It started with a drunk girl. The writer-director Emerald Fennell could picture her lying in a bed as a man began to strip off her clothes. "What are you doing?" she would slur, then again as he moved to remove her underwear. "What are you doing?" And then she would sit up, suddenly stone-cold sober, and ask: "What are you doing?"
"That last 'What are you doing?' really is the thing that kicked off the whole movie," Fennell says.
That germ became her feature debut, Promising Young Woman, about Cassandra -- Cassie -- a med school dropout living with her parents and whiling away her day working as a barista at an especially Instagrammable coffee shop. Lest she be mistaken for one more millennial retreating home when faced with the cold, cruel real world, Cassie is specifically reeling from the coldness and cruelness her best friend faced after reporting something very, very bad that happened to her.
"I had been wanting to write a revenge movie, a road movie -- like a Western, almost -- with a very real woman at the center of it," Fennell explains. She imagined additional scenes in which Cassie would enact her brand of retribution, until it began to feel like Cassie had taken control. "Cassie sort of starts to make her own decisions. Like, ventriloquists say they don't know what their dolls are going to say, and I feel like that, usually."
Moonlighting as a sort of vigilante, Cassie smears her makeup and stumbles around a club until she lures some supposed good guy into her snare. The type of guy who could never conceive of himself a sexual predator. Under the guise of chivalry, they all take her home and inevitably try to take advantage of the situation to have sex with her. And then the shock of sobriety and the question: What are you doing? Cassie keeps a running tally of her conquests.
Promising Young Woman is a film that explores the blurry space where alcohol meets consent, which is, in fact, unclear only to the men willing to abuse it. It's about guilt and complicity and the systems and culture that prop these men up and let them believe they really are good guys. It's of the times, but it would be reductive to think of it as a message movie born of the #MeToo Movement. There are no easy answers to be found here.
It's a film one might assume Hollywood -- or Hollywood as we used to know it, perhaps -- would be scared to make. Fennell (an actress-turned-writer and director who showran season 2 of Killing Eve and played Camilla Parker Bowles on the most recent season of The Crown) expected as much, so she pitched only her opening sequence and gauged the response.
"There was one guy who went, 'Oh, great, so she's a psycho!' And I was like, 'Hm, I like you very much, but no, absolutely, we will not be making this film together,'" Fennell remembers. "Then one guy -- actually, I was sort of amazed by his candor -- he kind of sat and stared at the wall for a while, and I said, 'Is everything OK?' And he said, 'I'm just going through all the dates I've been on.'" She chuckles. "I was like, 'OK, well, I'll just leave you to it...' He looked fairly unsettled."
Fennell, meanwhile, was unwilling to compromise her vision, something she made explicitly clear to any potential bedfellows in filmmaking. "If anyone wanted to change things about it, then it was very much like, 'Thank you, but we won't do it.'" (Ultimately, she set the film up with Margot Robbie's LuckyChap Entertainment.) Her conviction further crystalized when she found her leading lady.
Carey Mulligan was the rare party to receive Fennell's screenplay in full -- with instructions to just read it -- and recalls being "completely blown away." The role felt like a risk, a character that would call upon every facet of herself. For Fennell, casting Mulligan was part of a larger design to play against audiences' expectations at every turn.
The film itself is bathed in pastels, a sugary shell of hyperfemininity expected of female-fronted, female-helmed pictures, featuring needle drops from artists like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. The incendiary fury at its heart is less expected, yet there they are, perfectly coexisting. Fennell flushed out her supporting cast largely with comedians playing against type: Bo Burnham as the cool romantic lead, Jennifer Coolidge as Cassie's meek, fussing mother, Connie Britton as a rape denier and Adam Brody as one of the "nice guys" who take Cassie home. (Watch an exclusive featurette about the cast above.)
"This movie is about normal people and a society that's normalized things that are really, really awful and troubling and traumatic," Fennell says. "People like Adam Brody -- who a lot of us have grown up [with] and had a huge crush on -- it's important that when actors bring that stuff in, it makes it more troubling. It makes it more difficult. It's designed to mirror the feeling that I think everyone gets when they hear that somebody they love has done something bad."
At the center of it all is Mulligan, an Oscar-nominated actress better known for period dramas than genre thrillers. Fennell cast her knowing she could play the many different sides of Cassie but even she was unprepared for everything Mulligan brought to the role. "There's something very playful about the way that she enacts her revenge," Fennell says. "Part of what's so malicious about it is it's filled with this delight."
"I took so much pleasure in smashing up that car. Like, a huge amount of please," Mulligan grins, referring to a sequence in which Cassie wields a crowbar in a moment of blinding road rage. "And then I questioned why that was so much fun. I wish we had more cars that I could have destroyed, but we only had, like, three sets of wing mirrors and two windscreens."
Promising Young Woman opens on Christmas Day -- 'tis the season for an audacious, twisted, darkly comedic rape-revenge film -- with a New Year's awards campaign to follow. Mulligan's performance has been hailed as a career-best, launching her as an early front-runner for Best Actress. (She recently won at the L.A. Critics Awards.) That's the unforeseen cherry on top, though.
"I've definitely enjoyed and had really good times on all the films I've ever done, but on this, I was in hysterics basically every day," Mulligan says, proving even the experience of shooting a film like this was not what you might expect. "I thought, 'What have I been doing, doing all these very heavy, dramatic films for so long, when I could have just been having a laugh?'"