When Promising Young Woman screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, the #MeToo revenge story set off a firestorm of conversation. Just over a year later, the auspicious feature debut for writer-director Emerald Fennell earned four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for Carey Mulligan and an Oscar win for Fennell in Original Screenplay.
Fennell is back with her second film, a raucous and sexy story of obsession, secrets and lies. Saltburn finds new Oxford student Oliver Quick (Academy Award nominee Barry Keoghan) struggling to fit in and finding himself drawn to Greek god Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who introduces Oliver to high society and all of its cruelty and façade. As Oliver weaves himself into Felix’s life, family and friends and shades of everything from Brideshead Revisited and The Talented Mr. Ripley pepper the preceedings.
I talked with Fennell about her dark humor streak, sex, desire and her stellar cast that also includes Oscar nominees Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madkwe and Mulligan in a riotously funny cameo. We get into the film’s 2006 setting and how her music choices are deeply connected to her work and why Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” is one of the greatest pop songs of all time.
Erik Anderson: You’re a button pusher, Emerald, and you really challenge your audiences, not just what they’re seeing, but how they’re seeing it reflected in themselves.
Emerald Fennell: Thank you! I want to make people feel things. That’s what movies are for, I think. If we are talking about the movies and their role in the culture now, that’s why we have to go and see things with other people. Because there’s a certain amount of discomfort required and self-examination required that you can avoid if you’re on your own, but you can’t avoid it in a movie theater with other people.
EA: You really can’t, whether it’s a gasp or an uncomfortable laugh at something. As a creator in that process, are you thinking on those terms of “Here’s the line, I know this is the line,” and then just barge right past it?
EF: Do you know what? I don’t think I do. I really don’t think I do. I think about this a lot because, of course, inevitably when you make something and you talk about it, there’s a lot of acknowledgement about stuff that’s complicated and transgressive. But honestly, I think without wanting to be facetious or kind of play dumb, the truth of it is that I’m really, really trying to get at something sticky and complicated. I think that in order to do that, you do have to kind of just ignore the line altogether. It’s not even about acknowledging that it’s there. It’s about saying there is no line.
I mean, there is no line in our lives, in our imaginations. There’s no such thing. We put those in, or somebody else puts those in for us and it’s not useful. So, when you’re thinking about looking at the nature of desire, not just of sex, but of everything, of wanting, of wanting something, of gluttony even, of consuming things, you can’t be coy. In a funny way, in this movie, when it comes to the sex stuff, I suppose, you don’t really see anything. You see much, much less than… I grew up in a world where women’s bodies, women were naked all the time, that sex scenes were just completely part of movies, and they weren’t treated with any… They were kind of profound piece of an-erotic actually in a lot of ways. They were pegged for humor or whatever. In this movie, very little actually happens. What’s happening is inside our heads.
EF: What’s difficult is how, it’s always interesting to me that talking about this with people, every conversation is so singular, so specific. I think that’s so interesting. What is interesting is that somebody said, “Let’s talk about the gross out moments of this movie,” and I was like, “That’s so interesting. Like what?” He said, “Well, like the period fingering scene.” Spoiler alert! Redacted, redacted, redacted!
EA: I got a plan for that don’t worry. [highlight mild spoiler text above]
EF: Because for me, that’s one of the sexiest scenes, not just in the movie, but ever. It’s an unbelievably deep, and complicated, and arousing visceral sex scene. So that you, sir, would describe it as gross out, that’s just a different perspective. He’s like, “Oh, no, of course. Sorry, I didn’t think it was.” But it’s just those things you want to be asking what these boundaries are. There are moments of this movie that I don’t think are remotely…
EA: No. As we discussed before, the drain scene, I’m sorry, but that was incredibly relatable.
EF: Of course.
EA: If you’ve never been really obsessed with somebody, I mean, my goodness.
EF: Deeply, deeply. Movies, obviously up to a point, they’re sort of metaphorical. We don’t necessarily have to literally do things, but we have to understand the root of them.
EF: I think the thing is, the feeling of just touching any crumb, any tiny speck of dust from something or someone that you want is just profound. The talismans we have, the things that we keep of things that people touch. The boys at school had touched something and they were like treasures. We fetishize things all the time. We’re engaged in a strange… I don’t know. I think the things that we do and think about when we’re by ourselves are deeply strange, and that doesn’t make them shaming. It’s actually wonderful and kind of touching how strange we all are, and I think it’s a lovely thing to acknowledge and talk about it. It’s very humanizing.
EA: It is. There are a lot of motifs here whether it’s the Gothic elements that are in Saltburn or just the fact that it’s 2006 and its Livestrong bracelets and friendship bracelets. It’s extremely detailed.
I want to talk a little bit about music. We chatted in 2020 for Promising Young Woman, and one of my favorite things about that film and in that conversation was how you used songs and the songs that you choose, because I think I said then the moment that Charlie XCX voice comes on, I’m like, “I know I’m already in. I’m in already.” This is even more so.
