Emerald Fennell Is ‘Thrilled’ by the Way ‘Saltburn’ Leaves Audiences ‘Physically Shaken’

Savannah, Georgia is an appropriate setting for a conversation with filmmaker Emerald Fennell about her newest film “Saltburn,” which follows an Oxford student who becomes enmeshed with a wealthy classmate’s eccentric family during a summer at their country estate. “It’s fully Gothic, especially at Halloween, so it’s really my favorite kind of place,” said the director to IndieWire during a recent interview. Though, in an interview setting that featured walls that alternated between hard, slate gray panels, and thin, beaming bars of fluorescent lighting, Fennell joked that the whole thing felt a bit like “a ‘John Wick’ interrogation.”

In town to accept the Spotlight Director Award at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, Fennell denied feeling a daunting amount of pressure around what to follow up her Academy Award-winning debut “Promising Young Woman” with. “I usually have a few things going on, but I don’t write them down. I just write them in my head,” said the Best Original Screenplay Oscar recipient. “So I’ve been visiting ‘Saltburn’ for maybe seven, eight years.”

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Though the specific moments from the film that sparked her to write the rest of the “Saltburn” script hit on what she would consider spoiler territory, Fennell does note that entering into the Gothic British country house genre means building upon the well-known work that came before. “The Gothic British country house story tends to be quite meta already. So ‘Brideshead Revisited’ comes from ‘Jude the Obscure,’ and then ‘The Go-Between’ is looking at those, and then ‘Atonement’ is looking at those, and then you have ‘Rebecca’; all of these places. Even ‘Northanger Abbey’ was already satirizing this genre 200 years ago,” said the British-born filmmaker. “So partly it’s that you can’t make a movie like this without it naturally kind of existing in that world. But the only thing that’s useful about that truly is the familiarity it gives the audience, because you can only really make something uncanny if somebody’s familiar with something. You are using those things carefully so that people think they know what they’re getting.”

One new element Fennell adds to the genre’s canon, and to cinema as whole, is the introduction of recent Oscar nominee Barry Keoghan as a leading man. “Charisma is something that people take for granted when it comes to actors, but  it’s quite rare still. And Barry is a charisma machine. So even when you dress him nerdy little glasses and his little scarf and everything, there’s something. He’s never invisible. He’s so compelling and his performances are always so fascinating,” said the director, who knew Keoghan was the right man to play the ascendent Oliver after seeing him in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” She compares him to a classic silent film actor, saying “he’s physically so mesmerizing — his body, his face — he’s just a communicator … the negative space is where he’s so thrilling.”

Emerald Fennell, Barry Keoughan, Jacob Elordi
Writer-director Emerald Fennell on the set her film “Saltburn” with stars Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi.Chiabella James/Prime Video

Making “Saltburn,” Fennell and Keoghan developed a bond close enough so that they felt comfortable challenging each other. “You have to fight things out sometimes. We were always pushing each other to be better, sometimes to the brink of absolute madness I’ve got to say, on both sides. But that’s what it is. It’s very, very rare to find a collaborator who, even when you are both at your most exhausted and crotchety, you can really do something for each other that makes something transcendent,” Fennell said.

In order to find the person who could play Felix, the wealthy, aloof object of Oliver’s obsession, Fennell looked for someone who knew how to pull back. What made “Euphoria” actor Jacob Elordi stand out in his audition was that “he just did a remarkable piece of incredibly clever observational comedy,” said the director. “He felt like a real person in the sense that Felix, rather than being just a golden boy, is sort of disappointing and boring actually. Sort of basic. [Jacob] was the only person who really did that. Everyone else played up the glamour.”

While casting director Kharmel Cochrane knew how to find actors like Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, Paul Rhys, and Richard E. Grant who, in turn, knew how to play off of the distinguishable energy Keoghan brought to Oliver, Rosamund Pike stands out most as the co-star most befitting of a Fennell-penned role. “Having not met her, what I always sensed about her from ‘Gone Girl’ and from ‘An Education’ was that she was really fucking funny,” said the director. In Elspeth, the purposefully daft matriarch of the aristocratic family, Pike got a “properly savage comedic role, which also required a really deep, awful kind of pathos too,” said Fennell.

“I knew that she would be brilliant, but I couldn’t have possibly imagined how brilliant until she started reading it. And I was like, ‘Oh God, she’s here, she’s here,’” said the director. “She doesn’t feel just like a sort of caricature of a mummy monster. We properly understand where it all comes from. She just brings all of the everything with her, Rosamund. She’s so good. They’re all so good. And then together they’re amazing.”

SAVANNAH, GEORGIA - OCTOBER 24: Emerald Fennell speaks at the Spotlight Director Award Presentation during the 26th SCAD Savannah Film Festival at Lucas Theatre for the Arts on October 24, 2023 in Savannah, Georgia. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for SCAD)
Emerald Fennell accept the Spotlight Director Award at the 26th SCAD Savannah Film Festival.Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for SCAD

Her second time around the block, Fennell is at peace with reactions to her film, which had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, being so divisive. “The thing that I am thrilled about is this film has really physically shaken people. It’s made them feel aroused in a way that disturbs them. It’s made them feel some kind of latent violence is being drawn out [of them],” she said. She understands that identifying such a specific brand of obsession is not a pleasurable experience for everyone, but she still has a filter for the criticism she allows in.

“Yes, of course, there are moments where I think, ‘Oh, I hope you die,’” she said with a laugh. “‘Oh cool, you didn’t like it? Great. I hope you fucking die … and your whole family … slowly.’” She is only human, after all, and knows there are times in which the conversation around her film makes her want to say, as she puts it, “‘Oh, you just profoundly didn’t understand what I was trying to do. Whatever.’ You’re always gonna have to try not to be a pissy little bitch about it, even when you really want to be. Especially if you get the sense occasionally [that] there’s a whiff of misogyny.”

She added, “But the truth of it is, you make stuff because it’s a joy. And you make it exactly for that reason, which is to connect deeply with people. And you can only do that if you make something a bit tricky.”

“Saltburn,” and Amazon MGM Studios release, premieres in select theaters on Friday, November 17, followed by a wide release on Wednesday, November 22.

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