Olivia Wilde and Emerald Fennell on Banning A–holes and ‘Are You Sure?’ From Movie Sets

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Meredith Woerner
·19 min read
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Emerald Fennell’s pitch meetings for “Promising Young Woman” were telling, to say the least.

Explaining her 2017 process to fellow director Olivia Wilde (of “Booksmart” fame), Fennell recalled the stunned faces of male studio executives after she detailed the brutal, pre-title sequence of her film.

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“One guy said, ‘Oh, I got it. So she’s a psycho,'” Fennell recalled. Wilde, understandably, gasps. This is not the first time a studio has missed the entire point of either of their creative visions.

Known for choosing stories that subvert the feminine, Wilde and Fennell launch into a deep discussion about filmmaking on Variety‘s “Directors on Directors,” talking about the deeply rooted love stories of female friendships, learning to trust their instincts and banning assholes from their sets.

Both have had to fight for their creative freedom. Wilde recalls being asked to cut the Barbie scene from “Booksmart” time and time again, and standing up for what some believe to be silly. “The details that I think most people would overlook, because they think that they’re silly or they’re shallow,” Fennell said. “Those are opportunities to tell more stories.”

Read the conversation below and watch the interview above.

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Olivia Wilde: I’m really thrilled that we get to chat about [“Promising Young Woman”] because I’m very inspired.

Emerald Fennell: Likewise, I just thought “Booksmart” was just amazing. I loved it so much. It made me wish there were more movies about female friendship like that, that felt kind of properly real. I guess in a funny way, these two films are kind of twisted sisters.

Wilde: Absolutely. I was thinking that we must have been in love with the same movies growing up. I mean, clearly there’s like a strong “Clueless” Amy Heckerling brain sisterhood here. This visceral, emotional connection to the psyche of a young woman. That real, emotional empathy was so clear. That’s something that I’m always so eager for, an we please see a story of a woman that empathizes on a real level and isn’t just sort of glorifying her as the perfect woman? Or tearing her down? But I also felt like you must have been very inspired by ‘To Die For’ which is another one of my favorite, favorite favorite movies.

Fennell: Yes, [“To Die For”] was very much a very big part of the mood boards.

Wilde: Yes, the mood board must have been beautiful. I hope it’s framed everywhere in your home, it must have been kick ass.

Fennell: It was quite relentless. It was like 1,000 pages long.

Wilde: I wanted to start by just asking how you pitched this, what the development process was?

Fennell: I started pitching it around spring, 2017. I only ever really pitched the pre-title sequence. At the time, the first round of pitching was very much pitching to men. It was a really interesting to get the immediate response because some of it was really wonderful. One guy, when I pitched it to him, “and then she sits up… and she’s not drunk!” He was just kind of sitting, staring into space for a while. And then he said, “Yeah, I’m just thinking about, a couple of dates I’ve been on.”

Wilde: Oh wow, revealing.

Fennell: That’s honest! And then one guy said, “Oh, I got it. So she’s a psycho!” Yeah… not for you my friend.

I’m just so interested in the physicality of running a set of being the director on a set. Do you find, as a director, you get home and you’re still full of adrenaline compared to acting work? Or are you just like, “I want to die. I’m so tired?”

Wilde: Directing is so much less exhausting than acting. Because acting, the stopping and the starting is exhausting. You’re revving up and your adrenaline goes up, and you’re performing. Then you’re waiting for two hours in that walk back to the trailer, sitting there on your phone wondering if you should have learned how to knit? The whole process taking your focus out and thinking of other things and reading other books and then being like, “Oh, right, this character!” I find that totally just exhausting in a way that makes me feel brain dead at the end of the day. I think it’s that the the boredom creeps in and sort of plants a seed and stays there, you’re fighting against it to stay focused. Whereas with directing, because it is constant, I find that quite energizing. The relentless asking and answering of questions, leaves you buzzing. And then of course, you face plan when you get home. But it’s a different kind of exhaustion.

That’s one of the reasons that I really prefer directing, because I think that the constant hum of intensity and energy lights me up.

