On the heels of his BAFTA nomination, the first major awards recognition of Anthony Willis’ career, it was evident that Willis is grateful that audiences remain enthralled by his score for Promising Young Woman. The trailer itself opens with those eerie strings that soon reveal themselves as the opening stanza of a dark and twisted rendition of Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic.’
Evocative, thrilling, and sometimes polarizing, the Carey Mulligan-led revenge fantasy has captured the cultural zeitgeist. Willis’ score is emblematic of the film’s genre-bending creative vision—the music becoming an unofficial character in the story.
Working in close collaboration with writer and director Emerald Fennell, Willis created a score that mirrors and elevates the film beautifully.
In an interview with Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki, Willis revisits his score and its key moments. And you probably should too.
Awards Daily: You did an interview with Awards Daily late last year where you discussed Promising Young Woman‘s shifting tone and how your score reflected those comedic, dramatic, and thriller elements. I wanted to dig into that with you a little further and ask how exactly you managed to pull off that magic trick.
Anthony Willis: I think the film itself is incredibly clever in how it navigates tone. The wit in Emerald’s writing and the times of sincerity in the writing and in what you’re seeing, and the cast’s incredible performances create this very deft and dexterous ability to move from what’s very entertaining to what’s very shocking.
A lot of my job was to come in and support the emotional and dramatic aspects of that. I think it was important for me to give space to the wit. And to help support it with the irony of the tonal music choices.
AD: Giving space, that’s something that you’ve mentioned before, and I find that so interesting. How did you decide what elements you wanted to really play into versus when to take a step back. What was your thought process in making those choices?
AW: In terms of making space, I think you have to look at where the score really belongs. The real job I had with the score was, ‘How can I support Cassie’s emotional journey and dramatic journey?’ It was those moments with the score that we really wanted to lean on, whether they were the more playful, horror moments where she’s on her missions, or the more dramatic thriller moments, or the more romantic fairytale that she embarks on. It was clear that those moments could be best supported by a score that acts as a thematic through-line for her character.
AD: Obviously, quite a bit of time has passed since you’ve completed your work on Promising Young Woman. As you’ve been doing these interviews and reflecting on your work, has anything changed for you? I’m curious if you’ve noticed any nuances or how your views on the score or the film might have changed over time. Has anything sort of changed or stood out for you?
AW: That’s a great question. As is often the case, you’ve scored the film, and then it takes a little time for it to come out, in this case, quite a long time because of the pandemic. We had a premiere at Sundance not so many weeks after finishing the film—that was wonderful, but it’s been nice now with a little time away from it to see the reaction it’s gotten critically and amongst fans.
In terms of understanding the film or seeing things about it, I mean, I’ve been able to enjoy watching the film more recently. It’s very common that when you were very much in the process when you’re scoring a film, it’s hard to sit back and be an audience member. When you’re working on it, the only time you can do that is when you first see the film, but that doesn’t include your work yet.
I love the ability to be disconnected from the process because it enables me to see the film as an audience member, but even then, you can’t ever get that innocence back.
I think this is really the most wonderful outcome we could hope for, and I’m so happy for Emerald. I’m so happy that her film is, I think, going to stay with us in some way, in terms of the ripple of it. I think it will impact the culture, which is any filmmaker’s dream.
AD: I was looking through your previous work, and you’ve done a lot of animated and family-focused films. Did that background influence or guide you in any way during your work on Promising Young Woman?
AW: That’s a great question. Absolutely. I think one of the reasons Emerald was interested in me as a composer was she knew that I’d come from this very thematic background where melody and themes are such an important tool in the storytelling.
I’m so lucky to work quite a lot under John Powell, one of the great melody writers of our time. And he taught me a lot about melody, which is vital in his animated scores. And he taught me so much about melody and how to attach melody, not just to the characters, but to specific concepts like loss or friendship or hope. So, when Emerald asked me what kind of theme I could see for Cassie, I think that my experience in how to use themes enabled me to see that, actually, we don’t need a theme for the character. What we need is a lullaby for lost friendship, which is the elephant in the room of the entire film— that this friendship has been lost and that’s what has sent Cassie on a course that is a sort of purgatory. It’s so different than what her life would have been had she remained a promising young woman.
