‘Promising Young Woman’ writer-director Emerald Fennell on why she stands by the film’s ending [Complete Interview Transcript]

Emerald Fennell helmed the buzzy new film “Promising Young Woman,” about a former med school student who seeks vengeance after a traumatic event that caused her to drop out. Fennell was just honored with three Oscar nominations, for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture as one of the film’s producers.

Fennell recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about the film’s tricky tone, finding Carey Mulligan to play the lead character and why the film’s divisive ending felt like the only ending. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: This is your feature debut as a director, you wrote the script. I don’t know if you had other scripts you’d worked on previously as far as things that might not have gone through but why was this story the one you wanted to tell and make as your first film? 

Emerald Fennell: Well, I think, of course, there were lots of other scripts, like everyone has, that fell by the wayside, but I think the answer to that is that “Promising Young Woman” was the one that I really, really, really wanted to direct myself and I was determined that it had to be the whole thing together in one place, I suppose, and so I then wrote and directed a short film that I was very lucky, got into Sundance in 2018 and that I sort of did in order to prove to people that they’d believe in me enough to let me make “Promising Young Woman” as a feature. 

GD: Let’s just talk about Carey Mulligan here, because she is just delivering something that most audiences haven’t really seen from her before. I feel like we’re used to seeing her in these period pieces and ingenue types of roles. So what did you see and Carey, that made you think, “This is right for Cassie”? 

EF: I’ve just always been such a huge fan of Carey. She is a genius and I think partly, actually, what you describe, I think we do think of her as being in period dramas but actually, she’s only really done this for the last couple of years. She’s also in “Drive” and “Shame” and “Wall Street 2” and she’s been in so much. But the thing about her is she’s so remarkable that she disappears so much into a role that actually sometimes you forget that it was her in something because she’s so brilliant at disappearing. I’ve just been a huge fan of hers forever and I really wanted, with this part, somebody who was going to be at the center of this quite heightened world who would be completely real and honest. I think there would have been a lot of opportunities to make the character kind of sassy and whip-smart and badass but I think if anything, this is a movie about how that is kind of impossible under these circumstances, and so, I just loved her and I had a sense that it would be something she would be interested in. When I first spoke to her after she read the script, I just was so struck by how unbelievably perceptive and funny and honest she was. So yeah, it was just a sort of gut feeling and just a lifelong fandom on my part. 

GD: Right. I feel like Cassie is such a finely-crafted character where you can tell that you and Carey really put in the work to just have her operate in a certain way, the way she is in a conversation, the way she manipulates, the way she even reacts to trauma. What was your collaborative process here with her and what she brought to this role that you created? 

EF: Oh, gosh, I mean, she brought so much. I think that, really, for both of us, the collaboration was just talking, constantly talking, from the moment she read the script, we were discussing, I think, probably the promising young woman that Cassie had been. That was really important as a sort of foundation for her character, like, who was she? Who was the person that everyone else in this movie is missing, who remembers but can’t get back? A huge portion of that was her friendship with Nina and who Nina was and so that their friendship became this very personal, private, incredibly closely held thing for her and it was really the backbone of everything that she did. So that stuff, it’s always so interesting and so fun because it’s never the stuff that you necessarily see but it is the subtext of everything. Carey’s so brilliant as well because not only is she amazingly analytical and precise and we spent hours and hours talking about this stuff, but then on the day, she’s completely instinctive and intuitive. So she’s not an academic performer in any way. She’s just completely natural. So she does all of this incredible work beforehand so that on the day, she can just be Cassie. It is really extraordinary. I’ve never really seen anything like what she does. 

GD: Yeah, that sounds like the best of both worlds as a director.

EF: Yeah!

GD: Well, there’s a tone to the film that is very reminiscent of other dark comedy thriller satire types of films like “To Die For,” which I love, a lot of people love. We have these bold, striking colors. There’s this great soundtrack. There’s a pulpy element to it but it’s such a tricky tone, I think, to have people understand what you’re going for but then also creating something that’s this smart and incisive kind of commentary on our culture. I’m just curious how you landed on this heightened tone as the best way to tell the story. 

