Emerald Fennell wanted to write about female rage. Before #MeToo became ubiquitous, she had been thinking about complacency and the teen movies of her youth where consent was often little more than a throwaway joke. That's when the idea for her audacious debut "Promising Young Woman," out Friday, started to take shape.
There wouldn't be a machete or a machine gun involved, as there often is in movies about women seeking revenge. And it wouldn't be a dour weepie either. Instead, her film would be inviting and colorful with a pop soundtrack and a likable cast. And her protagonist Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, would be the scariest of all avengers: A real woman.
"I think comedy is usually the best way of communicating anything really difficult," Fennell said. "I wanted to make a film that was accessible to everyone, that would say like, 'OK, come in, everyone's welcome. But, sorry, now that you're here, the doors are locked.'"
Cassie dropped out of med school after something traumatic happened and now works at a coffee shop in the day and goes out to bars at night appearing to be blind drunk. It's only after she's gone home with supposed "good guys" that she reveals she is quite the opposite. Fennell knew Mulligan wouldn't fight to make her nice.
"She's an enormously subtle and enigmatic performer and very grounded," Fennell said. "Because the movie is sort of allegorical and heightened it really needed the person playing Cassie to feel completely real."
Mulligan didn't hesitate to sign on and was taken aback recently when someone asked if she had any trepidation around playing a "controversial role."
"There is literally nothing controversial about this," Mulligan said. "We're just seeing it for the kind of disturbing truth that it is as opposed to a sort of odd trivialization."
The supporting cast is packed with familiar faces like Bo Burnham, Jennifer Coolidge, Adam Brody, Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Alfred Molina, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon and Max Greenfield, to name a few. Mulligan said the quick 23-day-shoot felt like a revolving door of excellent actors who would often be there for a day or less.
"The writing was so strong and everyone just wanted to be in it," Mulligan said. "There's no empty role."
And it wasn't a coincidence that many of them are comedians.
"It's very easy to be villainous in a kind of sexy way. It's quite difficult to be weak and lazy and pathetic and misogynistic in a sort of ill-thought out way. The great thing about comedians in general is they think about this stuff all the time. They're very self-aware and very eager to find those awkward, funny, nasty spaces," Fennell said. "It's also incredibly useful if you're making a film like this where you want to talk about good people doing bad things. If you're using actors who we already identify as good, who we have crushes on, who we think are really funny and cute and great or women who we feel like are our best friends or somebody who we would go to in an emergency...that's when you start to make the audience a little bit complicit or at least stretch their allegiances."
"Promising Young Woman" is perfectly suited to the moment, but just as the #MeToo reckoning didn't start with the Harvey Weinstein articles, Fennell's disgust with the "completely and utterly twisted culture of seduction" she grew up around had been brewing for some time. It's no surprise that it has struck a nerve and it's bound to keep people talking into the new year as the general public finally gets an opportunity to see it.
"You want to be a part of a film that people will think about and won't just sort of hang up and move on from!" Mulligan said. "But I think what's so great about it is that this is a film that you want to see, you don't feel like you ought to."
One of the most extraordinary things about something as assured as "Promising Young Woman" is that it was Fennell's first time directing a film. But the actor (she plays Camilla Parker Bowles in "The Crown"), writer and "Killing Eve" showrunner was steadfast in her vision.
Although some financiers were scared off by the provocative ending, Fennell was grateful to have found supportive partners in Margot Robbie's production company Lucky Chap. They never asked her to step aside for a more seasoned director. And besides, Mulligan said, you'd never have known it was her first anyway.
"I never for a moment felt like it was her first film," Mulligan said. "I felt like she'd made 50 films, like she was some legendary filmmaker who'd won lots of Oscars."
She didn't even see any anxiety or stress from her director. Although there was one time Fennell got slightly frustrated with her lead. Fennell had asked Coolidge to improvise answers about what she did for a living at a dinner scene and Mulligan kept breaking.
"She just kept coming up with the most hilarious jobs, one of which was that she trained animals to detect carbon monoxide. One of them was she was a roofer. I was just ruining every take because I couldn't stop laughing," Mulligan said. "But it was Emerald's fault!"