OnWriting Live: Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman”
By: Geri Cole
OnWriting presents the first in a series of four live recordings of OnWriting in honor of Women’s History Month, presented by the WGAE Women’s Salon. In each episode, we’re speaking with women screenwriters whose latest projects center on women’s stories.
For the first of these Women’s History Month episodes, Geri speaks with Emerald Fennell — writer and director of PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN.
Emerald Fennell is an actress, writer, and director. As an actor, she’s known for starring in the BBC period drama series CALL THE MIDWIFE, as well as her role as Camilla Shand in the third season of the Netflix period drama THE CROWN. She also served as the KILLING EVE showrunner during its second season – for which she earned two Primetime Emmy Award nominations. Her latest project, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, is her feature film debut as both writer and director.
Her latest project, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, is her feature film debut as a writer and director. The film follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan) – who everyone said was a promising young woman … until a mysterious event abruptly derailed her future. But nothing in Cassie’s life is what it appears to be: she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter is about to give Cassie a chance to right the wrongs of the past in this thrilling and wildly entertaining story. The film is currently in theaters and available to purchase on VOD.
Seasons 7 and 8 of OnWriting are hosted by Geri Cole, a writer and performer based in New York City. She is currently a full-time staff and interactive writer for SESAME STREET, for which she has received Writers Guild Award and two Daytime Emmys. She also performs sketch and improv at theaters and festivals around the country.
OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.
If you like OnWriting, please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to podcasts, and be sure to rate us on iTunes.
Geri Cole: You’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. I’m your host Geri Cole. In each episode, you’ll hear writers working in film, television and news break down everything from the writing process to pitching, favorite jokes to key scenes, and so much more. Hello, I’m Geri Cole and welcome to a live taping of the WGAE’s podcast On Writing, for Women’s History Month. In these special episodes we’ll be talking with women screenwriters telling women’s stories.
Today’s episode is being presented by the WGAE Women’s Salon, and our guest is Emerald Fennell, writer and director of Promising Young Woman. The acclaimed film is a dark comedic thriller starring Carey Mulligan as a woman who lives a double life seeking justice for a past wrong. Emerald first appeared as an actress starring in the BBC period drama series Call the Midwife, and the Netflix period drama the Crown, where she played Camilla Shand in the third season. Fennell was also the showrunner for season two of drama series Killing Eve, which earned her two Primetime Emmy Award nominations. Promising Young Woman is Emerald’s feature film debut and is now in theaters and available to purchase on VOD. Please welcome Emerald Fennell. Thank you so much talking with us today.
Emerald Fennell: Hi, thank you for having me.
Geri Cole: So I guess first off, how are you, how you doing, how you holding up in these strange days?
Emerald Fennell: So difficult to know how to answer, isn’t it? I think if you’re well and safe, then you’re good, then you’re great. So I am great. But in terms of my sanity, it sure is teetering on the edge.
Geri Cole: Yeah. Have you been able to work, do you feel like you can focus? Or is it just like …
Emerald Fennell: I don’t know. I think I’ve had to work, which is good, I’ve had deadlines, but my own stuff has been hard. Normally, I find it quite pleasurable, but this year it’s been a drag. How about you?
Geri Cole: Yeah. I can’t focus. I’ve had to work, which is good to have things to focus on, but there have been points where I’m like, “I’m shutting down. I’m shutting down.” And that’s just, I’ll see in a week, I don’t know. So I want to start also by saying thank you for making this film. I feel like every woman has had this fantasy of being some version of this character. It left me, I was saying earlier, with strong feelings that I was so enraged, I was ready to crack skulls after. It’s like, “Aah,” after watching this film. So thank you, because I feel like it’s felt cathartic.
I also want to say to anyone who has not seen the film, “What are you doing?” But also, there’s going to be some spoilers, so please pause if you haven’t watched it yet, watch it and then come back to listen, because there will be some spoilers ahead. So I also, I find myself thinking of the Margaret Atwood quote, or actually I think the Courtney Barnett lyric, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them, and women are afraid men will kill them.” This entire time, what was in your head the whole time as you were … I guess, was there a theme or a theme song playing in your head as you were writing this?
Emerald Fennell: Oh, gosh. I think if there was a theme song, it was probably Toxic by Britney Spears.
Geri Cole: Nice.
