Back in February, we were joined by director Emerald Fennell, who discussed her debut film — Promising Young Woman — with romcom legend Richard Curtis.
Since then, Promising Young Woman has been an awards season sensation, recently gaining nominations for Best Director and Best Film at the Oscars.
In this episode, you can listen to Emerald telling Richard about her experiences as a first time filmmaker, her careful casting choices, and crafting a powerful ending. We hope you enjoy!
Richard Curtis: Why this film? What do you think deep inside you said, ‘This is the one that I’m going to make’?
Emerald Fennell: I’m not very good at describing how things start, because it’s generally just one specific scene that comes to mind. And so, with Promising Young Woman, it was a woman drunk on a bed, being undressed, asking drunkenly, ‘What are you doing?’ And then suddenly sitting up and saying, ‘What are you doing?’ sober. And I suppose for a really long time I’d been thinking about what it was like growing up in a world where it was completely normal, just culturally completely accepted to be taking drunk girls home, filling up their drinks more than your own drink, these gags, it was like banter. And it was all the films that I watched growing up as well: the way that women’s bodies were things to be had, things to be looked at, touched, tricked. So, I suppose that’s where it all came from. But then on the other hand, the, ‘Why this film?’ question is always so difficult because of course there are lots of other things that I’ve written that were never made. I think it probably helped that a lot of people maybe of my age are now producing, and they’re in the position to say yes to things, because I think that they probably understood this thing and felt it quite deeply.
Richard Curtis: There’s obviously something inside you that wants to get back at some of the experiences you had when you were young.
Emerald Fennell: I think maybe that’s it, but I suppose at the same time, we’re just not very used to seeing how women really are frightening. We’re so used to seeing male characters be violent or lashing out, but we’re not used to seeing women being angry in the same way. We don’t mind them getting a knife and slitting someone’s throat, we don’t mind them blowing shit up, but we do mind seeing them angry in the way that women are angry. And they do express their anger. I think of the women in Careful How You Go as recreational sadists, as people who have found the way.
Richard Curtis: Recreational sadists is a brilliant term.
Emerald Fennell: Well, I don’t know how many people are professional sadists, maybe there are a few. But yes, there’s a reason that women aren’t violent, it’s because they don’t win. There are many reasons why we don’t resort to violence, but then how to you express that rage? Where does it go? I’ve got a folder of wicked women. A lot of the time I hear news stories and put them in. There was a news story in Australia recently, it was somebody who was putting needles in strawberries. They didn’t know who it was, and I was talking to someone at the time when it came up and I just said, ‘It’s just a woman, there’s no chance it’s not,’ and of course it was. And then you think about cat bin lady, do you remember her?
Richard Curtis: No.
Emerald Fennell: Okay, cat bin lady, everyone might be too sophisticated to remember cat bin lady, but maybe five years ago there was a really famous piece of CCTV footage of a woman, just in a suburban street, ordinary middle-aged woman, and there was a cat on top of a dustbin, a big bin that you put all your rubbish in. And no-one was looking and she just pushed the cat into the bin and closed the door, and then just kept walking. And there was outrage, and this woman got unmasked because there was CCTV of the house, but of course that expression, that sudden unthinking expression of anger, felt particularly female to me.
Richard Curtis: No writing is easy. How was the process of this one?
Emerald Fennell: I think for me, actually writing is the easiest bit maybe, because I love doing it and I find it a real relief. Maybe that’s my putting cats in a bin. So, what I do is I just think about it, I live with it for a couple of years and I don’t ever write anything down, and I listen to music, and I go into all the rooms, I go to all the apartments with Cassie and work out what music’s on and what they’ve got on their floors and all that stuff. So, that is the main body of it, weirdly. Physically writing is probably the shortest part, because by the time I’m ready to do that it’s pretty much finished. A lot of the difficulty is worked out.
Richard Curtis: In advance.
Emerald Fennell: Yes, I don’t know how you work, but for me I can’t start at all until it’s finished. I can try, I can do my best, I can sit in front of my computer, but it just doesn’t really feel the same, it’s got to be done.
