Following its premiere nearly a year ago at Sundance Film Festival, Promising Young Woman, like many other films in 2020, found itself getting rescheduled due to the pandemic, and it now comes with a shiny pink Christmas release date. Carey Mulligan––like you’ve never seen her before––plays Cassie, a young woman who leads a simple life living with her parents and working at a small coffee shop. It is during nights that Cassie’s life becomes less simple.
Every night she goes out to a bar or club, pretends to be too drunk to stand up straight and goes home with a guy who wants to take advantage of her drunk state. It is once they go home that Cassie reveals she is not drunk at all and takes her revenge on the men. Her nighttime activities become more and more dangerous as details of her past become uncovered.
It’s the first feature from Emerald Fennell (whose short film “Careful How You Go,” starring Fleabag herself Phoebe Waller-Bridge, had premiered at Sundance back in 2018), but certainly not her introduction in the industry. Fennell was most recently seen in The Crown as the infamous Camilla Parker Bowles and she was the head writer of the second season of BBC’s Killing Eve, for which she was nominated for an Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series Emmy. A modern-day Renaissance woman, she is also the writer of two children’s books and a horror novel.
Ahead of the release of Promising Young Women, which she also wrote and produced, we discussed the film’s Biblical imagery, female rage, subverting the revenge thriller, our expectations for violence in films, the horrors of the patriarchal system, and much more.
The Film Stage: We often see Cassie in positions that are Christ-like. In the first shot of her, she has her arms spread like a cross and that image repeats itself a few times in the film. Can you talk about that Biblical imagery?
Emerald Fennell: Absolutely. It’s one of the things that early on was on my mind that Cassie is an avenging angel. And it is sort of Biblical without it sounding like overblown. It has the simplicity actually, I hope, of a parable or a Biblical story in a sort of morality tales we were told growing up way. Certainly a kind of journey in threes that you get in those stories. So for me it was important that avenging angel was never overtly stated but always implied, at least visibly. So the first time we see her she is sort of splayed out and kind of drunk but it is almost like a crucifixion. For me there is no position more powerful and vulnerable than that, you know. It’s got two things Cassie has: power and vulnerability. I just felt that giving her that strength in the beginning made sense and then going through it we got halos and wings and all sorts of little things behind her, above her that all have these pointers. That’s why so much of filmmaking is a unique art form really. Because you can be allegorical, you can make things somewhat heightened.
You mentioned the filmmaking aspect so I wanna jump into that. When I read the screenplay, I thought, “Wow there are so many ways this screenplay could be made.” The tone of the film could’ve been completely different but the end product has such a unique approach. Is that why you wanted to also direct it?
I think, for exactly that reason. It was impossible for me to explain to people really, precisely what I meant and the only way to do that was to make it. I think I wrote it in order to direct it. I really never imagined it as being for anyone else and I pitched it as something I’d make. When I sent the script to people I sent it with a playlist and with a very long, sort of maniacally long mood board just to show precisely what I meant; the way it reads is not how it will feel. Because we still have such strict ideas about how serious films look, how films that tackle serious subjects should be, and none of them reflect the way that I feel in my life or how the people in my life feel. The pathetic fallacy that you see in films so often doesn’t ring true. This is a movie about how things aren’t always the way they appear, so it made sense that we’d at least attempt to make it a very beautiful film. We needed it to be sort of visually appealing, ultra-feminine, comforting, alluring, you know, a trap basically. It needed it to be a trap. The music, too, is as much as the way it looked. It’s all like the surface is very very inviting but what’s underneath it is much more troubling.
You know there’s been a rise recently in the amount of films we see in rape revenge genre. Where do you think Promising Young Woman stands in that sphere? Were you inspired by any films in that genre?
Actually, I wanted to make a movie that subverted the revenge thriller. So Promising Young Woman has all of the tropes. It has all of the plot beats, but they are just not quite exactly what you expect. I wanted to make a revenge movie about a real woman and real female rage and I wanted to look at how that might actually, practically work. You know the first thing was just that I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t believe that most women use violence as a first resort, even as a last resort. It’s so rare. So the first thing was how would you enact revenge if you’re not gonna get on the traditional route of mini-skirt and AK-47? How are you gonna do it? So that’s what was interesting to me with taking all those things with the audience’s expectations that come with them. What you want is for people to be going, “Oh, I know what––oh okay, that’s not what I thought” because what’s great about genre movies is that everyone’s an expert now. And I mean that in a good way. We all consume so much, we all see so much, we are all so familiar with the way stuff works. That’s such a useful way of people’s own knowledge, it’s such a useful thing. Because then you can use that and play with it.