Emerald Fennell: But yeah, I’m not very good at writing thematically really. It tends to be a bit more, I don’t know, both more specific and abstract in that. So what usually happens is scenes will come into mind, and then eventually they’ll cohere into something more linear maybe. So I guess underneath it all, absolutely I was just probably enraged and frustrated by the culture that so many of us grew up in and is still going on, it’s still in the news, it feels like, every single day. Where there was just no opprobrium at all, let alone legal proceedings, against people who took home incapacitated women, assaulted girls at parties. It was so much, so much of what is in this movie. In fact, everything that is in this movie has been in a comedic movie, like a mainstream comedy movie or TV series the last 10, 15 years.
Geri Cole: As a joke.
Emerald Fennell: As a joke, completely as a joke, yeah. Women’s bodies have just been used as either a punchline, if they’re not “attractive” enough, or as something to be coerced into position. So whether it’s like peeping Toms, teenage boys peeping through the locker room windows or leaving a webcam on while something happens so your friends can watch. All of this stuff, and then let alone the thing of like, “Let’s see if this girl … Wait for the drunkest girl and take her home.” So what that does to all of us, what it does is basically tacitly allow for something incredibly awful.
So I think I felt a little bit like that stuff, the stuff that is very close to home, the stuff that is your friends, your brothers, the guys that you really like at work who are always really nice to you, it’s those people, it’s that stuff. It’s the stuff when people wake up in the morning and they’re not sure what happened and they’re not willing to kick up a fuss, they know that it’s going to be a nightmare. It’s that stuff that’s so hard. I think people think we still have such outdated ideas of what constitutes assault and what is illegal, what is cruel, and I think for such a long time and even now, women were just expected to swallow it and just laugh it off. Then, because they’ve been forced, you see in the movie with Madison, Alison Brie’s character, when you’re forced to do that yourself, you inflict that on other women around you, because that’s the established norm.
It was a coping mechanism, everyone was complicit in a coverup, so that is a very, very, very long way of saying I think I’d just been thinking about this stuff for such a long time and it seems so unjust and it seems so relentless. Then there’s this idea that you’re touching on with the Margaret Atwood quote, which is there’s still this idea that being assaulted and being accused of it are the same thing, are as bad as each other, and actually in many ways it’s worse to be accused. There’s still this idea, and it just weighs so heavily over all of us.
I think I really, really wanted to make a movie that wasn’t just preaching to the converted, it wasn’t just going to speak to those of us who spent a long time talking about this stuff and the nuances of it. It was really I wanted to make something that you could go and see with your parents or you can go and see with your boyfriend on Valentine’s Day, and that everyone would want to go and see it because it was a movie in its own right, but afterwards, you want to talk about it I guess.
Geri Cole: Absolutely.
Emerald Fennell: Is that the longest answer anyone’s ever given? I’m so sorry.
Geri Cole: No, no. It was a fantastic answer and you touched on so many different things that I want to go back to, specifically in your process of writing this film. One of the things that I thought was so interesting about this is it felt so grounded. I guess I initially assumed it would be like this very violent, almost like superhero kind of story, and it was like, “Oh, no. It feels so grounded and so nuanced.” There were so many, I wrote like, “Bullseye words.” Like, “Oh, this is exactly right.” It is your friends, it is the nice guys, that’s exactly who it is and that’s what we need to talk about. So yeah, I think that was an amazing way to take this. So I want to talk a little bit about the pre-production and how hard it was to get a story like this made, because it’s an original story, which I feel like we never really get to see anymore.
Emerald Fennell: Yeah. Well, I was lucky I think, because LuckyChap bought it, so I think in about 2017, early spring 2017, I started pitching it a little bit and quite a few people, men most particularly were like, “That’s a nightmare, thank you very much.” I only ever pitched the pre-title sequence, which ends with her suddenly revealing that she’s sober. I think I just realized it was going to be an uphill struggle trying to explain what I meant, what I wanted, the kind of film I wanted to make. So I made a film called Careful, I wrote and directed a film called Careful How You Go, which was three vignettes of women who, not unlike Cassie, are able to harm people without doing anything.
It was like, the idea was like, “How could you ruin a stranger’s life without threatening them or touching them or doing anything to them?” So I made that to show that I hopefully would be able to make a feature, and I was lucky that it got into Sundance in 2018. Then when I went and pitched to LuckyChap after that, they bought it outright, and I think that was really, having those producers was so important, because it’s Margot Robbie’s production company, and so she’s really, really determined to make women’s stories that feel a little bit off kilter. I think I, Tonya had maybe just come out and it felt like quite an interesting comparison to the film.