Richard Curtis: All the way through, did you think, ‘I’m going to direct this one?’
Emerald Fennell: Yes. I love writing things that I don’t direct, I love writing in general, so that’s lovely. But I made Careful How You Go in order to prove that I could make Promising Young Woman. Because I was not interested in selling it as a script or anyone else making it. Not that I don’t think somebody else might have done something amazing, but it just felt so personal, and also how I wanted to make it was so specific, I think. Maybe it’s not particularly unusual, but it felt important to me that it was all one thing.
Richard Curtis: In the process of getting this made, were there ever moments when you felt being a female director was a benefit, or a challenge?
Emerald Fennell: God, I don’t know. It’s really difficult to know because it’s your life and it’s your only frame of reference. But I still think it is the case that women are more usually allowed to write very female things, and they’re allowed to be approximations of their lives. It would be interesting to see if the women that have thrived this year are then allowed to go and make whatever films they want to make. I found a lot of the time before Promising Young Woman, so much of the other stuff I wrote was Sci-Fi or rom-coms, all of that sort of stuff, and really it was the case that I think people want things that are more political, perhaps, from women. But having said that, One Night in Miami is a great example of a movie where you get to see women direct a bunch of men. That’s still very, very rare.
Richard Curtis: It’s such an unusual film tonally, did you have other films in mind while making it?
Emerald Fennell: I think for me, part of it was that my life feels chaotic in this way, it feels like a horror film and romantic comedy. I think probably maybe what hangs it together is I like things that feel allegorical as well as real. It’s a very simple structure, Promising Young Woman is, the same as a road movie or a Western, or a fable if you’re a child and hearing those Bible stories. It is a woman who goes on a journey and teaches people lessons, and learns things along the way. So, that for me was very useful, because then everything else could be played with. And it’s very useful having a genre like the revenge movie, particularly the female-led revenge movie, because everyone knows it inside out, and there are really particular, specific emotional and story beats. So if you can use those and know what the audience is expecting, and then undermine it, it’s a pleasurable exercise for you and hopefully for them too.
Richard Curtis: You might have had the revenge film, but then you completely allowed yourselves to bring in a parents film and a love film, and do those properly.
Emerald Fennell: I think also so much of it is trying to approximate Cassie’s experience, so much of the way it looks and feels is because it’s her film. It seems innocuous, it seems cosy, it seems feminine and fun and sweet, and it’s not really, it’s nightmare-ish. And then when it comes to the romance, when it comes to almost all of the film, it’s important, I think, for us as an audience, that it’s not simple. You need to have that feeling that she has, that there are two roads she’s choosing from. This is what all of this stuff is about to me - that it’s so difficult. It’s like, ‘Look how easy it is when you just let it go. Look how easy it is when you shut up and get over it, and forget about it, and let it go.’ Because that’s it, it’s like she’s got two options, she’s got love and life and hope, and then she’s got this hard, lonely, miserable, solitary path that everyone, including Nina’s parents, are like, ‘Just stop.’ It’s relentless.
Richard Curtis: I’d love to just talk about how the process went. Did you enjoy it?
Emerald Fennell: Yes, I really did, I really loved it. It was a 23-day shoot—
Richard Curtis: No!
Emerald Fennell: Yes, in Los Angeles with all of the wonders that that brings, but also all of the complications. It’s a very complicated place to shoot. In a way, of course there were moments that were very stressful, but it made us a unit. I remember looking at the schedule a couple of days before we started shooting, and we were all there, all of the producers were watching it, looking and thinking, ‘We’ve got a millimetre of space, every day. We can feel the hairs of impossible against our skin.’ And so there was no question of ever dropping a scene, because we were in a different location pretty much every day, you can’t go back. But having said that, partly the reason I enjoyed it, not only creatively, but just personally, was Carey. Carey is so exceptional that she can just do it. She can just do it, it’s pure instinct, she’s a magical genius. And so not only do you know you’re always going to get the performance, and you’re going to get all sorts of different performances because she’s so clever at moderating everything and changing it bit by bit, but more than anything she’s fucking delightful. She’s a lovely person, and that sounds like nothing, but for me making this, seven months pregnant, in LA, in a place I’d never worked before, making my first film, there were so many things that could have gone wrong, and one of those big things would have been if the leading lady didn’t work out.
