Emerald Fennell Explains Herself
Her icy film Promising Young Woman set off a fascinating conversation about what we expect from rape-revenge stories.
Photo: Chris Vernon
Promising Young Woman is a remarkably cold film. The story centers on Carey Mulligan’s slippery Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas. By day, she works at a candy-colored coffee shop. By night, she pretends to be drunk at dimly lit bars, going home with eager men only to intimidate and threaten these supposedly nice guys — played by the likes of Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Sam Richardson — who are inclined to proposition women temporarily incapable of providing consent. Cassie is powered by guilt and grief over the death of her best friend, Nina, who died in the wake of a documented rape at the hands of one of their former med-school classmates. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
In many ways, Promising Young Woman seeks to twist the rape-revenge genre into a new shape. This is never more evident than in its gruesome, exhilarating ending. The most notable shift? Our heroine doesn’t survive. Promising Young Woman is a prickly film for this reason and many others. Its pop-inflected soundtrack and bright-hued production design belie the violence at the story’s center. But its decision to withhold a cathartic conclusion has ignited the most of heated conversations.
Shortly after Promising Young Woman premiered in theaters (and before the film debuted virtually on demand), Vulture spoke to London-based writer and director Emerald Fennell — previously the showrunner for Killing Eve’s second season, as well as the actress behind The Crown’s Camilla Parker-Bowles — who is currently navigating a global pandemic alongside her husband and new child. We chatted about how she arrived at such a complicated finale, the greater visual landscape of her new film, and the fairy tales and fables that inspire her storytelling.
I’m really curious about the genesis of this story idea and which threads came first. Was it Cassie subverting the expectations of certain nice guys? Was it her character delving into trauma? Where did this idea start, and how did it develop?
I don’t really work conceptually, or even in a kind of genre-type way. Generally what happens is I’ve been thinking about something for a while. I’ve been thinking about consent, and the sort of raunch culture that I grew up with, and the kind of “loopholes” that are exploited to take advantage of women and their bodies. That was something, just in a very general sense, I’d been thinking about and talking about with all my friends. But with this movie, the first moment was — which is what usually happens for me — a very specific scene. The specific scene was a drunk girl on a bed having her clothes taken off and saying, drunkenly, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” And then sitting up sober and saying, “What are you doing?”
That sort of moment came fairly fully formed. I suppose, from there, I knew who Cassie was and maybe what the film was going to be. I’m interested in Westerns and road movies and the revenge genre, and in particular, I think, kind of centering women and trying to wonder what … For me, it’s always like, What would I do? What could I do? I probably wouldn’t know where to get a gun, and I probably wouldn’t trust myself with one. I think that’s a reason women don’t resort to violence, and it very rarely ends well when they do. But what could I do?
And I think that that’s what always interests me. It’s like, Okay, well, what I could do is fuck with people. I could frighten them. But it would have to be in a much more psychological and existential way. And so that was kind of the root of this, maybe: How do you write a revenge movie that feels like something real and that is based in real trauma and grief? Because I suppose the other thing with the revenge [genre] that we don’t talk about very much is revenge and vengeance aren’t good things. And I think that’s the thing that was always interesting about Cassie, and particularly the way Carey played her, was that she just did something I’ve never been able to do in my own life and just said, “Fuck off. Fuck off, everyone.”
Yeah, there’s something powerful about a good “Fuck off” and really sticking to your guns. Which is so hard, for women especially.
It’s hard, and it’s dangerous, right, too?
Mm-hmm. It is.
It makes you very vulnerable. That’s something, again, that I don’t think is really explored. In the same way that if somebody comes up to you in a pub and says “Hey” and, I don’t know, pinches your ass or whatever. You turn around and say “Fuck off,” and they say, “You fucking bitch. What did you say?” Let’s look at what happens when a woman takes revenge, and see how the world takes that.
I love studying the ways women wrestle with and portray anger in film. Can you talk about Cassie’s anger a bit more and what you wanted to communicate? Because there’s something really interesting in how women’s anger is righteous in this film, even if it is ultimately kind of dangerous to live like that, while men’s anger proves very destructive and surprising and can come at any turn.
