The women in Emerald Fennell’s projects have one thing in common: vengeance. The London-based writer, director, and author, who first gained recognition as an actor on PBS’s Call the Midwife (and recently played Camilla Parker Bowles on Netflix’s The Crown), has served as the showrunner and head writer for the second season of Killing Eve, and will soon be making her feature directing debut with Promising Young Woman. The genre-busting thriller, starring Carey Mulligan as a medical school dropout on a quest to make people pay for a past crime, is deeply subversive, which makes Fennell’s next project all the more intriguing: She and Andrew Lloyd Webber are in the process of reimagining Cinderella for the London stage.
Fast Company: What was your inspiration for Promising Young Woman, which deals with the aftermath of a sexual assault on a campus? Were you responding to the conversation about #MeToo, or something more?
Emerald Fennell: A few years ago, there were a lot of revenge movies coming out with women protagonists I didn’t recognize. I thought that if a woman were to take revenge, it probably wouldn’t be what we’re used to seeing—which is hot pants and a machete—because I think women aren’t violent very often. Our culture has spent forever looking at frightening men, [so] frightening women are written as male characters with boobs. I thought the genre needed subverting. . . . I thought about films like The Virgin Suicides, To Die For, and American Psycho, up to a point. I was interested in making a subverted, nasty, funny fairy tale. I was thinking of things that are super feminine but also wild.
I was [also] thinking about gray areas, where the villains are people we like. The casting was important, and the writing needed to make the audience comfortable. I wanted to feature people we respected, because when these things happen in real life, it’s so much more complicated than people like to say it is. I wanted to look at the empathy gap between men and women, and women and women. This film is not just about an incident [of sexual assault], but how people paid after the incident. I wanted to make us reexamine the way we treat each other.
FC: The film has a particularly bright aesthetic—pink walls and colorful clothing—despite its dark theme. What did you want to achieve with this contrast?
EF: There’s this idea that if things are difficult or horrible, they look horrible. That’s not true. Often, beautiful or beguiling things are horrible. Everything I’m interested in has that tension between the outside and inside. When I was pitching it [to prospective backers, actors, and agents], I sent in a comprehensive mood board and playlist. I would say, “You’re going to think that this is set in a gray world where it’s raining and the protagonist is wearing a stained sweater looking out the window, but that’s not the case.” I don’t think that’s how women operate. . . . My imaginary world is as real to me as the real world. All of us, men and women, we have these dual lives, these real lives and then these fantasy lives that we’re living. Often hundreds of them. And I guess that maybe my imaginary world just tends to be quite colorful and full of bodies.
FC: How do women operate?
EF: The women I’m acquainted with tend to dress up when they feel down. I liked the idea of writing about someone hiding in plain sight, about how we use makeup and clothes and hair to disguise ourselves. Women in general, if you like Britney Spears, if you like clothes, if you like makeup, people make assumptions about you, and you tend to be dismissed as not serious. I’m interested in why things that young women often love are used like a gag, when I think they are quite potent. There isn’t a more intriguing part of society than teenage girls. If they mobilized, which thank god they are now, they could do anything. [They have] this power, and our society designed itself to undermine it.
FC: The film includes familiar actors, such as Adam Brody from The O.C., Max Greenfield and Chris Lowell from Veronica Mars, Jennifer Coolidge, Molly Shannon, and Bo Burnham. The soundtrack features pop hits from the mid-2000s. What role does cultural nostalgia play?
EF: I was looking to cast people whom [younger audiences will] inherently feel comfortable with. It’s much more uncomfortable if someone [in the movie] is good-looking and said to be nice because when people [in the film accuse that character of something] they are less likely to be believed. We slowed the instrumental version of Britney Spears’s “Toxic” down so that it’s painful to hear. You could see it in the audience reaction at Sundance. People suddenly realized what [the song was] at different moments, which is sort of the experience of the movie that I wanted in all parts: for things to dawn on people at different times.
FC: You won an Emmy last year for your work on Killing Eve‘s second season—you took over as showrunner from Phoebe Waller-Bridge. What was that like?
EF: I had written an episode, and they asked me [to be showrunner] late in the game. Thank god it was incremental, so I didn’t have a big moment of panic. Phoebe and Killing Eve author Luke Jennings built the doll’s house with all the characters, and then I got to come in and excavate the basement and put scary people in there and move people to different rooms. So much of the spy genre is about resetting [between action sequences] quickly, and I thought it would actually be interesting to see the immediate aftermath of the events at the end of the first season. Horror is a genre I leaned into—I thought of the season as a house full of dolls being killed by a needle through the eye.
FC: You’re working with Andrew Lloyd Webber to develop your first musical, a retelling of Cinderella. What made you want to sign on, and how did you approach the project?
EF: The first thing I did was make Cinderella the engine of the story, because as it is, she is just a character that things happen to. [The musical] is based in a fairy-tale world, and I wanted to look at what happens psychologically when you’re living in it. All of us are living in a fairy tale of our own invention in a way. We’re all projecting a certain life. What happens if we put a normal, cool, modern girl in that situation? What does it mean to live in a perfect stupid dream town where everyone sings? What happens when you’re a prince and you’re simply told on a whim by your mother to go get married tomorrow? Working with Andrew is great because he’s got an orchestra in his head and remembers every piece of music he’s ever thought of. I wanted to make something that whole families could come and watch, that would be romantic and funny.
FC: Is there a message that you hope young girls will take from the production?
EF: It’s okay to want to fall in love. It’s okay to wear an enormous satin ball gown, as long as you’re making your own decisions. [Growing up], I had every bit of plastic merch I could get my hands on. Every Barbie. I still get heart palpitations. I’m like, “I need it!” To me, you can have things that look a certain way or make you feel romantic and exciting and whimsical as long as you’re not just a passive doll. The Cinderella we’ve made is asking why it’s so good to change yourself, and if it’s good to change yourself. Because it’s such an old fairy tale, Disney is not involved at all . . . I don’t know how well our Cinderella would go down [with them].
Emerald Fennell is scarily good at evoking complicated women.
The Crown: Fennell appeared in the third season of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed Netflix drama as Prince Charles’s self-possessed, miniskirt-wearing girlfriend Camilla Shand (later, Parker Bowles). She is set to return for season 4.
Killing Eve: Taking the reins from her friend (and the BBC America series’ creator) Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fennell was the head writer and show-runner for the assassin drama’s second season. She received an Emmy nomination last year for her work.
Promising Young Woman: Fennell’s directorial debut, an ice-cold revenge thriller that she also wrote, features Carey Mulligan as a medical school dropout whose future is derailed by an event in her past. The upcoming film will be distributed by Focus Features.
Shiverton Hall and The Creeper: Fennell wrote these two YA novels, published in 2012 and 2014, respectively, which follow the misadventures of a group of friends attending a haunted boarding school.
Monsters: Her 2016 adult novel was about two disturbed children obsessed with a serial killer in their seaside vacation town.
Cinderella: Working alongside Cats and The Phantom of the Opera composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, Fennell is reimagining the fairy-tale icon—without Disney’s involvement—for a musical that will open in the fall on London’s West End.