Director's Chair: Emerald Fennell — <I>Saltburn</I>
Issue: January/February 2024

Director's Chair: Emerald Fennell — Saltburn

Writer/director Emerald Fennell has long established herself as a provocative, prolific and hugely talented multi-hyphenate in film, television and theatre. As an actress, her credits include memorable turns in such diverse films as Barbie, The Danish Girl, Pan and Anna Karenina, and she was Emmy nominated for her starring role in Netflix’s award-winning drama series, The Crown. She also served as the showrunner on Season 2 of Killing Eve, which garnered her two more Emmy nominations.

But it was her feature directorial and screenplay debut — Promising Young Woman — her feminist, timely take on the revenge genre, which she also produced, that turbo-charged her career. She was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won for Best Original Screenplay. The acclaimed hit also received a raft of other nominations and awards, including Golden Globe nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Director; six BAFTA nominations; and DGA, PGA and WGA nominations. In addition, Fennell won two Film Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay.

For her second film, Saltburn, Fennell has crafted a twisty tale of social power games, class privilege and excess, full of beauty, ugliness and bad behavior — but one that is also full of suspense-filled sleight-of-hand. Set circa 2005, the story revolves around working-class student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), who, while struggling to find his place at Oxford University, finds himself drawn into the world of the charming and aristocratic Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who invites him to Saltburn, his eccentric family’s sprawling estate, for the summer. Madness and murder ensue in a Gothic horror story that also embraces high comedy and wrenching emotion.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, I spoke with Fennell, whose eclectic credits include writing the contemporary Broadway musical Bad Cinderella with Andrew Lloyd Webber, and three novels, about making the film and her love of post.

How much pressure did you feel to follow up your hit debut, Promising Young Woman?

“Well, I was just really excited I was going to be allowed to make another film. It’s never a given, right? So Promising Young Woman gave me the opportunity to make this, and it was more thrilling than terrifying, though there’s always a certain amount of terror with everything you make.”

At the start of the film it seems to be the story of a young innocent, who’s sucked into this world where he’s totally out of his depth, but the truth is very different. Did you enjoy misleading the audience?

“That’s why it’s so much fun playing with genre. I don’t do any of the misleading, the genre does. The opening scenes tell you all you need to know about Oliver — that he’s a liar. But the power of the genre and the character of the outsider means that we ignore a lot of what we’re seeing. You don’t think of Felix as being the real prick he is, as he’s so beautiful.”

Tell us a bit about how you collaborated on finding the right look with cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who won the Oscar for his work on La La Land. 

“He’s just the best and so talented, and when we first met, we really connected on the vision for it and had a shared visual language. We both wanted to make something very expressionistic that could also work as effectively as a silent film as with one full of dialogue. We shot Super 35mm film in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which is the silent movie aspect ratio. A lot [of our discussions] were about how the scenes had to communicate the power dynamics and what kind of world we’re in emotionally. And on the shoot, we shared a monitor and sat right next to each other. It wasn’t the usual video village, where the DP’s off with the DIT. We streamlined all that.” 

The film is stuffed with lots of wild, fun scenes. How tough was the shoot?

(Laughs) “The truth is, to make it look like that is really hard work. It was about a 50-day shoot, and we had a lot of location work and night shoots. We shot in this one country house that had never been used [in a film] before, and did some exteriors, like the bridge scene at a nearby estate. So we shot all the exteriors and interiors at the same house. And then we also shot at Oxford and London. We built only one set, the bathroom, for the whole film, and that was built inside of a room. It’s very important to me that a shoot is a joyful, collaborative experience for everyone, especially when you’re making something in the Gothic tradition like this, that could go either way at any moment.”

Did you ever feel things were getting too wild and going over the top?

“You have to ignore all the paralyzing ideas we still have about subtlety or good taste. That stuff is not that useful — not to say you don’t pull back at times, but you want everyone to feel free to suggest things that could be a disaster. You need to operate on that edge for things to be really exciting and transcendent, I feel.”

Tell us about the post production. Where did you do it? 

“All the editing was in Soho, London, and then we did sound editorial at Cinphonic, ADR at Goldcrest, the score was done at Air Studios and the re-recording mix in Dolby Atmos was at Pinewood. I love the whole post process, especially the editing.” 
Your editor was two-time BAFTA nominee Victoria Boydell (Great Expectations). How did you work together?