I think you’re right. That’s the fear: The trouble with men’s anger is that it can, as you say, come from nowhere. It tends to be — I would say in my experience, and certainly talking about stuff like this in the context of this film — it tends to be when you touch a nerve. This is a movie about men who don’t think of themselves as aggressors, who are much more … If the apex predator is a sort of a lion, [then there are the] men who are maybe the jackals, who are sort of skulking around seizing opportunities when they see them and also kind of hiding under the cover of a culture that’s allowed this for years.
So that’s the kind of thing that I’m interested in, is those people who just think, Oh, this is fine. But it’s amazing how angry people become when Cassie or any of us asks a simple question, and how defensive that makes them. It’s so hard to talk about this stuff. There are certainly different things about it that are fascinating to me. This will feed into her anger, but all Cassie wants is an apology and an acknowledgement that something was bad. That’s really what her journey is about. It’s a journey where she’s offering redemption or punishment. The redemption can only come with an apology and an acknowledgement, and it’s so interesting how people will not give it. That their default is defensiveness and anger, and that can occasionally spill into something much more frightening and physical.
As for Cassie’s anger, I guess, again, it’s that thing that’s like, I can’t think of too many examples of female anger that kind of way. We see a lot of badassery with whip-smartery, which I don’t mind. I love all that stuff as well. It’s not to say that there isn’t a place for it or that it’s not incredibly cathartic and pleasurable and fun. But the thing about anger in anyone — but I suppose more specifically in women — it’s not sexy or glamorous, you know?
[Anger is] horrific. It takes over everything else. Rather than, like, a gunshot wound, it’s like an ingrown toenail. It’s there always, everywhere you go. That’s so much of what me and Carey discussed. The root of her journey really was her love for Nina and the grief that she feels there. But also for me, writing it, I was looking a lot at addictive and self-harming cycles of release and then self-loathing, which then leads back into needing to do the thing, doing the thing, feeling invincible, then immediately spiraling back into anger, self-loathing.
Probably my friends say I’m quite boringly coarse about lots of things and definitely prone to ranting. But I think actual anger, real anger, makes me feel ill, really ill. It’s not something I … For me, it’s not pleasurable and the release of it isn’t pleasurable. It’s frightening.
When it comes to women’s anger on-screen, I think there’s one actress who I feel like really got it, and that’s Bette Davis. In a way, her whole career was exploring it and showing how nasty it could be. She played … I hate the word unlikeable, but she did play some assholes who were not nice people. That’s what’s interesting with Cassie. She makes these decisions, and you’re like, Damn, girl. Did you really do that? And I think that taps into both the allure of embracing anger and the downside of it. This movie really subverts our expectations with the rape-revenge genre. On one hand, it’s not the woman who was wronged who exacts vengeance but her friend. And then on top of that, Cassie’s anger is fueled more by her guilt than by anything else. Were there any genre tropes you wanted to avoid or upend specifically in dealing with these ideas?
Absolutely. I mean, again, it’s a genre that I, like a lot of people, love and find very gripping and in many ways cathartic. I don’t think any of us are immune to a woman seriously inducing a major bloodbath. It’s going to be incredibly satisfying. [Yet] it never made sense to me that somebody would necessarily go on a journey of vengeance for herself. I think what Cassie really wants is to try and make it better. And you can’t, you know? You can’t. So that felt very real to me. I didn’t want [the avenger] to be a relative [of Nina’s] because that felt too simple. But I have a best friend like Nina, who I’ve been friends with since I was four. I think so many women have that friendship, and it’s something that the world maybe doesn’t recognize. For Cassie, part of the grief, apart from the guilt that she feels because she wasn’t there, is the guilt that she feels because she can’t fix it. [With] the recreational nighttime stuff she does before her real personal journey begins, I think she’s hoping that she’s making a change somewhere, you know, man by man.
I can see that.