Richard Curtis: You can’t have allowed yourself much coverage. Did you know at the start of the day, ‘This is the way I’m going to shoot this scene’? So in that way, more like directing fast the TV way, with decisions already made, rather than saying, ‘Oh let’s try it this way and that way and this way...and then on we go’.
Emerald Fennell: Viewing the film through the prism of Cassie, it had to be very contained and static and considered. Quite strict actually. So we used steadicam and natural lighting only in the moments when Cassie is losing control. So any bits, actually lots of bits with Bo, the Ryan scenes when they fall in love and the camera loosens up and then when she hits the car, when she has the melt down after she’s seen the video — that’s when we allowed ourselves steadicam. But Christ on a cracker. If we’d just done that for the whole film we could have made...there was a version of this film that was much more gritty and real, and that would have given us so much more space in that regard, but I think partly it needed to feel cinematic and it needed to feel safe, so that people trusted it before they had that trust taken off. But Carey as Cassie is so still. That’s one of her great strengths, she’s so still that it meant we could be quite prescriptive about how we did it, and as for the cinematography side, I know no words for anything. It’s embarrassing. I don’t even really know the word for a camera. With Ben Kracun, who is just a brilliant DoP who I’d worked with and liked, I think really it was just that thing of not being embarrassed to say when I didn’t know something. But I was very particular, probably unpleasantly particular about how I wanted things to look.
Richard Curtis: I must say the look of the film is so extraordinary. It is all that neon. All that pink. All those colours. Was that all in your mind as you wrote it? Did you see the film as you wrote and then reproduced that — or did you discover how stylised, stylish, how far you could push it as it were, during production?
Emerald Fennell: Writing in my head is so useful for that reason because, yes is the answer, it’s very much seen and felt. So it’s probably quite annoying for people to work with, because so much of it for me is about trying to explain exactly what it is that I’m imagining. But at the same time, I sent the playlist to everyone, including Carey and the actors and all the HODs, and I sent a very, very detailed mood board, so then everyone knew where we were going with it. And it was amazing that people could be like ‘Okay, great, if you want it to look like this then we can do this and this and this’.
Richard Curtis: It’s incredible. I hadn’t realised the shortness of the production and the seven month-ness of the stomach but I think it’s extraordinary at every level. Talk a bit about the casting. I was talking to my daughter about it today and she says it’s in a way immensely cruel, because there are so many of what she would call the “soft boys” of her dreams. And you deliberately took all these actors who, like Bo Burnham who’s a kind of dream and you think will be sensitive, and Adam Brody the first guy who gets all in trouble and the wonderful guy from New Girl. Was that deliberate, picking out the people who give the wrong signals about how they’re going to behave?
Emerald Fennell: Totally, and not only the wrong signals to other people but to themselves. This is the thing about these guys, is they all think they’re good. Because this stuff, this film isn’t about villainous people, cruel, evil people. It’s about normal people who identify as good, who have just been turning a blind eye to their own behaviour because they want something — and they want it more than they care about the other person. I worry about articulating this. So it’s always the soft boys. It’s always the guy at work who’s always been so respectful to you. It’s always your best friend who’s never been skeezy and hit on you. This is where it’s troubling. It’s very rare in these cases that there is a monster. Of course we know that there are monsters.
Richard Curtis: I thought the casting was amazing in that way, because Connie Britton is America’s sweetheart, and she’s not that in this film. And there’s Alison Brie...It’s amazing the way that you undermined everything. And fantastic use of pop music. Were all those in your head when you started and you knew those were the tunes?