So it was just having them by my side, and when I handed in the first draft, they didn’t know what to expect, because they didn’t have anything to go on except the pre-title sequence. So I think they read it and they called and they really liked it and they understood I think what the purpose was. So it meant that between us, anyone who wanted to change any of the fundamental things about the movie just got shut down. So I think I was lucky, because we were never in the position where we had to take somebody’s offer on the previse that it would change it. It was an all-or-nothing thing.
Because of course, as you say, there is a version of this movie that is a different movie, and I love the revenge genre thriller, I love it, I think it’s amazing, but it exists already and beautifully and brilliantly. This was for me about making something that had maybe the same beats, but it felt like a real woman’s journey. It felt like something that I could conceivably do, if I was so inclined I guess.
Geri Cole: Yeah. That was one of my favorite things about the film, where I was like, “I feel like I’ve had this fantasy.” Where it’s like you just soberly stare at someone, where it’s like, “Listen to yourself.” It was really … I was like, “Can I try this?” I don’t know. But then we don’t, because it still doesn’t feel safe.
Emerald Fennell: Well, it’s not safe, and I think that’s the thing is that actually when you think of what Cassie does, it’s absolutely not safe. So I think it is cathartic and wish fulfilling in that sense that even none of us at 6:00 in the morning, walk in last night’s clothes in the middle of a deserted street would stop and stare at three guys who are catcalling us. We just wouldn’t, because it’s not safe. Then you think of a lot of these movies where women are going out with machetes or guns, and that’s something that the film talks about too, it’s like, “Well, that’s really not safe, because I know what would happen if I was in a room with a man and a weapon.” I might be holding it in the beginning, but I’m not going to be holding it at the end. I think it’s trying always, even though what she is doing does feel, I don’t know, it feels both mundane and possible, but also completely …
Geri Cole: Completely unsafe.
Emerald Fennell: Well, it is unsafe. I think that’s something that me and Carey talked about a lot, it’s like there have been some people saying, “Well, it’s just unrealistic that she would go to these beau’s places and that they would just back down.” Of course, we never say that ever in the movie, we just don’t show every incident. But I think that any woman who watches this film will understand that what she’s doing is incredibly dangerous and certainly to some extent an act of self harm and grief, I guess.
Geri Cole: Which I feel like brings us to, again, going to warn spoilers, spoilers for this, but I have to ask you about this, because I was shocked when it happened, but you killed your protagonist. It was unsafe, it was unsafe and she paid the ultimate price. I, the entire time watching it, was like, “No. This can’t be happening.” So I’m so intrigued as to what brought you to that decision, and then how that got okayed. That was the other thing, I was like, “I can’t believe they let this happen.” That’s how it would happen.
Emerald Fennell: Well, I think it’s all of the things that you say, really. It just didn’t feel possible, it just didn’t feel possible to me, because even with the handcuffs, there’s a feeling, it’s a feeling that is very difficult to explain to people, and I think that I hope this movie gives some approximation of what it feels like to be a promising young woman and all of the things that implies. To be somebody who has always worked hard, who is diligent, who is all the things that women get rewarded for, it doesn’t matter.
That’s the horrible truth is it doesn’t matter how meticulously you plan, it doesn’t matter how clever you are, it doesn’t matter. What matters when it comes to that stuff is the mercy of the man you’re in a room with, because he will always be stronger than you, and that is something I think that every woman, every girl probably has to come to terms with in some way. So it was incredibly important to me that this film was honest about that and it was saying … I was saying to somebody the other day, which is probably the least marketable pitch of all time, but it’s a revenge movie about how revenge is miserable and futile and kind of impossible and dangerous.
But I wrote the thing about the ending was that every time I was in that room, every time I was in that scene, there was no happy ending. Because even if the ending had been she cuts his face off and sets the place on fire and they all die, it ends with her in jail, it ends with her as a psycho. It ends with her morally and legally at a loss. So that was the thing, and also, it was just so unlikely. I just don’t know women who are violent, no matter how angry you are. That kind of violence is so extreme, and so it was just all of those things. I played it over again and again, and again for years in my head, and it just never, never came out any other way. It sucks, but the truth of it was also about the grotesque thing about these stories as well, and women’s stories, is how they’re co-opted by men.
So it made an awful type of sense that it’s suddenly him who needs comforting, that he’s the victim, that he’s crying saying, “It’s your fault,” as he’s doing it. That he believes that he’s right, and that his friends are willing to back that up, because that’s what it feels like. It feels like whatever you do, you’re wrong. Whatever you do, you’re a psycho bitch, you’re a monster, you’re a lunatic, you’re a drunk, whatever, whatever, all the stuff. So I think the only shaft of light for me was that because Cassie is so meticulous and because she has a very acute sense of the danger she’s in, she has made a contingency plan for things to go wrong, and that plan at least will do something to get the kind of revenge that she needed. But again, it’s just such, it’s a Pyrrhic victory completely. It’s barely a victory at all, really.