In terms of the script, I think it’s difficult talking about it because, of course, so much of the movie relies on people’s expectations and kind of subverting them. I think there are lots of expectations that we have. Oh, this is going to happen. Oh, he’s going to do … Oh, she’s going to … And then, Oh no, that didn’t happen. Okay, he didn’t do that, and she was sober. Okay, fine. The next scene: Oh, there’s blood on her leg. Oh, no. Is it blood or is it [ketchup]? It’s like, Oh, but did she? So it’s that kind of thing. I think it’s really fun because I’m obsessed with movies and I love them. I like that stuff because I find it immensely pleasurable, feeling like I know what I am seeing and then finding that I don’t. Structurally, it’s kind of great, especially for making a very-low-budget movie in 23 days.
Oh, damn. That’s quick.
Yes, it was quite quick. But you look at it and the way that these movies tend to be structured — not always, but something like Kill Bill, perhaps — they have set pieces. That’s so useful because you can then have these two-handers, which are always, for me, the most exciting kind of scenes in movies. You can ask Alfred Molina to come in for a day, or Connie Britton, or Alison Brie. Any of these people that in a million years I never thought we’d get, but because of the structure of a movie like this, suddenly you’ve got the ability to beg, borrow, and steal a little bit more.
With regard to casting, when it came to the “bad guys” Cassie fucks with, for lack of a better term, I thought the actor choices were really good. Especially Adam Brody. He’s such a millennial crush, and so you would expect something different from [his character]. Was it something you thought about a lot? What was in your mind as you were trying to find the right men for this story and play with people’s expectations?
I think there’s a huge amount of pleasure in seeing people you’ve loved for a long time doing something that you’re not expecting, and so there is that. But also the stuff, the very specific thing, I think, that Promising Young Woman is talking about is people who don’t know they’re bad. It’s about the guys you are friends with, the guys who are cute and you might go home with. It’s about apartments that we have all ended up in, by hook or by crook.
I think that Promising Young Woman, for me, was always about allegiances and who you trust and to whom you’re willing to give the benefit of the doubt. And so it was really important, then, to make sure that every single actor and actress [was a person you are implicitly fond of], like Alison Brie and Connie Britton, too. Two people you would trust, as an audience. And then Sam Richardson and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, all of these incredibly sort of sweet actors, beloved actors. That’s when it’s difficult. That’s when it’s complicated, because we’re asking the audience to side with the protagonist, who is much more enigmatic and much more complicated than these people that we all love, who seem like kind of straightforward guys.
In the Adam Brody scene, it’s basically the opening scene of a romantic bro comedy. Like, “You need to take her home,” then she laughs at his jokes. Maybe is there a connection? He kind of awkwardly goes back to his flat, clears up all the shit off his floor because he wasn’t expecting anyone. And he chats her up. It’s like he thinks he’s in a rom-com. He thinks they’re connecting, but she’s not really said a word. Then again, you look at a lot of movies and the woman doesn’t really talk very much anyway, you know?
At what point do we reframe it? That’s what’s sort of thrilling to me about all this stuff. In another movie, they wake up — “Oh, I don’t remember what happened last night. Awkward” — and then they have a long weekend of brunches and walking alongside the river where they fall in love slowly, you know? That’s another movie. That’s the thing about this, is that it’s all in what you expect. It’s all how you view yourself as the protagonist of your own life. Everyone else views themselves in a completely different light than Cassie does, and that’s why she’s so brilliant and so scary.
Yeah, that actually brings me to something I was really interested to ask you about. Because the film is very aware of certain indie-romantic-comedy tropes of the early ’00s, like with the arc we expect when Adam Brody pops up. It could have been a completely different movie from that opening; you’re totally right. But can you talk a little bit about conceiving the love story between Cassie and Ryan (Bo Burnham). I especially loved the “Stars Are Blind” moment in the neon-lit pharmacy. I was wondering if you’d just talk about conceiving their romance, what you wanted to deal with, and maybe any movies you were consciously referencing or upending?
