Friend or Foe

“Beauty has no morality” – Emerald Fennell on Saltburn’s voyeuristic desire and unbridled devilment
By Ella Joyce | Film+TV | 17 November 2023

Still, Saltburn by Emerald Fennell, 2023

Following her Oscar-winning directorial debut Promising Young Woman is no easy task, but Emerald Fennell’s sophomore work raises the stakes. Saltburn is a salacious one-way invitation into the workings of the British aristocracy, delivering a voyeuristic foray into beauty, repulsion, desire, sex, ambition, bloodshed and everything in between. When we first meet our protagonists at Oxford University in 2007, you could easily expect Saltburn to unfold as a simple exploration of the class divide, but you’d be duly mistaken. Barry Keoghan stars as Oliver alongside Jacob Elordi as Felix, whose relationship is introduced in the opening line of the movie with a simple yet loaded statement: “I wasn’t in love with him.”

Setting the tone for an exploration of queerness, sexuality and manhood, it quickly becomes apparent that their relationship is rooted in the trappings of obsession – but whether it is one-sided, reciprocated or even acknowledged is never fully disclosed. Enthralled by Felix’s towering frame, charisma and social status, sheepish Oliver jumps at the chance to spend a summer at his newfound friend’s family estate. Introduced to Felix’s family played by an ensemble of Archie Madewke, Rosamund Pike, Carey Mulligan and Richard E. Grant, each member of the Catton family is slowly but surely lulled into a false sense of security by Oliver’s wallflower mirage.

The psychological drama is a modern take on the classic country house thriller, set against the backdrop of a Gothic estate laced with secret passages and sweeping enfilades to entice acts of secrecy and debauchery. As visually striking as it is narratively rich, each scene feels like stepping into a Caravvagio painting, as Fennell artfully captures the contrast between light and dark, drenches rooms in hues of bloody red and paints a visceral portrait of each character – delivering a blistering ode to the human condition, tearing it apart from the inside out.

Ahead of the film’s release, we sat down with Fennell to discuss building a world from paper to screen, her playlist of 00s bangers and why she believes nice people can never really be funny.

Still, Saltburn by Emerald Fennell, 2023

Ella Joyce: The intricacies and metaphors scattered throughout Saltburn are fascinating, where do you even begin when building a world as narratively rich and visually striking as this one?
Emerald Fennell: Thank you. I think the thing that helps me enormously is the way that I write, I go and live in imaginary worlds – I’m a daydreamer. I used to spend half of my life daydreaming in a different world, living a different life. Usually, for me, it starts as a tiny idea and then evolves over the years – this film started with Oliver. For a good seven or eight years now I’ve been going to Saltburn and living there, bit by bit the characters come in, the rooms change, the conversations begin to become a little bit more fixed, and you find that the rooms start to feel more familiar. Then you can add detail and once all of it feels finished, once it feels like I’ve like been in every conceivable room and everyone’s had every configuration of a conversation they could have, then I’m ready to write it down. So it means that visually and texturally, it’s quite fixed in my brain.

EJ: The central relationship between Oliver and Felix is charged with an implied queerness that hangs in the air throughout, can you tell us a little about that dynamic? 
EF: I would say it is absolutely queer. I think the thing that’s important about this film is that the desire is uncontained and completely limitless but there is also a question as to whether it’s one-sided, whether it’s an unrequited thing, or if it’s acknowledged but not acted on. The first line is, “I wasn’t in love with him” and the first line is a lie.

Still, Saltburn by Emerald Fennell, 2023

“It’s madness that we just don’t expect gorgeous people to be vile”

EJ: Notions of beauty and desire are at the very heart of Saltburn, the characters are beautiful yet we’re repulsed by the ugliness of their actions. How did you navigate that dichotomy? 
EF: I think beauty has no morality. Rosamund Pike’s character Elsbeth says, “I have a horror of ugliness” and we do equate beauty with moral goodness or cleanliness, we always have. It’s madness that we just don’t expect gorgeous people to be vile. I’m most interested in sympathy for the devil and what we as an audience are willing to go along with if we like someone. It’s about our complicity and thinking about what we will put up with if we think someone is really hot or really interesting. The thing that is interesting about any relationship and any power dynamic is that all of us are just self-deluded all the time. Almost every person in this film absolutely thinks they’re a good person and the fact that they’re not isn’t remotely relevant to them. But it’s the same for me, if I had to think of it all, I’d say I’m generally a good person but that would bear no scrutiny because I’m not really. [both laugh]

EJ: It’s almost ridiculous how true that sentiment of complicity is, we’re all blindsided by ourselves in one way or the other. 
EF: Oh completely. It is horrific to have to really see one’s self at all – it’s devastating. So, that always has to be the first thing we know of these people and that’s why it’s so important to me to have this process of living in the world, because also it’s about living as them. There’s always a point of empathy because you’re just like them and you’re as fallible as they are which is crucial. Also, there’s nobody really funny who’s very nice. [both laugh] It’s about looking at things that are macabre and absurd, and calling them out so you have to be willing to be a little bit cruel.

Still, Saltburn by Emerald Fennell, 2023

EJ: Felix’s family estate is a character in its own right and the abundance of enfilades, mirrors and secret passages propel certain scenarios. Why was that location so important and how did it aid the narrative?
EF: It was just the most important thing, as you said, it is a character. When you think of the country house British Gothic genre, and you think of Brideshead Revisited or Gosford Park, there are these houses that exist in your imagination. Because of Pride and Prejudice, Chatsworth House is now Pemberley, the real houses have these doubles in the literary and film worlds that we’re now so familiar with. I was conscious that it needed its own identity, and therefore it couldn’t be something we’d already seen because there is a sense of being granted access to a particular world. It needed to be something we weren’t familiar with already for having seen it in tonnes of stuff, so we spent a long time trying to find something that would fit the bill. We had to go quite far out because anything remotely close to London had already been filmed in but eventually we found this place which had never been filmed in or even photographed. You mentioned the enfilades and that’s exactly what it’s about, the amazing way the house is constructed allowed us to do these long shots so that we felt in place and it felt real. We all had to be familiar with the geography of this house, every window you look out of looks out at a place you’ve seen, you see glances of rooms that you are familiar with already – the audience is living in the house too.

