy You].” They are “a wonder group of women,” Mulligan says, creating new—and distinctly unique—work that is giving voice to an entire generation of women.
She points outs that there is a hugely-popular, fresh viewpoint on women’s stories that’s pushing real change. “That’s what’s so exciting, because these shows have massive audiences and they’ve been huge hits,” she says. “I think it’s just a really good sign to all the people who make the decisions, but actually there’s a massive audience for stories about women, and they don’t have to be perfect, or look perfect, or act perfect… These aren’t the things that are appealing to just women or just feminists or some sort of niche group. Everyone—everyone—loves Fleabag. Barack Obama loves Fleabag for goodness sake.”
Still, with relatively very little industry precedent for stories of real women who make real decisions, and who don’t always have things neatly work out, making Promising Young Woman required the determination to stand by those bold choices throughout the process.
“What’s so good about it is that Emerald, in our film, made no compromises,” Mulligan says. “And she doesn’t play down to anyone. She puts her full faith in the audience. Nothing is overly explained. And you get the ending that you get.”
The film’s ending is not the fantasy we expect, but it may well be the reality we need. And with it, Fennell crests a brave new wave of storytelling.
A more ego-driven filmmaker might now be telling us what to think about their subject. Not Fennell. “I don’t necessarily, in spite of what the film is about, know any answers,” she says sadly. “I don’t have any answers, because it’s so unbelievably complicated and hideous.”
Promising Young Woman will be available on demand beginning January 15th.