At the 59th Chicago International Film Festival, writer/director Emerald Fennell’s twisted and depraved dark social class comedy Saltburn (the follow-up to her phenomenally sharp rape-revenge social commentary thriller Promising Young Woman that won her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) was selected as the centerpiece, with Fennell receiving an honorary tribute and the festival’s Visionary Award. As such, she made a stop in Chicago, and select press were granted an opportunity to see the film pre-festival, which was exciting enough, although I can’t imagine the raucous energy that must have reverberated throughout the Music Box during the actual festival showing of this shocking, outrageous, twisty, and fearlessly bold flick.
It was also an honor to chat with Emerald Fennell about the film, her creative process, and Barry Keoghan’s long-overdue moment as a leading man. Perhaps most fascinating, her response regarding whether or not some of these characters are kinder than others put things into a different perspective that instantly made me want to watch the film again, not that I already didn’t. Saltburn is obscenely entertaining and deserving to be seen. Whether you have or haven’t yet, please enjoy my interview with Emerald Fennell below:
It’s wonderful to meet you. Congratulations on receiving the festival’s Visionary Award and Saltburn being selected as the centerpiece.
How has your Chicago experience been so far?
My God, it’s been amazing. I went to Giordano’s and had a deep-dish pizza. So delicious!
I love that place. Anyway, thank you for giving Barry Keoghan his first leading role. He’s fearless here, pulling off some depraved scenes. And I’m wondering, did you have to convince him he could pull off this leading role?
Absolutely not. I think he had been looking for something, and this felt totally right to him. He’s an exceptionally talented, gifted actor. I think he was absolutely ready, and I’m so, so glad he did it. I can’t imagine anyone else playing Oliver.
I can’t either. And part of the reason is the camera just seems to love watching him in one of every one of these creepy roles. So why do you think he excels at playing these hypnotically creepy characters?
He’s just one of those performers that come along who has a kind of charisma that is impossible to put your finger on. A great example is the super, super close-ups we use in this movie, there’s something that happens when, you know, Barry can be completely still, and yet there is so much happening. I’ve never known an actor who can do so much with silence. He’s really a pinter performer in that regard. He excels in the stillness and silent moments, and I like watching the rushes, watching the dailies of the movie, it’s just riveting, all of it.
You also mentioned the close-up shots, and I’m glad you did because I love how it’s shot in the 1:3 and how you use close-up shots, like during the scene where Barry is drinking the water (readers will know exactly what I mean when they see the movie). Was that always the intention, or were there other reasons for shooting the film that way?
It wasn’t, but when Linus Sandgren (the film’s cinematographer) and I went up to the house to do the location recce for the first time, what we immediately felt was that the house is so tall and square, and we had these visual references from Merchant Ivory and Peter Greenway movies, but we were also looking a lot at paintings that tended to be portraits. So, we were looking at Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Caravaggio for lighting and composition. The thing about movies like this in the gothic genre, but also movies about artifice and people playing roles, is that it needed to have that kind of presenio march feel, up to a point. It needed to be able to take that kind of formal composition. So 1:3 quickly became the ratio to which the film was best suited. The moment we decided to go down that route, every day we were so thrilled we did because it became more and more apparent that it would have been really difficult to have shot it any other way.
I read the inspiration for the wealthy family comes from your own privileged upbringing, but what is the inspiration for creating Oliver Quick?
This movie is, in many ways, a comedy of manners. It’s a satire of class, power, and wealth, but it could have been set in LA at an incredibly famous person’s house. It could have been set in the Hamptons. I think of it as it’s not just about the powerful, and Oliver feels to me to be in the same situation that all of us are in, which is one of perpetual watching, longing, and desiring. And I certainly do not feel immune to that as somebody who looks at things and people on the internet all the time. I’m very interested in my relationship with that experience. The tension between the things we want that will never love us back, want us back, or care about us is a very interesting one.
From a writing standpoint, what was the most challenging part of differentiating Felix as sympathetic and kinder from the rest of the family?
For writing, I always come from a place of truth. The fact is that none of the characters in this film think of themselves as bad. In fact, they all think of themselves as profoundly good people. That’s kind of the thing they have. If anything, they all kind of have a savior complex that they’re exercising by picking people up and dropping them whenever they please. As a filmmaker, it’s about you and the actor’s relationship with an audience. And the thing is that Felix actually does something quite callous in every scene. He’s actually not a particularly nice or good person, but it’s what Oliver and the audience are willing to overlook for the sake of beauty and charisma.
These are people who weaponize charm and beauty, and so we can’t be immune to that ourselves, which means they have to be nuanced and detailed and real, for the film to work at all. I don’t believe that many people are good, really. I think lots and lots of people think they’re good. I think all of us think we are good, but I don’t know how far it would stand up if we put ourselves under too much scrutiny. So what interests me is, where do we put our empathy and why?
That’s a great point and fascinating. Speaking of the film working, you have a gift for balancing twisted humor, shocking material, and scathing themes all with a sharp script. What’s your approach to getting that balance right?
It starts with a script, obviously, and I think of all of my films really as dark comedies.
I agree with that!
Thank you! So then it becomes a matter of finding the right collaborators and meeting people, making sure they also understand the darkly comic tone. That’s everywhere, whether you are talking about Livestrong bracelets with the costume department, or you’re talking about Carpe Diem tattoos and what’s the cheesiest tattoo that a person could have and you’d still love, or a bad fake tan with makeup. It’s every department you are saying, yes, we accept these people are beautiful, this place is beautiful, but where’s the point of interest? Where’s the surprise?
If we are about to meet Richard E. Grant, playing a wealthy, aristocratic figure, and the first time we see him, he is roaring and cackling with laughter at the film Superbad, you already have created an interesting dynamic and a sort of tension. That’s what we all are doing every day, saying, why is it that the people who do the worst things are the ones we love most? What’s the sound effect for this particular violent act that will make it both physically repellent and frightening and darkly funny? It’s every single department working together all the time.
There’s a tremendous use of karaoke and songs here. You have a great soundtrack overall. But I’m curious how the final scene with “Murder on the Dance Floor” came together and how Barry Keoghan learned to dance like that in the movie.
A combination of everything, but we had Polly Bennett, the most incredible choreographer, who came in to make sure that the dance had the perfect amount of spontaneity and precision. It was a tricky balance to pull off, and it took a lot of shooting and reworking to make it possible.
I could ask about so many scenes everyone has in this movie, but thank you for your time. I have been told time is up. I love Promising Young Woman. Saltburn is an awesome movie, too, and I look forward to whatever you do next.
Thank you very, very much!
Many thanks to Emerald Fennell for taking the time for this interview.
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com