The thing about Ryan that is so troubling is he not only offers her a chance for happiness, but the relief — from her parents and herself — that she might be okay. For the audience, we want her to be happy, and we love him. That was really important. But it was also important that Ryan is somebody that she knows from the past. In meeting him, he brings information that forces her to look at the thing that she’s not looked at for years and years and years because she knows if she looks at it directly, then she is powerless to control it. I think that’s the thing with Cassie. Is there’s a reason she hasn’t looked up Al Monroe’s name on Facebook? It’s because if she does, she’s fucked, and he’s fucked, and everything’s fucked. Like any addict, she’s self-medicating by going to clubs, doing her thing, and it’s keeping things just simmering below the surface. But once the real stuff comes out, I think she knows that it’s going to be difficult.
It’s so interesting talking to people about it afterwards, because so many people feel that she doesn’t make the right decision, and actually there was still hope there [with Ryan]. Again, it’s like, at what point do you forgive? Where does the forgiveness come? When do you let things go? For me, in the movie and I think in life, forgiveness is, I hope, always available to those who ask for it. But no one asks for it [in the movie], except for one person.
It takes admitting the truth to yourself. It takes facing what actually happened, and facing who you really are, which I think a lot of people in life don’t do.
I think people really prefer not to be self-aware.
That’s another alarming facet of this film: We, as humans, have a tendency to forget and live in denial, I think, rather than, as you say, face it. That’s why so few people go to therapy — because who wants to know? Who wants to really know themselves? Because it sucks.
It does. It totally does.
It’s like, whoever goes to a therapist and they’re like, “You’re fine”?
Oh God no.
“I actually really like you and I hope we can be friends. Let’s have a coffee after.” I mean, that’s never happened.
I love Cassie, and I think she’s amazing. But there’s also part of her — she’s so controlled that she doesn’t notice when it’s become completely out of control. Another version of the [Promising Young Woman] ending is: [She] burns the house [where Nina’s rapist, Al, is having is bachelor party] down. But what happens then? The cops, jail forever? Was that worth it? I think that’s the thing about this, and the thing about revenge in general and why it’s such an interesting thing for me. Because there’s no happy ending in any revenge. Surely, I mean, John Wick, my favorite of all time, there’s got to come a point where John Wick sits down and watches television and thinks, Fuck me, I killed a lot of people.
Fuck me. What have I been doing with my life lately?
Actually, I did like that dog. Don’t get me wrong, it was a really cute dog. But I feel like the 7,000 people I’ve killed … And it’s not to say I don’t completely adore John Wick. But I do think that, a bit like romantic comedies, [movies like it] necessarily end with a moment of triumph. Because the aftermath of this journey, which I think we see here, is incredibly unpleasant.
Particularly for women.
Before we get too much into the ending, I wanted to talk about one more thing with regard to Ryan. Obviously, the movie takes a turn when Cassie hears Ryan’s voice on the video in which Nina is being raped, which we thankfully never see. Thank you for not putting us through that.
Yeah, of course. Never, never.
But there’s this really great scene afterward that feels so heartbroken and wistful, where Cassie is just walking around. She’s dealing with the weight of it outside, and she has to lean against a tree. What did you imagine was going through Cassie’s head in that moment?
It’s the end of hope. It’s the doors shutting. Cassie goes and visits people [indirectly or directly involved in Nina’s rape and the aftermath], and you feel so much of the thrill for her, and the sort of horror for all of us, is watching people dig their own graves. Watching her gesturing toward these open doors for people to escape, and they just don’t. The doors just slam, slam, slam. I think for Cassie, that’s what this film is too. Everything she does, the door is slamming.
Before this scene, I was struck by so many other visual compositions — the neon-lit bar and the pastel-inflected coffee shop. What I’m really obsessed with, specifically, is the way you weaponized the millennial-pink Instagram aesthetic. Can you talk a little bit about how it functions within the storytelling?
The thing about this film, I guess, is it’s all about hiding in plain sight. Men who hide in plain sight, a culture that hides in plain sight, and a woman who’s hiding in plain sight. If there’s a weapon that women are very experienced at using, it is clothes and hair and makeup. So it was important for Cassie to seem innocuous and sweet and feminine and tactile and inviting, in the same way that the movie should seem inviting.
