“This could easily have been set in Hollywood,” Emerald Fennell said of her new film Saltburn, during a post-screening Q&A at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles on Tuesday night.
The actual setting is, in fact, a long way from Hollywood. Fennell’s sophomore follow-up to her Oscar Best Picture-nominated, Best Screenplay-winner Promising Young Woman, Saltburn follows Oliver (Barry Keoghan), an Oxford University student who befriends Felix (Jacob Elordi), an aristocratic, manor-born adonis.
Plunged into the eccentric world of the über-posh British upper classes on a visit to Felix’s family estate, Oliver is both awkward outsider and furtive observer. We meet Felix’s parents (Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant), his ascerbic cousin (Archie Madekwe), and wayward sister (Alison Oliver). Fennell also reunites with her Promising Young Woman star Carey Mulligan for an all-too-short stint as an unhinged houseguest.
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Fennell’s Hollywood comparison, she said, is that “Oliver suffers from something that I think that we all suffer from to some degree. But in this town, maybe more than ever, which is wanting to be something, wanting to be someone.”
Oliver has, “worked his whole life to get to this place, to get to Oxford, this place that he’s fantasized about that he thinks will unlock this door.” But when he arrives at university, he still cannot fit in, with his blazer and tie and his official college scarf, amid a crowd of artfully-louche posh kids. “All of the stuff he thought that was worthwhile, it’s all a trick.”
With the action set in the aughts, the wardrobe of that British privileged youth was key, Fennell told moderator Karyn Kusama. When costume designer Sophie Canale zeroed in on the need for Elordi’s character to be wearing two polo shirts at the same time, as per the style of the era, Fennell said her reaction was, “F***! You’ve got to get on this, that’s it. It’s the bad extensions; it’s the too-many accessories.”
For Fennell the film is really “a vampire film”, in that it’s about an outsider sucking the marrow from the life he envies. Fennell said she and DP Linus Sandgren had discussed how the vampiric factor “works both ways” too, with Oliver and with Felix’s super-privileged family.
She also cited Caravaggio’s work as a visual reference, adding, “When you are making something very stylized, when you are making something which is about the fetishization of beauty, you want it to be beautiful.”
But Fennell politely shied away from Kusama’s compliments on her script, saying she couldn’t reference writing at all, given the current strike.
“But also, WGA strong,” Fennell said, “I hope we kick their f***ing asses.”
Saltburn is in U.S. theaters from November 24th.
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