How talented is Emerald Fennell? So much so that in the span of two months she went tete-a-tete with Princess Diana as the indomitable Camilla Parker Bowles in Season 4 of “The Crown” and won the prestigious Best Screenplay honor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for her feature directorial debut, “Promising Young Woman.” And before the pandemic hit? Oh, she was just prepping a new “Cinderella” musical for the West End with some composer name Andrew Lloyd Webber. You see, Fennell isn’t just extremely talented, she’s practically a sensation.
Already a two-time Emmy nominee as a producer and writer for the second season of “Killing Eve” and has written four, yes, four children’s books all before the age of 35. And with the aforementioned “Promising,” she’s proven to be one of Hollywood’s most sought after filmmakers. Assuming she even wants to be.
Now, almost 11 months after its debut at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, “Promising” has finally hit theaters, or what’s left of them at the moment. The drama or dark comedy (take your pick) finds Carey Mulligan killing it (not literally, mind you) as Cassie, a medical school dropout who is clearly meant for bigger things than working at her local coffee shop. While she conserves her energy as a moody barista during the day, she spends the weekends exposing “nice guys” to their worst fears, a drunk woman who isn’t ready to be taken advantage of. When former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) comes back into her life, it appears her obsession with avenging her best friend Nina’s sexual assault might come to an end. That is, thanks to Ryan, she discovers the man at the cent of Nina’s rape, Al (Chris Lowell), is getting married.
Fennell joined The Playlist to discuss everything from her love for Jennifer Coolidge, who plays Cassie’s mom in the film, to casting Mulligan against type to the movie’s unexpected ending and much more.
Please note: There are spoilers regarding the ending of “Promising Young Woman” at the end of this interview. You’ve been warned.
The Playlist: Has it been tough waiting for this to finally hit theaters? I know it was originally supposed to come in April.
Emerald Ferrell: It’s been quite weird, but luckily because it was going to come out in April just as things got super scary this year, I think it was quite fleeting, that moment because actually we just had so much else to worry about. Worrying about families and all that stuff. I remember the day of the original premiere, I was in my pajamas in my childhood bedroom. My parents were like, “Do you want us to do a premiere in the kitchen for you, darling?” “I think that would be quite bleak, actually. Thank you. I’m all right.” But yeah, so it’s kind of been fun in a weird way when it came out at Sundance so hot off the heels, we’d just come out of the mix, we just finished. So, in a weird way now I feel like I can talk about it in a slightly more sensible way. I think it was so soon afterward that I was kind of still in a bit of a daze. And it’s coming out on Christmas Day.
The perfect Christmas movie. Speaking of that daze, did you shoot this in between your commitments for “The Crown”? Were you doing 20 other things while you were trying to make this movie?
Yeah, so it was between two series of “The Crown.” But that was okay because actually, I went straight from “The Crown” into crack on this. And it was only a 23-day shoot and we only had three weeks prep, so actually, the physical shoot and prep time on this was quite quick. We’d been in the edit for a good few months before I had to go back to England for “The Crown,” and I would only go back for a day at a time, just fly back to London and do it and then come back to the edit in LA. But yeah, it was quite mad. And I had a very small baby as well, so it was quite mad. But it was all right.
Did working on “Killing Eve,” prepare you for the short shooting schedule? Just the speed of television? Or were you really like, “I wish we had two months to shoot the movie”?
No, in every world I wish we had two months to film. 23 days when you’ve got that number of locations as well and cast changes? It’s not like you’re filming it all in one house and you can move things around a bit, it’s an immense amount of pressure on everyone, especially since we really worked hard to make it feel cinematic and we weren’t cashing any corners. We really wanted to make it feel like a bigger movie than it was. But yeah, to have had another month would have been life-changing. But at the same time, there’s also something really fun about [it this way]. Everyone just has to be on board and you’ve got to just prepare very, very obsessively. Yeah, there’s something weirdly pleasurable about doing something that’s nearly impossible, but not quite.
Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
I think I was thinking a lot about growing up and growing up at a time in the noughties where raunch culture and the kind of comedies that I watched, like picking up drunk women, getting girls drunk at parties, girls waking up not knowing who they were next to was just a gag. These were punchlines, and it was so, so, socially accepted that this stuff was fine, even though I think most of us had a pretty good idea that it wasn’t fine. So, I was just interested in what do you do when culturally something that has been completely normal is so traumatizing for so many people? How do you go from there? How do you start to kind of move on from that stuff? And I love revenge movies, I love revenge thrillers, and I just felt like I hadn’t seen a revenge movie with a woman at center behaving in a way that a real woman might. So, all of that was going around my head. And then that scene of a girl, drunk on a bed, drunkenly saying, “What are you doing?” as one takes their clothes off and then sitting up and sober saying, “What are you doing?” that was the kind of the first moment where I knew who Cassie was and where it was going. That scene kind of cracked it open, I think.
How did you know that Carey was that Cassie? Because she really hasn’t had the opportunity to play many characters like this in the past.
She hasn’t, but the stuff that she’s done, when you think of “Wildlife” and “Shame” and “Drive,” and even “Suffragette,” “Madding Crowd,” she has done so much of what Cassie is. And I really wanted somebody who hadn’t maybe done a thriller like this before, who wouldn’t be tempted to kind of go the whip-smart/badass route, which I think is slightly inflicted upon female actresses and characters a lot. I’ve just never met a real woman in my life that anyone’s ever described as whip-smart or badass. It just tends to be preserved for women in films. There’s something so beautifully contained about Carey’s performances. She’s so real and so honest, and I think I knew I really wanted somebody at the center of quite heightened, sort of allegorical thing who would be the heart of it. Yeah, I wanted her from the beginning.
When you originally wrote this, was it set in London or England? Or did you always thinking of it as in an American “studio” context?
No, it was that LuckyChap bought it before I wrote it. They bought it after I pitched it to them. And one of the things they asked is would it make sense for it to be set in America since, at the time, that’s where all their movies were being made. And absolutely I think it’s a totally universal story really, regrettably. And I think it is useful actually that we still think of American movies maybe as…the norm. They’re the universal norm still for the kind of Western world maybe.
How did you recruit this great cast? Did you call in favors or does the casting director get the credit? It’s just pitch-perfect casting throughout.
Well, yes, absolutely an amazing casting director [Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu]. But also I think what’s great about writing a movie like this, which is kind of a number of two-handers, like a road movie almost, you’re getting people then really to do a day or half a day. So that as an ask is, if you want someone like Alfred Molina or Adam Brody or any number of these brilliant actors, generally speaking, I think if they know they can do something different that could be fun with an actress like Carey, and worst-case scenario, it’s going to be a day of their life. There are those sort of practical considerations. But I really wanted everyone in the movie to be people that we all really loved and felt comfortable with because I think so much of this stuff is about people we love and are comfortable with doing deeply unlovable, uncomfortable things. So, I think for lots of the cast that we asked, they weren’t often asked to do things like this, so that was really appealing to them. Even someone like Jennifer Coolidge, who’s just so ridiculously talented and brilliant, but it’s very rare you see her in a kind of dramatic role, and even though she’s still so funny because she’s the funniest person in the world. But I think it’s fun for people to kind of get to stretch their legs in that way.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen Jennifer in something where she was so restrained. Carey said you allowed some improvisation though. Was that because it was Jennifer Coolidge on set and that’s a no-brainer?
Yeah, she’s my hero. I’ve loved everything she’s done. I think she’s a proper unique genius. But also I think improv is so useful, partly because sometimes it does make it into the movie, but mostly it tends to loosen people up a bit. And the thing with Jennifer in that scene, it’s a sort of meet the parent’s dinner party scene. And in real life, those kinds of dinners are so excruciating that actually, it was really helpful to kind of put some of this stilted stuff in there, because that’s what it always feels like. It’s hard to get that quality of awkwardness with a scene that people have done 10 times. It’s quite nice to throw in something unexpected. Yeah, but of course.
