Writer/director Emerald Fennell’s audacious and masterful debut, Promising Young Woman, has exploded into the American consciousness. In a year when many doubted movies would make any sort of impact, Fennell’s film, featuring an award-worthy lead performance by Carey Mulligan, has delighted moviegoers and wowed critics with its unique spin on the revenge story. Blending socio-political commentary, dark comedy and heart-pounding suspense all floating on a bubblegum cloud of bold colors and a vibrant score, Promising Young Woman breaks every mold, defying genre.
I recently spoke with Promising Young Woman cinematographer, Benjamin Kracun, about how he went about executing Fennell’s unique vision for the film, what the biggest challenges were during the short, 23-day shoot, and how he approached and shot the movie’s final key sequence that has the whole world buzzing.
****SPOILER ALERT: Big moments from the movie are discussed in this interview. Please do not read it until AFTER you have seen the movie. This is a movie that should be enjoyed fresh!! ****
Catherine Springer: How would you describe Promising Young Woman?
Benjamin Kracun: Oh, my gosh! [laughing] My description of the movie is it’s a psychological thriller, rom-com horror. It’s a film that goes from fantasy into reality. And I don’t know how to describe what happens in it. [laughs]
CS: So how was your approach? I saw in an interview that someone mentioned the film was like a cross between Vertigo and Clueless…
BK: Oh yeah….
CS: So visually, how do you approach something that is, as you say, almost indescribable?
BK: [laughs] First of all, when I first met Emerald [Fennell, director/writer], she had a very definitive idea, which was so specific, regarding tones, because when you first read the story, just in script form–she sent me the script first, I didn’t have any visuals to go by– it’s very funny in places, and there is that kind of rom-com element which is in there, but it’s a very strong, single female revenge tale. It has that sort of amazing twist, and the last 20 minutes is just like, insane. That’s what the script read like. Although, when reading it, you might read it as slightly more somber. You know, if you’re reading on your own, it’s not like you’re constantly laughing out loud. When I met Emerald, and she had her look book, the actual form of it then began to take place. Because what Emerald was saying, and what she’s actually doing with the movie, is she’s saying, “I don’t want to signpost this, I actually want what it’s doing to be in disguise.” So, in the same way that Cassie is in disguise, we would do that with the lighting and the design and the sort of form of the film. So in a way, the approach seemed very clear. And what we did inject into it was a kind of predatory camera idea, which is also obviously coming from the script. The precision, the predatory camera, they are all part of Cassie’s psychology, in a sense, and I think the film had to take on that kind of form. And we approached it from that angle, rather than sort of outside looking in. I say that in as non-pretentious a way as possible, but we would go from where she is. So, if she is at home, and she’s in stasis, and that place is locked in time, the camera doesn’t move so much in that space, and even singles her out, frames within frames. She’s sort of singled out in the family, the parents are always shown together. So in a way, I always felt like actually, the form of it was quite a strong through-line, even though it’s moving through genres, if that makes sense.
CS: Absolutely. What about the specific the confrontation scenes, like in the restaurant and in the Dean’s office? Was there a different way you shot those? Especially in the Dean’s office, it felt a bit traditional, with the framing back and forth, but there had to be a tension constantly building.
BK: So that was a classic Mexican standoff type affair. You don’t have guns, but they are doing it verbally and Cassie sort of begins one way. The Dean is very powerful, you’re in a quite regal setting, we have it quite wide and centrally framed, and then Cassie is off to the side. She becomes more centralized as the dialogue continues, as you realize what Cassie is saying about kidnapping her daughter and the Dean becomes more on edge. So in a way, if you break it down, it’s sort of simple in that sense, but it’s quite precise, because we have that idea. The camera doesn’t move as much in that scene because it can’t, I mean, we’re in the Dean’s office, and there’s not the sort of space. And if you take the Madison scene, which is the boozy lunch scene, the first person on her mission, that scene begins more in that kind of style. But then the moment they start talking about Nina, you’ll notice the camera moves at exactly that moment. Because she’s probing her, asking her, even giving her a chance to explain herself or even apologize. When she doesn’t, and doesn’t even acknowledge what happened, then the camera kind of encroaches on her, almost like in wildlife movies. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I mean, it’s sort of an imperceptible creep and it should make you quite uneasy. Screws are turning, things are changing, and I think we tried to imbue that in each of those missions with the people she confronts.
CS: And it’s that subconscious element, you feel it but you don’t know how or why you’re feeling it, and it works so well. Also in the confrontation with the truck, I was struck that it was shot in the middle of the day, in very bright sunshine.