Geri Cole: Watching it and after, I was like, “She did have to die,” because then it felt like it was continuing to stay true to the grim reality of what we’re talking about. One of the other things that I thought was such a brilliant observation was the immediate, I’m going to say this wrong, infantilization of the men that she was in the room with whenever they were challenged, that there was this immediate … I was like, “Oh. Oh, that’s so exactly right.” Yeah. Can we talk a little bit about, I guess this character, those character moments?
Emerald Fennell: Yeah. I think the petulance, the sulkiness, it’s so … I think that was the thing that was always so fascinating in those scenes is finding those moments where the shame immediately becomes defensive anger, which could then turn into something different. Because I think it really is, it’s what happens in the journey of the catcall is some guys shout “Walk of shame.” They shout some lascivious stuff at her, she stops, she doesn’t do anything except look at them, they get angry, start calling her a bitch, and then they decide to leave it and leave.
But I think we’ve all had, unfortunately, some kind of experience where we make our decision, we think, “Do I talk back?” Somebody grabs your ass in a nightclub, do I turn around and say, “Fuck you.” Probably not, it’s not worth it, because there’s always the turn. Somebody touches you, somebody wants to whatever, somebody shows their desire for you, for want of a better thing, you reject it and then the aggression starts immediately. Immediate, it’s immediate. Again, it’s these little, it’s the relationship so much of the film, so much of what I’m interested in is this space between us, this gap of empathy still of the lack of understanding, the fact that this ugliness is so much a part of sex still.
That’s so chilling and it’s just even the first moments of amazing Sam Richardson, I was trying to cast the nicest, basically the person who you would never suspect in a million years. It’s that moment, it is immediate disapproval and disgust and judgment, and then opportunity. They’re just two sides of the same coin, aren’t they? It’s disgust and desire, and women in general and what we do, how we look, how we dress, whatever, we have very little to do with that, we’re just there and that is all happening. That’s the kind of really, really scary stuff.
Geri Cole: Yeah. I always feel like, or I try to remember that it’s not actually about me, but it concerns me, but it actually has nothing to do with me, this whole thing that’s happening over here with you, sir.
Emerald Fennell: But it is about you, because it becomes your problem, because you become whatever.
Geri Cole: Object.
Emerald Fennell: Yes. Yeah, the object, exactly. I should interject here and say I love, I know and love many, many incredibly good, kind men.
Geri Cole: Yes, of course.
Emerald Fennell: I’m talking about this as a much more general, in a much more general sense. I feel terrible that I spend most of my time talking about the worst of people, when I’ve been so blessed in my life to know lots of genuinely good people, good men.
Geri Cole: But I think it’s important to talk about, and especially in this nuanced way, because it was the nice guys, it is this thing where it’s like the people that don’t think that they would obviously, they wouldn’t hurt anyone. It’s like, “You don’t think that you’re hurting, but there’s this …” Which brings me to the next thing that I wanted to talk about that I thought was really beautiful in the film, this culture of allegiance, of White male allegiance. Where it’s like everyone, because it’s the culture, it’s the culture that everyone’s grown up in and that we continue to consume every day, and so you don’t think that you’re necessarily doing anything wrong or your first reaction is to protect whatever that White male position is essentially.
Emerald Fennell: Well, they always call them boys, don’t they? They always call girls women, they call women the same age women, and they call them boys, no matter how old they are. They could be in their 30s, and they’re boys. I think that’s one of the weird things that you were saying, the infantilization, absolutely. This really frightening White male privilege that you see that is so indestructible. I know it won’t be and it can’t be, but it does feel like because again, it’s got the … A lot of these people feel very much like they are the victims, and we’ve seen this politically over the last … This extraordinary thing where suddenly people who have really gotten away with everything their whole lives and have had a very, very nice time are victims.
It did seem to me to be something, it just seemed to be in the news, so much in the news, so much about this stuff. That’s the other thing about this movie is it is really only one very small corner of such a hugely complicated thing. But yeah, it just felt like it was just constant. High schools and at universities and at workplaces, interns, stuff that’s happening in Australia at the moment, in politics. Just the whole thing, it’s just constant. Then lots of men crying, and I just kept thinking, “I never see the women cry, because they’re not allowed to.”
