Promising Young Woman‘s writer/director Emerald Fennell talks to Awards Daily about the film’s comedy versus drama placement, why she chose to depict a victim-adjacent point of view, and how she feels about reactions from sexual assault survivors.
While audiences have had varying impassioned responses to Promising Young Woman, one thing most can agree on is that writer/director Emerald Fennell certainly takes some big swings, enough of them to keep everyone talking months after the film first screened at Sundance in 2020. Long after you leave Promising Young Woman, about a barista by day/pseudo vigilante by night, you will want to discuss the ending with someone, anyone, just to hear what they thought. It’s that kind of movie experience.
Fennell is fully aware that her first film would have such a response and stands confidently behind its content and finale, making you wonder what future projects she has up her sleeve. It’s rare for a filmmaker to come out of the gate with such gumption, which makes her an exciting director/writer to watch.
I had the chance to chat with Fennell about the conflicting genres the film has been placed in, whether the story was inspired by any specific headlines, and why the controversial ending was the only way to conclude Cassie’s story.
AD: The film has been making headlines, of course, but one of the most recent headlines is its placement in the Musical/Comedy category for the Golden Globes [before being placed into the Drama category]. Do you consider this a comedy? And if so, where would you point to its more comedic moments?
Emerald Fennell: It’s a really difficult question. I actually view it in neither category. And certainly when I pitched it, I pitched it as a dark comedy. It’s also interesting because I think we still have this idea that comedy equals levity. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. For me, the humor in the film is fairly consistent. But it’s also dark in nature and satirical, and the way that we laugh at it and with it is kind of an uncomfortable type of laughter, but for me, the only way I’ve ever been very good at communication is through humor. I also understand that it’s also a drama; it’s also a thriller. It’s lots of things. I think it’s a tough call, and I would be delighted to be in either category.
In terms of the comedy moments in the movie, right from the get-go, the opening shot is slow-motion, thrusting, chino-clad butts. I was quite keen early on to say that this is a movie where we’re going to poke holes in this awful thing, but we’re going to poke fun at it, too. I think that’s the most effective way of discussing stuff. You want to lure people into a false sense of security with charm and humor, so you have access to the tender underparts, I suppose. It’s an odd conversation, because in a weird way, it’s not for me to say. How people respond to the movie has been so different and so personal.
AD: The film is from the point of view of a friend of a victim. Did you ever consider making it from the victim’s point of view? Why did you decide to make it victim-adjacent?
EF: I think for a lot of reasons. I really wanted to make a kind of revenge movie that had all the pleasure and tropes of the genre, but that also felt really true, felt like a journey a real woman might go on. And in my experience, and this is not necessarily the case by any means, but certainly it has been women regrettably and by necessity have been very good at and forced to bare their own trauma. But when it comes to somebody they love, that’s where the instinct to protect and the fury really is able to manifest itself. I don’t know why that is, but it felt to me that Cassie made sense as a character that it was an injustice that she saw slightly from the outside. She was the person who could see how unbelievably cruel and callous the system was. Her experience was that of a protector. We’re so used to seeing men playing that role, men wanting to avenge their wife, to avenge their daughter, to avenge their son. We’re really comfortable with that, with them doing terrible things. (Laughs) Doing whatever they need to do to feel better. It’s really interesting that we find it peculiar that women are put in that heroic role. And also when a woman is not doing what we’re used to seeing, going in and kicking ass, it’s much more uncomfortable. So much about this movie was would you rather be punched in the face than have to deal with what she makes you deal with? And I think actually most people would rather be punched in the face.
AD: That’s interesting. You kind of touched on this briefly, but do you think Cassie has ever killed any of these men? The marks in her notebook appear to be color-coded.
EF: I’m very enigmatic about the notebook and what it actually means. There’s no indication in this film that she’s killed anyone. Again, it’s so spoilery and difficult to talk about.
AD: I know, right?
EF: But I think there’s a reason why women don’t go the traditional route and that’s because physically, statistically, it doesn’t end well. So it was from the get-go, I knew that had to be almost in her, in my mind, that once you get to that stage, you really, really are playing with fire.
AD: Cassie’s best friend experiences her rape being recorded. Were you at all specifically influenced by the Steubenville, OH case or any other cases involving rape that was taped? Steubenville was the first thing that came to mind.
EF: To be honest, it’s so common. This is what’s so awful about everything in this movie. There’s nothing in this movie that isn’t incredibly common. There’s nothing in this film, deliberately, that wasn’t the joke from a comedy from 10 or 15 years ago. Taking drunk girls home, the bro culture of “Loosen her up!” Girls not knowing what happened to them the night before and going on a walk of shame. It was part of comedy fare, and it was absolutely part of the culture growing up. It’s really important for me to say this stuff is horrific, but it’s this awful loophole that people exploited because they wanted to do things and believe they were okay. And the culture let them think it was okay. It’s important that everyone in this movie, because of their own relationship with this stuff, is incredibly defensive. It’s amazing talking to people, how often people say, “Well, but couldn’t you argue that if you’re a woman who’s very drunk that you’re making yourself vulnerable?” I still hear these arguments all the time, talking about this film. (Laughs) It’s really important that these are not outliers; the people in this movie are so much more of the norm. And even though the thing that happened that’s a grotesque version of something, it’s also a story that’s unfortunately true to a lot of people who went to high school and college. We’re forced to forget about something that they were kind of told by everyone was okay.
AD: Some people who have suffered from sexual assault have said that they wouldn’t advise victims to see this film. How does that reaction make you feel?
EF: I can’t advise anyone, one way or the other. All you ever do when you make a film is make something that feels honest to you. Certainly that I know in my life fundamentally understood this story and found it cathartic and ironic, but at the same I can understand that with all of this stuff—and talking about this in any way—caution has to be exercised. But again, I would say that I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about this. This is years and years and years of thinking and writing and wondering about this stuff. It’s not like any decision was arrived at glibly or easily. There are many, many movies that deal with this subject matter in a much more offhand way. But I think that people should always exercise caution. I hope anyone who’s watching the film would know how emphatically I feel about this stuff.
AD: The ending is already dividing people online. What made you decide to end it the way you did?
EF: In those two questions, how did I decide or what made me—it’s interesting that you phrased it like that and I completely understand why. But to me it’s not as simple as that. When I’m writing, there’s only one conclusion. There’s no other thing. The movie itself is built like an intricate box of tricks. As I say, there’s a reason women don’t resort to violence. I think Cassie is wise enough and experienced enough to know that. There’s a version of this film that’s immensely pleasurable, and it’s “bad ass.” But there are plenty of those films, and I don’t believe any of them. But I do think all of us recognize what it feels like to go up against this thing and how hard it is.
AD: It sounds like you always knew how it was going to end, from the beginning of writing it.
EF: No, I didn’t. I did know once I was in my head in that room. Because where have we seen that, what is the precedent for that, except the movies? There is none. What was great about making this film was that everyone who came on board felt the same way, that the film as a whole made sense, that it was profoundly right even if it was painful. And the people who didn’t like it, there are lots of films available for people who would like something different.
Promising Young Woman is now available on VOD.