'The Reality of Vengeance' in 'Promising Young Woman': 'THR Presents’ Q&A With Carey Mulligan and Emerald Fennell

The filmmaker and star of the Focus Features movie share how they flipped the genre on its head: "The words that get stuck on female characters, like 'empowering' and 'kickass' and 'whip-smart' … I've certainly never used those words to describe real women that I know."

Emerald Fennell has watched her fair share of revenge films — but she hadn't ever seen one that felt realistic. So she set out to make one herself with Promising Young Woman.

"I wanted to make a revenge movie that felt like it was from the point of view of a real woman that had both the deliciousness of the genre as well as the reality of what vengeance is and what grief is," Fennell told  THR's Bryn Sandberg during The Hollywood Reporter Presents Q&A powered by Vision Media.

It all started with an image Fennell couldn't get the scene out of her head. A young woman is lying in a bed, seemingly drunk, as a man starts removing her clothes without her permission. Slurring her words, the woman asks the guy what he's doing, but he doesn't respond. So she waits a beat and then asks him again — this time revealing that she's stone-cold sober.

The scene quickly became a springboard for Fennell's feature debut, which follows a med-school dropout named Cassandra who pretends to be wasted at bars, only to flip the power dynamic on the men who take her home and try to take advantage of her. It was that initial scene, which serves as the movie's cold open, that ultimately drew star Carey Mulligan to the Focus Features project. "I'd never read anything like it," says Mulligan, whose litmus test for whether or not she should take a role is if she could bear seeing someone else play it. "It would have just absolutely killed me for anyone else to do this," she adds.

Mulligan was Fennell's first pick for the role because she felt like the actress could ground the character, a woman who is attempting to avenge her best friend's sexual assault. "I was worried in the beginning that there was a way of playing Cassandra that was all of the words that get stuck on female characters, like 'empowering' and 'kickass' and 'whip-smart,'" says Fennell. "These words can be good in lots of ways, but they're also quite reductive and sort of oppressive in a lot of ways because I've certainly never used those words to describe real women that I know."

The film shot over the course of 23 days in Los Angeles, which Fennell disguised as a generic town by hiding the palm trees and any defining landmarks. She made sure to foster a playful, fun atmosphere on set so that the actors would feel comfortable when they had to delve into more serious subject matter. For the bar scenes and their aftermath, she'd tell the male actors to think of themselves as the leading men. "What makes it so horrifying is how earnest they are," she says. "They truly believe they are in a rom-com."

Though Mulligan had to film several difficult scenes, one of the most nerve-wracking for her was one that saw her dance and sing along to Paris Hilton's 'Stars Are Blind' in a pharmacy with her co-star Bo Burnham. "I was like, 'Oh no,'" says Mulligan, who jokes that she has PTSD every time she hears the song now. "But I love working with directors like Emerald who will push me."

This THR Presents is brought to you by Focus Features; additional Q&As and other supplementary content can be viewed in THR's new public hub at THRPresents.HollywoodReporter.com.