That’s what is great about the trailer. It set me up to think she was going in and killing them so I was taken aback when that wasn’t the case at all. It wasn’t what I was expecting.
Yeah and I think people are much more disturbed by what she does.
I was having a conversation with someone else about it earlier and saying people have been very disturbed by some of the things she does. Whereas if we saw her go and visit people, watch her torture and kill them, no one would bat an eyelid because we are so used it that it’s like, “Of course, this is how it is, this is how this movies are.”
And I love those movies, I mean John Wick! What a revenge movie! What a sublimely perfect revenge movie! So beautifully made, so fun, so great! But we never for a second say “That’s the fourth guy he killed in this corridor alone.” I went to see John Wick 3 in the movie theatres. I loved it. I’m obsessed with him. We saw it in theaters and there were kids watching it! The scenes with knife fights, just knives going into people’s skulls and people are just sitting and watching, we think nothing of it because that’s the kind of movie it is.
But it’s so interesting that when you strip that away, you start with the same premise and you do something that’s not violent and people become much more uncomfortable and disturbed by it. Because it makes us all complicit. We’re not complicit if we are watching someone commit atrocities, necessarily, but we are complicit when we are forced to think about it.
I’m sure you’ve been asked a lot of questions about the MeToo movement already. I’m wondering if this film coming out during this time and consequently being connected to the movement is different for you? Are you worried that seeing the film through the lens of this social movement is going to change audiences’ view of the film?
Well firstly, the moment I finished the film I had no control over what people are going to think about it. MeToo is such an important movement and it’s been so incredible but there is still a long way to go. In the industry we work in, we are more well-versed about it because it’s where the movement broke out. But when it comes to people’s day to day lives, this isn’t necessarily a conversation people are having all the time, in a lot of detail.
When it comes to the specific issue of men sleeping with drunk girls or taking drunk girls home, for me this movie was interesting because it’s still so common. It’s not this sort of very strange, dark, perverse thing. It’s actually something that’s been in every comedy movie and TV show as a gag for like forever. It’s so much this grubby little corner of our society. And I was interested in it because of how many people still say “If she was drunk and if she went to a guy’s room…” you know. Honestly, the truth of it! I mean look at the Kavanaugh hearings, look at everything that’s happening. It’s just so happened that I pitched this film before the MeToo movement but really I think the MeToo movement has been incredible at shining light on something we’ve been living with since we existed. It’s just complicated and I don’t want to diminish the movement. The reason I say that I pitched it before the movement is that I wouldn’t want anyone thinking I was attaching myself or the film to it.
The film is much more about a cultural phenomenon that was a huge problem, certainly when I was at school and university in my early 20s, which was that no one was remotely ashamed sleeping with girls who were too drunk to consent. Movies where women wake up and they don’t know who is with them or where they are, it’s treated like “Whoopsie! Walk of shame.” Guys who are at the bars, saying, “Wait for the drunkest girl and take her home,” you know. These are just gags in the movies. So I think that is what I was really keen to look at with this: what happens to a culture, what happens to society, when everyone realizes that something they’ve accepted as normal is profoundly unnormal.
One of the things about the film that’s different is how it shows that women can be as complicit as men when it comes to dismissing rape accusations. Was that a conscious decision on your art? Because many people believe that women will always believe other women when it comes to these accusations but the film realistically shows that that’s not always true.
Oh no, I just don’t think it’s true at all. The awful, grotesque thing about this stuff is how many women are forced to internalize misogyny. If you look at the women, especially if you look at Madison [Alison Brie], one of the things she says is “stuff like this happened all the time.” And I think part of it is that she had to stomach a lot of things and the way she dealt with it is how everyone was expected to deal with it which was to laugh it off. “These guys are your friends” or “don’t be weird about it” or “it’s just a party.”
It’s so complicated. It’s not always women just being misogynistic themselves or cruel. It’s the whole of society that has built itself to protect men’s mistakes and to make women be culpable for them. It’s the same way when you sometimes hear, “You know, back in our workplace of course people spanked you on the bottom and it was fine.” And there’s this thing like, “I did it. I had to deal with it. Why can’t you?” It’s that classic bullying thing. I absolutely wanted to show the culture in general being complicit which certainly includes some women and that was very important but I will also say that the reasons that women feel that way is very much the fault of the horrible patriarchal system rather than being sort of an innate thing. It’s just a scary complicated nightmarish thing.
Promising Young Woman opens in theaters on December 25.