Emerald Fennell is not only an experienced multi-hyphenate filmmaker, she’s also now an Oscar-nominated one. Her critically acclaimed thriller PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Screenplay (which she won).
The English actress, novelist, television writer, screenwriter, film director, television producer, film producer, and playwright was also the showrunner for season two of the BBC America thriller series KILLING EVE, which earned her two Primetime Emmy Award nominations.
There’s so much screenwriters can learn from her career, so here’s a list of five lessons her work can teach you about the craft.
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Character and plot are the same thing
If you’ve seen PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN you know Fennell is not afraid to explore some very dark and uncomfortable themes and subjects in the film. I described this movie as female rage personified. We need to talk about female rage. Don’t be afraid to write a female protagonist who doesn’t fit the mold for the type of femininity we’ve seen on screen so far. Allow your characters to become rage personified (or whatever else serves your story) and craft a story that fits exactly that. In this film, it’s impossible to separate the character from the story. Fennell explained her take on female rage here:
“I’d been thinking a lot at the time about the way that rage and anger manifests itself, particularly in women when we don’t traditionally, in spite of what most revenge movies tell us, resort to violence,” she said. “It was looking at the different ways in which women act on those feelings if they do. … And it was pretty hot on the heels of it becoming a much bigger, more global conversation.” Fennell said.
Make your audience feel something
This movie has been nominated for five Oscars and yet, I’ve seen people bothered by the story, the ending, the subject matter, and the plot itself. I have to confess I had a hard time sleeping after watching this film and found myself in a deep conversation with my sister-in-law, who had watched the movie with me.
We had theories about different ways Cassie, the lead character, could have dealt with things and we both were surprised, may I say even shell-shocked, by the ending. This movie is highly triggering for most women. It’s okay to sucker punch your audience sometimes. They might walk out of the movie angry, but never numb or uninterested. Bottom line; love or hate this movie, you felt something after you saw it. That’s the job of any screenwriter; make the audience feel something.
Consent is not a joke
This film is controversial because the conversations around sexual consent are too recent. For years, the behavior we saw in this film was acceptable. We have all seen this behavior in real life. People have either been on the receiving end of those predatory actions or completely complacent with them.
“Like everyone in my generation and a lot of generations, I grew up, you know, in the unfortunate world where consent was very murky,” Fennell says. “Picking up drunk people or getting people drunk in order to ‘seduce’ them was really the punchline of jokes in movies and TV and it was never really taken very seriously. And that seemed like such a kind of frightening and intriguing thing to me,” Fennell adds.
The discomfort comes from the truth
The rage and discomfort the audience feels is due to the fact that sex with an intoxicated person is finally being treated as sexual assault and not as a joke or a seduction technique. Anytime that you speak the truth in your writing you will get a reaction from the reader, especially if you are using a very serious situation that has mostly been treated as comedic.
“There’s nothing… like the first thing I said when I was pitching PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN to everyone… there’s nothing in there, literally nothing in it, including the worst thing in it, that we haven’t seen in a comedy and laughed at. The premise was, “how can I hurt someone without touching them or threatening them in any way?” Fennell says.
Genre blending can be an effective tool for storytelling
When it comes to the best feature screenplays to read, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman ranks high on the list.
The critics have described this film as many different genres; a rape-revenge film, a mystery, a dark comedy, a thriller, a drama. And the film indeed is all those genres at times. The blend is mostly seamless, as Fennell navigates the different aspects of this story.
Fennell had this to say about her use of comedy to tell this story; “I think comedy is just a necessary part of this, because, you know, part of the design of the movie is for it to make people feel comfortable, to make them feel relaxed, so that you can just stick the knife in just when bellies are open.”
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Julia Camara is an award-winning Brazilian screenwriter/filmmaker. Julia won a Telly Award for the sci-fi found footage feature Occupants. Julia’s feature directorial debut In Transit, won Best Experimental Film at four different festivals. Julia’s other writing credits include Area Q and Open Road.