The new film Saltburn, directed and produced by Emerald Fennell, is the twisted tale of a student named Oliver Quick, played by Irish actor Barry Keoghan, who visits a classmate's estate in the seaside town of Saltburn in North Yorkshire, England.
Fennell acted in The Crown series as Camilla Parker-Bowles and as Midge in the massively successful Barbie film. As a filmmaker, she has already garnered a number of trophies from her work over the years including winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the film Promising Young Woman.
She was also nominated for two Emmy Awards for showrunning season two of Killing Eve. While in Chicago, Fennell grabbed a Visionary Award trophy at the Chicago International Film Festival. The following day, she met to discuss this new project that is already winning awardsand will have definitely leave audiences talking.
Windy City Times: What inspired you to write Saltburn? Did you know people from the LGBTQ+ community similar to a few of these characters?
Emerald Fennell: I have imaginary friends and they live in imaginary worlds, just like many writers and creatives in general. I had been thinking about Saltburn for seven years, and the first thing was a boy saying that he wasn't in love with [Oliver]. When someone says that, people usually don't believe that person.
WCT: That's the first moment of the movie.
EF: Yes and it was about Oliver always. The more I thought about it, the more it became important in the story. If people look at the British country house gothic of Brideshead, The Go-Between and The Line of Beauty, they are inherently queer stories, but incredibly restrained.
What I was interested in was taking that genre and pulling the restraints off. I wanted to see what would happen when you let a person do what they need to do. I found out that when the place does not crush them then they can crush the place themselves.
It was always Oliver and Felix from the very beginning. Everyone else arrived piece by piece around them.
WCT: I was immediately hooked as a gay viewer by that line at the beginning so your mission was accomplished.
EF: That is the thing about desire, it just so happened that Oliver was a boy, and then it turns into a story about two young men. What is so fascinating about the object of desire is the way it makes us feel and the things it makes us do. There are limits of madness that it sends us to.
That is what this movie is about for me. The last few years of having the internetand COVID on top of thatwe are all in a state of observing, looking and needing. We are all voyeurs and engaged in things that make us feel badbut at the same time, we really want them. That wanting makes our love turn sour. We see that all the time when people who are obsessed about the internet are the angriest.
I really wanted to look at power, sex and class with Saltburn.
WCT: Speaking of sex Jacob Elordi as Felix Catton has a lot of appeal.
EF: He's a plain boy, short and not a looker at all…
WCT: He's short?
EF: No, I am kidding. He's 6'7" and probably the most beautiful man in the world! [laughs]
WCT: Had you seen the series Euphoria before casting him?
EF: No, I hadn't seen it, but I had met him. What I like to do is meet people and talk to them, because so much is about their particular viewpoint and the way I work is collaborative. No one has nice trailers or does makeup change there. They are all in a green room all day, whether they have one line or are the star of the movie. Everyone eats together, including the cast and crew.
I tell them that this is not an exercise in self-aggrandizing, and instead something we all do together. I want to see what people are like. Jacob is remarkably clever and funny. He's dry with his humor and also a keen observer. He was very honest, which is attractive to me as a filmmaker. He did the best audition ever.
WCT: Richard E. Grant plays Sir James and was in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's My Fair Lady so I loved interviewing him.
EF: He's the coolest person and a magical performer. He seems like a duffer in the film but descends into madness, which was exactly what I wanted.
WCT: Was there one scene that was difficult to film?
EF:Usually difficult scenes are hard to film, because they are relentless like the shepherd's pie scene, when the room goes red. For me, it can be 10 pages of dialogue and those sorts of things.
With this particular group of actors, especially with Barry Keoghan, the things you would normally expect to be difficult or hard were not. He's a very comfortable and physical performer. He's like me and likes to shoot and shoot with each scene.
WCT: The intimacy coordinator must have been an important aspect.
EF: Miriam Lucia was absolutely exceptional. It is crazy to me that this is a new thing. It seems like the most crucial thing in the world to do. Before that, I wouldn't have been able to make the performers feel authentic and comfortable.
People can change their minds at any point, and it is an exercise in trust always. It is interesting in this movie because the nude scenes are not about sex. They are about grief, love, joy or elation. The sex scenes are fully clothed and often not shot below the shoulder blades.
Although there is a lot of very intimate stuff in the movie it is not depicted in a traditional way.
WCT: It didn't seem graphic to me.
EF: Well, our imagination is extremely graphic, but what we are actually seeing is not at all.
WCT: What would you like audiences to take away from Saltburn?
EF: I want people to have a physical reaction. When they leave the theater I want their hearts to be racing. The number of people that hooked up after the premiere, just in my friendship group alone, made me think it would be a fun one for audiences! [laughs]
Honestly, I want people to talk about it and have loved it, or if they didn't love it then I want them to argue about it. It is about us and why we do the things we do. After listening to people talk about the transgressive moments in this movie, some will like it and some will not. I had to push boundaries and acknowledge that I was making something that was elusive to a certain degree.
WCT: I want people to see Saltburn without knowing anything about it.
EF: That is it. It is different with a communal audience, because people will feel it in the room when the thumbscrews start turning. It is truly exciting!
WCT: Final question, after writing the new stage version of Cinderella alongside Andrew Lloyd Webber, is there another musical you would like to revamp?
EF: I love musicals so much. My favorite musical right now is Annie, because that is what my kids are watching. I can't make a new one right now because my kids are so young and it all happens at nighttime. It's a practical consideration because I can't interrupt bath time.
I also like The Rocky Horror Picture Show because Frank-N-Furter was my first crush!
Saltburn smolders into theaters beginning on November 24, 2023.