Fennell: I imagine it’s also kind of an emotional exhaustion. It’s a completely different type of pressure. If you’re directing something and somebody fucks up on the day, that’s it. It’s not that feeling of going home and wondering, “Am I gonna be fired? Are there people in an office somewhere watching this?”

Wilde: I still live with that fear as a director! They could still do it. Too late to fire me? Hmmm how pregnant are they with me? The fear is a healthy fear, I think, [it] never goes away. The pivot for me to directing has made me just admire and love actors in an even deeper way. I suppose it’s probably because I’m no longer feeling that level of insecurity or competition. You’re not threatened by them anymore because it’s no longer, “There’s only three roles for us this year, so I hope everyone else gets pregnant!” When you remove that ego from it and the insecurity and that competitive energy, you’re just left with the admiration [for actors].

I was going to ask you about your relationship with Carey [Mulligan] as you made the film. I imagine you must have become so close.

Promising Young Woman BTS
Promising Young Woman BTS

Fennell: She’s just so amazing. I didn’t know her before, I just sent her the script, and I hoped she would do it. It worked, because we both immediately understood each other got what the other person was saying and just got on so well. I think it would have been impossible with anyone else.

She’s a pro, she’s on set all the time. She’s ready, immediately. Spoiler alert, there’s a there’s a part in this movie that she definitely didn’t need to be present for and she was for a day… You’re not like waiting every morning to see what kind of mood someone’s going to be in. You’re not dealing with any of that stuff. You’re just dealing with somebody who loves their job and who loved and who really respects everyone else. She was there being so giving and adorable and supportive, we had these guys coming in having to do some really dark shit. And she’s just delightful.

Wilde: It’s incredible these actresses who can pull that off, just always blow my mind, like Florence Pugh is the star of our film [“Don’t Worry Darling”] right now. And she’s the same. It just is remarkable to watch. It’s something that you have, we’ve all read about from the greats, everybody from Meryl [Streep] to Kristin Scott Thomas these incredible actresses who have the ability to, bang, turn it on. It’s something that is suggestive of a lack of ego in the process that I think, as a director, you’re just so grateful for. When you hear these stories of actors who are less giving, or maybe need to be more of a solo act in every single way. It’s kind of terrifying. We know, at some point, our directing careers will have to contend with that. I think we both been spoiled to this point, we’ve had lots of lovely people.

Fennell: I read that you have no assholes policy. It’s something that really we definitely try, I hope, succeeded with actually. I was so interested when I read that from you, I wonder if that is a sort of particularly female thing. I don’t generally like gendering things. But I think we’ve all felt that thing of feeling like nobody can give a fuck if we’re comfortable. Certainly for me, I just couldn’t bear the idea of anyone coming in and feeling a hostile environment. I just can’t imagine screaming in someone’s face.

Wilde: Someone, who’s a very established actor and director in this industry, gave me really terrible advice that was helpful, because I just knew I had to do the opposite. They said, “Listen, the way to get respect on a set, you have to have three arguments a day. Three big arguments that reinstate your power, remind everyone who’s in charge, be the predator.” That is the opposite of my process. And I want none of that.

I think that it is an unfortunate part of the kind of the paradigm, that has been created over the last 100 years, the idea that great art has to come from a place of discomfort and anxiety. That the pressure cooker has to get to a point where it can be something intense and valuable in that way. I do think it may be a uniquely female instinct to say, “Look, we can be nurturing. And we can multitask.” It doesn’t mean that anyone needs to be uncomfortable. And it doesn’t mean that I have to constantly remind you of my my position, because I don’t think anyone on a set has ever forgotten who’s in charge. It’s in fact, an incredibly hierarchical system.

If anything, I think we’d all benefit to sort of remove the hero narrative from that structure, and to acknowledge that a director is a sum of all these parts, that we have the opportunity to delegate to all these incredible people that we’ve asked to come on board.

Fennell: This idea of having three arguments a day, where do you differentiate between something that really important, and something that isn’t? I think that there are moments necessarily where you do have to be sort of fairly strict or straightforward to get things back on the rails.

