You never forget your time at Saltburn. That is true for the characters that pass through the hallowed halls or lounge on the luxurious, sophisticated grounds, but it also applies to us, the hangers-on who could only dream of being invited there. Are we NFI’d, ourselves? Director Emerald Fennell is gracious enough to throw the doors open to the estate and we can revel in the naughtiness and the ugliness that transpires when night falls. Waiting to greet is the warm but beguiling Elspeth, portrayed by Rosamund Pike. Every time you watch Fennell’s film, you find something different to interpret. It’s slippery, enchanting, and you just might go mad with your own desire and ambitions.
I instantly latched onto Saltburn because of the time period. Set in the early 2000s, there is a specific look to the costumes and how we talked to each other (there was no Twitter yet, sorry!). We are used to seeing period pieces set in an expansive manor, but rarely do we get such a contemporary story set within the walls.
“It was exactly fifteen years before we shot the movie in the summer of 2022,” Fennell says. “It was primarily set in 2007, so it is a period drama. It’s the perfect moment where everything is incredibly unfashionable and it hasn’t come back yet. It was very humanizing, I think. It reminded us that even though the houses and the universities are permanent, the people live in their time.”
“For our young cast, they don’t remember it,” Pike says. “For them, it was like they were in disbelief if they wore something or they listened to a certain kind of music. It’s our era, so it makes us think a different way than them. The props department will fill a table with magazines and newspapers of the time. What was surprising to me was the culture of slut-shaming going on. Everyone was bigging up on women. Look at beautiful she is going out but then look at her at 3am. There were articles written by friends of mine then that I knew they wouldn’t write now. Female journalists would write things about other women.”
“Because the cast is full of brilliant improvisers that Elspeth would be reading the paper before a scene started,” Fennell reveals. “Fifteen years ago, culturally, was a long time.”
“Elspeth loves people’s misfortun,” Pike adds, with a grin. “She doesn’t think that she’s someone who reads the tabloids, but she loves them.”
When Barry Keoghan’s Oliver is alone with Elspeth as they wait for the rest of the family to join them, they talk about Elspeth’s daughter, Venetia, before he compliments Elspeth by saying she’s “so fucking beautiful.” He quickly looks her up and down, and she’s thrown off guard. Elspeth takes a seat and is wary of him until they bring up Carey Mulligan’s poor Pamela. It’s a fascinating scene in terms of controlling a conversation and being able to steer it in another direction. I originally thought that Elspeth was disarmed by this young man, but Pike reveals that she had a different interpretation.
“I’m delighted that that’s how you see the scene, but that’s not how I saw it,” Pike admits. “I don’t want to take away from that or any interpretation. It’s very valid. I’ve heard just today that someone will send that shot of Elspeth holding her drink as she listens to Oliver as a response to someone’s texts–a reaction shot. I think that scene means different things to different people. For me, Elspeth doesn’t want someone to seduce her–she finds it a bit revolting actually. She likes to be looked at, admired, and thought about, but she doesn’t want anything as crude as a come on. I think Oliver gets her a bit wrong, in my opinion. Oliver is so clever, though, that he recalibrates and gets her exactly right. What she really wants is to be let off the hook and be given validation in getting rid of poor, dear Pamela. She’s feeling mildly bad about it, and she likes to think of herself as a good person. When Oliver givers her that permission, she admits that she thought there was something sinister about Pamela–not that she ever admitted it before. Elspeth would never admit that she never thought that before which is one of the things I love about her. She’s not quick to interpret, but when she’s given an interpretation, she runs with it. Most of us do that, to be fair! We all pretend that we caught on to things we didn’t think before.”
“That’s what so interesting about not just film and performance but about ourselves,” Fennell says. “Even Rosamund playing Elspeth or Rosamund herself, we don’t know what we really feel. The ambiguity is what is unnerving, and what I love so much about the scene is that it is, to me, erotic. Whether that is a two way street is by-the-by, the intent is very clear. Even if she is not remotely interested, but she is shocked. It’s not that he’s disarmed because she’s interested, but she’s disarmed by this interloper would dare. It’s very audacious. Even that transgression is fascinating.”
As that scene twists and turns, I couldn’t help but think about how far they are from the house. If Elspeth would’ve had a larger, angrier reaction, Oliver could gauge just how much time he would have to turn the interaction around.
“That’s so amazing that you mention that, because that was so important to us on the day,” Fennell says. “They were so disconnected from the house, but they could see who was coming. The distance afforded him the opportunity, and she even says, ‘Oh, Oliver darling, so punctual.’ She’s obviously always the first down, and he’s clearly waiting for her. All of that stuff is crucial.”
“Our editor was so brilliant,” Pike says. “None of these performances are created in isolation. Our performances all exist in response to everybody else in the scene. I’m sure Emerald spent hours discussing reactions or flicks of the eyes or what is happening in a certain part of the room. It was all so alive at all times. Barry is very disarming and what he throws out is mercurial and strange to understand sometimes–it makes you feel stuff. I’m sure there were thinks that came across my face every time we ran a scene.”
“It was important to me and to the cast that it had to be alive in the moment, and that’s why what our editor, Victoria Boydell, was so brilliant,” Fennell says, excitedly. “Every scene can go, at any time, off the rails. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing. The potential for sex and violence and disruption is very potent. We felt that on the day, and we wanted to reserve that feeling of potential and opportunity in everyone. Everyone was trying to find a chink in the armor. Every take from every actor was different every time, and that’s when you find things to uncover.”
The comparison between day and night is frightening. You could find yourself playing tennis in a pink, sparkly bolero before dinner as you guzzle champagne–like a gorgeously twisted version of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. I was unnerved by every passing hour as if nightfall was a threat. The darkness shrouds the corners and hallways and allows for the monsters to come out and play.
“That’s so exciting–I love that you felt that,” Pike says.
“Linus [Sandgren] and I talked about it being a vampire movie,” Fennell admits. “It’s never clear if the Cattons are the vampires or if Oliver is. The Cattons are, but you keep thinking about everyone. The people that I tangentially know who live like this gear up for night. The daytime is boring.”
Saltburn is streaming now on Prime Video.