Courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios Barry Keoghan as Oliver in 'Saltburn'
Emerald Fennell doesn't mind if you don't love her work. In fact, she embraces it. All the better, since her second outing as a feature director and writer, Saltburn, is just the sort of audacious, perverse, psychosexual marvel sure to inspire strong reactions.
Fennell previously won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Promising Young Woman, another pitch-black, delightfully wicked movie that had Hollywood's tongues wagging in 2020. As with that thriller, Fennell says she was delighted to hear audiences disagree about certain aspects of Saltburn in early screenings. In fact, she finds it "so thrilling."
"I'm always really happy for people to argue and always expect for some people not to like things," she tells EW. "I think it's really important, actually, to be happy and comfortable with that. Otherwise, you are never going to really make something that people are going to love, too — can't really have one or the other."
Saltburn follows Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), who is struggling to find his place at Oxford University when he finds himself swiftly drawn into the orbit of the charming and uber rich Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who invites him to Saltburn, his eccentric family's sprawling estate, for an unforgettable summer of lust and obsession. The film also features the ace casting of Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant as Felix's parents, and Alison Oliver as his sister. Archie Madekwe, seen this year as the lead of Gran Turismo, and Carey Mulligan, who starred in Fennell's Promising Young Woman, round out the cast.
Without spoiling the fun of precise scenes in the film, let's just say there are plenty of moments where audience members will likely have a visceral reaction to what they're seeing on screen. But shocking the viewers is not the point, says Fennell, who adds that she hopes audiences engage more with why they react a certain way. "I think the laugh-gasp is the thing that I'm always looking for in a movie," she explains. "And I think it's also where you start to question yourself as an audience member. Those places where you're like, 'Is this sexy? Is it revolting? Do I love him? Do I hate him?' That's part of what this movie is about."
Courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios Jacob Elordi as Felix in 'Saltburn'
"I view it as kind of entertainment and interrogation at the same time," adds producer Josey McNamara, who also worked on Promising Young Woman and this year's box-office juggernaut Barbie with Margot Robbie, who produces here too, both through LuckyChap. "To me, it's all about, how do we give the audience a new experience?" he continues. "I think it's the more you push the boundaries and the more they haven't seen something, then the easier it is to do that."
For inspiration, Fennell says she looked to Gothic tales — where "romance and horror are inextricably linked" — and vampire stories, such as Dracula. With Saltburn, she says, "The question is, who are the vampires in this movie? Everyone's kind of digging in, aren't they?"
Merchant Ivory films, Brideshead Revisited, and Atonement are cited as other inspirations, as are The Servant, Parasite, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and The Handmaiden — essentially movies about power and class and sex and where those things intersect (with a wealthy country estate or two thrown in). "It is about that intersection, and where watching and being watched and all of that stuff collide," Fennell explains. "That all feels really exciting, especially now when we are terminally watching and being watched online outright."
For having such an innately dark heart, though, the film is often quite funny. Fennell describes it as "macabre dark comedy" and "not dissimilar to Promising Young Woman." The director swears the tone establishes itself in the million little creative decisions that make up a film, and she tries to meddle in that as little as possible. So much so, that when she handed the script to her team or actors for the first time, she gave them no context about it, its meaning, or the intended tone. "[When] you give something like that to people, they're either all in or it's not really for them," she admits with a laugh.
One person who was clearly all in was Keoghan, who gives an astounding turn as Oliver. The film asks the most of him — everything is seen through his enchanting blue eyes, from the story's humble beginnings to its gonzo ending. He has the unenviable task of serving as both conduit and mirror, making us as the audience both relate to him and recoil at our own reflection as we do so.
In the most literal sense, Keoghan bares it all in the role and makes it look insultingly easy. "That's the thing with Barry," Fennell says. "The things in this movie that people expect would've been difficult conversations weren't at all, because he's like me. We just want to do anything to make something real and profound and destabilizing."
And, again, that destabilization is a goal for the filmmakers. Though McNamara concedes that everyone processes a film differently, his biggest fear is that audiences would walk out at the end and then never speak of it again. So far, though, that doesn't seem to be a problem for Saltburn, which had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend, and has screened several times for crowds in Los Angeles and London since. Though Fennell notes the chemistry in each crowd has been so different, one constant is that "everyone is looking around at everyone else's reactions."
"I think that's the great thing about watching this with an audience and seeing people laughing when other people are gasping or people crying when others are laughing," McNamara remarks. "I think it's that difference of reaction that gets people talking and what makes it really exciting to see."
If ever there was an argument for the continuation of the theatrical experience, Fennell believes it's this right here. "We had a similar thing with Promising Young Woman, but then it was obviously curtailed by the pandemic," she says. "We want for people to just have fun, really come and have fun and get excited." To put it simply, when the film opens in a couple months (limited on Nov. 17, wide on Nov. 22), Fennell says she and McNamara have one big wish: "We want it to get rowdy and sexy — honestly."
Make sure to check out EW's Fall Movie Preview cover story on The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes — as well as all of our 2023 Fall TV Preview content, releasing through Sept. 29.