Emerald Fennell’s Guide to Candy-Colored Revenge

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On this week’s Little Gold Men podcast, a conversation with the writer and director of Promising Young Woman, plus a look at the first proper awards ceremony of this year’s Oscar race. 

Hollywood can feel overrun with multihyphenates, but it’s hard to imagine anyone wearing multiple hats the way Emerald Fennell is these days. The onetime showrunner of Killing Eve is out now with her writing and directing debut, Promising Young Woman, a viciously funny revenge thriller that wowed Sundance audiences nearly a year ago. And all that’s coming on the heels of the fourth season of The Crown, in which she reprises her role as Camilla Parker Bowles, the famed third person in the doomed marriage between Charles and Diana. 

In her conversation with Julie Miller on this week’s episode of Little Gold Men, Fennell talks about her real-life inspiration for Promising Young Woman and how she translated it into a film that is both more colorful and darker than reality—but still starkly true. “I think that life is very tangled and complicated, and things that are beautiful are often deceptive,” Fennell says. “So it kind of makes sense that the movie itself, like Cassie [the lead character played by Carey Mulligan], would be very welcoming and innocuous-seeming and familiar-seeming…and that’s part of its trap.”

The episode also includes Richard Lawson, Katey Rich, and Joanna Robinson discussing the winners of this year’s Gotham Awards, including the surprise victory for Miss Juneteenth star Nicole Beharie and the ascendance of Kingsley Ben-Adir as the strongest contender from the cast of One Night in Miami. They also discuss that new release, directed by Regina King, as well as the upcoming documentary MLK/FBI, which joins the upcoming Judas and the Black Messiah and The United States vs. Billie Holiday to form an unintentional trilogy about famous Black people who were targeted by the government. Finally, Richard and Joanna give a preview of what to expect from the newest season of Still Watching, in which they’ll join forces with Anthony Breznican to break down the Disney+ series WandaVision for both the comic book experts and the newbies alike. 

Listen to the episode above, and read a partial transcript of the Emerald Fennell interview below. You can subscribe to Little Gold Men on Apple Podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts. 

Vanity Fair: Where did you start with this story? What was the original germ of the idea?

Emerald Fennell: I guess I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot, as I’m sure most women have for a long time, and I’d wanted to write a revenge movie that felt like it had a real woman at the center of it. I think a lot of these sort of female-led revenge movies tend to be incredibly entertaining—I love them—but they have women at the center who sort of behave in a way that I just don’t really recognize, and so I sort of wanted to write something that would sort of approximate what I might do if I wanted to wreak revenge. So I guess I’d been thinking about that for a while, and then I had this scene sort of generally kind of come to mind, and that’s how things start. And for me it was a scene of a young woman on a bed, incredibly drunk, somebody undressing her, and she’s saying drunkenly, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” And then she just sits up and looks at him stone-cold sober and says, “What are you doing?” And I suppose that “What are you doing?” is the kind of North Star, maybe question, of the movie. And for everyone, including Cassie, it’s just, “What the fuck are you doing?” 

That opening scene is so familiar, sadly, just being out and theres a girl whos too drunk and shes preyed upon by guys, and were all sort of complicit in those situations, I guess, in a way. How much did you go back and look at your own behavior and your friendsbehavior kind of throughout the writing on this?

Well, I think that’s just a really important thing about this film in general: I think it is not just about one person’s journey, it’s about kind of a cultural phenomenon. I’m in my 30s, and I grew up watching movies where picking up drunk girls, getting girls drunk at parties, was just part of seduction culture. It was really important that every scene in this movie, more or less, was something we’ve seen in a TV show or a comedy movie of the last 10, 15 years. I never questioned it; in fact, laughed at it because it was so normal. So when it came to then looking back at everything, yes, it was this idea of girls waking up not knowing who’s next to them, where they are, and walking home. Again, it was sort of a gag in movies and in TV shows, and it was something that was so common, so common when I was at school, when I was at university. Things happen to girls at parties.

You know if you’re going to make a film about this stuff that at least it’s going to try to be as honest as it can be, and that’s what I always wanted and intended. I had to be honest with myself and go back and think, There absolutely were times I should have intervened, or, I could have been more supportive, or, We should have all insisted somebody reported something…Things like this, it’s so much part of the culture, so much. I think a lot of us have to live with the fact that…sort of part of it was this being forced to joke about it, being forced to be cool with it. Whether it was you or friends of yours, it was sort of almost bad form to mind, you know?

In that first scene we do know it’s bad. You do know it’s bad because if somebody you think is very drunk says something and they’re not drunk, and you’re frightened of them, it means you’ve been caught red-handed. And so it’s sort of about always trying to find a way of visualizing or kind of creating something that sort of immediately undermines the sort of classic argument. But this is all to say as well, I do hope that this movie—it’s deliberately not made to be very didactic or sort of a chore or anything. I mean, I really did want also to make a movie that was thrilling and enjoyable, that also made you think.

It was really fun to watch. I walked away thinking, Should that have been so fun? Even though we watched Cassie kind of go to these exaggerated, heightened ways to kind of, I guess, exact her revenge.

Well, I think it’s a few things. I think that life is very tangled and complicated, and things that are beautiful are often deceptive, so it kind of makes sense that the movie itself, like Cassie, would be very welcoming and innocuous-seeming and familiar-seeming. Everything about it feels, I hope, easy and pleasurable. That’s what you want when you make something, and that’s part of its trap. But again, as well when you’re talking about stuff like this, I think as viewers we have a very particular idea of how serious topics are made, are shown, and they’re often shown in a very serious, gray way.

It’s very interesting that we think that these things have to be discussed in a certain way, because for me, when I talk with my friends, they are always at their funniest and most savage when they’re in the middle of something really difficult and troubling. And they always…I certainly will put on more makeup when I feel bad. So it’s never quite as straightforward as “this is a serious film, therefore it has men in raincoats standing in the street.” 

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