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Director Emerald Fennell, Actor Carey Mulligan On 'Promising Young Woman'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the new movie "Promising Young Woman," Cassie (ph) has a strange hobby. Every week, she goes to a bar where she pretends to be near blackout drunk.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You know, they put themselves in danger, girls like that. They're just not careful. Someone's going to take advantage, especially the kind of guys in this club.

SHAPIRO: A guy takes her home, tries to sleep with her. And then she reveals that she is fully in control after all.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN")

CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Hey. Hey. I said, what are you doing?

SHAPIRO: Carey Mulligan plays Cassie. And it is the debut feature film by Emerald Fennell, who wrote, directed and produced it. Good to have you both here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Welcome.

MULLIGAN: Thank you.

EMERALD FENNELL: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: This movie could have been a dark comedy or a scary revenge thriller or even like there's a rom-com aspect to it. And it seems like instead of choosing one or the other, you just mix them all into the stew. How did you strike the right balance?

FENNELL: I mean, I think I really set out to write and make a revenge movie that felt like it had all the pleasures of the genre, but also it was coming from a real woman. So really wanted it to be kind of an examination of real female rage. And I think life does feel like a romantic comedy when you fall in love. And it does feel like a horror film when things go wrong. And if you're as damaged and traumatized someone like Cassie is, then it also feels like a thriller drama.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to a scene where Cassie reveals to a guy who has taken her home from a bar that she's actually not on the verge of passing out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I thought we had a connection, I guess.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) A connection? OK. What do I do for a living? Sorry, maybe that one's too hard. How old am I? How long have I lived in the city? What are my hobbies? What's my name?

SHAPIRO: Carey, that just feels like it must have been so satisfying to play.

MULLIGAN: It was really fun. Yeah, it was delicious.

FENNELL: You know, that scene was amazing because so many girls, so many women at the crew came in and went, yeah, I've been here.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: This guy's apartment.

FENNELL: I've been in this guy's apartment. Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK. He's culturally appropriated a lot of dreamcatchers and instruments he's never played. And he's writing a novel. And it's just that I think there's this kind of interesting thing where a lot of the time, particularly when seduction is involved - and I use that term kind of loosely, obviously - maybe men often think women don't notice the little lines that are repeated so often.

SHAPIRO: Like I thought we had a connection.

FENNELL: Yes. You know, the sense as well, you get a lot of the things with this scene and the scene before that in Brody. You know, I asked both actors to play it as a romantic comedy because what you'll often find in romantic comedies is men fall in love with women who have very few lines. So what you will see on the page of these scenes is more or less until the turn a monologue, but a monologue in which the man believes it's witty repartee.

SHAPIRO: This is a movie full of female rage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You know, I was affected by it, too, OK? I mean, it's every guy's worst nightmare getting accused like that.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Can you guess what every woman's worst nightmare is?

SHAPIRO: Maybe not every woman has experiences like Cassie or her best friend Nina, but that feeling of having to be guarded against vulnerability is relatable to basically everyone in a female body. Carey?

MULLIGAN: Yeah. I mean, I certainly - that's the experience of everyone I know. And I remember my mum telling me that she used to live in London, in Ladbroke Grove, back in the '70s. And she felt so nervous coming out of the tube station after dark that she would talk to herself like a crazy person so that people wouldn't approach her because that was sort of her mechanism for coping with the sort of fear of being a woman walking home after dark. And so I do think a part of the satisfaction of those moments in the film is seeing the thing that actually you sort of wish you could do. I mean, it's certainly smashing up a car. There's definitely times when that reaction has been sort of in me. But the reality of unleashing something like that is just dangerous and also criminal. But there is a great satisfaction of being able to act out on the injustice of not really being able to respond to things sometimes and having to just put your head down and keep walking.

SHAPIRO: It's such a different role from anything that you've done before, Carey. Can the two of you talk about why this felt like the right fit and how much of a leap it was?

MULLIGAN: Yeah. I just loved it, especially after Emerald sent me, you know, the incredible playlist that she had in her mind, most of which ended up on the final film.

SHAPIRO: Wait. The music was like a key part early on of the concept?

MULLIGAN: Oh, yeah. She sent me the script and then, like, followed it up a couple of hours later with a Spotify playlist with Britney Spears "Toxic," the original song and an instrumental version of it, and Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Blind" and a mood board of all the kind of visuals of the kind of candyfloss look and the sort of fluffy jumpers and...

SHAPIRO: That's so interesting. Emerald, why was that essential to - that it come two hours after the script - the soundtrack, the mood board, the visuals?

FENNELL: I think because we still have this idea of serious things being gray, being raining, being sort of drab up to a point. And what I really wanted to sort of explain to people early on was that it was going to be a kind of pleasurable experience, that it's designed to be seductive, you know, like Cassie, until it's not.

SHAPIRO: Carey, can you point to a moment when Emerald helps you find another layer in the scene or did something as a director that made its way onto the screen that we can see?

MULLIGAN: Oh, man. I mean, there's too many examples. Probably the most obvious one was the pharmacy scene where, you know, there's a sort of lovely, amazing montage in the middle of the movie where we lip-sync to Paris Hilton.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN")

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) I'm sorry. Are you singing Paris Hilton?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) What? Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Feels like classic romantic comedy.

MULLIGAN: It really is. It is. And for the first two takes I think at least I sort of basically stared at the floor. And we would cut. And Emerald would sort of patiently come over. And I'd say, look, Em, I just don't think Cassie would do it. And Emerald's like, come on, people do insane things when they're falling in love. And so - and finally, I think I just sort of, you know, I heard her. And so then the scene became this really amazing dance lip-sync.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN")

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra, singing) Just one of your girlfriends.

I just never would have done it if Emerald hadn't pushed me.

SHAPIRO: Emerald, you were an executive producer on "Killing Eve," which is another story where audiences root for brilliant women who take matters into their own hands in a fun, occasionally dark and violent way. What attracts you to these kinds of stories?

FENNELL: I don't know. I think I should - actually, just before we started filming, my mom found a bit of footage of me when I was 7 where she'd asked me and my sister what we wanted to be when we grew up. And I said, I want to write stories about murder.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: That's fabulous.

FENNELL: I suppose a bit like Patricia Highsmith. Maybe I wrote it so I don't do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Emerald Fennell is the writer, director and producer, and Carey Mulligan is the star of the new movie "Promising Young Woman." It's in theaters now. Thank you so much for talking with us.

FENNELL: Thank you very much.

MULLIGAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.