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Emerald Fennell: ‘Saltburn is a love story that never happened’

The filmmaker takes us inside her glamorous, striking new film starring Barry Keoghan and Rosamund Pike.

By Charlotte Manning

Emerald Fennell
Emerald Fennell (Picture: Alexandra Arnold)

“I think what’s happened is, you’re seeing somebody who’s kind of gone mad.” Curled up on an armchair in a snazzy London hotel is Emerald Fennell. She’s nearing the end of a lengthy press day for her second feature-film as writer-director, Saltburn. It’s just a week before the release, and though she looks remarkably chill in a cosy knit sweater, she absolutely isn’t feeling it. 

“I have the feeling of a kind of mad woman in the attic, scrambling at the walls,” she says. “I will do my absolute best to try and be sentient. If I start talking absolute nonsense, maybe just hit me… or punch me in the face?” I warn her that’s probably not the best idea for me. 

Saltburn finally arrives in cinemas today (November 17) after months of hype, boasting quite the incredible cast of Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, and Archie Madekwe. It follows studious loner Oliver’s (Keoghan) fast-growing fascination for aristocrat Felix (Elordi) as they both enter the privileged gates of Oxford University in 2006. Felix is touched upon hearing Oliver’s supposedly bleak upbringing, and invites him to the titular Saltburn, his eccentric family’s sprawling estate, for a very memorable summer indeed. 

We immediately get a sense of Oliver’s lying streak, denying in the first scene that he was in love with Elordi’s Felix. What follows is a visual treat, a montage of the film’s heartthrob, dripping in sweat (there’s even an eyebrow piercing and ‘Carpe Diem’ tattoo), which quickly disproves Oliver’s cutting words as fact. “Do we believe him?” Fennell is doubtful. “When Oliver says, ‘I hated him,’ it’s the most aroused he’s ever been. He’s throbbing, he’s shaking with desire.” The writer-director describes the relationship between the two central characters as “a love story that never happened”.

Emerald Fennell
Emerald Fennell on the set of ‘Saltburn’ (Picture: Press)

Filming began at Drayton House, Northamptonshire, in summer 2022. Fennell was very keen to place the action at a location the wider public weren’t so familiar with, and hadn’t been filmed in much before, if at all: “We also needed a place that because of the necessities of some of the shots, we needed a certain house where we would be able to shoot the majority of the film,” she notes. “It needed to have that feeling like Oliver has, which is, ‘Oh, we’re seeing something that we’ve never seen before’, when [he arrives at Saltburn and] those gates open, it’s like, ‘Wow, where the fuck is this?’”

Some of Fennell’s favourite literary works such as Brideshead Revisited, Atonement, and Line of Beauty and their subsequent adaptations were among key inspirations, as she set about intending to make a film about “longing and desire” as she explored the genre further. “[In all those films] There’s that kind of restraint, I suppose I wanted to make something that was unrestrained, in the most restrained genre in the world.” Writing the picture towards the end of Covid perhaps played into these key themes: “We were all living in a world where we couldn’t touch each other. We couldn’t even be in the same room together. We were all just watching each other, and nothing else. It feels, weirdly, really what I wanted to make.

Elsewhere, Saltburn plays into the shock factor; the audience will soon learn that nothing is off limits. We see Oliver licking bath water and menstrual blood, to name just a couple of the more provocative points. “We’ve all done that thing of, somebody with that we fancy, we touch something having their jumper or whatever it is, the closest thing to them, whether that’s a person or a thing,” she explains. “That’s that’s the thing. If you can’t get to the thing that you want to get, it’s what’s the nearest thing? It feels so kind of intensely relatable, but plays into that kind of desire and love.”

Of course, an honourable mention to Carey Mulligan, who Fennell teams up with yet again, after the actress starred as lead Cassie in her first feature, 2020’s Promising Young Woman. This time, she appears in the supporting role of eccentric lost cause ‘Poor Dear Pamela’ (even by this very name in the credits).

The writer sent the script to Mulligan for an extra pair of eyes, who requested to play the glamorous, yet troubled, part. “Carey was so exceptional, and why Carey was crucial as ‘Poor Dear Pamela’, is that ‘fashion victim’ is such a horribly misogynistic kind of term. Because being a woman who uses fashion and hair and makeup as their sort of primary art form, it’s not always women, but it has historically been that way, [they’re perceived as] frivolous, silly, vapid and empty. There’s a kind of misogynistic assumption that what they do is not real art, or really worthwhile.

“I feel very strongly that if we think she’s frivolous, that’s because of our own stuff rather than other people’s. She could so easily be an object of ridicule and yet, because of Carey’s beautiful performance, she is the most poignant character,” she observes.

Emerald Fennell
Emerald Fennell (Picture: John Wilson)

Discussing the unique challenges of making films as a woman, Fennell adds: “When you’re a female filmmaker, you’re expected to take a moral responsibility for your characters, and for your work. I’m not really interested in making moral judgments on anything or anyone. I’m interested in stories and why they make us feel certain way. I’m trying not to feel too strongly either way, because I suppose we set out to make something that wasn’t going to have a kind of universal response that was the same. As much as I can, I’m trying to be relaxed about it.”

Meanwhile, Pike’s outrageous portrayal of Elsbeth feels a clear standout, with the actress a perfect fit. But Fennell “didn’t have her in mind” during the writing process. “I don’t write with people in mind, just because it’s always difficult if you do,” she says. “But the moment it was finished, and we were thinking of casting… She’s such a gifted comic and is so clever. She did what Carey, and everyone in this film, did – gave a very human performance.”

She labels Pike “an absolute powerhouse” and jokes: “I’d do anything for Rosamund, she could look at me and tell me, ‘Darling do you want to slip under that train?’ and I’d be under there already. She’s just got that power. Stillness, eye contact. Everyone in this is so contained, that charisma, it’s so wonderful.”

So what’s next for Fennell? A third film, it would likely seem. “The next thing is I go away and write [it]. I just do that, it has to be private, so that completely nobody ever knows,” she explains firmly. “That’s so it can be like this, or the last [film], which is kind of sticky and likely to frustrate people including myself…”