Geri Cole: Yeah. Especially in that scene with the female dean, played by Connie Britton?
Emerald Fennell: Yeah.
Geri Cole: Where it was like you’d never think that you’ve played any role in this, and here it’s like, “Well, now let’s reveal to you that you’ve played your own role.” It was really heartbreaking and infuriating. So I want to talk a little bit about the cast, you had a fantastic cast, and what was the vibe like on set dealing with this very dark issue?
Emerald Fennell: Well, I think the vibe on set was very, it was actually kind of in contrast, incredibly happy, and I think because we had such a tight shoot, so our shoot was 23 days, because obviously we were in so many locations, it was like we were pretty much changing every day. So there was a lot of pressure on the production, and for so many of the actors they were just coming in for a scene, half a day or maybe a day. So it was so important that they felt really comfortable, because these scenes are really difficult, and you’re asking people to be really honest.
The people who were attracted to doing this movie were attracted to it because they just completely understood it, acknowledged it and they went all in. Looking at Adam Brody, the heartthrob to end all heartthrobs, doing I think the most harrowing one-sided French kiss of all time. But that scene only works because he just completely dove in. Dove, dove, dived?
Geri Cole: Dove.
Emerald Fennell: Dove?
Geri Cole: Dove. I don’t know.
Emerald Fennell: Dived in? Dove in. Again, it was just like saying to every actor, “You’re the lead of a romantic comedy. You are falling in love with this woman, because women don’t really talk in romantic comedies. So you might not even notice that she’s blind drunk.” There’s this kind of thing of like, there are funny things that we have in our culture, the drunk hookup thing. “Oh, messy. Can’t really remember. Let’s go get brunch.” But what is that? What is it? It’s really bleak. It’s not okay.
So yeah. So really, we just had to make … It’s also because Carrie is just so, I never really get to talk about her, I’m talking about writing, but she’s just amazing and she just made the script, she made it so much more than it … She’s just so amazing. She made people very comfortable, because if people come in for three hours to shoot an incredibly difficult scene and everyone’s very austere, then I don’t know if you’re going to get the intimacy that you need and you’re asking for. But obviously, there were days, like the day of the [inaudible 00:27:05], that day was just awful. Just awful, horrible, because it’s in real time. It’s a long shot and it’s the amount of time it takes to suffocate someone. Because I just think that we’re just so used to seeing violence against women, but my feeling is that if you’re going to show it, you’ve got to show it.
This is what it looks like, it’s not fun, it’s a struggle and it takes a long time. So that was horrific, because we shot it in one and it was in real time, obviously we had to have a huge number of safety measures, because Chris and Carrie, there were no stunt doubles, we were just using them. Because you can’t cut away, so there’s no space to. Besides, they really wanted to do it themselves anyway, they felt it was really important, because they’re amazing. But thank God we had safety measures, because we wouldn’t have known, because in the fourth take I think, the last take, Carrie positioned her face in the wrong way and she said that her thought process, she said it was really interesting because she remembers it obviously very vividly, and she was thinking, “Oh, I can get out of this. I just need to …”
Then she was like, “Oh, no. I can’t get out of it.” So it took her a second to … Anyway, so luckily we had all the signals and stuff and cut and stopped. But it was just awful for all of us, because it was the second to last day and we were so close and we loved her so much and it was so intense. Also, so many people throw themselves out of buildings and things, but that was genuinely … That’s the thing about Carrie, she did something genuinely dangerous and she was just so committed and she’s amazing. But that day was tough.
Geri Cole: That’s incredible. You’re also an actor, I’d like to talk a little bit about how your acting has informed your screenwriting, especially after thinking of a scene like that. You also make a cameo in the film.
Emerald Fennell: Yes, thank you. I was very disappointed not to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Globes, very, very. I think, I don’t know is the answer. I think it’s probably helped me when things … I have the feeling as an actress when I can’t learn lines, it’s because they’re not right. Often, not to say that I’m not hopeless at learning lines, I am hopeless at learning them, but there are some lines that just will not go and that is because they just don’t, they’re just not right for some reason. So I think it has been incredibly useful, I try not to be tempted, but who can always resist putting in a thing that feels very poetic and verbose, but doesn’t actually contribute and doesn’t feel real, it feels a bit phony.
