Promising Young Woman is currently nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Emerald Fennell), Best Actress (Carey Mulligan), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. Ahead of the ceremony on April 25, we’re republishing our December 2020 interview with director Emerald Fennell.
When Emerald Fennell was seven, her parents asked what she wanted to do when she grew up. “I want to write stories about murder,” she said. “And I want to live in America.” Dreams, it seems, can come true.
Today Fennell is 35, an Oxford grad, and perhaps the premier horror writer of her generation. Her habit of giving violence a candy coating and an arched eyebrow was integral to the success of Killing Eve—she earned two Emmy nominations as a writer and producer for the series about a glamorous assassin—and is the driving force behind Promising Young Woman, a film she wrote and directed that lands in theaters December 25 and streaming services soon after. And though she’s not living in the U.S. full-time (pandemic-related lockdowns, a newborn, and creating a new West End–bound Cinderella with Andrew Lloyd Webber are keeping her in London), she’s making her presence known.
Sitting in a hotel in Park City, Utah, on the January day after Promising Young Woman screened at the Sundance Film Festival, Fennell seems relieved. Her movie was rapturously received, and buzz online and on the ski town’s streets is trumpeting the arrival of a major talent. (Today, more than a year later, the movie is nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Actress for Carey Mulligan.) The hubbub has as much to do with the film’s edgy premise—Mulligan as a med school dropout avenging the horrors that befell her late best friend—as with the unexpected way Fennell presents it.
“With Promising Young Woman I wanted to make a kind of Hitchcock thriller,” she says, “in which people really didn’t know what was going to happen next.”
The movie, which also stars Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, and Jennifer Coolidge, calls to mind dark forebears like To Die For as well as the romantic comedies from Fennell’s youth; scenes of pulse-spiking suspense are juxtaposed with the saccharine delight of a dance sequence set to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind.”
But the real impact of Promising is in how it subverts the hackneyed notion of the femme fatale, as well as audiences’ expectations of an actor like Mulligan. “When somebody we love does something bad, suddenly it’s complex,” Fennell says. “And that’s the feeling I wanted everyone to have watching this.” (Everyone except Fennell herself. According to Mulligan, “There didn’t seem to be anything that rattled her.”)
But in the months since our initial meeting, the film—like so many others—has been delayed. Fennell's stayed in the public eye (and on the cover of T&C) thanks to her starring role as Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown, and says the distance between finishing Promising Young Woman and sharing it with the world has actually been something of a gift.
"In a weird way, it’s been better," she says in mid-December from her home in London. "We were just gearing up for the release when everything locked down and I had just finished the mix two days before the screening at Sundance, so I was in such a daze. I feel like I can talk about the film sensibly now. Perhaps naïvely, I feel more prepared."
Prepared, but also anxious. "When you’ve made something with people you admire so much and you’ve worked so hard on something, you’re always going to feel a little bit protective of it," Fennell says. "You’d have to be very confident not to be nervous about something you’ve made coming out—you want people to like it."
That doesn't mean that she's spent this last year in quarantine fretting over the film, however. "All of the tinkering was already done," she says. "Perversely, when we were in it, it was such a tense time, and now I’m able to step away and just be proud of everyone who worked on it."
Fennell has also had another major project to hold her attention: a newborn. "I’ve got a young child, so my [cultural] diet has been almost exclusively a BBC program called Hey, Dougie," she says. "I’ve watched every episode a million times." More adult programming, it seems, is being held for quieter times around the holidays. "I’m saving Normal People for Christmas," Fennell says, "when I don’t have work."
The day after our Park City meeting, Fennell went back to London to finish filming season four of The Crown, but she already had something more sinister on her mind. “I’m wanting to get on to the next thing in my head,” she tells me before we part. “It’s a Faust story with a horror bent. What I really want is something visceral that provokes a primal reaction. If you’re lucky, you get that kind of response.”
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