It needs to be a world that you want to step into. It needs to be a world that feels familiar and safe and feminine until it isn’t. That sort of uncanny is something that I’m just obsessed with in general, and particularly the kind of feminine uncanny. This idea that just because you love Britney Spears doesn’t mean you couldn’t cut someone’s face off. Just because you wear pink doesn’t mean you’re not filled with murderous rage. So I wanted to make something that’s quite familiar until it wasn’t anymore, and fun until it wasn’t anymore, you know?
Then, kind of in a broader sense — and it sounds so wanky and pretentious and it’s difficult even talking about it without wanting to bash myself in the face — but the films I really love, films like The Killing of a Sacred Deer, have these sort of allegorical, almost Greek or Biblical undertones. This almost primal thing underneath them. Which is, yes, this is a specific story about a specific person, but also this feels profoundly true on a much more disturbing and deep level. And so it was important to me that the movie itself demonstrate that. That we were keen to say, “This is a fable. This is a woman on a journey. This is a fairy tale, or a Bible story, or the story of Cassandra, the Greek story.” This is somebody going on a journey and teaching people lessons.
The movie’s ending really makes that work. But did Cassie know she was going to die at the bachelor party? Because she does a few things that seem to hint that she does — with the text messages she scheduled in advance and the little license plate moment.
It’s something people have a lot of questions about. I completely understand why. I mean, kind of the purpose of it is to [provoke] questions, I suppose, and so part of me is resistant to saying too much because I think it’s important that people feel their own thing. In general with this film, I have tried to sort of just present it rather than [explain it]. But inevitably, for me, Cassie knows that if she goes to this place, as any woman I think knows, with this purpose, she’s putting herself in danger. She has made arrangements for if that happens. She has deliberately set messages. The messages are sent as a sort of horrible joke, because it seems very Cassie, that she would deliberately choose them to be sent out — the text to be sent to Ryan at the time of Al’s wedding.
But also, she’s not sent them the night before [she goes to the bachelor party]. She’s not sent them on the way. She’s deliberately sent them a few days later, so that if things do go right she can cover her tracks. She’s an incredibly meticulous person, and I don’t think she has a death wish by any means. Absolutely, she has made contingency plans. She’s doing something much more dangerous than she’s ever done before. She’s not an idiot, and she knows that there’s a risk. For me, I think that there’s a reason that there are no weapons in this movie until the end. There are reasons that the weapon is introduced in a room with a man and a woman in it, that the woman doesn’t win. And I don’t think it’s fair. It may be very cathartic — and very, very, very pleasurable — to say things are simple, but they’re not. We know they’re not, and then it’s so unjust, because this stuff is so unjust.
Did you ever entertain a version of the story where Cassie lived?
It came up. I just didn’t understand how that would happen without it being, as I said before, incredibly depressing and unfulfilling in a different way. Because for her too, as much as us, what happens after the catharsis? What happens after you’ve done that stuff? Your life’s still ruined.
Were you ever worried about the audience response, given that people expect catharsis?
Yeah, of course. I mean, I think that I was really lucky in that, at every stage of this film, when I sent out scripts and when I was talking to people about it, they got it. It makes sense in the context of the movie. In fact, it is the thing that is the movie, in many ways. It makes you feel a certain way, and it makes you want to talk about it. It makes you want to examine the film and the society that we live in. With a cathartic Hollywood ending, that’s not so much of a conversation, really. It’s a kind of empty catharsis.
I just want to make something that feels very real to me and resonates for me. It felt to me like there was no other ending. Lots of people didn’t like it and wanted to change it. But that was fine. What’s been really heartening, actually, is how much people going to the movies have really, really enjoyed it and thought about it. It is a bit divisive, but I think it’s a lot less divisive in many ways because a lot of us understand the grim sort of truth that underlies it. I hope. But yeah, of course there’s a version of it that’s a bit tidier, maybe. But when is life ever tidy when you’re dealing with this stuff?