EF: Thank you.
EA: What were some of your favorite songs to select and what was your process? Because there’s Brit and Indie Pop, and then there’s English hymns and choral pieces. There’s everything in here.
EF: Yeah. Well, I think music is so important to me, and it’s so important to my writing process because so much of my writing, almost all of my writing, is just done in my head in a kind of daydream, sort of fugue state, for years over the course of years. I always am listening to music. It’s not like I put on a particular song. It’s almost that the world is part of this playlist that lives, and lives, and lives, and lives in the background.
It’s like making anything, to me, part of making something is acknowledging the canon, whatever that is that it’s part of, acknowledging the genre. So, to think that we exist in a world without music, of course, we don’t. We exist entirely in a world of music, and so it’s important that the characters are constantly, especially if you’re talking about young people.
Of course they’re listening to Cold War Kids’ “Hang Me Out to Dry.” Of course “Mr. Brightside” is in this movie. It was the most expensive queue in this movie by miles, but it’s really important and you can’t even hear it.
It has to exist, because it existed so much in the world, but it doesn’t mean we have to use it as a kind of needle drop. Again, it’s just, for me, it is detail. It’s detail, it’s world building, it’s emotional. The Gothic British hymn is such an evocative thing, so much part of this genre. But we look at Anthony Willis’s incredible score; it’s jumping off point is Zadok the Priest, and Zadok the Priest is a coronation hymn, and this is a movie about a coronation and kind of rebirth. So the score in all of its genius is born from Zadok the Priest, so just Handel, whatever. It would’ve been like 200 centuries old at least. You’re always just looking for those things, the meaning, the constant meaning.
I think also there’s a certain amount of camper-y maybe, or kitsch perhaps in some of my musical choices. But honestly, I think it’s also about, for me, what is the relationship with the things that we love? Why is it that we say some things are high art and some things aren’t? Because when I was looking for a Christmas song for this movie, we tried every Christmas song. It’s really complicated to find a timely Christmas song because they’re perennial. So actually, All I Want for Christmas is You is not useful as a time steer because it could be any time in the last 30 years. Same with a lot of big Christmas hits. We looked at so many that were kind of kitsch British that told you exactly what Christmas was like at university in 2006. Like Crazy Frog. Crazy Frog may be dead. We do not know what has happened to Crazy Frog. We could not find him [actor and playwright Erik Wernquist] to get the rights to his song. He’s like in a ditch somewhere. I just love the idea of thinking of what happened to Crazy Frog. It’s sort of dreadful.
EA: Oh my God.
EF: It was like burnout somewhere. But then there was this band who were on British X Factor years ago called The Cheeky Girls who sang a song called “Touch My Bum (This is Life).” They were this novelty duo, but they did a song called “Have a Cheeky Christmas,” which is in our movie, and it’s just the best Christmas song ever. It does all of those. It does all of the things you need it to. But we had to go through, you have to go through hundreds, sometimes thousands of songs to find the thing that is perfect. Just because it might seem like a novelty song, it’s actually super, super important. It hopefully will be one of those songs that catches on, that gets its just desserts, like “Stars are Blind,” I always argued. It’s one of the greatest pop songs of all time.
EA: There isn’t another argument other than that.
EA: That’s a fact.
EF Exactly. Quite.
EA: It’s a fact.
EF: But you would be amazed.
EA: I know.
EF: But there are people who would argue to the contrary.
EA: I don’t care to know them.
EF: No. Release them.
EA: I want to talk about the casting here which from top down is absolutely a stroke of genius.
EF: Thank you.
EA: I can’t imagine anyone else doing any other parts here. Can you talk a little bit about… I mean, obviously not each, we could talk an hour about each person… but just how you got to everybody.
EF: Totally. I think it’s, honestly, firstly, Kharmel Cochrane, who is the unbelievable casting director of this. She was so, so brilliant at finding Archie who plays Farleigh and Alison who plays Venetia. They’re two people that she knew and got to audition, and they’re just spectacular. Spectacular. But again, it’s the same with everything. It’s acknowledging that we have preexisting relationships with actors and finding where that’s going to be helpful. Also, but it’s kindred spirits, always.
I write a script alone. Nobody knows what it is ever. Then when it’s finished, I’ll give it to my team and then we’ll find partners for it. But it’s the same with actors. They won’t know what it is, and they read it. The thing is, if you write something very personal, a lot of people won’t like it or wouldn’t want to do it because it’s very exposing or complicated, whatever. But the people who want to do it, want to do it deeply.
I just meet with people. I don’t really audition them unless it’s somebody I haven’t seen before. I meet with them, and we have a conversation, and you just know immediately. It was the same with all of them. I just knew there’s one person. It’s like falling in love, there’s one person for each character.
