“I think a lot of women hide their rage”: Emerald Fennell on Promising Young Woman

Confronting ‘rape culture’ head-on, Promising Young Woman stars Carey Mulligan as a self-styled ‘bad girl’ out to avenge a college-years sexual assault. Its BAFTA award-winning writer-director talks about her creative process, her ‘hyper feminine’ aesthetic and getting ‘nice guy’ performances out of her cast.

Carey Mulligan as Cassandra aka Cassie in Promising Young Woman (2020)

Promising Young Woman is available on Sky Cinema.

Director Emerald Fennell on the set of Promising Young Woman (2020) with Carey Mulligan (left) and Bo Burnham (right)

Anna Bogutskaya: What came first in the development of the film?

Emerald Fennell: It was a scene of a drunk girl on a bed, being undressed, saying “What are you doing?” incredibly drunkenly and then sitting up sober. From that moment, I knew roughly what it was going to be.

Why did you decide to focus the story on Cassie, the friend, as opposed to Nina, the original victim?

I wanted to write a revenge movie that felt like it had a real woman at the centre of it. Part of that was looking at what might compel somebody to put themselves in such dangerous circumstances. A lot of women, unfortunately, have had to become adept at coping with their own trauma. It’s a film about grief and love and friendship as much as it is about getting revenge. That’s the interesting thing about revenge for me – actually, it’s not something any of us do very often in our lives, because it’s dangerous, and poisonous.

The central relationship in the film, even though we don’t ever see Nina, is the friendship between her and Cassie. Was it important for you to place that at the centre?

Yes. Often in these movies it’s a daughter or sister that people – mostly men – are avenging. But in my experience, some of the closest relationships are female friendships. And if you grew up with somebody, and you’ve been best friends since you were four, it can be the most important relationship in your life. But if you lose them there’s no word for it. You’re not a widow, you’re not an orphan.

Also, because it happened a while ago, the grief and anger has moved away from where it was before – it’s grown harder and toughened. Cassie is doing it for Nina, but she’s also doing it to try and forgive herself. It’s more of a personal journey than she is willing to admit, and how guilty she feels is bound up in why she does it.

Promising Young Woman (2020)

Do you think of Cassie as an addict?

Carey and I talked a lot about the cycles of addiction, self-harm and grief. They tend to share a lot of similarities, which mirror an addictive cycle. Cassie does what she does and feels invincible, but hot on the heels of that invincibility is self-loathing, disappointment, emptiness, and then that needs filling again.

Can you talk about your decision to give the film such a ‘hyper feminine’ aesthetic?

On a broader level, it’s presenting itself as innocuous, fun and fluffy because those are things we don’t take seriously. These are things we associate with lightness, happiness, sexiness and playfulness. But there’s absolutely no reason to me why you couldn’t feel murderous rage.

Cassie knows how to communicate innocence and she knows how to hide her rage. It’s a way I think a lot of women hide their rage. People don’t ask if you’re OK if you’ve brushed your hair and plaited it beautifully; they ask if you’re OK if you’re wearing your pyjamas outside, and you haven’t washed your hair for two weeks. But Cassie doesn’t want anyone to ask if she’s OK. You feel it so much in Carey’s performance, because while Cassie’s promise is now in the past, she’s still presenting as a ‘promising young woman’. Partly because people don’t respect women in pink jumpers, but partly also because, like all addicts, she’s an expert at hiding.

With the male actors, how did you approach getting the different shades of the so-called ‘nice guy’?

I said to the guys, “You think you’re in a romantic comedy and you’re the lead.” For example, Adam Brody’s character has convinced himself he really, really likes her. Even though she doesn’t say anything.

Because what he’s been taught – what so many people have been taught – is that this is a legitimate way of hooking up with someone. There’s nothing in this movie that isn’t in mainstream comedies. So it was important for me to work with actors we are likely to see in romantic and comedy roles, because it’s important that both we and Cassie see the moment when they realise they’re in trouble and they’re frightened. They’re not frightened of her, they’re frightened because they’ve been caught. Because it’s something they’d convinced themselves is fine. It’s not fine.

Further reading

Sight & Sound May 2021

In our current issue, Barry Jenkins talks truth, justice and his powerfully resonant series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Plus Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Aubrey Plaza on Black Bear, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, and a classic Satyajit Ray interview. Available in print and digitally.

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