When pitching the comedy-thriller Promising Young Woman to the suits of Hollywood, writer/director Emerald Fennell ran into the problems you’d expect of an industry that’s still predominantly run by males. Even though she possessed one hell of a hook for her pitch, thanks to the film’s amazing opening sequence, she still saw some resistance to the idea she was trying to convey. And of course, she ran into some flat out icky responses on the road to finally selling one of 2020’s most talked about movies.
During a discussion for Variety’s Directors on Directors series, Fennell had a conversation with fellow director Olivia Wilde, which spanned through the filmmaking process and its various perils. Right out of the gate, the studio pitching process came into question, which is a fair question when it comes to something as incendiary as Promising Young Woman. But even through recounting the cluelessness of the executives who couldn’t get the introduction to Carey Mulligan’s Cassie, Emerald Fennell told stories like the one below with a sense of humor and reflection:
One guy, when I kind of pitched [Promising Young Woman] to him, and then I said, ‘and then she sits up, and she’s not drunk.’ He was like, ‘Wow, OK yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.' And then he was just kind of sitting, staring into space for a while. I was like, ‘You Ok?’ And he said, ‘Yeah I’m just thinking about a couple of dates I went on.’ … That’s honest.
This story came from the first round of pitching Promising Young Woman, which happened around 2017. The opening was pretty much the same as the finished product we’ve seen. Carey Mulligan leads Adam Brody to think she’s drunk and unaware of her situation, but eventually sits up, sober as a judge. Not only is that a clever hook, but it’s a perfect way to set the expectations for just what Cassie is aiming for in her methodical quest.
Of course, it wasn’t until later that same year that the #MeToo movement would start to spur more of the conversations about consent and sexual abuse that Promising Young Woman was trying to inspire. And as Fennell reveals in the next portion of her story, that cultural moment helped make her film a hot commodity. But not before another, more ridiculous story about someone just not getting that opening sequence.
And then one guy said, ‘Oh, I get it, so she’s a psycho.’ I was like [shakes head no], ‘Not for you, my friend.’ But then I had written and directed a short film that went to Sundance and then after that I think it made things a lot easier. And then #MeToo happened and there was more of a conscious effort to make stuff like this.
The inferior version of Promising Young Woman would be the “psycho” version, merely bent on revenge at any cost. But Emerald Fennell didn’t write and direct a film that sticks to that playbook, instead providing a layered portrait of mourning and outrage in the wake of a terrible tragedy. Of course, that hasn’t prevented any further ickiness from being put into the world on this film’s behalf. So if you’re even more intrigued to see just what critics and studio executives seem to be misunderstanding, rent Promising Young Woman and go in as cold as you can. The reality of Ms. Fennell’s narrative is more entertaining than a simple “psycho” tale.