EF: Well, I think it’s a really funny thing, the question of tone, because I’m not even sure how aware of it you are when you’re writing or making something. You know instinctively what you want it to look and feel like and sound like but tone is sort of a funny, tricky, slippery thing that emerges at some point. But I know that what I really, really wanted was a film that felt… We’re very, very used to seeing serious things portrayed in a specific way, and that way tends to be very, very realistic, often very gray. There will be particular costume decisions and hair and makeup decisions, all of that stuff, and I think that the thing that was very important for me was that so much a part of Cassie is how she is able to weaponize these things that are feminine, that she’s able to weaponize her nail color and her hair and her prettiness and her clothes. So it felt really, really important that, yes, it is a little bit like “To Die For” or maybe something like “American Psycho.” This incredibly alluring cover is really hiding something much more complicated and frightening.

I think that that’s something that everyone… well, not necessarily everyone, but a lot of people who have had something very traumatic happen to them can understand. They become ingenious at hiding, and this film is a film that is also hiding because for me as a filmmaker, what I wanted to do was lead people in. I never wanted to make a film that was overtly didactic or that felt like medicine or that was a film that you knew you “should” watch. There are lots of films I think of and I’m like, “I should watch this, but there’s also ‘Clueless.'” So it needed to be a movie that everyone would want to watch, that you get quite far in before you realize the kind of movie it is, and that felt, to me, so true about this stuff in general, that all of it, often you don’t know the kind of guy you’re with. Often, you don’t know your friends, what your friends are like until they’re in the spotlight and they have to choose sides. It’s that kind of tricksiness that I find really interesting. 

GD: Yeah, and I was watching this film just thinking that this is coming from a place of someone who has consumed a lot of pop culture and has thought critically about the types of films that come out, like these sex comedies that are centered on young men and we see a subversion of that right away in the very first scene where it’s all these men dancing at the club and it’s filmed in a way that you would normally see, like, from a male perspective, a bunch of hot girls on the dance floor type of thing. I’m wondering what interested you the most in trying to satirize, just based on your knowledge of pop culture? 

EF: It’s a sort of funny thing because I love pop culture, too. I think it’s incredibly powerful and it’s often used ironically, but I don’t feel very ironic about pop culture. I genuinely love it. I love all the things that are in the movie, so that helps. But yeah, I think the interesting thing about anything that is an accepted norm, whether it’s the charts or popular movies, popular TV shows, popular, whatever it is, what is so sinister about the stuff that we discuss in this film is that it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny and it isn’t funny and there’s something so frightening, I think, for all of us when we realize that something that we’d laughed at in the past was horrific and it’s just trying to make a film that is in and of itself enjoyable and pleasurable and funny and romantic and thrilling and all of those things, but also one that is very clear when it comes to, I think, the issues that it talks about, which is that we let things happen. Everyone, unfortunately. Though, of course, the perpetrators were mostly men and boys, but everyone watched those movies and laughed. So that’s the thing that is interesting to me. It’s not really villains, even though, of course, there are many, but it’s, “What if we’re the villain? What happens when we look back and realize maybe we’re not very good?” That’s the stuff that frightens me and I think is interesting. 

GD: I know you’ve talked in a lot of other interviewers about this trope of the nice guy, the guy who thinks he treats women with more respect than other guys but that’s not always the case and there’s something almost insidious about those types of guys and there was a very intentional casting of actors who are typically not in those types of roles of being a little more villainous and you’re playing with expectations there. But there’s also a really fascinating element where, this isn’t just men vs. women, like we see Connie Britton’s character, the dean of the school. I mean, she’s Connie Britton. Everyone loves her. She’s usually playing these characters that you root for. But the character she plays here, she’s not off the hook either for perpetuating this kind of culture. Can you just talk about the casting in general and also what you were hoping to explore with that aspect of the story, that it’s not just men who are responsible for that kind of thing? 