So that experience in family movies and thematic scores enabled me to see that way in for the score. I got brought on the project because I wrote this theme that resonated with Emerald. A theme for this lost friendship—taking something that can, in its essence, be very light and optimistic and hopeful. The theme itself is quite open harmonically, in its most innocent form, and it keeps rising and keeps repeating. The way I thought about it was whether it’s a film where this terrible event hadn’t happened, I’d still be able to use this theme, it just would be a light, optimistic iteration. You know, to really score trauma, you want to be able to have something that was light that then made dark rather than just immediately heading to darkness.
I took this opportunity to open up Nina and her presence in the film emotionally. That’s what motivated Cassie. That’s why she was doing everything she was doing. And, I hope that’s also what’s been recognized by people watching the film.
AD: Promising Young Woman has a female-driven soundtrack. And the score features a track called ‘Nina’s Hymn’ with a haunting female vocal track. There’s also your rendition of ‘Toxic’ which has now become an iconic part of the film. What are your thoughts on how the film’s soundtrack and score interact with each other and the themes of the film?
AW: The soundtrack is amazingly strong and has some of the greatest female-driven pop songs of all time. And obviously, that led to conversations of, ‘Okay, well, how can I start incorporating female voices in the score?’ There’s a female vocal that we made which is very present in the score; it’s very eerie and haunting. Even though it’s not always melodic, it acts as more of a compliment.
I wanted to make sure that the score acted as a counterpart to the pop songs, but also had some stylistic similarities. It’s hugely different in its timbre, apart from the vocal part that I mentioned. The string thriller aspect is a very different color than most of the pop productions.
But when it came to ‘Toxic,’ that was our opportunity to create a bridge between these two worlds where you’re getting a string thriller palate, but you’re also getting a pop song cover. And that was very much Emerald’s vision. It’s so cool that, as you said, it has become one of the most iconic parts of the film. I mean, that’s the power of Britney Spears and what that represents to everybody, to all of us that grew up loving her music. ‘Toxic’ has such strong psychology attached to it, especially when you take a song that’s in its essence, very sexy, very feminine, and then subvert it into a very dark place. The power of that is very strong and indicative of Emerald as a filmmaker. She makes very strong narrative and dramatic choices in her film.
I like things that are inspired by beauty. Really for me, my big inspiration was Carey Mulligan’s character, Cassie, and her performance. She embodied such a strong, often ambiguous, character. And that’s what inspired the theme for me.
AD: ‘Toxic’ is the track that people will most immediately associate with your score. I mentioned ‘Hymn for Nina,’ I think it’s beautiful and I hope people take time to listen to that one. What were your personal favorites to work on?
AW: Oh, thank you. ‘Hymm For Nina’ is woven throughout the score. It’s reharmonized even in ‘Blue Halo’, which is a big romantic moment for Cassie and Ryan. Yet, it’s still is a variation of Nina and Cassie’s theme, which indicates that even in her greatest escape, Cassie still has not been able to move on from what’s happened.
‘Blue Halo’ was one that Emerald and I got a kick out of working on together. She wanted the kiss in that scene to feel like an incredibly romantic moment. And it is such a romantic kiss between Cassie and Ryan; it seems like it’s going to last forever. That was the feeling we were trying to create in the music—just this romance that keeps rising. I know that’s a personal favorite cue of Emerald’s and of mine as well.
There’s also a track called ‘Cassie,’ which is when she does decide to move on from what’s happened. What you’re looking at on the screen is a woman in her bedroom on a laptop, but the emotional implications of that moment are so much larger. Emerald really encouraged me to make that moment larger than life, which was really fun to do.
There’s also a lot of tension music and I really enjoy making tension music. It does have moments of that overall theme sewn into it, but it has much darker harmony. Emerald wanted a lot of the tension to have a calculated and controlled feeling to it. So it’s quite metric. And back to pop music, a lot of pop music is built on very modular rhythms that keep repeating, so that was something that I tried to infuse in the score as well. It’s much slower and spread out, but sewing the tension into the spine of the film was fun to do as well.
AD: Where do you think Promising Young Woman fits into the arc of your career?
AW: You know, a lot of the films that I have written music for have been wonderful, but wonderful escapes from our reality, and that’s a fantastic thing. One of the great things about movies and stories is the ability to disappear into other worlds. With Promising Young Woman, I feel so lucky to have been a part of something that’s so much a part of the conversation and a part of the narrative and the here and now of who we are as a society and a commentary on how people behave. [Something that] has huge implications, I think, for the future of how everybody looks at things, so I feel so lucky to have had that opportunity thanks to Emerald and her brilliant film.
Promising Young Woman is available now in theaters and On Demand. Read all of Awards Daily’s interviews with the cast and crew of Promising Young Woman here.