Oscar-winning filmmaker Emerald
The man sitting next to me at the Chicago Film Festival can only have seen about a quarter of the film. For the rest of the two hours, his hands were covering his eyes – and it wasn’t hard to see why. Having scored a notable hit with her directorial debut Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan – for which she won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar – Emerald Fennell has upped the ante with her latest offering. For Saltburn is a film sure to provoke controversy.
Set in 2006, it tells the tale of glamorous, effortlessly entitled Felix Catton, who takes fellow Oxford undergraduate, the provincial Oliver Quick, under his gilded wing before inviting him for a never-to-be-forgotten summer at his family’s sprawling estate, the aforementioned Saltburn (in reality, the Grade l listed Drayton House in Northamptonshire).
So far, so Brideshead Revisited, with a liberal sprinkling of The Go-Between. But Evelyn Waugh and L P Hartley, as well as Patricia Highsmith, whose Talented Mr Ripley the new film also echoes, were models of rectitude compared with the fevered imagination of Emerald.
“I wanted to make a Gothic movie,” she says. “I’ve always been obsessed with Dracula and dark doings in an English country house that nobody ever recovers from. I wanted to make an Agatha Christie murder mystery shot through with sex. So… all of that went into the cauldron to produce this utterly irrational, sort of vampire movie.”
You can say that again. There are three scenes in particular that are simply impossible to describe in a family newspaper.
Suffice to say that Oliver, brilliantly played by BAFTA-award-winning Barry Keoghan of The Banshees of Inisherin fame, slowly insinuates himself into the affections of the Catton family while indulging in some pretty eye-popping behaviour.
And all this from the pen of the actress who played that nice Patsy Mount in Call the Midwife and a young Camilla Shand (as she then was) in The Crown.
Then again it was Emerald who took up the writing baton from Phoebe Waller-Bridge for the second BBC series of the distinctly kinky Killing Eve as well as collaborating with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the Gothic – that word again – retelling of Cinderella.
And yet, encounter Fennell in the flesh and she couldn’t be jollier: a sort of uber-glamorous captain of hockey complete with cut-glass accent and near-permanent wraparound smile.
She certainly has the credentials to create a world peopled by the posh and privileged. The elder daughter of society jeweller Theo Fennell and his novel-writing wife, Louise, her younger sister, Coco, is a successful fashion designer. Educated at Marlborough College (the Princess of Wales’s alma mater). Fennell, 38, was born sucking the proverbial silver spoon.
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“I think one of the main things my parents did for my sister and me was that they never banned television,” she explains. “We were taught to use our imaginations in any way we could, even if the stories we were exposed to – via TV and reading – were absolutely not age-appropriate.
“If I believed there was a ghost in my bedroom at night, that wasn’t a bad thing. That was evidence of a vivid imagination.” So it wasn’t perhaps too surprising that the first two books she wrote – Shiverton Hall in 2013 and its sequel, The Creeper, a year later – were horror stories specifically aimed at young adults, as she explained.
“It’s no coincidence that the books we read when we’re young are filled with villains: the witch in the barley-twist and liquorice house; the piper who lures children to their doom; the poison apple and so on.”
Her first adult book, Monsters, published in 2015, featured a 12-year-old orphan girl who becomes unhealthily fascinated by a series of murders in a deceptively idyllic Cornish village. ”There were no ghosts or vampires in that one,” says Fennell cheerily. “Only human monsters.”
But for all that, you don’t enjoy an apparently seamless run of success unless you possess a combination of talent and determination.
Emerals played nurse Patsy Mount in Call the Midwife in 2013-17
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And Fennell seems to have both, in spades, as recognised last month by The Chicago International Film Festival where she picked up a Visionary Award for Saltburn and its stellar cast. Fennell always wanted Barry Keoghan to play Oliver, something of a cypher along the lines of Matt Damon as Tom Ripley in the film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 psychological thriller.
“He has just the right mix of being enigmatic but relatable, sexy but vulnerable,” she says. “Oliver needed to have that degree of magnetism for us to really understand how it is he finds himself in a place like Saltburn.”
Says Barry: “The Cattons respond to Oliver with a kind of romantic image of the orphan child. He then leans into that and gives them exactly what they want. But perhaps he is also taking from them at the same time.” Indeed.
Jacob Elordi, soon to be seen as Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s film, Priscilla, plays the quintessentially English aristocrat, Felix, although, in reality, he’s Australian.
“Felix is this beautiful, charmed boy,” says Jacob, “who has had every form of genetic and financial luck you can have in life. He’s incredibly nice because he’s never met any form of resistance.”
Easygoing as he is, Felix has a bit of a Svengali complex when it comes to Oliver, gratified to be the benevolent helping hand. “Oliver so wants to be in with his crowd and Felix sees someone he can nurse like a broken bird.
“There’s something in the Catton family where, because they have so much more than they need, they feel a desire to take on other human beings to look after. It’s an instinct that can be very complicated.
“What’s so brilliant about Emerald’s script is the constant ambiguity between good and evil.”
Rosamund Pike, in barnstorming form, plays Felix’s mother, Elspeth, and wife to Richard E Grant’s Sir James, going quietly batty in the background.
Says Fennell: “Rosamund is a dry, comic genius. Elspeth is a former model slash socialite, constantly implying that Pulp’s ‘Common People’ was written about her. She’s one of those people who can be both incredibly warm and ice cold, a person we all want desperately to be liked by but who will never truly like us.
Emerald behind the scenes on Saltburn with Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi
“She’s an amalgamation of all the women I’ve known with the ability to take people under their wing and then boot them out of the window once they get bored.” Rosamund knew she’d have fun with Elspeth.
“She’s so outrageous, so desperate to be entertaining,” she smiles. “The vanity of the woman! She believes she was the muse to the whole Brit Pop scene in the 1990s, the kind of person who, in real life, frightens me. I identify more with how Oliver feels at Saltburn.”
Oliver finds himself especially drawn into the orbit of Felix’s sister, Venetia, played by Irish actress Alison Oliver, best known for her starring role in the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends.
“Venetia is another lost soul,” says Fennell, “an Alpha Queen Bee when you first see her but, at the root of it, actually quite lonely. She’s very aware she’s not the golden child that Felix is.”
So what of Fennell herself? She’ll talk into the night about film – or any other – passion project. But try to get anything out of her about her private life and she does a pretty convincing impression of a Trappist monk.
She’s married to American film and advertising director Chris Vernon, the father of her two children, the first of whom, a son, was born in May 2019, weeks after she picked up her Oscar.
A second child, rumoured to be another boy, arrived two years later. Try and discover their names and you’re met with a blank stare. What she will talk about is being seven months’ pregnant while directing Promising Young Woman for its helter-skelter 23-day shoot.
“I was heavily pregnant and I think that really helped because, in general, I care deeply, pathetically what people think about me,” she says.
“I just chose the worst possible career in every way for that personality trait. The idea of people not liking me and thinking I’m difficult is just dreadful to me.
Rosamnd Pike is among the stellar cast of Saltburn
“But luckily, when you’re carting around a massive baby and you’re about to give birth, you don’t have the time to be anxious. I was like a literal ticking time bomb, which I think gave me this weird power for myself.
“Initially, I was terrified the pregnancy would stop everything in its tracks. But women do much harder things than direct films when they’re seven months’ pregnant. It was completely possible and completely fine. I think women can do whatever they want.”
Well, this one certainly can.
- Saltburn is released in UK cinemas on November 17