Interview: Emerald Fennell Discusses Finding the Titular Estate for Saltburn, Exploring Power through Gothic Romance, and “Funeral Giggles”
Emerald Fennell first gained attention in Hollywood as an actor, for roles in period drama films, such as Albert Nobbs (2011), Anna Karenina (2012) and The Danish Girl (2015), as well as starring roles in such series as BBC’s Call the Midwife and for her portrayal of Camilla Parker-Bowles in Netflix’s The Crown (which garnered her a Primetime Emmy Award nomination). As a writer-director, Fennell became the showrunner for season two of the BBC spy thriller series Killing Eve, and only a year later, she made her feature film debut with 2020’s Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan and winning Fennell an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Earlier this year Fennell got an unexpected profile boost by starring as the pregnant doll Midge in Barbie, and that film's star, Margot Robbie, returned the favor by acting as producer on Fennell’s second feature, Saltburn.
Even if I weren’t an admirer of Fennell’s two films, I’d be thrilled that a filmmaker like her is actively making movies that push buttons, divide audiences, and just generally make people uncomfortable with their naked aggression as they stare into the eyes of those who get away with horrible behavior due to their status in society. In Saltburn, Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin) plays middle-class student Oliver Quick in an upper-class university (Oxford, where Fennell herself was schooled) where he struggles to fit in and frequently fails. He falls into the inner circle of the wildly popular and handsome Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi, Euphoria) through an act of seemingly selfless kindness and much to the dismay of many of Felix’s other friends, especially his best bud and cousin Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe).
The two become so close, in fact, that when Oliver reveals that he has no place to go for the summer holiday because his dad is dead and his mom is a raging drunk, Felix invites him to his family estate, Saltburn. Oliver is all too eager to fall in with this overly privileged crowd—including father Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant), mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), and a guest who has overstayed her welcome, Poor Dear Pamela (a wonderful extended cameo by Carey Mulligan)—that he begins to ingratiate himself into their lives and become their confidante to a degree that they reveal to him long-buried secrets. Soon, it becomes clear that Oliver isn’t just reacting to what’s being thrown at him by the family; he may have gone to Saltburn with a plan. In the ever-growing sub-genre of “Eat the Rich” movies, Saltburn ranks as one of the nastier and funniest entries in the field.
Saltburn is now playing in theaters. I spoke with Fennell in October, while she was in town for the Chicago International Film Festival, where she screened the film and received the festival’s Visionary Prize. We talked about the importance of disruption and using the language of Gothic horror to tell her stories. Please enjoy our conversation…
One of the common threads in your two films is that you make us look at the behavior of the privileged and then say “We see you now, and you aren’t going to get to do this any more.” What is it “they” have been getting away with for so long that you want to shine a spotlight on?
I like that; that’s interesting. Yes, yes, yes. But also, I’m interested in the other side of things, which is us and why we’re engaged in this completely sadomasochistic relationship with things. It’s absolutely a comedy of manners and a satire of the class system and all of those things, but it’s also about our own obsessive desire and wanting, and what that wanting does to us, what that watching and looking and needing and wanting and hating does to all of us. It drives us crazy. It’s about how the world we live in is designed to make us all go completely mad.
The people we tend to watch and despise in the way you’re describing, I’m guessing most of us would act the same way if the roles were reversed.
Oh, not even that. We actually love it, love them. That’s the thing about the family in this movie, it’s that weaponized charm, that completely irresistible charisma they all have. That’s part of the game here. Are any of us saying no to Felix when he looks up with Bambi eyes and says his bicycle is broken? Are any of us going to turn down those families when they want something? If Rosamund Pike turned around in her dress and said, “Get on your knees?”, would any of us go “No”? I’m serious; that’s what I’m asking. We are not immune to any of this. That’s what interesting to me. Why, when we should know better, don’t we? That’s how power works, and that’s why it’s interesting to me, because we’re all complicit in it.
You instill these supposed motivations in Oliver for wanting to be close to these people, having to do with his upbringing, his personality, his class, his attraction to Felix. And then you pull the rug out from under us in a lot of ways, which doesn’t mean the motivations aren’t true, but everything that happens isn’t as random as we first believed.
It can’t be, and I realize that it’s difficult to talk about with this movie, but that’s also what it’s about, is how we make ourselves. Like Promising Young Woman, it’s about how we present ourselves in the way that the world will find most palatable but also the object of our desire. What are we doing every day, in every interaction, to get the thing that we want out of it? We all do it without even noticing. In order to be one of the special people when you haven’t come from a special place or have any ostensibly special qualities, some would argue, then what you have to be is hyper-observant and hyper-adaptable. The things that Oliver is, is a genius at seeing people, and what Oliver does is know what you really want and he gives it to you. But his curse is that he doesn’t ever get what he wants, or the version of it that he gets is a kind of shell.
