Emerald Fennell on ‘Saltburn,’ Sexiness and Making the Audience Squirm

TheWrap magazine: “We’re not used to people showing us things that are sexy that make us feel uncomfortable, and therefore people are inclined to say, ‘Oh, it’s gross-out'”

Emerald Fennell (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for BFI)

The idea for “Saltburn” came to Emerald Fennell about seven or eight years ago. “It was the opening line of the movie — I didn’t know that that’s what it was then — but it was a young man saying, ‘I wasn’t in love with him.’ And then that same young man licking the bottom of the bathtub,” she said. “For me, it was immediately clear what the movie was.” 

A scorching blend of class satire and Gothic horror, “Saltburn” is a tale of all-consuming, destructive desire, told with the same audaciousness as Fennell’s feature debut, “Promising Young Woman,” which earned her a Best Original Screenplay Oscar and a Best Director nomination. Barry Keoghan stars as Oliver Quick, an elusive “scholarship student” at Oxford with a tragic backstory who attracts the attention of the beautiful, beguiling aristocrat Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). He invites Oliver to spend the summer at Saltburn, his family’s palatial country estate where, true to its spiky name, things get dangerous.

Drawing on the tradition of stories set at British country homes (“Rebecca,” “Brideshead Revisited,” “The Go-Between”), Fennell’s film digs deep into fetishization: of wealth, power, beauty, human bodies. And it has elicited some of the most polarized reactions of any movie this year. “What I found really interesting is that I didn’t write [anything in “Saltburn”] to be shocking,” she said. “I wrote it because I wanted to make an incredibly sexy film about desire about what that looks and feels like.”

Emerald Fennell with Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi on the set of “Saltburn” (Amazon/MGM)

When you were developing “Saltburn,” did you feel pressure to live up to the success of “Promising Young Woman”?

Well, really, I think you make something almost in order to be able to make the next thing. Because what I love to do is make things—that process is just the most wonderful thing for me. So I’m so grateful that the response to “Promising Young Woman” gave me the freedom to decide what I wanted to do next and the opportunity to do that. It’s really only since it came out that I’ve been more aware of that kind of comparison, I suppose, or pressure, than when I was writing and filming it.

Anyone can write about any gender they choose, but there have been some surprised reactions that your second film focuses primarily on male characters, given how fiercely feminist and women-centric “Promising Young Woman” is. Was that something you thought about when you were writing “Saltburn”?

Being a female filmmaker is a feminist action. And it’s become more and more apparent as I go on how much of a feminist act it is, whether you like it or not. It’s been a very interesting thing with this movie because of course “Promising Young Woman” was so personal and so political because of the nature of what it was discussing. In a funny way, [with “Saltburn,”] I’d wanted to make something that was absolutely part of a different tradition that felt like a timeless movie — that was acknowledging something very old, very traditional.

Then, of course, it came out, and I think a lot of people were looking at it in a political way. And that was a little bit of a surprise to me. And then I realized that being a female filmmaker is a political act. That’s the thing that’s political — whether you write about women, whether you write about men, whether you make something biographical, whether you use your imagination, who you work with, how you work with them, all of that is still, regrettably, an unusual thing to be. Therefore, I think that this film is extraordinarily feminist. It exists. Everything I do is feminist because it’s what I live my life by.

"Saltburn"
Barry Keoghan in “Saltburn” (Amazon Studios)

You mentioned Oliver drinking Felix’s bathwater and there are other scenes, like the garden hook-up [between Oliver and Felix’s sister Venetia, played by Alison Oliver] that are not graphic in terms of what we see, but they do test some people’s comfort level.

What’s really funny is that this is a film about desire, about restraint and the limits of restraint. Why restraint is so dangerous, why not being able to touch the thing you want to touch can drive you mad as a human. Whether or not you’re going to lick a bathtub or suck the dirty water out of a drain, metaphorically, we’ve all done tawdry, embarrassing things in the grip of desire. None of this is remotely shocking compared to the stuff that we grew up with, the way that women’s bodies were used in film. And the thing is, when you’re writing these things, you have to interrogate yourself and you’re in quite a vulnerable place because what we’re saying is, “I think this is sexy and interesting and truthful.”

I think what’s a bit troubling is we’re not used to people showing us things that are sexy that make us feel uncomfortable, and therefore people are inclined to say, “Oh, it’s gross-out,” or “It’s provocative.” All the people who are shocked by it, I just wonder what they’re looking up on the internet at 3 in the morning. I mean, come on.