And not only was Jennifer so brilliant, but Clancy Brown is also a genius because he did something even harder, which was “yes, and”-ed everything she said no matter how extraordinary. He was the kind of the epitome of the most supportive husband in the world, and it made it just unbearably funny. And Carey, I’m afraid to say Oscar nominee, Carey Mulligan absolutely lost her shit. She could not keep it together.
Carey also said there’s a gag reel, which I have not seen anywhere. Are you guys saving it for extras?
The gag reel’s really just for the cast and crew. This movie is a dark comedy, absolutely, but it’s also about something very complicated and it just didn’t feel, certainly to me, it didn’t really feel appropriate to have the gag reel [public].
How did decide the ending and Cassie’s fate in the film? Was it just organic? Did you debate it?
I guess I don’t maybe write in a very analytical way. I don’t write anything down really, until the very end when I transcribe it. So, I’ll write the whole film completely in my head, which will mean a lot of going over things, but also means you can actually physically sort of be in the scene. There’s a reason why Cassie doesn’t use weapons. There’s a reason why women don’t use weapons, in general, and there’s a reason why that is a very lovely, but misleading fantasy of the thriller genre is that if you go into a room with a man with a weapon, you’re not going to win. So, it was important to me that if we’re going to make a movie honestly about what this stuff feels like and how the anger and the desire for revenge and for some sort of closure is so hard to find, I couldn’t really see any world where Cassie does the kind of badass, slow-mo walkaway on this. It just seemed kind of impossible really. So, it was kind of the only ending that made sense. I think, again, the scene afterward, directly afterward, is sort of almost more chilling because it’s a scene we’ve seen so many times. It’s a comedy scene. That’s, to me, what is so troubling about this stuff is you can be written out of your own narrative by a bunch of weak, sort of useless people. Just watching the [Brett] Kavanaugh hearings, for example. Of course, he’s a Supreme Court judge. I don’t think there was any woman who watched that who believed for a second he wasn’t going to be one. That’s what this is about as much as anything else. And so, of course, when Cassie went into the house, she also hoped that she was going to get the badass walk away, but she’s not an idiot. She knew that there was a lot of danger involved, and so she made a contingency plan for if things didn’t go right.
There’s a point in the film where, as a viewer, you think, “Actually, Cassie can have a happy ending. She knows she’s done, but still, move on.” And then she finds out the truth about Bo. Is that the turning point that she’s all in?
Absolutely. Well, also there are a number of people who watched the film who think that she should have forgiven him. That’s the thing. There’s no clear cut [answer]. For her, I think that there’s a reason that she’s not looked up Al Monroe’s name for years and that she’s been doing something else to stave off the pain and the fury. It’s because once she looks too closely at it, she will stop being quite so meticulous because the addiction and anger become more and more extreme. So, although I don’t think for a second that she went there in order to martyr herself, and certainly she fights as hard as she can, I definitely don’t think that, but she also has gotten to the point where she has to do this. She has to do this either way because she can’t let him get away with it for even a second more.
Have you been surprised by people’s reactions to the film?
Absolutely. I really wanted to write something that felt very real. Some people watch this movie and they really don’t like Cassie and they think what she’s doing is crazy. Obviously, I personally love her and think that she’s heroic, but there are lots of things that she does that are profoundly not nice, which is often the case with people that are traumatized and self-harming and all this kind of stuff. So I think that the hope for this movie for me was that every single person in this film thinks they’re a good person, believes they’re trying their best to be a good person, and is failing. That’s the thing that’s very interesting to me about all of this. And it’s the same for Ryan. He thinks he’s a good person. Don’t we all think we’re good people until we’re presented with proof to the contrary?
“Promising Young Woman” is now playing nationwide.