This morning, Promising Young Woman received five 2021 Oscar nominations. Among those nominees was BAFTA and Eddie nominee Frédéric Thoraval who has an intense and vibrant viewpoint on his editing work. He has much that he takes in from all of his filmmaking partners he has worked with including Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman. Here, in a conversation with Awards Daily, he discusses what that experience was like, what he loved about working with Oscar-nominee Fennell, and what he learned in the process.
Awards Daily: How did you get involved with Promising Young Woman?
Frédéric Thoraval: I was extremely lucky to receive the script from my agent. I read it very quickly because this was the kind of script that as soon as you started it you wanted to finish it. Plus it was unusual to receive the mood board and a playlist with the script, so you were able to reference very quickly. It was great to read the script and see what she had in mind visually and already ready for the soundtrack for different parts of the script.
AD: That actually brings up something I wondered about. Did she originally have Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” for the final scene of the movie? Because I thought that was absolutely perfect!
FT: I think if I remember correctly there was a different song that was a bit more melancholy and so when we were in the cutting room, this is the place where we tried a lot of different songs. We went down different paths to find something satisfying enough and matching what was going on on screen and “Angel of the Morning” had the quality to it of being not just on the comedy side and not just on the melancholy side and found the right balance for that scene.
AD: It worked perfectly. I have been going to YouTube and re-listening to that song because it makes me think of the movie so it worked beautifully.
FT: Good, good!
AD: Some of the shots that really stood out to me are Cassie with her victims, the quick edits back and forth between them. Like her at dinner with Madison (Alison Brie) or in the college office. Do you remember how those decisions were made?
FT: Actually those two scenes are typical thriller scenes. Emerald was playing with tropes of the genre in the script already and we were doing that as well in the cutting room to find specific elements you can find in thrillers building the tension. Then you have Ben Kracun on the set playing those long shots tracking in on every character, starting on a nice note. With Madison, for example, they are happily talking and then slowly the more information we get, the more the tension is growing. So we were going back and forth to have the reaction shots of Cassie. And most of the time in those kinds of sequences we are focusing on one point. With the confrontation with the dean we start in profile shots, the face to face. We use the traditional language of those types of thriller scenes, because it’s where we give information to the audience. This is a little bit of a digression, but for me there is one thing that’s important in the movies.
If you compare this movie to most of their traditional revenge movies usually you have the trauma at the very beginning that connects the audience, then you follow the mother, the dad, the son etc.. And you have that emotional connection in Promising Young Woman every step–the Madison scene, the dean scene– these are moments where Emerald is unfolding the story, and you discover as an audience each time another layer of what happened. So it was very important in those scenes to have a particular vocabulary. For example, the Madison scene is the first scene that has the Roman numeral on the screen, and after that each time there’s a new phase in Cassie’s plan you have a new number as a way to tell the audience that there will be something there. So focus in and listen and stay with Cassie.
AD: It’s funny that you mentioned a thriller so often because I saw your IMDb page and you have done a lot of work with thrillers and crime movies. Is that a genre that appeals to you as an editor?
FT: That’s one thing, I don’t like labels. When I studied to work I was very fortunate to work in every type of genre for movies. I did some horror movies, I did some thriller movies, I cut some independent movies as well, even some comedies. I like to be able to learn from every type of movie and do some cross combination of genres. It’s the same as my background, I studied in France but watched a lot of American movies, and I still watch a lot of old French movies and international movies. Everything I learn I try to use that and see if it can be used in a different genre.
What was great in Emerald’s movie was that she has a very unique perspective on things. I don’t know if that’s what helped us connect at the very beginning interview, but very quickly we were talking the same language and were in the same world. It was fun for me, at least in the cutting room, being able to play with what I have done in the past using the same specificities: a type of score on this type of scene if you want to play with the traditional vocabulary that we are using. I’m trying to do with what Emerald did with the script and subvert it so it helps the story.
AD: So were you on the set at all or were you just in getting the shots later?
