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When it comes to writing a script, not every method is the same. Some choose isolation in order to get the script done, while others throw themselves into research to make their work authentic. For Promising Young Woman's writer and director Emerald Fennell, her method includes music and years' worth of work. "I basically approach all writing the same way," Fennell told POPSUGAR. "I write it all in my head completely for years, and then I just transcribe it at the end once it's done. So, I'm basically staring at a wall for years, listening to music."
Promising Young Woman sees Carey Mulligan as Cassie Thomas, the titular promising young woman, who deals with trauma from her past while leading a double life. It also stars Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Connie Britton, Laverne Cox, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Fennell wrote and directed the project on her own, and as an actor herself, she wanted to make sure the set was run the same way she would've liked if the roles were reversed. "I've always felt most comfortable when it's fun and [there's] a company of people," she divulged. "I felt very strongly that everyone, particularly actors, do their best work when they feel supported. And that if they up f*ck up or drop a line, it's fine. So, that's what I tried to do on Promising Young Woman."
"I felt very strongly that everyone, particularly actors, do their best work when they feel supported."
In the film, Mulligan's Cassie leads a double life in order to right the wrongs caused by the death of her best friend, and there's a reason there's a disconnect between her and the audience. "The thing about Cassie is that she's completely traumatized, and [she's] traumatized people who are in cycles of addiction or self-harm, which is very much how I see her," Fennell explained. "No matter how much we admire them, how much we like them, how much we think they are funny, we might not like them all the time, and I think that's really important because we've all had times in our lives where we were profoundly unlikable, and I still think it's a rare thing to see in male and female protagonists."
Cassie isn't the only "unlikeable" protagonist in Fennell's life, as she plays the woman we love to hate on Netflix's The Crown, Camilla Shand. "I think the character of Camilla is really interesting, because to me, she's a completely ordinary woman who wants to have an ordinary life and who has unfortunately fallen in love with somebody whose life is in no way normal," she divulged. "There's no comparison to the life that these people in this TV series lead. None of us can be like, 'Oh, it's a bit like when I . . . ' What I think creator Peter Morgan is so brilliant about doing is he humanizes every single person on [The Crown]. I think every character who's on it is trying their best under extraordinary circumstances."
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While Fennell may have been nervous about making her directorial debut with Promising Young Woman, she knew she could count on friends Jessica Knappett and Phoebe Waller-Bridge for advice. "I was so lucky to have such a support network of amazing women," she revealed. "I think there's still this idea that people have to be competitive, particularly women. However, I think that I've been able to do all of these things because I was given so much confidence by these other women who'd done things before me and who were just wonderful sounding boards."
Besides her support network, she's also grateful for the changes Hollywood has been making. "This year has proved that people want diverse stories from diverse storytellers," she added. "It's wonderful that then producers, networks, and studios realize that actually that's what people want. It's not just something they need to do to tick off a box, but rather we're all looking to see stuff we've not seen before and hear voices we've not heard."
"It's not just something they need to do to tick off a box, but rather we're all looking to see stuff we've not seen before, and hear voices we've not heard."
While working on the movie, Fennell also had a moment of self-discovery regarding her next project. "I definitely won't be able to direct anything I haven't written," Fennell said. "I don't think that I'd be very good at it. I'm so admiring of people who can direct other's work, because I think it sounds very complicated." As for what she'll be directing next, Fennell didn't have a definitive answer other than: "I would just love to do things that are story-led. I get bored very easily. So, I'd love to do very different things every time."
Fennell has written numerous books including Shiverton Hall, The Creeper, and Monsters, along with episodes for shows like Killing Eve, but she is perhaps best known for her roles as Nurse Patsy Mount on Call the Midwife and Camilla on The Crown. It's her experience in both these realms that have helped inform her decisions when it comes to writing and directing. "You're looking to find something that feels very real to you," Fennell said. "In a way, what was more helpful was writing books. Particularly, the most recent one [Monsters], which was from a first-person narrative. I think that was really helpful for Promising Young Woman."
Outside of projects like Promising Young Woman, Fennell has also had the opportunity to collaborate with Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Zippel on the musical Cinderella, which is a reimagining of the classic tale set to premiere on the West End in 2021. "Something like Cinderella is amazing because there are the three of us, and we all rely on each other," she shared. "It's so different to anything that I've done before because the music informs the story, which informs the lyrics. And actually, it's kept me completely sane during this year because we've pretty much had to use Zoom." Fennell readily admitted that working with others on a story was a new thing for her. "I'm usually pretty solitary," she explained. "And I'll just go and live in the parallel universe of the story until I think like, 'OK, there's nowhere else in this story that I haven't tried.'"
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This idea of living in a parallel universe for the sake of writing started when Fennell was younger and is part of the reason she counts soundtracks as an important factor in her writing process. "I would buy those movie soundtracks and then I would write my own version of film or I would write my own episodes of Sweet Valley High or I would write the episode of Saved by the Bell where I, aged 10, would marry Zack Morris, in my head," she shared. Fennell includes these instances of fan fiction among the inspiration for her love of writing.
"That's another thing that I think people don't talk about that much," she continued. "So many people and writers I know have their life, then they have a few imaginary lives. They live in an imaginary house with an imaginary boyfriend or girlfriend with an imaginary pet, and it's set in Victorian England or they live in apartment in Paris. I've always felt that my real life just runs parallel to the imaginary ones, and they feed into each other."
Through her experience as an actor, Fennell understands the intricacies needed to get her characters across when it comes to directing. She's also able to use experiences like those on The Crown and Call the Midwife as inspiration for her own style as a director. Promising Young Woman, which premiered Dec. 25 and earned her a Golden Globe nom and an Oscar for best screenplay, is only the start of a promising directing career for Fennell, and we're already anxiously awaiting her next project.