BK: [laughs] Does that come straight after the Dean scene?
CS: Yeah, I believe so.
BK: I think, again, it’s in contrast to when you would regularly see it, and also, because so much of the film is that way, she’s hiding in plain sight. It’s these moments where you would obviously not expect that type of action to happen. That is also one of the few moments where the camera is very mobile and things are ramping up. And as it was originally conceived, we did it in one take. But in the edit, it cuts between a few of them, because we go into the car as well, but from when she gets out and gets the tire iron, it’s one singular take. And yeah, I think it sort of adds to the kind of uneasy suburbia to do it during the day. And it was always written during the day. Maybe you’d expect it more at night, or you’d expect it less, if that makes sense, the road rage kind of idea. Also, I think it was interesting that, at the end of the sequence, she just stood there. It’s not like she’s got a fist in the air, jumping with joy after these incidents. She doesn’t like them. She doesn’t know how to deal with it. But she’s just dealing with it in her way. And even after the confrontations, I don’t know how much it’s helping her, but, at the same time, she has to do it.
CS: You have to show Cassie’s slow descent into madness, but you have to keep up the deception for the audience as to how far she’s gone or how far she’s willing to go. How do you build on that without giving it all away?
BK: First of all, Carey Mulligan is carrying this whole thing in a totally amazing way. To speak to that, the key thing that we do in the movie is create the Cassie/Ryan relationship. Because just prior to, obviously, the final act, is the whole romance between them. And we actually really push in a very colorful way and a romantic way. Because I do believe that Cassie is actually really happy at that moment. And she does believe it’s going to be something and then obviously, it’s not. I think that us, by playing that, to that extent, I think you are really deflected by that point. When you’re in the pharmacy, and you’re really into that and going for that, I think you forget what might happen. That’s the trick and why it was always written as this musical moment. Even the camera becomes its most, let’s say, music video/90s vibe and pink is amped up and you’re like, wow, we’re just in this 90s love montage. It’s kind of beautiful. And I think that sort of sidesteps the audience. Yes, with technique, but I would actually say that Carey and Bo [Burnham] really do most of the heavy lifting there, Carey especially.
CS: Absolutely. I want to ask you a couple of questions before we get into serious spoiler territory. So much of this industry has been built on the male gaze, and this movie sort of turns that on its head. Were there any adjustments you had to make to shoot a movie from a woman’s point of view, telling a woman story?
BK: I was really happy to. First of all, Emerald is so planned out and she’s so meticulous. She knows exactly what she wants in the best possible way. And she’s such a good communicator, I think I spent most of the prep on the movie just listening. There were things that Emerald said to me very early on, which are very important, and the most important was that we would never see any of the incident, we would never show any– well, there’s one act of violence, which we can get to—but other than that, we would never, we wanted to stay away from all those kind of tricks. So, already, I was training myself and my eye in a different way. And I’ve made quite a few dark, thriller-y movies before. So in a way, that’s all simmering below but what we’re actually seeing is not, which maybe is a bit more the female gaze. It’s approaching it from the opposite angle of where maybe Tarantino would approach it. Which actually, I kind of really enjoyed. It had much more subtlety, even though there’s certain things that are quite, you know, unsubtle in the movie, of course. But yeah, it definitely came from Emerald. And I was very much executing her vision, and I would suggest, where I could, to really help that. But those were already written in and we would never be putting our eye on those types of imagery. I mean, we are flipping it around. For the opening image, for example, we happened to be watching 90s music videos, you know? [laughs] I mean, they just show girls dancing in bikinis. We were like, let’s just do that with guys in khakis! With all the close-ups too…it was really enjoyable to flip all that stuff
around. And it also just points out how gratuitous all that stuff is.
CS: Getting into major SPOILER ALERT territory here, let’s talk about the last 20 minutes. I know you’ve already touched on this, about the deception and we don’t know where it’s going. For me, I wanted to immediately watch it again, so I could see if I could see her intentions and even watching it a second time, I can’t tell if she went up there planning to die. But, more than that, you don’t get many movies who are willing to kill off their star, their protagonist, like this.
BK: [laughs] Yeah….like EVER.
CS: So what was the approach to make that last scene really, really hit home the way it does so perfectly?