FT: I was there on the first day they started to shoot. That was great to discover every day what the movie was. Because it was changing every day. First day was the Madison scene, and just the makeup and costume for Carey Mulligan, just straight hair looks very business-as-usual but it is quite tense. Then day three it was in the coffee shop where she had the different makeup, different costume, different haircut, with Bo Burnham where they first meet and you see the amazing chemistry they have. And you see why we’ve got so much ready in three days, so many different things, and you can tell very quickly that everything we needed was there. Carey Mulligan was from day one completely in the character and each day it was a pleasure to receive new footage and discover what she could do. One thing that was very important for me to see was the chemistry between Mulligan and Burnham because we are relying a lot on that in the movie. It was such a relief to see it at the moment they were together in the same room. They had a connection that helped us tremendously during the process.
AD: You touched on a lot of stuff about when you were working with Emerald. What was she like in the editing process? Did you learn something specific working with her that you have added to your repartee ?
FT: Yes, definitely! When I was on this cut the goal was to embody Emerald’s vision, trying to enter her mind and see how we can put on screen what she wrote, and what she visualized. What was great was everyone on the set did that. This was a movie set in the normal world, not a big sci-fi movie so you feel how important the production design, the haircut, oh, the makeup, the costumes. Everything helped us in the cutting room to build that on screen to make that world appear. What was great with Emerald was she wrote everything, everywhere had importance because she was an author too. But she was not attached to anything. She gave us real freedom and she was willing to work to make the best movie possible, even if it was slightly different than what she was expecting in the beginning. We were able to do what I love to do in the cutting room–which is the ping pong element. Which is something I like to try even if it’s not completely what the director has in mind for the daily process.
I’m trying to be as close to the idea of the script, but you try stuff because this is the only moment where the dailies can be a kind of playground where you can fail and make mistakes, but those mistakes help you understand better where the director wants to go and sometimes you have something that triggers ideas for the director. This is the start of a back-and-forth in trying to make that scene. With Emerald it was great because she was willing to do that and she was very fast and reactive. Honestly, she’s a force of nature, she is working a lot, she has a thousand ideas, and they are all great. For example, the Roman numerals, we noticed there was something missing in terms of Cassie’s planning, and helping the audience understand the different sections of Cassie’s plan. For instance, a lot of the characters are in the movie at different times but within the sections of her plan the audience discovers someone who we don’t know who they are or anything about the situation. So you need to give a kind of structure to that, and Emerald came up with the Roman numerals 1-2-3 like chapters, with a start, a middle, and an end. She came up with that in the cutting room. None of that was in the script but it adds that thoughtful element in the global storytelling.
What I love about her, like me, I think she works a lot with emotion and with our own reaction to things. So a lot of things we see on screen are coming from the heart and not the brain. Like after Cassie seeing the video and running and we hear “Pearl’s Dream” from Night of the Hunter, which has this unusual kid’s voice in it, was creating an emotional connection, and that was something we did the most in the cutting room. Because we needed the audience to really connect with Cassie emotionally. Cassie is our north star. She gives us our direction, because all the emotional rollercoaster that we have as an audience is through Cassie’s emotions. The main thing was to connect with her from the very beginning of the movie, so the audience can accept to go this way or that way, and follow her in that journey and enjoy the ride.
AD: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?
FT: One thing I’d like to add that was important to the emotional connection was the soundtrack. “Toxic”, Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind,” and all of these songs from the very beginning reflect the emotional state of Cassie, that is part of the DNA of the movie. You cannot have the same movie if you do not have those songs in those moments. And that was challenging for me at least. I’m not coming from those kinds of cues, using a song that much. I usually use a score and that helps a lot to direct the flow of the movie. This time we are not always able to do that because we had those songs and we had to work with them as part of the footage. That was very interesting to work with Emerald on, and see how we could ebb the flow so the audience, as much as possible even when Emerald was pulling the rug out from under them, to really try to keep that connection. We worked a lot on the music, interacting with the source music in the scene becoming the full score. That was all very exciting.
The last thing I can say about working with Emerald was, even though it was her first feature, each time she was doing something that was new to her, she took it in and kept it, and next time she was doing it it was like she had done it all her life. It is great to work with people like that. Then the very last thing is, during the ADR, I learned so much from her because as an actress she has a different perspective on things and it was fantastic to see her working with the actors, things I didn’t get to see as much on the set, and see how she’s dealing with the ADR sessions, and how close she was with the actors and helping them get back to the moment they were at the beginning of the shoot. It was fascinating. I was extremely lucky to work with her and so grateful that she called me that day.
Promising Young Woman is now streaming on VOD, available to own on Digital, Blu-ray, and DVD.