'Saltburn' Director Emerald Fennell Goes from Promising Young Director to Uncompromising Auteur

"All people for me are interesting, because there's this kind of inherent tension in everyone," says the director of her tendency to sympathize with the devil

Photo courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios

BY Rachel HoPublished Nov 21, 2023

"You can't bullshit her," Barry Keoghan says over Zoom from a Saltburn-esque looking set in Los Angeles. 

"She's all-knowing," agrees Jacob Elordi, seated comfortably next to Keoghan. "[She's] such a specific filmmaker. She knows exactly what she wants to do."

Among her actors, Emerald Fennell has gained a level of trust and respect that would rival any seasoned filmmaker. In a short period of time, the writer-director has developed a reputation for leading her films with a no-nonsense approach. "One of the things about working with Emerald, she just says out loud things that probably people have as fleeting thoughts that they would never dare utter," Rosamund Pike says with admiration from London. "She just sort of utters them all."

Fennell made her directorial debut in 2020 with the critically acclaimed Promising Young Woman, which earned a Best Picture nomination from the Academy and win for Best Original Screenplay. Lauded for its refreshing take on a topical issue, Fennell's script spoke volumes about men who viewed themselves as allies rather than misogynists.

"What are people, who think they're good, in denial about themselves?" Emerald Fennell rhetorically ponders. "What are good people hiding?"

These are the same questions she explores in her sophomore effort, the psychosexual thriller Saltburn — this time examining issues through a lens where the greys are a lot greyer.

In the film, Elordi plays Felix Catton, a well-to-do university student at Oxford with a winning smile and charm that has everyone falling to his feet. He's a supremely likeable young man who acts like he will inherit the world, but in the nicest way possible — if ever that was possible. "I made sure in every single scene, [Felix] does something shitty," Fennell tells Exclaim! "He's either capricious, spoiled or snobbish. He's misogynistic, casually racist. He's profoundly flawed, but he's also so fucking beautiful and so nice. Given his upbringing, he's better than we imagined him to be, and therefore, we will forgive him anything."

At Oxford, Keoghan's Oliver Quick almost immediately takes notice and interjects himself into Felix's orbit. After becoming friends over the school year, Oliver confides in Felix that his summer plans do not include returning home, citing a less-than-desirable home life. Taking pity, or maybe intrigued by a situation so far from his own, Felix invites Oliver to join him at the Catton summer estate in Saltburn. 

During his stay, Oliver ingratiates himself into Felix's family, including his parents Sir James and Elspeth Catton (Richard E. Grant and Pike, respectively), sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), and cousin Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe). While events unfold that alter the course of Catton history forever, the most compelling aspect of Saltburn is the sociological study of its characters — not only the way in which society lets the Felixes of the world unapologetically prosper, but also in how the Olivers of the world survive.

"All people for me are interesting, because there's this kind of inherent tension in everyone," explains Fennell. "[It's] this nagging feeling: Am I a good person? Do people think I'm a good person? What's wonderful about Oliver is he's not at all preoccupied with being good. He's preoccupied with being seen — having power."

Just as in Promising Young Woman, Fennell takes an almost academic interest in finding sympathy with the devil in Saltburn. It's an idea that she's given a lot of thought to, and one that has perhaps been buoyed by her own private-school-to-Oxford pedigree. "I started with the quite firm belief that we are all devils to some degree," she shares. "That we're all living with some deep shame, some trouble or something that we don't want to talk about. What are the things that we reject about ourselves to make ourselves more interesting?"

"We all do have a sort of devilish instinct in us," Pike agrees. "We're all probably more shallow and worthless and bored and less enlightened than we'd like to think."

Throughout Saltburn, we witness this devilishness in various forms: in the casual cruelty from Elspeth towards members of her family ("emotionally anorexic" is how Pike describes the Catton matriarch), or the revelation that Felix invites a new friend to the manor every summer — entertaining the pity party until boredom sets in. But where Felix's matter-of-fact heartlessness manifests itself most readily is in his treatment of women, "eeny, meeny, miny, moe"-ing his bedtime companions at a party, and informing the lucky lady her time has arrived with a quick spank to the bottom. 

"The change between Felix when he's interacting warmly with Oliver to the way that he looks at a girl is so chilling and so familiar. But all of these things, we sort of just let them pass," Fennell says. "That's the sympathy with the devil. To what extent are we as an audience complicit? What will we forgive for beauty?"

Elordi observes, "Emerald is amazing at stepping back from conventions and what people say about things and just seeing everyone as filthy and messed up and tricky. And that was her emphasis. She has the ability to go completely against the flow and step outside of things and see it from this totally unique, devilish perspective. She's very, very cunning. She's unreal."

Fennell infuses this perspective into every corner of Saltburn's many rooms and winding hedge maze. There's a lot to digest in the film — the morality of Felix, the motivations of Oliver, our expectations as sideline observers, the repression of the elite, our hedonistic desires — but, ultimately, Saltburn is a showcase for a director and writer in control of her craft. 

"Every single thing that was said [in Saltburn], it came from Emerald and every choice came from Emerald. And that really shows that you're in good hands of a true filmmaker," remarks Keoghan. 

A filmmaker whose upper-class upbringing has undoubtedly shaped her outward disposition, from the way she speaks to the way she carries herself (noticeable even in a Zoom interview), Fennell is a well-manicured and proper woman who carries a dark penchant for seeing — and questioning — the pessimism and cynicism of the world. It's what makes her such a fascinating filmmaker: that desire and ability to take her innermost thoughts, however sinister, and insert them into artistic exploration.

Elordi grins, "Emerald's whole personality is sort of sympathy for the devil. But that's just kind of how beautifully fucked up she is."

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