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Promising Young Woman: A lowdown on the controversial movie centering #MeToo, date rape, and more

Promising Young Woman: A lowdown on the controversial movie centering #MeToo, date rape, and more

Don't get mad, get even

Text: Emily Heng


You're forgiven for assuming Promising Young Woman belongs in the feel-good genre. Misleading title aside, the self-described black comedy lends its focus to a woman exacting revenge on her best friend's rapists — which, while a weighty topic — certainly harbours the potential for genuine comedic content as seen from works in the vein of Parasite and Get Out. And while Promising Young Woman has its moments, the movie proves contentious in its narrative choices, daring performances, and surprise twists that has left many an audience member feeling queasy by the end of it. Director, Emerald Fennell, and lead actress, Carey Mulligan, breaks down their thought-process behind the hotly-anticipated flick.

Emerald, can you tell us when you came up with the idea for Promising Young Woman?

Emerald Fennell:
I came up with the idea for this film maybe three or four years ago. The idea that came to me was of this young woman in a nightclub, drunk out of her mind, and that conversation between a group of men after work saying, "Oh, God, look at her, asking for it." Then the moment when that turns from disgust to opportunity. I was interested in what might happen if somebody takes a drunk woman home, and then realises that they're not drunk, and what the fallout of that might be. So that is the sort of inciting moment of this movie.

The tone of the film, I think, is really unique because it veers between tragedy, horror, comedy. It goes to all those places. What's your take on that?

Carey Mulligan:
I really love describing it as a rom-com, tragedy, thriller, funny movie. Yeah, it does. It goes to all those places. When I read the script, I had never read anything like it and it's why I immediately wanted to do it. There was a part of me that thought, how do you pull this off? And then I met Emerald and I thought, "Ah, done, great". Within moments, literally it was within 10 minutes, I said, "I always get told off for doing this — so I haven't done it since I was 25 — but I really want to do this film, but I haven't told my agent yet". I was just so desperate to seal the deal so she couldn't change her mind. You experience so many different feelings watching it. I really think that the skill that it takes to make those twists and turns, and make all of that cohesive and into one completely original thing, is something that only Emerald could have done.

Can you talk more about Cassie's character, because, of course, it's quite a person that can choose to be giving her life to that, when a 30-year-old might be choosing to do other things?

Carey Mulligan: Yeah, I think she's really stuck in a time. I think something happened that derailed her life and she's just chosen not to move on from it. She can't move on from it. I think this is her survival mode and the way that she's trying to process what's happened to her and what's happened to her life. She's a very unusual, unpredictable, sometimes unlikeable, but ultimately a good person, I think.

Emerald Fennell: Absolutely. It's interesting, when you look at characters in Westerns, and at revenge movies in general with male protagonists, they are single minded and they are on a journey and it is a journey of revenge and redemption. It's interesting when you put a woman in that place and how different that feels, because the truth of it is, is what everyone in the movie is saying to Cassie, and what everyone I think in our society is saying is, "let it go". And isn't it interesting what happens when that tension comes in everywhere — at home, at work, in your love life, when you are a woman who says, "But I'm not going to let it go, I'm never, ever, ever going to let this go".

It's amazing how discomforting that is and the reason that this movie is lots of different genres, I think, is that all of these different possible lives are pulling at Cassie. It's important that the life that she could lead, if she let it go, is so tempting and tantalising and wonderful, and the one that she's taking is hard, really hard. That's a character that only Carey could have brought to life, I think. We understand why Cassie is doing it, even though it's sort of heart-breaking.

Can we talk about the tone of the movie and the soundtrack as well? It's a very dark story wrapped up in this wonderful pink, and green, and yellow, and pastel wrapping paper, and a great punk and pop soundtrack as well.

Emerald Fennell: For me, the first thing was I just wanted to make a movie that you would want to go and see on a date on a Friday night, that you would want to go and see with your friends. Just because the subject matter is hard, I don't think it should be a hard watch. I wanted it to be thrilling and exciting and funny and romantic and scary, all those things. But when you look at life, and particularly women's lives, they are beautiful, and monstrous, and violent, and soft, and I think that it felt inherently female to me to make a world that was tactile, appealing, but had this kind of bleeding heart at the centre of it. I think we all know what it feels like to cover things up with sugar, I suppose. I mean, it is a spoonful of sugar, isn't it? This whole thing, and the medicine's kind of arsenic.


Carey Mulligan:
Bang on.

Did you have any chats with people like Adam [Brody] and Christopher [Mintz-Plasse] in those scenes. Were these actors very willing to participate in scenes where, of course, a guy is coming off as a really bad guy in the end?

Carey Mulligan: I mean, they were just both so willing. All the men in our film were so delightful. They were only in for a day at a time, and we kept on mourning the loss of them, because they were so lovely and wonderful and hilarious. But they all got it. They all understood what this was about. They're remarkably sensitive and it was all beautifully done, everyone was totally aware of what we were doing. And that it was very serious.

They were also really willing to go there and put themselves in the position of really pushing into some of the more difficult elements, which is also very funny, as well as being very uncomfortable. Some of it's very funny. They had faith in Emerald, it's not always easy to let yourself be the baddie, or in this sense, a weak baddie. It's very easy to be a badass guy but to be a sort of weak character can be a hard thing to ask someone to do, and really those scenes are showing weakness of character. They really let themselves, didn't they? And they were so brilliant.


Emerald Fennell:
Yeah, they really did. The thing is for this movie, and the thing that I said to every single actor coming in, is none of these characters think they're bad. Adam's character genuinely thinks he's in a rom com. He's met this girl. It's just that when you watch rom coms now, the women don't really speak that much and that men are falling in love with female characters that maybe are just sitting there. Part of it for me was saying, you're not evil, you don't have an ulterior motive, you don't think you do.

If it's about power and the power dynamic between men and women, a lot of very decent men, or men who believe they're very decent, often don't realise the power that they have, and they often don't realise when they're taking advantage. Certainly, every location we went to, every guy's apartment we went to, a lot of the women on set would go, "Yeah, I've been here". And so, the actors, I hope, never felt uncomfortable because I was just saying, just imagine we're shooting a rom com and this is that first scene when you're seducing this girl.

 

 

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