Carey Mulligan, Emerald Fennell bond over ‘tightrope walk’ of ‘Promising Young Woman’
Even during a video call, separated by physical location and miles of fiber-optic cables, Emerald Fennell, the writer-director of “Promising Young Woman,” and actress Carey Mulligan, who stars in the revenge thriller, are generating wry, buddy-comedy energy.
Dressed in an elegant gray silk suit designed by Vince, Mulligan explains that because the WiFi signal at her country home in Devon is too weak for video conferencing, she’s speaking from an expensive suite at Ham Yard Hotel in London’s Soho District. “And I’m in my study at home — because I didn’t know I could scam a hotel room,” jokes Fennell, who, at one point, will stand up from behind her desk to reveal that beneath her white V-neck top she’s wearing a pair of yellow, turquoise and white tie-dyed cycling shorts. “They cost £ 9.99 and are from God knows where.”
There’s a bouncy, open quality about their conversation on a late November morning, something that Mulligan says began with their first meeting. At the time, Mulligan had an impressive résumé in film, TV and theater and a 2009 lead actress Oscar nomination for “An Education,” whereas Fennell was the showrunner on Season 2 of “Killing Eve” and occasional actress (currently giving serrated edge to Camilla Parker Bowles on the latest season of “The Crown”).
Fennell’s only directing credit at that point was on a 13-minute short called “Careful How You Go.” She appealed to Mulligan with a digital mood board, a bubbly female-only pop song playlist and a script that was sometimes funny, often unsettling and 100% tricky to pull off.
It told the story of Cassie, a med-school dropout on a mission to attract and ultimately school sexual predators by hanging out at nightclubs pretending to be three sheets to the wind. It also meant “Promising Young Woman” offered Mulligan a roster of flashy disguises that included gumdrop-colored manicures, purposely smeared lipstick and sparkly, figure-hugging minidresses.
It’s one of those “she can do anything” performances, especially because Mulligan has a natural modesty about her — in real life, she sends notes before photo shoots requesting that she not be asked to wear anything too skimpy or tight-fitting — and that she’s best known for breathing life into fragile women of prior eras.
“Ten minutes in, I knew I just trusted her,” says Mulligan. “Emerald is so intelligent and has such a specific, brilliant sense of humor and also is completely in command of things in a way that’s really appealing to an actor. I knew she could pull it off. It felt like a tightrope walk. But it felt like no risk at all. It was more like, ‘This is going to be awesome.’”
Fennell claims inspiration for “Promising Young Woman” from movies like Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For” and the Coen brothers’ “Fargo,” both blackly comic and driven by strong female protagonists. “These are women I understand,” she remembers thinking. “These aren’t just girlfriends, they’re not just decorative or crazy. They’re interesting people.”
But she structured her script like a road picture. “There’s a practical component to making your first film, which is that you’re not going to have a lot of money or time,” says Fennell, who shot the movie in Los Angeles in 23 days. She did everything she could to carve out entire days in the schedule for scenes where Cassie drops her falling-down-drunk act, sits up and sharply confronts the men attempting to assault her, guys who actually consider themselves honorable.
“I wanted [Mulligan and the actors] to be able to face off with each other,” says Fennell, who encouraged her cast of bar habitués — Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Sam Richardson — to improvise within the scene but only after offering a key piece of direction: “I want you to imagine yourself as the hero in a romantic comedy.”
“The thing that’s so troubling about Cassie is that she’s coming into the lives of people who identify themselves as good guys, and she’s categorically telling them they’re not good. And no matter how they react, we as viewers know [she’s right].” Those moments were tension-filled enough that when it came time to shoot the non-vigilante scenes when Cassie is falling in love with a gangly pediatrician played by Bo Burnham, Mulligan reports with a laugh, her costar “would be really confused as to why we were walking on set looking slightly ragged.”
Then again, back in the early spring of 2019, anyone who wandered on set might be surprised that a jagged tale about score-settling was being made — and not just because of the frilly color palette of the production or Cassie’s wavy, blond “My Little Pony” hair.
“It was a set that was really warm — we were having the best time,” says Mulligan. “People would come to do a day and we’d be like, ‘Hi! Hugs. We’re so glad you’re here!’” Not all films are made this way, where the director and leading lady actively cultivate a Welcome to the Party atmosphere.
“They’re both so charming, and it’s kind of infectious,” says producer Ashley Fox of Mulligan, the mother of two young children, and Fennell, who was eight months pregnant when production began. “We had a ‘Promising Young Woman’ play date one day at a local playground because there were so many young parents with kids. For a movie that’s very provocative and subversive, there was also a cool young mom vibe on the set and lots of talk about pregnancy symptoms, teething and sippy cups.”
The one (“and only,” adds Fennell) time that “Promising Young Woman” was shown to a packed audience before its Christmas Day release, was when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in February. “It was so fun,” says Mulligan, who’d viewed it only on a computer link and wanted to see it on a big screen while surrounded by people. “You could feel the whole crowd with the film at every turn — shocked, laughing, scared. It totally delivered.”
As gratifying as Park City was, and the undeniable buzz and momentum it sparked, Fennell still worries. “This year has been so difficult in so many ways, and film is just really not important in the grand scheme of things,” she says, doing her best to not sound wistful. “But [watching a film at home] isn’t the same as leaving a movie theater with your friends and going from the dark into the ladies’ bathroom and just being like, ‘F—, I love that!’ Or ‘That was the worst I’ve ever seen.’ That’s a feeling that can’t be replicated.”
Last month, however, critics weighed in: the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. honored Fennell with its screenplay award; Mulligan was chosen for lead actress.
Currently streaming on Netflix is “The Dig,” a circa-1930s weepie that Mulligan shot months after leaving Cassie behind. She jumped at the chance to work with costar Ralph Fiennes, but stepping back into period costume was a shock. “It was a real bash to the ego; I looked terrible all the time,” says Mulligan. But she realized she’d taken something with her from “Promising Young Woman.”
“Em really pushed me, and that’s your hope — that when you work with a director they make you better for the next one.”
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