Oscar-winning filmmaker Emerald
The guy sitting next to me at the Chicago Film Festival can only see about a quarter of the movie. For the rest of the two hours, his hands were covering his eyes – and it wasn’t hard to see why. After scoring a major hit with her directorial debut Promising Young Woman, with Carey Mulligan – for which she won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay – Emerald Fennell has hit the nail on the head with her latest offering. For Saltburn it is a film sure to provoke controversy.
Set in 2006, it tells the glamorous, easy-going story of Felix Catton, who takes his Oxford undergraduate, the provincial Oliver Quick, under his wing of gold before inviting him to an unforgettable summer at his family’s sprawling estate, the aforementioned Saltburn ( actually, Grade l listed Drayton House in Northamptonshire).
So far, so Brideshead Revisited, with a liberal sprinkling of The Go-Between. But Evelyn Waugh and LP Hartley, as well as Patricia Highsmith, who also echoes the talented Mr Ripley in the new film, were models of justice compared to Emerald’s feverish imagination.
“I wanted to make a Gothic film,” she says. “I’ve always been obsessed with Dracula and dark things in an English country house from which no one comes back. I wanted to do an Agatha Christie murder mystery through sex. So… all of that went into the boiler to produce this kind of completely irrational vampire movie.”
You can say that again. There are three scenes in particular that cannot be described in a family newspaper.
Suffice it to say that BAFTA award-winning Barry Keoghan of The Banshees of Inisherin fame, Oliver brilliantly, slowly warms to the affections of the Catton family while enjoying a delightfully eye-catching demeanor.
And all this from the pen of the actress who played that pretty Patsy Mount in Call the Midwife and young Camilla Shand (as she was then) in The Crown.
Then again it was Emerald who took the writing baton from Phoebe Waller-Bridge for the BBC’s second series of the very kinky Killing Eve as well as collaborating with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the Gothic – that word again – retelling Cinderella.
And yet, she meets Fennell in the flesh and she couldn’t be cuter: a sort of uber-glamorous hockey captain complete with a cut-glass accent and an almost permanent smile.
She certainly has the credentials to create a world of wise and privileged people. The eldest daughter of society jeweler Theo Fennell and his novelist wife, Louise, her younger sister, Coco, is a fashion designer. He was educated at Marlborough College (alma mater of the Princess of Wales). Fennell, 38, was born sucking the proverbial silver spoon.
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“I think one of the biggest things my parents did for my sister and me was that they didn’t ban TV,” she explains. “We were taught to use our imaginations in any way we could, even if the stories we were exposed to – on television and in reading – were not age appropriate.
“If I believed there was a ghost in my bedroom at night, that was not a bad thing. That was evidence of a vivid imagination.” So it was perhaps no surprise that her first two books – Shiverton Hall in 2013 and its sequel, The Creeper, a year later – were horror stories aimed specifically at young adults, as explained she
“It is no coincidence that the books we read when we were young are filled with villains: the witch in the house of barley and licorice; the piper who entices children to their endeavours; the poison apple and so on.”
Her first adult book, Monsters, published in 2015, featured a 12-year-old orphan girl who takes an unhealthy interest in a series of murders in a charmingly charming Cornish village. “There were no ghosts or vampires in that one,” Fennell says cheerfully. “Only human monsters.”
But even so, you don’t enjoy a seamless run of success unless you have a combination of talent and determination.
Emerals was nurse Patsy Mount in Call the Midwife in 2013-17
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And Fennell seems to have both, in spades, as recognized last month at The Chicago International Film Festival where she won a Visual Award for Saltburn and his amazing cast. Fennell always wanted Barry Keoghan to play Oliver, a cipher similar to Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley in the film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 psychological thriller.
“He has the right combination of being enigmatic yet relatable, sexy yet vulnerable,” she says. “Oliver would need to have that much magnetism for us to really understand what it’s like in a place like Saltburn.”
Barry says: “The Cats will respond to Oliver with a kind of romantic image of the orphaned child. He leans in there and gives them exactly what they want. But maybe it’s also taking away from them at the same time.” Gentiles.
Jacob Elordi, soon to be seen as Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s film Priscilla, plays the English gentleman, Felix, although he is actually Australian.
“Felix is this beautiful boy,” says Jacob, “who has had all kinds of genetic and financial luck in life. It’s really nice because it never met any kind of resistance.”
As it was, Felix has a bit of a Svengali complex about Oliver, happy to be the benevolent helping hand. “Oliver wants to be with his crowd and Felix sees someone he can nurse as a broken bird.
“There’s something in the Catton family where they feel, because they have so much more than they need, they want to take care of others. It is an instinct that can be very complex.
“What’s great about Emerald’s script is the constant ambiguity between good and evil.”
Rosamund Pike, in barnacle form, plays Felix’s mother, Elspeth, and the wife of Richard E Grant’s Sir James, quietly passing in the background.
Fennell says: “Rosamund is a dry, witty genius. Elspeth is the epitome of a slash socialite, giving the impression that Pulp’s ‘Common People’ was written about her. She’s one of those people who can be extremely hot and ice cold, someone we really want to like but never will.
Emerald behind the scenes on Saltburn with Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi
“She’s an amalgamation of all the women I know who have the ability to take people under their wing and push them out the window when they’re bored.” Rosamund knew she would have fun with Elspeth.
“She’s so outrageous, so desperate to be entertaining,” she smiles. “The insanity of the woman! She believes she was the muse for the entire Brit Pop scene in the 1990s, the kind of person, in real life, I’m afraid. I understand more how Oliver feels at Saltburn.”
Special attention is drawn to Oliver in the portrayal of Felix’s sister, Venetia, played by Irish actress Alison Oliver, best known for her starring role in the television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends.
“Venice is another lost soul,” says Fennell, “Alpha Queen when you first see her but, at her core, she’s really lonely. She knows she’s not Felix’s golden child.”
So what about Fennell herself? She will talk at night about a film – or any other passion project. But try to find out anything from her about her private life and she forms a positive opinion of a Trappist monk.
She is married to the American film and advertising director Chris Vernon, the father of her two children, the first of whom was born a son, in May 2019, weeks after she received her Oscar.
The second child, said to be another boy, arrived two years later. Try to find out their names and you will be treated with a blank stare. What she will talk about is being seven months pregnant while directing Promising Young Woman for their 23-day shoot.
“I was pregnant a lot and I think that helped a lot because, in general, I care, patiently, what people think of me,” she says.
“I chose the worst career in every way for that personality trait. The idea that people don’t like me and think I’m difficult is just terrifying to me.
Rosamnd Pike is one of the great cast of Saltburn
“But luckily, when you’re carting around a huge baby and you’re about to give birth, you don’t have time to worry. I was like a literal ticking time bomb, which I think gave me this strange power.
“At first, I was afraid that the pregnancy would stop everything in its tracks. But women do things a lot harder than straight movies when they’re seven months pregnant. It was totally possible and totally fine. I think women can do whatever they want to do.”
Well, this one is definitely possible.
- Saltburn is released in UK cinemas on November 17
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