'Saltburn' director Emerald Fennell on why she would never force an actor to do a nude scene

Writer-director follows up Oscar-winning 'Promising Young Woman' with comedic thriller set at wealthy British manor.

Warning: Minor Saltburn spoilers ahead.

Emerald Fennell has a pretty simple explanation for how she generates stories, be it her Oscar-winning 2020 phenomenon Promising Young Woman or this week’s new comedic thriller, Saltburn.

“They just creep into my mind,” the writer-director (and sometimes actress) told us during a recent virtual interview. “Oliver crept in and wouldn’t go away.”

That’s a fitting way to describe her latest protagonist. Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is an outsider at the University of Oxford, a socially awkward student from a tough upbringing surrounded by the elite of the elite. But when he befriends the charismatic, ultra-wealthy Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) and nabs an invitation to spend the summer at Felix’s titular, sprawling English manor, Oliver develops an unhealthy obsession with his friend’s lifestyle… and is not going to go away very easily.

Saltburn has drawn early comparisons to the 1999 Matt Damon- and Jude Law-starring twister The Talented Mr. Ripley, but Fennell cites other inspirations.

“It’s a genre,” she says. “I love the sort of British, gothic country house [where] something happens in a summer that none of us could ever forget — The Go-Between and Atonement and all of those sorts of films. So I knew I wanted to make a film like that. … But I think also it makes a lot of sense that I was writing this film during COVID and it was a time when we couldn’t touch each other. We couldn’t do anything but look, and I think this is a film about what happens when you can’t touch the thing that you want.”

And does her new movie tie in thematically to Promising Young Woman, the acclaimed #MeToo thriller starring Carrie Mulligan as a law student-turned-barista who plots revenge against those she blames for a friend’s suicide? Fennell says that’s for critics to decide.

One connection is Mulligan herself, who makes a brief appearance as another parasitic friend of the aristocratic Felix family.

SALTBURN, Barry Keoghan, 2023. © MGM / Courtesy Everett Collection
Barry Keoghan in Saltburn. (MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection)

This time around, however, Fennell’s muse is Keoghan, the Oscar-nominated Banshees of Inisherin actor and Eternals hero who is once again drawing kudos for Saltburn.

“The thing that I want to do is find the tender points and stick my fingers into them. That’s what I want to do. That’s what Barry wants to do,” Fennell says. “We have no interest in making stuff that’s not going to provoke some kind of visceral physical experience. That’s what a movie is. The thing that I always want to do is find the most interesting relationship there. And that’s kind of what Barry’s about, too. We just want to make stuff that makes you feel something. And so he’s remarkable.”

What will likely be the film’s most-talked-about moment involves Keoghan’s Felix taking a long, naked frolic around the opulent Saltburn estate. The scene required nearly a dozen takes to complete, but it didn’t require any extra persuasion to get Keoghan to shed his clothes.

“I never want to convince anyone of anything,” Fennell says. “For me, convincing an actor to do something is almost [like] trying to coerce someone into bed with you, or something that always feels a bit like seedy.

“He’s only interested in doing the thing that feels super right. And so for him, when we were talking about that scene, he just completely understood because he understood what it should feel like for him and for the audience that it needs to feel it. … Post-coital, triumphant, gorgeous, insane, tragic, lonely, pathetic and hot. It’s got to be all of those things. And that’s what he does. And that’s why it’s exciting.”

Saltburn is now playing.