I suspected it with Promising Young Woman, but I think I confirmed it with Saltburn, that you are a horror fan. You use the language of horror in parts of your films, and by the end of this movie, we’re deep into it. Tell me about your horror history.
Yeah, I love horror. You’re absolutely right. For me, this movie is a part of the Gothic tradition, and the thing I love about the Gothic tradition is that it’s horror and romance. That’s where it’s born, that absolute duality that enters this movie. In that regard, it’s absolutely a horror movie, like any of those early books were. So of course, you’re always looking at them when you’re using that kind of visual language, and you can make nods to Nosferatu or Don’t Look Now—all of those. I don’t think it’s possible to make a movie outside of the culture that we live in, whether you’re casting or making light choices or whatever, the audience has a relationship with these things already. They’re bringing all of their library with them, of people and things. Being able to utilize that and be in dialogue with that is really important. So certainly, you want to show people it’s a Gothic horror romance, and a vampire movie.
For sure. I want to ask about Saltburn, the building itself. Was it a long search to find the right place? Where is this? It’s part art gallery, part haunted house, etc.
And it has to be special and it has to be secret. And because we make so many period dramas in England already, there are certainly no houses within the shooting area of London that haven’t been seen a million times before. So we knew we had to go much further outside of London and stay there, which has its own practical problems. We found the house quite early on, but like everything in the movie, it had never been photographed before. Part of the deal with the owners was that we never said where the house was or what its name is, because they’re very private. Partly, it was about gaining their trust and reassuring them that we were going to be incredibly respectful and careful, and in the end, not just the owners but the people who ran the house and people who worked there were just such a huge part of the movie. For me, it was very important that we were in one place because Saltburn is as much a character as any of the people.
It’s the title character.
Yeah, absolutely. Again, it all goes back to Rebecca and Brideshead Revisited—they are places that make you go a little crazy. And we did go a little crazy there together, and practically you have to just allow it to.
I had a British filmmaker—I think it was Richard Curtis—tell me that every British film is about class. Do you agree with that?
I would say every British movie is about sex, and I think class is just something we do to repress those things. Yes and no, I do think that, of course, that’s a part of it, but really I’m interested in power.
To your point about sex, this movie feels like someone's kink. There are people who watch this that will get excited by it. And the rest of us are just trying to figure out what it is about Oliver that is making other people get excited.
Totally. And that’s interesting and exciting because that means that your relationship with the movie is one of self-interrogation. The point is often the more sexually transgressive moments in the movie or even the more transgressive ones that aren’t sexual, like being nude or whatever. The thing is, everyone feels differently about them, but for me, they are profoundly sexy. They are designed to be incredibly erotic. So it’s interesting to throw those things out there and see how people respond.
Speaking of responses, you’ve crafted your films to be intentionally divisive. If everyone liked your movies, you might feel like you weren’t doing something right. Is that a fair statement?
The truth is, I never set out to be divisive. I set out to be honest, and that usually comes from myself and the stuff I’m thinking about myself and the way I think and the things that I want and what that means about me and the world that we live in. So if I can be honest, and it’s the same with Promising Young Woman, if I can be honest about my own relationship with voyeurism and the things that I want and like and think about, it means other people can be. But a lot of it is, when you’re being hyper-specific and honest and asking other people to think about themselves, then it may end up being divisive, but in a really interesting way. This movie isn’t as divisive as people think. Some people don’t love it, and there are lots of people who use the movie as a thing they can tear up—I mean that like, when you make a movie that references other movies and plays with genre, lots of people get into the nitty gritty there. But in general, whether it’s women in their 80s or kids, people are coming up to me and saying, “I’m feeling a lot of stuff right now. I’m shaken up and my heart is racing.” And that’s what I want: a physical response.
Like shock therapy.
Yeah! Totally. And the thing I love most are the laugh-gasps, when people wonder if they should be laughing or aroused or rooting for this person. That’s the game of all of this; we’re all going to sit there and wonder where our limits are.
Is your creative center an inherently dark place, or is it a place where your dark thoughts go to hang out and mix it up and come out as these amazing films?
Oh, I don’t know. Honestly, I think I always have been a Gothic witch at heart. I feel a real kinship with the Brontes and Kate Bush and Hilary Mantel and all of those women who are making Gothic, intense, sexual, dark things. That’s where all of my loves are, ever since I was young. Absolutely, there’s a place of darkness, but it’s also crucially joyful, funny, pleasurable.
Funny for sure. I found myself laughing at times when I wasn’t sure what else I should do.
Good. That’s the point. And what’s thrilling for me is, there is no should. There is always laughter. It’s like funeral giggles or church giggles. That’s a big part of how we all operate, and so the more violent and horrific this becomes, the more funny it is. That’s what I think.
Agreed. Thank you.
Thank you so much!
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.