Worldwide icon-chevron-right Emerald Fennell: ‘Villains are fun but rare. Showing weakness is more interesting’
Emerald Fennell
Photograph: Shutterstock

Emerald Fennell: ‘Villains are fun but rare. Showing weakness is more interesting’

The Bafta-winner on her uncompromising feminist thriller ‘Promising Young Woman’

By Sophie Monks Kaufman
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The week before the shoot began on Emerald Fennell’s filmmaking debut, Promising Young Woman, its London-born writer-director received a home-movie clip from her mum of herself aged seven. ‘She was asking me what I’d like to do when I grow up. I said, ‘‘‘I want to be an actress and write stories about murder!’’’

‘Stories about murder’ is a fair summation of Killing Eve, the Emmy-winning assassin drama, whose second season Fennell wrote, while her stature as an actress has grown with credits on Call The Midwife, Albert Nobbs and Vita & Virginia. She is best known as Camilla Parker-Bowles on The Crown, a role she imbues with perky entitlement. For all these creative strings to her bow – not forgetting children’s book author – the new one of ‘director’ means the most. ‘It’s the pinnacle for me,’ she says.

How painful, then, to have theatrical release held in suspended animation. Pre-pandemic, Promising Young Woman was to be out in UK cinemas for April 2020. This was pushed back to December, and now, finally, April 2021. ‘The thing I am very sad about is that, even though some people will be able to see it in theatres, the likelihood is most won’t,’ says Fennell, ‘and it’s a film I made specifically to be watched communally.’

My mum asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said, ‘I want to be an actress and write stories about murder!’

The communal elements come from reservoirs of emotion running beneath the surface of this rape-revenge film, as it builds to a finale of overwhelming grief for women destroyed by rape culture. A hyper-stylised candy-coloured palette speaks to Fennell’s desire to create cinematic visuals, and the clash between dark depths and a pretty surface can be traced back to her bookworm adolescence. ‘I didn’t sleep very much so I read,’ she says, ‘mostly American high-school horror, like RL Stine, (YA books) Point Horror and Christopher Pike – along with Sweet Valley High. There was a collision of pastel dreamland and horrific dark stuff.’

Promising Young WomanFennell and Carey Mulligan on set 

In the film, Carey Mulligan straddles dreamland and horror as Cassie who, now on the cusp of 30, lives with her dismayed parents, having lost all conventional ambitions. She dropped out of medical school years ago, after losing her best friend in tragic circumstances. She’s introduced teaching nocturnal lessons to male sexual predators. Fennell had her sights on Mulligan from the beginning. ‘She was the person I wanted right off the bat because I knew that she wouldn't want to soften Cassie. There are lots of actors who would argue against some of the stuff she does, for likeability reasons. Carey never did. She found the truth of it.’

Mulligan gives a mercurial performance, switching from deadpan to defenceless in a heartbeat. ‘We had the best time because we just talked and talked and talked,’ says Fennell, who advocates for giving actors space to experiment. ‘Camera department and lighting take at least an hour to set up a shot. Then actors come in and have to do the most vulnerable stuff, that people will judge very harshly, in half the time.’ Her empathy extends from actors to the whole production. ‘There’s this bonkers idea that to make good work, everyone has to suffer and I really don’t believe that. People do their best work when they’re having a good time and they all trust each other.’

Lots of actors would have argued against some of the stuff Cassie does, but Carey never did

Creating a pleasant work environment was a priority despite the time-pressure of a 23 day shooting schedule in Los Angeles. Fennell and producer Fiona Walsh Heinz planned everything ‘probably to a slightly maniacal degree’. Unlike the directorial cliché embodied by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher, Fennell didn’t throw her weight around. ‘You hope you can make people feel at ease by being kind and making sure they're okay and checking in in with them. It’s partly the team you assemble.’

Emerald Fennell in The CrownAs Camilla Parker-Bowles in The Crown

Fennell styled her male predators as clean-cut ‘nice’ guys. I was reminded strongly of Joe, Penn Badgley’s bookseller stalker in the Netflix Original series, You. It turns out not to have been an influence, though Fennell loves the show. ‘The grotesque truth is that we all fancy Joe, because – I’m sorry – just obviously murder all my enemies and lock me up and let me read Jane Austen in your basement,’ she elaborates. ‘I mean, look, I’m not a good person, just because I made this film it doesn’t mean I’m not an idiot. It’s so interesting how complicated desire is in that regard.’

She goes on to distinguish between Joe and her creations. ‘Joe is a psychopath. In Promising Young Woman, they’re ordinary people. Psychopaths and villains are incredibly good fun, but they’re very rare. What’s not rare is being disappointing or weak. We’re all disappointing and so weak.’ She pauses. ’And isn’t that much more interesting than being a monster?’

Promising Young Woman streams on Sky Cinema in the UK Apr 16.

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