So that I think is useful, I try to be fairly vigilant about that. Then also, I’m quite anal about the script. I think actually there was lots of improvising in the film around scenes, and there are a couple of scenes which have improvisation in them in general, but I think we’ve got … Maybe I’m just a real stick in the mud, but there’s still this idea that scripts are just a guideline that actors can play with. But they’re so specific, so I’m not … I think as an actor, that’s been really helpful, because I’ve been on both sides of it, and I know that usually when an actor is kicking off about something, it’s because they’re trying to avoid doing the job, because they’ve got an anxiety, rather than … There’s a lot of rewriting conversations I think that happen on set sometimes, which they’re not to do with the script at all, they’re to do with your own stuff. So basically, it’s made me really strict and probably even less sympathetic than if I hadn’t been an actor.
Geri Cole: You also directed this film, do you feel like there was a switching of the hats from writer to director? How did those two things play together?
Emerald Fennell: I just think they felt completely the same on this film, because the way that I write is completely in my head in that I just don’t write anything down on paper until the very, very last moment when it’s all done.
Geri Cole: Oh.
Emerald Fennell: Which I didn’t think was very peculiar, but now I think maybe it might be a bit more unusual, which I’m a bit self conscious about it now. I feel like I’m not really a real writer, but everyone’s got their thing. But I think it means that it’s partly very visual, so it meant that for me both things were the same thing. It’s why I really, really wanted to direct it, because I think it’s very difficult to sell people on a Paris Hilton love montage, unless you can show, do you know what I mean, on paper. There is so much of this film I think on paper that maybe, I just think there were so many different directions it could have gone in, and I really was specific about that. So I think they’re the same thing to me, I think.
Geri Cole: I actually want to talk about that Paris Hilton love montage, and her famously having the first sex tape. I assume it was a very specific choice to use her music there.
Emerald Fennell: Of course, yeah. I think in fact, a lot of the women on the soundtrack, a lot of the songs we use, Britney too, these are again, women who have been treated disgustingly, and not just their treatment personally, but it’s the complicity. Looking now at obviously the Free Britney movement and then Paris Hilton’s amazing campaign against schools and things, it’s the same as Monica Lewinsky, all of these things. We all have to reevaluate the fact that everyone, the whole culture enjoyed it. That’s what’s so deeply sinister, not only did people point and laugh, that they liked it and it was part schadenfreude, but it was partly desire too.
It was partly about ownership, and so I think yeah, of course, it was really important. More than anything else, apart from anything else, I love that song. I think it’s genuinely brilliant, and so I just think it’s a song that deserved, it really deserved recognition finally.
Geri Cole: Nice. So actually, I also want to talk a little bit more about your process, because it sounds like it’s unique.
Emerald Fennell: Sounds like it’s demented.
Geri Cole: So you do not use outlines or cards?
Emerald Fennell: Oh, no. Well, if I’m writing on somebody else’s show or writing for somebody else, then I have to do that stuff, but I absolutely hate it. I’m sure lots of people are this way and it sounds very petulant and spoiled, but it just kills it. It just kills it for me, even talking about it kills it. So if I can, and that’s also amazing about Promising Young Woman is LuckyChap gave me that freedom. I told them the first 15 minutes and then they let me do the rest. So then when I gave them the script, then it meant I think for them, the experience was like watching it.
The thing is that what often happens is you’re pitching to people who know the story better than you do, who remember all of the trapdoors. There’s no pleasure, and for me, I think the reason that I love … I will write it in my head and rewrite it a million times over the course of years, two years usually, three years. The thing that I’m writing now, I probably first started thinking about it four or five years ago, just very, very small pieces. But yeah, but for me it just seems like I completely get that for some people it’s crucial, but I suppose it just makes me unbelievably anxious.
I’m in the process at the moment that’s quite interesting, working on something I absolutely love with people I absolutely love, but it requires all of the things, all the discussions, development discussions, the outlines, and I just find it … It does the opposite thing it’s supposed to do, it doesn’t clarify things for me, I lose my way completely and get stuck. So really useless actually, practically, as an employable writer.
Geri Cole: I feel like actually that feels validating to me, because I do feel like there are some things that I feel like I’ve just been thinking about for years, but feel like I haven’t accomplished anything on it. It’s like, “No, you’ve been thinking about it for years, that’s still …”
Emerald Fennell: Yeah. It’s all done, that’s the thing. Also, if you don’t write it down at all, the detail you have to go into in your mind to remember it, that’s the other thing I think. Because the only real way of remembering everything is super detail, but then when you write it down, it comes out in a rush and so it feels alive still. I think that’s the thing for me, that it comes out and it’s there, rather than the more I rewrite something, the more completely disastrous it becomes, really. I’m no good. Maybe I’m just very lazy.