Emerald Fennell: Not all of them but a few of them were in the script. So Charlie XCX’s Boys, which is the opening song, the opening words, was so perfect because it’s got everything I like — which is that it’s just an absolute banger of a tune, and it’s funny and it’s wry in it’s own right. And of course it means the first lines of the film are ‘I was busy thinking about boys’, and I just thought it was impossible not to find that completely delicious since I had been thinking about boys so much.
Richard Curtis: Not very nice thoughts but...
Emerald Fennell: Not necessarily not nice. I think honest. I don’t think it’s cruel to be honest. There’s nothing in this film... it’s a film about forgiveness and how we are able to forgive ourselves and each other and again, it’s difficult stuff but unfortunately it’s very common. There is not a woman of my age who would see any of this stuff as out of the ordinary unfortunately. That’s the truth of it.
Richard Curtis: I think that’s what makes it so seductive and in some ways painful, at the same time as being so unbelievably entertaining. Let’s talk about the end, which I’m told we can do because everyone watching has watched it. You knew how it was going to end from the beginning of writing it, and I’d love to talk about shooting that, because that was a heck of a thing to do to the two performers.
Emerald Fennell: Yes. I spent a lot of time there with different configurations of what could have happened in that room, but the thing that kept coming back was what would I do if I wanted to take revenge. How could I do it? The answer was never violent because I knew if I was ever in a room with a man and a weapon, I couldn’t win. And I’m quite a strapping lady, but that is two-fold when you take someone like Cassie who is played by Carey who is a very petite woman. There was never a chance that he wouldn’t fight and so it was a matter of then trying to take us to that place that we’ve seen so many times before in these movies, with the catharsis it promises which is that if we just get a knife, we can win. And that’s not true. It’s just not true. But I felt like if it is the only moment in the movie where we see violence then I felt it had to be. We’re so used to seeing women’s bodies. We’re so used to seeing women murdered on screen and it’s so often so gratuitous and titillating — and so for me it was about saying okay well, what is it though? We have to sit in it. Like he does actually, and like she does. It has to be agony. And it has to be unsparing and it has to be impossible to look away from. And so, my father-in-law is an ex-policeman, and once I realised that that’s what was going to happen, I asked him how long it would take to smother someone — and he said about two and a half, three minutes. So again, in films you just see someone gasp for a second and then it’s over. Of course it’s not like that. So then it was going to be a single shot pushing in and getting closer, but rather than pushing in on her, pushing in on him. And yes it was gruelling. It was awful. It was awful to do. It was horrific. We shot it four, let me think, maybe three and a half times.
Richard Curtis: I think it’s an absolutely incredible scene not only in the way that it’s shot, but that it happens at all. I remember Mike Newell saying to me ‘If it doesn’t happen there, it’s not going to happen in the edit’. And I mean he was mainly talking about comedy and emotion, but it sounds like you put them to practice on action. Just very quickly, let me leap in because you’re not only a writer and director but also an actress. As an actress directing actors, are there things that other directors have done that you thought “I’m definitely not doing that”, or that were incredibly useful? Did you think that experience helped you as a director?
Emerald Fennell: I think it did definitely. Certainly it helped that all of the actors I worked with on this film are better actors than me, so it made it a much easier equation. Absolutely. The thing that I feel most strongly about, and everyone’s different, but I absolutely cannot abide that feeling of hostility. There are a lot of directors who are more shouty. There are a lot of sets that are fear-driven, adrenaline-driven. There are lots of people who make you do it a thousand times, because they’re looking for something specific, but they don’t know how to communicate that to you. And I think that, look, some people really work under that kind of pressure. Some actors might love that. But for me I think nobody is going to do their best work if they’re frightened of fucking up. And we didn’t have time. So you need to have that very delicate balance of being like: ‘Everyone can fuck up, hey you’re just doing loosey-goosey here’. When that is not true. We’re not loosey-goosey. You can’t fuck up. We don’t have time. But for me, I get the spooks the moment I think we’re running out of time or the moment I think I’m doing it wrong. I don’t respond well to that. I am the sort of person who needs a sickening amount of praise and head-patting.