Barry is a once-in-a-lifetime performer to me. There’s no equivalent. If you’ve seen him in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, he’s just so compelling in it, magnetic. He has a sex appeal and a vulnerability with so much darkness in a way that is very rare and what Oliver needed to be.
For Jacob, you can understand completely that no person would be capable of resisting this person, right?
EA: Uh, yeah.
EF: But Felix also exists as an illusion, both for Oliver and for himself, really. People all around him project their own thoughts and wishes and desires on him and Jacob just gave this unbelievably potent, relaxed, real performance of a person that could so easily not be real.
And Rosamund Pike is simply one of the fucking greatest comic actresses working.
EA: Full stop.
EF: Full stop. I was very, very lucky that that everyone wanted to do this movie, because it is an electrical ensemble. They’re all sublime. They could so easily tilt into caricature, or they could be kind of bloodless, but they’re not. They’re really not. They’re so deeply human, all of them, and they’re extraordinary.
EA: I wanted to talk a little bit about the look of the film, too, and using the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It’s kind of great because it exists in a pre-Instagram era, but it feels like it, like an Instagram square.
EF: That’s interesting because it is more square. I’m not on Instagram, so I’m the worst person to talk about. The thing is about 1.33 is that it was kind of immediately apparent when we found the house, the location. It’s so tall and square, and the detail. There’s something so wonderful about these houses because, of course, the detail on the ceiling that nobody ever looks at. It’s like every inch of it is this baroque masterpiece, and so it’s really important to us that we felt that the aspect ratio felt in the same world.
EF: Also, a lot of the stuff we were looking at, we were looking at paintings as references as much as we were looking at movies or photographs. Looking at Caravaggio and Gainsborough, all those that use light there. Again, it just made all of those mise-en-scenes easier to frame. We also had Jacob Elordi and Archie who were 6’5″ each, which means that framing is much simpler when you have 1.33. Then there’s a kind of jewelry box. We have a lot of proscenium arches in the movie. We have a lot of peeping; we have a lot of puppet theaters.
EA: And mirror usage.
EF: A huge amount of mirror, absolutely.
EA: Which is incredible.
EF: I think that it works much better when you are dealing really in portrait more than landscape. And if you’re going to have very, very, very closeups, which I love and which Linus [Sandgren] loves. It’s pores, sweat, armpit hair, all of that stuff is very important in this movie. Beard rash, all that stuff. Backs, all of that.
If you’re in 1.33, a face or a body part can fill the frame entirely. There’s nothing behind, you’re not addressing anything behind. You’re just looking into those eyes, into those mouths. So, there was never a question of it being… Of course, we tried, but it didn’t work. I think maybe people think of it as being kind of an artsy or a maybe pretentious move. I don’t think so at all, because just it was necessary.
EA: It feels that way. I totally agree.
EF: Thank you. So thrilled that you liked it, honestly.
EA: No. I mean, I am truly obsessed with it. I am down bad for this movie.
EF: Yay. Good. That was always the hope. Somebody said last night it was so moving, A woman came up to me, kind of an older lady maybe in her sixties, very beautiful. But she came up to me and she said, “I haven’t ever seen a film where I felt such a connection.” She was almost in tears.
“I felt such a connection to this. I feel… I don’t know what I feel, but I just feel such a deep connection.” It’s just so moving. I think that there’s so much discussion, there’s a lot of stuff to talk about in this movie. But the thing for me, I feel so much making other people feel something feels very profound and lovely. It’s only really possible if other people don’t love it? Do you know what I mean?
EF: It’s not possible to do that unless there are going to be some people who are just like, “Yuk.”
EA: Robert Pattinson told me once that when he’s looking for a project and for a script, that it has to be a little bit naughty for him.
EF: That’s cool.
EA: Which made me think how amazing he would be in an Emerald Fennell movie, so I’m just throwing that out there.
EF: He’s amazing. I agree with him. You’ve got to be a bit naughty. It gives you something to talk about. It just can’t be saccharin. Of course, there’s some level of saccharin, but they also should have some sort of edge to them or silliness. You have to argue.
It’s got to be… It’s like Force Majeure, one of my favorite experiences of going to the movie theater, walking out and everyone arguing. Everyone saying, “What a dick that guy was.” And somebody was saying, “But he just didn’t know what he was doing.” “His wife wouldn’t let it go.” I mean, people at each other’s throats. That’s what it’s for.
EA: I think a lot of that is because they’re finding things in themselves.
EF: Of course.
EA: That’s when you really hate somebody, it’s because you’re seeing yourself a little too much in that.
EF: Oh, of course.
EA: It’s a little too reflective for some, like a mirror.
EF: (shooting me a sly grin) Like a mirror, indeed.
Amazon MGM Studios will release Saltburn in select theaters on November 17 and wide on November 22.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.