Geri Cole: The rewriting process feels like you’re taking away the first spark that was laid down.
Emerald Fennell: Yeah, maybe. Maybe.
Geri Cole: I believe that. I’d like to talk a little bit also about success, but I want to specifically also talk about Cassie’s perspective on success, what you think her … Because you see she was this promising young woman, this was the life she was supposed to have, and then she finds herself in this different place, and so how you think she would define success and then how you define success now and how you think it’s changed over the years.
Emerald Fennell: Well, I think probably for her, success would be, I think there’s probably the thing that she kids herself that it is, I think she’s probably, she believes that if every guy she frightens doesn’t do it again, then she’s done her job, then she’s saved someone. I think that’s the thing that is her conscious motivation. But I think subconsciously, she is looking to give and to receive forgiveness. So I think success for her would be, originally it was to forgive someone, but she does that and it doesn’t help, nothing helps. So I don’t know what success would look like to her in a weird way, and I don’t think she knows. I think when so much of the film is about the loss, just complete loss of hope in an awful way, and so I don’t know. I don’t know really actually is the answer.
Geri Cole: That’s all right. I feel like that’s a true answer, where it’s like, “Yeah, it’s unclear when you get that deep in, what success looks like.”
Emerald Fennell: Also, do any of us know? For myself, I think probably I wonder if this is a thing among writers or maybe I’m just … But I think when I was eight years old or 10, 15, whatever, I was like, “Well, by 25, I will have won 10 Oscars, I’ll be married to Leonardo DiCaprio and I’ll be living in a castle made of gold. I’ll also be a size six and model for Guess jeans on the side.” That was the dream, that was the goal. Then you hit your 20s and I still have a shot, still at 35, still hoping for that Guess contract.
See, there’s that thing where I think you have to have a weird drive and a belief I suppose, and hope that you can get to that stage, even if it’s ridiculous. There was that thing, but now, honestly what has happened with Promising Young Woman is beyond anything I ever expected, because it was a low budget independent movie, my first film. I was just never ever expecting anything like this, because all my books, before this I wrote books, I published three books, and nobody reads books, or nobody read my books. Nobody read them, they didn’t really sell well, and so I was expecting this film maybe a few people to watch it, and that was the hope.
So this has just been crazy. So I think this is definitely success beyond what I would ever expect, so I think now I’m just waiting for the inevitable disaster. I think that maybe is what success feels like to me, it feels like a threat. It feels like a promise of doom.
Geri Cole: Oh, man. I think you and I share similar feelings.
Emerald Fennell: It’s a misery, it’s a misery.
Geri Cole: It’s like, “Something bad’s about to happen.”
Emerald Fennell: Yeah. Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? That’s what they say is that they say that one of the signs of being very anxious, it’s not just like being scared, it’s reacting to news inappropriately. So it’s that thing of like, you get good news and you’re like, “Well, I guess I’ve got cancer as well then, if this has happened.” There’s a weird cosmic thing that I don’t know if you ever get it out of your head, so I don’t know. I think that’s the trouble with it, with success, maybe is it’s quite frightening.
Geri Cole: Perfect. I also, actually I do want to talk with you about your books, because you started out as an author, and some were children’s books and then you did an adult horror book. I wonder if you find any common thread about the types of stories you’re attracted to or like to tell.
Emerald Fennell: I think so. I think we all like to think of ourselves as really original, but I think it’s generally women or girls with a slightly sadistic side that is a result of some kind of horror and trauma in their lives, I think. Yeah. I think that stuff, that stuff will always interest me, and sex. I haven’t really done anything yet on sex, but I’m just so interested in it. I suppose Promising Young Woman in a horrible way is about that stuff, but that’s the new obsession. Maybe because of COVID, because we’re not allowed out of the house, but I find it, I still think we haven’t worked that out yet.
Geri Cole: Just been thinking about sex for a few years.
Emerald Fennell: Just thinking about sex, guys. Don’t worry, in a really bleak way.
Geri Cole: But it’s going to be sexy. I do also, I’ve got so many more questions, but I also want to go to questions from the viewers. Let’s see, we have “Thanks for doing this film. Thanks for doing the podcast. Love the film. The choice of Angel of the Morning at the end was sheer perfection. At what point did you know that was the song for that moment?”
Emerald Fennell: Well, actually I have to say, I can not take credit for that at all, because we were just so stuck with that song. It was so hard because it was lots of different things, it was No Regrets by the Walker Brothers for a while and in the script I think, because it had been women’s voices the whole way through the movie and then I thought that the moment, the end when she’s gone, then you could use men. I was like, “No. No. Don’t want them. Get them out of here.” So then for ages it was (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing.
