'Promising Young Woman' Director Emerald Fennell on Creating a Safe Space on Set (Video)

“There was one take, which luckily because of the safety mechanisms we have in place was fine, but it did nearly go a little bit wrong,” Fennell says

Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut “Promising Young Woman” delves into topics of sexual assault, revenge and violence, and for that reason, it was crucial for the filmmaker to create a safe environment on set.

“It was very important to me to keep the atmosphere on set light because, you know, we were asking actors to come in for half a day to really expose difficult stuff,” Fennell told TheWrap’s editor in chief, Sharon Waxman, during TheWrap’s Award Screening Series. “I wanted them to feel that they were safe, that they weren’t going to be caught out, that it was going to be a kind of collaborative and nurturing and happy workplace.”

Without giving away any spoilers, Fennell recalled shooting the climactic scene of the film, in which Carey Mulligan’s character exacts her revenge. The director said she always knew that particular scene was going to be “horrific” to shoot, and it did, in fact, almost go horribly wrong.

“When it came to that scene, it was always going to be horrific because — again, very difficult to talk about without spoilers, but it’s shot in real time in one take,” she said. “So it made it very dangerous because the actors didn’t use stunt doubles, even though it was very, very choreographed. It was very dangerous. There was one take, which luckily because of the safety mechanisms we have in place, was fine, but it did nearly go a little bit wrong, which was frightening.”

In the film, Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman whose bright future as a medical student gets derailed by the same evil that has afflicted so many women: sexual abuse. Scarred by her best friend’s tragic experience, she now gets her vengeance by pretending to be drunk at clubs and baiting unscrupulous men into “helping” her — though her full plans are not what they initially seem.

“There’s a reason women don’t resort to violence and it’s because they don’t win,” Fennell said. “And so the fact that she’d gotten to the place where it meant she had lost control of her meticulousness, that her grief had kind of overcome her.”

For Fennell, the idea for the film stemmed from conversations she’d had with friends about their own brushes with sexual abuse. In fact, she said, she doesn’t know a single woman who hasn’t had an uncomfortable experience, she said.

“It was just growing up in a world where it was just a joke — women’s bodies and having access to them and seeing them and touching them, it was part of the culture of movies and TV shows. It was part of the banter culture of school and of university and of being a young woman, that it was all kind of fair game,” she said. “There’s something profoundly disturbing about how completely endemic this idea is that if you got drunk at a party, whatever happened was kind of your problem, basically.”

Six or seven years ago, Fennell was at a dinner party with men and women she’d known as a teenager, and one of the women had an “achy experience” on the train getting to the party.

“It was, I suppose, what you would [classify] as everyday sexism. It was just that slightly uncomfortable thing,” the director recalled. “And that brought in the kind of avalanche of stories that we all have and had. The stories themselves, sadly, weren’t remarkable because I think it’s something that we’re so used to, horribly. But what was quite remarkable to me was how the man in the room was so shocked by it. It kind of made me feel that they had, to some extent, been… not protected from it, but they just were not aware of it. There was the profound feeling that, they were like, ‘Well, we thought everything was fine.’”

Fennell is taking men’s behaviors to task with her film, which secured five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

“This is as common as it’s ever been,” Fennell said. “And so I suppose the thing that was very disturbing to me, and that was important about making this film, was touching on what happens when as a society, we just kind of agree that something is fine and it’s a gray area and it’s icky, not great. The behavior of the men in this film is behavior that happens in every nightclub, at every party, all over the world. We’re not talking about villains, snatching people off the streets, but talking about handsome men who you like and who know that there’s a kind of loophole that they’re willing to exploit.”

Watch the full interview above.

Every Female Director Nominated for an Oscar, From Lina Wertmuller to Chloé Zhao (Photos)

  • The Academy has only nominated seven women in the Best Director category in its storied history. Here they are.

  • Lina Wertmuller, “Seven Beauties” (1976)  •  The first woman ever nominated in the category was this Italian director for a drama about an Italian solider who deserted the army during WWII and is sent a German prison camp. She lost to John G. Avildsen for “Rocky.”

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  • Jane Campion, “The Piano” (1993)  •  The Australian director won an Oscar for her original screenplay for the period drama but lost the directing prize to Steven Spielberg for “Schindler’s List.”

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  • Sofia Coppola, “Lost in Translation” (2003)  •  The daughter of Oscar-winning “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola picked up her first nomination for the quiet Japan-set character study, but lost to Peter Jackson for “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.”

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  • Kathryn Bigelow, “The Hurt Locker” (2009)  •  Bigelow not only scored a nomination, but managed to defeat her ex-husband James Cameron, whose “Avatar” scored Best Picture.

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  • Greta Gerwig, “Lady Bird” (2017)  •  The indie actress wrote and directed this feature, her first as solo director, based on her upbringing in Pasadena, Calif. But Guillermo del Toro took the prize for “The Shape of Water.”

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  • Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” (2020) • The Chinese-born actress earned a nomination for her third feature film, which she also wrote.

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  • Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman” (2020) • The London-born actress turned writer-director scored a nomination for her debut feature, starring Carey Mulligan.

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Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell join an all-too select list of women recognized by the Academy

The Academy has only nominated seven women in the Best Director category in its storied history. Here they are.

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