“She’s just brilliant and has this great sense of humor that’s even darker than mine. She came on-set once, and as we shot on film, she saw all the rushes. We had that slight delay, which was really useful. [Film processing was done by Cinelab, dailies by Company 3]. I try to make every part of the filmmaking process — from writing to prep, shooting, editing and post — their own space. I really relied on Victoria if we had a continuity issue, or if she felt a story beat wasn’t working for whatever reason. I don’t like to watch all the dailies. I prefer to come into the edit with fresh eyes, so she does her assemblies as we go. For me, the editing process is so much about working with all the material, that it’s just not that useful for me to be constantly looking at the footage as we shoot.”

What were the main editing challenges?

“There were so many. Barry is a very spontaneous actor, which is so thrilling, but it sometimes makes continuity a bit tricky. And we had a lot of issues to do with tone, tension and release. How much pressure do you apply and how long do you keep it going? I like to apply it for too long usually before I let up, so it’s always a matter of finding that sweet spot and getting the pacing right. Early on, a lot of our discussions were about, what do we reveal when? You’re trying to make the film the most satisfying experience you can, without making it too easy. And you test it, and people want things laid out more, and there’s a lot of back and forth, but if it was up to me, I’d just end it without much resolution. For me, it works as a really dark comedy with all these other layers.”

What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? 

“It was the ‘Shepherd’s Pie’ lunch scene, which is divided into one half, with natural light, and the other, with this awful red glow when the curtains are closed. We couldn’t move things around as freely as you might want to, and it’s also this incredibly-tense, emotional scene with the whole family in it, and we had a huge amount of coverage to choose from, along with a huge number of differently-calibrated performances. So it was all about, what’s the most effective cut so it doesn’t drag or feel rushed? And how do we ensure you feel the full emotional horror of it, and the awful comedy and the surreal atmosphere? So we did a lot of micro-cutting, what Victoria calls ‘frame-fucking,’ and it’s those milliseconds that make all the difference in how a joke lands, or how an emotional beat works.”

Talk about the importance of music and sound to you. 

“It’s so important, and like the editing, it’s always down to a choice, such as, what’s more horrifying in a scene like the lunch — total silence, or the sounds of life going on normally? So, we had layer upon layer of sound design, with birds singing in the distance, the sound of cutlery and so on. We had a brilliant sound team, with Nina Rice, our set sound mixer, and Adam Armitage, our sound designer, and Nina Hartstone, our post supervising sound editor. The two Ninas are scrupulous when it comes to dialogue, which is a big thing for me. I like a lot of breath and mouth sounds, the sense of intimacy when you’re really close to a person. Then, when it comes to sound design, I’m actually quite minimal. For someone whose tastes aren’t exactly subtle, I don’t like a lot of design. I like it real and I prefer to strip back stuff, and save it for big moments, like the maze scenes, where it really intensifies the experience. And we did a lot of very detailed work, like getting the exact sound of Oliver’s squeaky brogues. And pop music is also so important to me in establishing so much about the time and the characters, and it helped that a lot of the bands we used are forever linked with that era. As for my composer, Anthony Willis, he also scored my first film, and he’s brilliant at coming up with great film themes, which have fallen out of fashion a bit, but I think they’re so effective, especially when you’re working on so many levels tonally. It’s very grounding.”

All period films need VFX, and there are quite a few. Who did them and what was entailed?

“I like doing as much in-camera as possible, and even the opening credits were all hand-painted, stop-motion animation. I don’t like working with VFX, which is not to say that they’re not absolutely brilliant. We used Union, and VFX supervisor Dillan Nicholls and his team did very discreet, invisible work in scenes like the maze, where we mixed a real maze with VFX for the overhead drone shot and digi-doubles for the actors. Then there’s all the usual replacement work and clean up.”

What about the DI? Who was the colorist and how closely did you work with them and the DP?

“The colorist was Matt Wallach at Company 3 here in LA, and he does really beautiful finishing work, but it was fairly minimal and mainly just preserving and tweaking what we got in-camera on the day. I don’t like a film to look artificially graded, and the goal was to make something very heightened look very real, and I’m so happy with the way it looks and turned out.”