Geri Cole: Wow.
Emerald Fennell: Which was kind of terrific, but the thing is it needed to do so many things. It needed to be poignant and it needed to be about her loving her friend, and it needed to be moment of triumph, no matter how hollow that triumph was. (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life just felt like too much of a cheat, because it was funny and it was moving, but it’s also very famous from Dirty Dancing. So then Jenny, oh my God, amazing Jenny, who works at Capitol Records and they did the soundtrack with us, I think we went through every single song, I think every single song that’s ever been written and she just suddenly said, “Angel of the Morning.” That was like, “Oh, thank God. Yes, that’s it.”
Not Shaggy’s version, sadly. Didn’t quite fit. Next time. But yeah, so it was her. Again, it’s just working with so many incredible people who were so, we were all one hive mind by the end just trying to find this thing. But yeah, thank God for her.
Geri Cole: I have a few more questions from the audience. “I love this movie more than any other this year and watched it twice immediately. I love the choice that you never actually show the video in question. I also love that choice of Nina being raped. Could you talk about the choice to stay on Cassie’s face rather than show it and is that something that you had to debate about?”
Emerald Fennell: It definitely wasn’t something I had to debate about, I just would never. I wouldn’t even ask an actress to play Nina on the tape, you don’t even really hear her, but I did that myself in ADR. I would never, I just would never. Also, I don’t think we needed to see it, did we?
Geri Cole: No.
Emerald Fennell: We didn’t. I don’t know why you would ever show that stuff, and it would have been profoundly wrong and repellent to me really to even film … Because that’s the other thing I feel like, you’re still filming this stuff, you’re still asking people to do this stuff. I would never ask, you’ve got to be so careful. I think people make a lot, there’s a lot of stuff about art that at the end of the day, it’s still somebody in it, it’s still somebody’s real body, it’s still somebody’s real life. So no. But apart from that, just creatively, I think Carrie’s performance was always going to be much more profound and terrible actually and traumatizing than seeing something like that.
It is just heartbreaking, and there’s a reason that we never see Nina in the movie too, and that’s because Nina is Cassie’s ghost. She’s very, very far away, and I think certainly I have a Nina, I have my best friend who has been my best friend since I was four, and I think lots of us have that person, or if it’s their sister or their daughter or their mum or whoever it is. So just staying on Cassie, we know what she feels rather than just, I don’t know, seeing. I think it’s just a more profound and personal experience for the audience than just showing something horrific and gratuitous, which unfortunately we do not need to see.
Geri Cole: Also, I feel like because the story is, for me, I felt like about this character’s guilt of not being there, so it’s like the moment was really about this is her having to …
Emerald Fennell: Yeah. She’s there. Yeah. No, you’re absolutely right. It is a film also about he said/she said. It’s a film where nobody is questioning the thing that happened, they’re all saying it happened, they just feel very differently about the context. I think also showing it will give people an idea definitively, of course I definitively know what happened, I think we all know, but it’s important that mostly there aren’t tapes, mostly there isn’t proof. So I think that was another complicating factor is you wouldn’t even want to have that for the audience to then be like, “Oh, right. Okay. I’ve decided this is …” Exactly.
Geri Cole: “For Emerald, one thing I loved about the film was that it defied expectation at every corner and was impossible to predict. Did you encounter any resistance from collaborators about that who wanted you perhaps to make it more mainstream essentially?”
Emerald Fennell: I think what was really lucky was there were financiers at studios that wanted to make it more mainstream, but because FilmNation and Focus were so amazing, they came in and just said, “We love it as it is.” We didn’t have to have that conversation, but certainly a lot of the financing conversations were, “Change the ending. Make it more violent.” Presumably, had we gone further down that road, it would have been, “Make the skirts shorter. Make the fuzzy sweaters more cropped.” So mercifully, I didn’t have any of those conversations. I was really, really lucky.
Geri Cole: Well, we’re all very thankful for it.
Emerald Fennell: Thank you.
Geri Cole: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today about this amazing film.
Emerald Fennell: Thank you so much.
Geri Cole: Thank you so much, this was so much fun. Thank you for talking with us.
Emerald Fennell: Thank you. Bye, guys.
Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. On Writing is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America, East online at WGAEast.org, and you can follow the Guild on social media @WGAEast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. I’m Geri Cole, thank you for listening and write on.