BK: That was one of the main hooks of, and I don’t want to speak for anyone else who got involved in the movie, but, early on, when Emerald sent a script, reading that was really jaw-dropping. It was just like, oh my god, how are we going to even pull that off? Is the audience going to stay with it? Can you DO that? [laughs] Yeah, these are all discussions that we would have. I don’t know exactly if she does know that she’s going to die. I think maybe she knows that something serious could happen. I don’t know, but one thing Emerald was very fixed on was having that play out in real time. And one shot. One shot of the actual–well, I guess we’ve already spoiled it, haven’t we [laughs]—the suffocation itself. It was based on medical advice. Someone Emerald knows, with a medical background, did actually say, if it’s Carey’s height and weight, it would take this amount of time. And that’s the exact amount of time of the shot. So that’s when it becomes very real, very haunting.
CS: What kind of angles were you thinking of for it?
BK: Originally, the very first discussion with Emerald was, let’s just have one shot, this one fixed shot, because it just shows everything. It’s stark. It’s wide. And then it comes back to what we talked about previously, and this idea of the sort of slow creep in and predatory camera, and encircling your prey where it was almost like, okay, if we’ve set that up, we could flip back here in terms of it could be moving in, and that is happening to Cassie. So that was the only thing we added in that action. It just goes from wide in that two and a half minutes all the way and it’s done all in one take. It was stark and
shocking and very disturbing, and hopefully unexpected.
CS: Was that a real cabin? Or was that a set that was built for this?
BK: That’s a ranch that they use for filming. There were no sets, we didn’t really have the budget for that. I think the café was an on-location set, as it were, sort of an industrial space. And the set was made within it. But there was no stage work. It was a specific world we were building.
CS: What was the biggest challenge to delivering Emerald’s vision?
BK: [laughs] Well, we made the film very, very fast, which was a challenge in itself.
CS: How fast?
BK: It was shot in 23 days. Prepped in four weeks. And you know, it was a different location every day. And the cast is a big cast. So in that sense, just getting that to work, the challenge there was us being prepped enough when we hit the floor to shoot. In terms of the biggest challenges, yeah, I think the final sequences, that was the one piece we could keep up till the end of the movie, so we did film them in the last weeks, which, continuity-wise and for Carey’s performance, was the best choice. When you’re shooting that kind of cabin stuff towards the end, there were challenges there because there weren’t many cabins to choose from, because of the fires that had just happened the year previous. The space was quite tight and we had quite a few actors when she goes up there, into the lair, as it were. And we also shot high speed there, and when you shoot high speed on the Phantom camera, you need like 12 times as much light. There were many challenges that evening to get through.
CS: Well, it just turned out brilliantly. My last question is a much broader question for anyone involved in this film. As an audience member, I know how much I wish I could have seen this in a sold-out theater on opening night. Is there a part of you that wishes this had been pushed back so that the audience could have had that communal experience watching this film?
BK: Huh, wow, that is a terrible question. [laughs]
CS: I don’t want to get you in trouble! I just mean, if there’s any film this year I wish I had seen in a packed theater, it’s this one.
BK: Well, all I can say is, I hope they actually put it back into the theaters when they can. But I actually think this is a great time to release it, I think it’s really caught an audience. I feel like people are really reacting to the movie, and there’s conversation starting about the movie, that’s what ultimately is amazing. And it should continue. And that should be spoken about. And hopefully, we can start living in a better world. And people can have open discussions about things that you know, that are difficult, and that’s what the movie is meant to do. So I think this time is great. However, we did manage to have that premiere in Sundance, which was sold out that night. And it was insane. To have, as you say, watched the film, and be next to people, and to be hearing reactions, and also your own reactions to it with people there, it’s amazing. And that final sequence. Like the moment when the friend comes into the room afterwards—after what you’ve just witnessed, and then to have that uncomfortable laugh right afterwards. To have those kinds of emotions, to make that sort of U-turn, and for it to work, in a movie theater is really special. There’s something that happens during that film that really gets you. I just hope we can be in a theater somewhere because it is amazing. I remember Emerald saying the same thing. I remember watching Get Out at the ArcLight and other certain films, where you’re like, oh my god. There’s just something about it. And people really get into it. They laugh, they gasp. And it’s just all those things are just so wonderful. So yeah, I’m sort of like having my cake and eating it too, saying I think it’s the best time, but can we have it in the theater? [laughs]
CS: But you want everyone to see it without knowing anything about it. But the great thing about this film is that, even if you know how it ends or you’ve seen it, you want to still see it. It’s incredibly re-watchable.
BK: From the people who I’ve spoken to or have sent me messages, they have actually watched it two or three times, so that’s kind of cool. It’s a movie you actually want to revisit. And, if you’re allowed to say it, it’s also fun and enjoyable in places as well. And funny! You know, that was something that we talked about a lot–it’s a fun thriller that’s really dark. [laughs] But it should be fun in places, and make you go, “I want to watch this!”
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Originally published on Awards Radar.