On 'Promising Young Woman,' consent, and a harrowing ending

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2020 Invision

Writer/director Emerald Fennell, left, and actress Carey Mulligan pose for a portrait to promote their film "Promising Young Woman" during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Jan. 25, 2020. The film is nominated for an Oscar for best picture. Fennell is nominated for best director and Mulligan is nominated for best actress. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

“Man. That ending!”

That’s likely what you’d hear everyone saying on the way out of the multiplex — if we were all still going to the multiplex — after “Promising Young Woman.” In an audacious and provocative film (nominated for five Oscars), there’s no part more audacious and provocative than the final act, in which former medical student Cassie (Carey Mulligan) exacts her very unique form of revenge.

But though some call the film a black comedy, there’s nothing funny about the end — it’s brutal, and feels very real. Writer-director Emerald Fennell says she wasn’t interested in a comic-book fantasy ending. Nobody pulls out an AK-47 and blows the bad guys away. In fact, the bad guys tend to masquerade as good guys.

Fennell, nominated for both director and original screenplay in what is, stunningly, her feature debut, says her first draft of the ending was “a lot starker and a lot bleaker” than the one we see now. (That might shock some who think it’s already pretty darned bleak.)

Things were tense on set the days they shot a particularly difficult scene, with a stunt team doing the blocking but Mulligan, a best actress nominee for her fierce and nimble performance, performing it herself. It was grueling even before the realism went too far and Mulligan was briefly in actual physical danger. After the close call, she says, she went outside and suddenly, uncharacteristically burst out weeping.

Fennell and Mulligan sat down recently over Zoom to discuss their film, the gratifying recognition they've gotten, and that harrowing ending (no specific spoilers here, but if you haven't already seen the film, beware nonetheless.) They also expressed hope the movie could help raise awareness among young people about sexual consent. (In fact, Focus Features and RAINN, the anti-sexual violence group, announced this week they were partnering with Campus Circle to host free virtual screenings of “Promising Young Woman” for college students.)

(Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity)

AP: Emerald, this is your debut feature. Did you ever imagine getting such recognition?

FENNELL: I think you’d have to be a megalomaniacal monster to ever think you’d be nominated for Academy Awards. No ... the thing that was so important to us was just physically getting it finished because we had such a short shoot time (23 days). And I was enormously pregnant. So this has just been extraordinary.

AP: Carey, a decade ago you were nominated for an Oscar for “An Education.” How have things changed for you since?

MULLIGAN: It changed my career when it happened. But ... the experience was quite overwhelming, and I found it stressful and felt like an imposter. This time around, I’m determined to really have a nice time because it’s just incredible.

AP: So, about that ending: Emerald, did you have different versions in mind when you started?

FENNELL: In theory, there were lots of versions of the ending that could have happened. The first thing I handed in was a lot starker, I would say, and a lot bleaker. There was certainly never an ending that was written down that would have been her cutting everyone’s (privates) off and … walking away with a cigarette in slow motion. The ending that we WANT, is not possible. That’s the whole point of the film, really.

AP: Carey, what was it like on set during the toughest part?

MULLIGAN: We watched a stunt team do it first ... we all stood around wincing. And we did have a mishap where it went wrong, briefly. I thought, ‘Well, I can probably get out of this.’ Then I realized that I was not able to. We had a sort of special symbol or something. I did a thumbs-down or whatever ... and then I went outside and just completely lost it and just couldn’t stop crying.

FENNELL: We had to be extra, extra diligent and cautious, because if something did go wrong, we wouldn’t know until it really was too late. So it was one of those things that on the face of it, maybe didn’t seem like an incredibly dangerous stunt. But it was.

AP: Emerald, could this film have been done with an actress that was not Carey? Carey, could this have been done without Emerald as writer and director?

MULLIGAN: Categorically not. I don't think anyone else could have written it and I don't think anyone else could have directed it. When I read the script, I had kind of butterflies in my stomach thinking ‘Oh, this is incredible writing and incredible storytelling.’ But there’s a risk involved because you’re talking about something that touches so many people’s lives. And then I met Emerald. And I swear, within five minutes, I just never felt nervous again. And I said yes, within five minutes of our meeting as well.

AP: So, you didn’t play hard to get!

MULLIGAN: No, not at all. I'd be an idiot! To even allow a beat, to let anyone else get a look at it. I had to jump on it.

FENNELL: I think that’s important. It’s exactly Carey’s natural response to things that make her such a good, brilliant actress, she doesn’t overthink things, she’s not conscious, she’s not aware of the audience or the camera when she’s acting. She’s not playing to anyone. She’s just being the person.

AP: I heard one college student suggest that this movie should be screened for fraternities like his. Do you think this movie might help move the needle when it comes to young people understanding sexual consent?

FENNELL: You hope so ... if it makes it a bit easier to have this conversation between boys, between men, between men and women, then that’s wonderful. That’s sort of all a film can do, make you have a conversation afterwards.

MULLIGAN: Even if it’s not something that you can right now, in this moment, voice, you’d have to have your head buried really far in the sand to not watch this and and have some sort of moment of reflection, men AND women. We've talked to people who’ve said they’ve had their whole families, watched it with their early 20s kids. And they’ve all sat around the dinner table and talked about it and that’s brilliant. But even if it’s just someone watching it on their own, and planting a seed, you know, that would be great, too.