Carey Mulligan is Cassie Thomas, a 30-year-old woman who lives with her parents. By day she works in a café. At night, she goes to bars and clubs and gets black-out, staggeringly drunk. Inevitably, some nice guy – The O.C.’s Adam Brody at one point, Christopher “McLovin’” Mintz-Plasse at another – “nobly” helps her home and tries to take advantage of her, when they inevitably learn that a) she’s not drunk, b) she’s very angry, and c) she’s not messing around.
Co-starring Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Max Greenfield, Clancy Brown, Alfred Molina, and Jennifer Coolidge, Promising Young Woman is a revenge thriller, a black comedy, a character study, an indictment of rape culture and a guttural scream of rage all at once.
It comes to us from debut feature writer and director Emerald Fennell, a familiar face from her acting in Call the Midwife and The Crown, and a rising star creator thanks to her turn as head writer and executive producer on Killing Eve. With Promising Young Woman already being one of the most talked about films of the year, she joined us to talk about it.
There’s a real anger to this film. Although it’s very funny at times and suspenseful at others, it seems the underlying emotion is a very deep rage that informs almost every scene. How did you settle on that tone?
I think it’s really tough. I suppose what I really wanted to do was actually make a revenge movie, a revenge thriller, that felt honest. Because … we’ve seen lots of movies like this before, and I love the genre, but I think it really needed upending, because I really needed to see what a real woman might actually do in these circumstances and how she might actually try and take revenge.
And in terms of the rage of it, I actually wanted it to feel as balanced as possible and as accessible as possible. The main thing for me always was to make a movie everyone would want to see, and everyone would be able to engage with and argue about and have their own feelings.
How did Carey Mulligan come on board and what was your dynamic like working with her?
Oh God, she’s the best. We sent it to her agent. Actually, my first job was working as an assistant for Carey’s agents 10 years ago. I think Carey had just signed onto the agency [then], but I don’t think I ever spoke to her, because I was mostly in the mail room. I’ve always kind of respected her and admired her from afar. We sent it to her agents and she read it really quickly. I went to meet her for coffee and she just sat down and said, “Okay, I’m in,” which was really unexpected.
And she’s just the best person in the world, she’s a genius. It’s really honestly a pleasure. We had 23 days to make this movie on an unbelievably tight time schedule, tight budget, all the pressures of making an independent film. She’s in almost every scene and there’s not one take of anything, that she’s not perfect in. She was such a joy.
A lot of the male actors that you use come from a comedic background – Bo Burnham, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Was that a deliberate choice? Is there a thematic or narrative reason for that?
Definitely. I think the main thing for me was that I didn’t want to make a movie about monsters. I wanted to make a movie about people we know, people we are. When this happens in real life, when it’s somebody that you know, the reaction is often, “Oh, but he’s such a nice guy.” In the film it’s important that these are people that we feel comfortable with, that these are men and women that we like, and that these people didn’t know that their behaviour is terrible.
The thing that I said to everyone making this film was, “There’s nothing in this movie that we haven’t seen in a comedy in the last 50 years. There’s nothing here.” You know, if we reframed this as Adam Brody’s movie it’s just the beginning of a romcom: you save a beautiful girl and you feel like you have a rapport with her. This stuff that is just completely part of our culture so I guess I just wanted to use people that we like, and then we can interrogate it properly.
The direction here is so assured, and the film turns on a dime, that it’s hard to believe this is your first feature. Are there any other filmmakers you were inspired by when making this?
I think I’ve been really lucky. To be working on set as an actor, especially doing a show like Call the Midwife, which is really long running and has directors coming in and out all the time, all of them very talented, you get an opportunity to watch what works. A lot of it for me is being able to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable enough to do their best work, particularly actors just coming in for a day.
Like so many people I just obsessively watch, well, Paul Thomas Anderson is a huge one. Sofia Coppola is just a master. Then even things like Night of the Hunter, which I put little clips of in the movie and a song from that film.
When I go to a movie, I want the world built for me. I want it to feel like I’m in a place and it’s vivid and it doesn’t have to be completely real as long as it feels true. It doesn’t need to feel real. And I think that’s the thing about this movie: it needed to be a reflection. It needed to feel like a woman’s point of view, like Cassie’s point of view. So, when she falls in love with it, it feels like Paris Autumn in a beautiful pink neon dream. And when things are wrong, it feels like a horror movie – it’s all red leather. I love all of it. I love the detail of it – probably to a fault, the kind of like obsessiveness of every colour, every detail.
What were the biggest challenges you faced during production?
Okay, so the stuff that was difficult. It sounds very strange, but it was very fun. You know, we did try and make it a fun atmosphere, in spite of how bleak this movie is. Technically, it was super hard at times. For example, in the scene at Alfred Molina’s house we were doing it super-fast and we were working against the light, but that was the whole movie. When we were just starting and we were looking at the schedule, all of us were staring down the barrel of the void, like, “this is going to be almost impossible”. It was just this side of possible. I think the whole thing had this feeling of slight anxiety.
What are you hoping that people take away from the film? What’s your ideal reaction from a viewer?
Honestly, and it sounds pat, but I really don’t have one. I think what I would love is for people to leave and to talk about it. I think the thing for me with this is that it is a cathartic movie, but I would never want to make a movie that you could watch and go, “Okay, great, I liked it, let’s go get a burger.” But I certainly wanted to make a story about a woman that people would respond to and people would ruminate on and talk about for some time afterwards.
Promising Young Woman is in cinemas now.