We built Felix and Oliver’s suite of rooms upstairs and our amazing production designer Suzie Davies created the enfilade to mimic the one downstairs so we had that sense of peeping. These houses are so voyeuristic by nature, it’s why this is such a sexy and restrained genre because it’s all about looking, longing and a wanting that’s never sated. These houses are built with mirrors so that the staff can see if people have left the room and if anything needs doing or somebody’s drink needs topping up, every room has mirrors and those enfilades mean you can see far away, you can hear everything and you know what’s going on. Each room and each wall also has at least one door to get in and out of discreetly so these places are built to watch and be watched. It’s a necessary part, the first thing that happens when Oliver arrives is his bag is unpacked for him and Felix says, “I hope you didn’t pack anything scandalous, the maids tell mum.” Anything dirty or problematic is discreetly removed, and that’s why you can get away with things you ordinarily wouldn’t get away with because you aren’t living in the real world.

Still, Saltburn by Emerald Fennell, 2023

“I’m most interested in sympathy for the devil and what we as an audience are willing to go along with if we like someone”

EJ: It’s fascinating. One of my favourite scenes in the house was the Midsummer Night’s Dream Party, it’s such a beautiful portrayal of carnivalesque excess and revelry, what was that like to film?
EF: It was amazing, making this film was just incredible. A lot of people have been like, “It must have been so fun to make.” And I always think the hardest thing in the world is to make something look fun because it’s so gruelling. [both laugh] Parties or nightclubs in films or on telly are invariably bad, it’s really hard because the floor is always too clean or people are dancing to no music so nobody’s rhythm matches. We had nearly 300 SAs and we shot it over two nights, the costume department was so important because it was a Midsummer Night’s Dream theme. We needed some people to have rented a beautiful velvet 30s costume and then we’ve got the girls with a Leg Avenue 1999 from Amazon tits McGee special mixed with terrible neon Ray-Bans, which would have been my option back in the day. [laughs] Every character and every place was a mess, everything was dirty, there was sick everywhere, there were cigarette butts everywhere, and the layer of party debris everywhere had to be so intense that we could take a Steadicam around and we could shoot anyone in any tableau so that it felt real. We kept the music going all night too, I had my Saltburn playlist playing, which was everything from Britney to Crazy Frog to Rihanna, it was about keeping the energy up and making it feel like a place where things could tap into dangerous territory.

The thing about a really good party is its ability to tip into something dangerous, treacherous and out of control, even if it’s in your dorm room at university or at home when your parents are away. That’s what was so fun about this, it was about applying pressure so that with every scene things are getting more intense, darker, the stakes are getting higher, people are getting more naked, people are throwing up more, people are fucking more. There’s a point of crisis and you know something will go wrong. God help me I haven’t been to a party for a thousand years but I always remember that feeling at night when it began to get cold as the summer started to burn off and people started to lose their minds.

Still, Saltburn by Emerald Fennell, 2023

EJ: The period in which it is set is interesting because Oxford and Saltburn are seemingly timeless places but the characters humanise them, especially with their noughties costumes and double-collar polo shirts. [both laugh] What was the significance of the early 2000s setting? 
EF: The double-popped polo shirt… God have mercy on our souls, what a time! If that comes back because of this film, I’m really sorry to the young men of today.

EJ: I’m blaming you, I’m going to send you a strongly worded email. [both laugh]
EF: Rightly so. I’ll read it and I’ll agree with every word. [laughs] The time period is partly due to the structure of this genre because somebody is looking back over a time that destroyed or changed their life, so I knew it had to have that framing narrative. 2007 is just not cool, it’s not come back into fashion yet, it’s not far enough away, and it’s the in-between hinterland where everything looks bad. It’s not just the LIVESTRONG bracelets and the bad extensions, but it’s even the bras, we all had these hard push-up neon bras which we’d wear with a batwing one-shouldered t-shirt. We’d wear earrings, a headband, a headscarf, a tiny scarf and a thousand necklaces – accessorising was completely out of control. But, exactly as you said, it is humanising. It reminds you that people just get stuck in their time and if we had set it now, it’s hard to see those things when you’re living it. You need to know that these people are real and they are just as lame and as likely to have a bad tattoo as anyone else.

EJ: Music really helps to define the era too, we’re left with the parting notes of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Murder on the Dancefloor which couldn’t have been more fitting. What role did music play in this process?
EF: I’m so glad you bought that up because it’s so important to me. The beginning point for the daydream is the playlist, I live in the playlist and often that’s the thing that gets me where I need to be. I’m very careful and conscious for the first five or six assemblies of the movie that there’s no music at all because it’s very easy to use music as a crutch. The great thing about the music of the summer of 2007 is that it was an extraordinary era for music but it was music that did not outlast itself, it is fixed in that place. Someone like the Arctic Monkeys, for example, are still here so we didn’t use them but people like MGMT who did that unbelievable album are more fixed in that time. It’s always about looking at lyrics and the context, asking who is listening to what and when. What does Felix listen to in his room versus what’s playing at the disco or in the pub? We had Sound of the Underground and The Cheeky Girls in this movie, these are things that dreams are made of. [both laugh]

Saltburn is out in cinemas now. 

Still, Saltburn by Emerald Fennell, 2023

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