Alison Oliver, Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan in Saltburn
Alison Oliver, Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan in Saltburn (Amazon/MGM)

Restraint is an interesting idea because at the end [spoilers ahead], Oliver has none. In a single take, the camera follows him as he dances naked through the halls of Saltburn, alone. How did you land on that image?

The film, it’s a fairy tale. I never really make things that aren’t. And the way it’s filmed gives us a sense of that. For those people who were still doubting whether they should be on Oliver’s side or whether he was our hero, the ending needed to have so much triumph, so much evil glee. It needed to be an act of territory-taking and desecration and joy, but then it ends, of course, with solitude. My preoccupation is making an audience complicit, making them laugh when they shouldn’t maybe be laughing, making them squirm or feel complicated feelings. So the end needed to have that thing where you could not help but to be on Oliver’s side. 

It’s a credit to Barry’s beautiful work — and everyone’s beautiful work — in that scene because there are so few people who leave the movie or come up to me afterwards and say, “Oh, I wanted him to get his comeuppance!” [They’re] like, “Go get it.” And that’s what I wanted. I wanted everyone to leave [the cinema] and be like [sucks in breath], “Ah. Oooh.”

For both of your films, people see them and want to talk about them, which I would imagine is a goal for a filmmaker, whether the audience has purely positive things things to say or not. You want people taking about your work.

I think so, absolutely. And the thing is, it’s also not just about the movie, but you’re revealing something about yourself. When everyone watches this movie in a room together and reacts together, what you see is how different every single person is. Everyone’s reaction is different. There are moments when some people are gasping, some people are laughing, some people are shushing, some people are turned on, some people are angry, some people are bored, some people, whatever. There’s a moment in both of the films where the audience starts to turn on itself. Some people are like, “I can’t f—ing believe that these squares are so shocked by this,” or like, you know, “I’m gonna leave, this is disgusting.” And so when you come out of a movie like that, you’re not just talking about the movie, you’re talking about yourself. It was the same with “Promising Young Woman.”

If something’s completely frictionless or something is perfect in the sense that we need things to be perfect now — sort of seamless, frictionless, lubed up in a funny way [Laughs]. If we have that experience of, like, Weeeee! Great, though [we get] none of those conversations. The thing that’s been so amazing about this movie is people come up to me every day, every day. Tons of teenagers, then people you would never expect. A woman in her ’80s grabbed me after a screening and said she’d never been so turned on in her life. I’ve not had this thing before of people actively running down the street to tell me that they have seen it four times, they can’t stop watching it, can’t stop talking about it. That’s the most thrilling.

emerald fennell oscars
Emerald Fennell at the 2021 Oscars (Getty Images)

You also have a cameo in the biggest movie of the year, as Barbie’s pregnant friend Midge. How has it been, having both of these projects out in the world simultaneously? 

Oh, I mean, I can’t even remotely lay claim to both. I’m in “Barbie” for probably 20 seconds. I did it because I just think Greta [Gerwig] is the most remarkable filmmaker. The next lifetime of her films is just going to be one of the greatest canons of work. I wanted to see her work and I wanted to see my own childhood and the things that I love. Pink things, glittery things, plastic things, things that girls [traditionally] love have always been ridiculed, and things that are set in space and with cars and monsters and whatever the boys traditionally like have always been given billions of dollars and taken incredibly seriously. And so to walk onto the set of “Barbie” and see my childhood rendered with such detail, such care, such humor, such love, such respect, was so moving. I think she’s f—ing brilliant.

Greta has said that she cast you because she’d seen photos of you pregnant on the set of “Promising Young Woman” and then pregnant again winning your Oscar, and that she wanted to show women in all stages of being. 

The thing she said to me was really funny. Like, “Midge has been pregnant for 50 years. When I think of someone who is permanently pregnant, I think of you!” [Laughs] I was like, you’re f—ing telling me! You are telling me! Because it did seem for a while that I was permanently pregnant. I’m honestly glad to even have registered in the landscape of Greta’s imagination in any way. And I’m very honored to be part of that whole beautiful film. I’m so thrilled that it made so much money at the box office and it is tearing everything down. I just think, Good on ’em. That is so cool.

This story first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.

Photo by Maya Iman for TheWrap

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