EF: Absolutely. When it comes to casting, it’s like everything, like every element of the movie. It gives you an opportunity to communicate something to the audience and the thing is about Adam Brody or Chris Mintz-Plasse or Sam Richardson is these are male actors who we all love, who we would all be delighted to go home with, who we would all think was excellent boyfriend material, son-in-law material, best friend material, whatever it is. Because the thing about this stuff is it’s problematic because it’s so endemic and that means that it involves lots of people who think that they’re nice. So I think that was really important to, from the get-go, put the audience in a position where their allegiances are stretched. Because Cassie, I love her, and lots of people love her, but she does things that are cruel. She does things that are certainly strange and often malevolent because that’s how she manifests her rage and her grief.

So it was important to not make any obvious choices about good and bad people and it’s the same when it comes to the women in this movie. This is not just a gender problem. It is a societal problem and we’re seeing it at the moment in the news. It’s the same conversation again and again and again. I’m very keen to say, and it is important to differentiate between the women in this movie and the men, though, because both of the women in this movie, their reasons for their complicity are very different, and I would say that Madison, who’s played by Alison Brie, she’s obviously had things happen to her. In fact, she kind of implies as much in the movie. So she’s dealt with it in a different way and she’s protecting the way that she deals with it because of her own trauma. And the dean of the university, Connie Britton, it was really important that the room couldn’t be more mahogany. It couldn’t have more American flags. It couldn’t have more portraits of men because, again, when you are living in such a patriarchal environment, what do you have to do in order to get to that position? I think that that is, again, a very complicated and difficult part of it.

So I suppose just in general, the movie was just looking at all of it and trying to be honest with myself, too. Madison, I think people think of her as a villain. I think, unfortunately, the things that she says are not at all dissimilar to things that lots of people still say and I think probably a lot of women and girls would have said in the past because we didn’t know any different. Because as Madison says, things happened all the time. So we were all conditioned to think that this stuff was fine or that the best thing was to laugh it off. That’s the thing. It’s very easy now for us all to make judgments but this stuff, it’s disturbing how common it was and is. 

GD: Absolutely, yeah. We only have a few minutes left here, but the ending of the film has certainly sparked some wildly different reactions from people where it’s cathartic for some people. Others are just kind of depressed by it. Some find it satisfying. Others don’t. I don’t want to spoil it for anybody who hasn’t seen it but I’m curious if those kinds of divisive reactions are something you anticipated, if you were maybe even nervous about it, and if you could just tiptoe around the specifics of the ending, just thematically, why this felt right for how to wrap up this story? 

EF: I suppose I had a sense of the ending to the movie that would be the least divisive. There is an obvious ending to this movie that would be very pleasing and would make the film maybe a more traditional revenge thriller, genre movie. I think like everything in this film, the thing that I really was determined to at least try, from my point of view, was what feels honest, what feels likely, not just to this character, but in the world? From the very beginning, I was thinking, “What would I do if I wanted to wreak revenge on someone? If I wanted to teach someone a lesson, what could I do?” Everything that Cassie does, dangerous or not, is something that I could do, conceivably. So, yes, it was important that the ending, at least for me, felt honest and it was the only ending, really, for me, that made any sense. But that’s not to say it necessarily makes sense to other people. That’s not to say that anyone is obliged to like it. Especially when you’re talking about something like this, as intimate and as complicated, you can’t possibly expect everyone to like or agree with you, and that’s fine. I do think in general, it’s just been so incredible, the response for the people who really did like it and did understand the intent, at least. It’s just been incredible. I had to, quite early on, park the need for everyone to love it.

GD: It’s quite a risk, again, for your first film to have that kind of an ending, I must say.

EF: Well, I suppose so. But then on the other hand, I suppose the film, in general, serves no purpose if it’s not trying at least to stay close to the truth of this stuff. So even if it’s not nice or it’s troubling, I would never have made the film differently. In fact, there were some people who wanted to make it differently and the film just wouldn’t have existed because the film that I think some people want exists already, and it’s great! I mean, I love this genre. I love these movies and there are millions of great ones. So there would have been no purpose to make the version of this film that I think people expect it to be.

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