I agree completely with what you say, I think there’s a sort of idea that being a tormented artist is the route to genius. I really do think, as I’ve sort of gotten older, it is just a mask for a lot of fear and anxiety. It’s kind of a sort of synonym for bullying.

“Oh, that person… they’re real artists, they go deep.” And you’re like, “I don’t want it!”

Wilde: The no assholes policy it puts everybody on the same level. I also noticed as an actress for years how the hierarchy of the set separated the actors from the crew in this very strange way that serves no one… I think actors would actually like to know more about what’s happening there when you’re pulling my focus? What is that lens change? But the idea of, don’t bother the actors and keep them separate, and don’t look at them. I think it makes everyone quite anxious.

Fennell: I really do think trailers have a lot to answer for.

Wilde: I agree.

Fennell: If I were allowed, I would just say, “Hey, everyone gets kind of a shitty trailer, the exact same one. Everyone has to have lunch together.” If you’ve got your own lovely jacuzzi, you’re not with everyone really? It makes it difficult to be collaborative. It’s alienating, is lonely. It’s more fun to be with everyone.

Wilde: Then you have to be vulnerable in front of these people, and you’ve been separated from them. I always liken it to a construction site. You bring these people into this construction site, and then say “Hold the work for a moment!” And everyone’s just kind of like waiting for the acting to be done so you can go back to building. The actors are like, “I’m sorry that I’m acting. I’m so sorry.” If we just restructured it, so everyone was working together, I guess that’s why when you train in theater, you learn everyone’s job. Everyone knows what the whole process is. Everyone is crew. Everyone’s on the same level, everyone matters the same. It’s very hard with COVID, because they’re actually literally separated into zones.

Olivia Wilde Booksmart BTS
Olivia Wilde Booksmart BTS

Fennell: So much of making a film is the fun of it. It’s the camaraderie, somebody coming in and saving somebody else’s ass, somebody coming up with a bright idea that means you can actually shoot the scene when it looked like it was hopeless. That stuff is just pleasure and the jokes, the whole thing of it is a pleasure. For some people it’s the flirting, or the gossip of, of a job of working with people.

I’m so interested in COVID, because, of course, it just stops that. That trust that you’re describing must be so hard to foster. Did you guys at least start [on “Don’t Worry Darling”] outside of COVID so you at least met properly?

Wilde: We did and we were able to have rehearsals outside of distance rehearsals where people could take masks off and be together. But it definitely affects that exact ingredient in the process, that camaraderie, it definitely makes it more difficult. You have to really focus on everybody’s eyes everyone is communicating so differently and there’s like a lot of gesticulating. I’ve now been added so long that everyone has formed this real family.

But I definitely feel that my whole process on “Booksmart” was so heavily focused on creating a vibe, because it was also young people. There was a lot of music and food, and everyone being able to dance together in between takes. It actually made a huge difference, warming everyone up into a really good groove. That part is more difficult when everything is full of a little more anxiety, and and you have this separation. I’m a very cuddly person, too. My instinct at every moment is to cuddle with everyone. I’ve had to stop myself and be like, “No, we’re being responsible.”

We had to kind of sink into a groove in a different way. You’re still trying to find that same rhythm. Because that’s so much of what it’s all about.

For your film, I felt the tone, so consistently. And you took so many bold choices with the tone as well! You were able to have a twist, like a really, truly shocking twist, it’s so remarkable. But your tone remains consistent as you make these really bold choices. And that’s so fucking hard to do. So I was really amazed by that.

Fennell: Not only did I send out the script, but I sent out my Spotify playlist that had Britney [Spears] on it 1000 times, the crazy mood board of 1000 pages, because I knew what [the script] read like, it’s a really tough tone to explain on the page. And how was it for you? Because obviously, you you guys were so close after “Booksmart?”

Wilde: I think everyone who saw us after the movie was like, “Enough, we get it, group hugs group hugs.” I felt so close to directors that I worked for four years. A good director asks you to go there and then brings you back. It takes such an intense communication. There isn’t a couples therapist in the world who wouldn’t be impressed by the communication skills of a director and an actor when it’s good, because it’s so much about listening. To be able to communicate a tone as complex as yours. I was just thinking, “Wow, she must be very, very good at communicating and describing.” And it can be really hard, because everyone brings their own baggage to everything, of course. I think that’s why the mood board must have been very, very helpful. When you can’t describe it, “It’s like this!”