Richard Curtis: I think some directors aren’t great, and even some aren’t very nice to actors, so clearly you were good to them and they did brilliant work. Let me leap on because we’re running out of time dramatically already. In the edit, you see the assembly: is it the worst film you’ve ever seen when you see the assembly? Were there things you had to fix as a director? Did you find the editing bit was as important as the writing and directing? Or in this case, because it was such a short shoot, had you done the job more neatly?
Emerald Fennell: Actually, I found the edit the hardest part of the whole thing. I was so lucky Fred Thoraval, who was the editor, is just so brilliant and diligent and amazing and experienced and lovely. And Emily who edited too. So I was lucky because they were great and wonderful. But it’s not my favourite part. I know that there are lots of people who love it. I think partly we suffered because yes, we had so little to work with. We had so few options. It wasn’t that thing that you hear about where people are like ‘We’re just going to move this here’. It’s a very plotty film. It’s a ridiculously plotty film actually. And so it was not easy to move things around. And you know we didn’t have time. “My kingdom for a shot of the tree waving in the wind,” do you know what I mean? We didn’t have anything. And Fred was just a master at finding some kind of dodgy B-roll of something we could just put in to give us a bit of space. So, that side of things I think it would have been easier had we had more material to work with, because it would have felt more malleable. But just apart from that, I don’t think I’m natural at it. I find it boring. I’m too impatient. I love being on set and I love the writing but the edit I just found, I felt like I was being pulled kicking and screaming and my instinct often was like aaah!
Richard Curtis: Were you there a lot, all the time? I’m there all the time.
Emerald Fennell: I was there all the time.
Richard Curtis: You were there all the time.
Emerald Fennell: And also, to be fair I had just had a baby and so I was tired, so maybe it wasn’t a good reflection. But in general I just found it really hard. I did find it really hard. But I didn’t ever feel the thing you felt. I had the opposite problem where I was like ‘this is a lot’.
Richard Curtis: It is. You were right. Quite right too that you didn’t torture yourself.
Emerald Fennell: But it absolutely wasn’t. It was just that I think I was so in love with everyone. Every single person who worked on it. I was so proud that it existed. I was so amazed by how brilliant Carey was and everyone. Partly at the beginning I think, for me, at that first assembly I wanted to weep with joy that it existed.
Richard Curtis: That’s a very happy story. I’m so glad that was the case. Have you already written the next one?
Emerald Fennell: I’m writing it now. So it’s nearly done.
Richard Curtis: How’s it going?
Emerald Fennell: It’s good. I think I’m nervous about it. Maybe in a way that I wasn’t before.
Richard Curtis: Have you discovered you’ve got a style? Are you suddenly realising, ‘Oh wait a minute this is going to be the way I work’?
Emerald Fennell: I definitely have a style. I have a very narrow area of interest. It’s the Cat Bin Lady biopic, basically. Of course I naively think it’s very different, and then of course, I’m sure you’re absolutely right, it will all be the same.
Richard Curtis: Exactly, I wrote Notting Hill. Thought it was very different. Watched it and thought ‘Oh my God, it’s exactly the same film as the last one’. But look, Emerald we do have to stop. You’ve been great. It’s an amazing first film. I mean so much style. So many brilliant choices. So beautifully cast. Really unusual in its movement between genre and its emotions, and I think an important feminist movie as well — and an incredibly entertaining movie. I can’t praise you enough and I can’t wait for the next one. Obviously I hope you win lots of prizes but if you don’t, who cares.
Emerald Fennell: Thank you.
Richard Curtis: You’ll be fine. At least you don’t have the shame. At least there wont be live ceremonies.
Emerald Fennell: No, just alone in a room. So there’s enough shame there. That’s enough to last me.
Richard Curtis: So many congratulations. It was such a thrill and a delight. It’s a great piece of work, and really a brilliant talent from the UK making a completely extraordinary movie.