You have to be comfortable sounding like an idiot, sometimes with the technical stuff. You have to be like, “You know the thing that goes zoooom?” I recognize that, had I gone to film school, I might have been able to describe that shot.

Fennell: And it’s camera. It’s camera, right?

That was such a huge learning curve. I’ve got a real know-it-all “me, me, me” personality, insufferable. The thing that was hardest for me was, I want to pretend I know everything and just can’t. Fake it to make is a route straight off a cliff. And having that freedom to be like, I do care deeply about this nail polish color, and I do care deeply about this visual reference, but I do not know the name of that light.

Wilde: And I’m gonna be okay saying, “The, the big one, can we have the big one, the round one?”

Fennell: There is still a little bit of extra scrutiny. I was very lucky in that that didn’t really happen for me so much. But a friend of mine, who’s British director, she’s brilliant. On her second movie she was dropping scenes, she was way behind and just couldn’t understand it because she’d been so diligent. The first weekend she went home, and she thought about it, and then came back to set and she just banned the phrasing ‘Are you sure?.’ And she got back two hours a day. What she could was not that people were being obstructive or difficult. They just wanted to help, but they kept suggesting other things…. It wasn’t people being dicks, they were being slightly paternalistic. They thought they were helping and protecting it, but they were wasting her time.

Fennell: How terrifying is doing a second movie a prospect? Or did you actually feel kind of more confident?

Wilde: I definitely felt more confident because the first time you’re just like, ‘Okay, thank you everyone for taking this massive risk on me, and I hope I don’t humiliate you.’ The second time you do feel like I know what I’m doing, and you can all trust me. You feel a little more proven. That’s coupled with the total utterly crushing fear of of sophomore slump. ‘[What if] the first one was a fluke, and this is going to reveal my true lack of skill?’ … I think on this one, it’s so different from “Booksmart” in every way that it doesn’t feel like I’m kind of chasing anything, it feels like a completely new set of tools. It’s also when you have started later in life, like you know, I directed my first movie at 34.

Fennell: Me too!

Wilde: Having kids and directing movies. There’s something about that pivot later in life. It’s not like I went to film school and started directing my first movie at 21, like so many other brilliant directors. When it comes a little later, I think you’re a little more efficient. If I only get to make five movies in my whole career, what movies do I want to make? How can I be really clear about what they are?

I have this thing, why not write novels, or make documentaries or tell stories or theater, why make narrative feature films? It’s got to be because there’s the ability with feature films to tell things in a less literal way, to be emotional about it, and to take risks and to just use the medium and use the tools. I so appreciated that you had fun with the tools at your disposal and you played with it, you direct from an emotional place that’s incredibly creative and bold. The only time I get frustrated watching the movies, [when I think] “Well, this could have been a documentary!” Have fun with the tools, it doesn’t have to be: close up, wide shot, close up, wide shot. There’s there is a directing by numbers pattern that I think people feel safe in. I love that on your first fucking feature you were like, no, everything is gonna come in a much more bold way.

Fennell: I felt like movies about serious stuff, or that I felt was very serious, never looked the way that I feel in my life. The stuff in this film is the stuff of my life. So many things in young women’s and some young men’s lives is never treated seriously. How you choose to dress is a weapon. I asked a lot of questions about the nails, which I’m always delighted to answer because I’m obsessed with nails. But it’s because people don’t expect you to scratch their eyes out if that’s how you paint your nails. The details that I think most people would overlook, because they think that they’re silly or they’re shallow, those are opportunities to tell more stories…

And that’s why I loved your movie so much. You don’t see female friendships, deep love affairs, very often. Most of my girlfriends, it’s the formative relationship of their life. It’s the biggest romance of their life. Yet, there’s less of an opportunity to be topless and therefore people aren’t interested in making these films I guess.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity, watch the full video conversation above.

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