A Zoom exchange with writer-director Emerald Fennell wasn’t going well: we were struck by every imaginable technical foul-up, then worked it out via FaceTime on phone and laptop. That wouldn’t have happened in the world of “Saltburn,” which is set in sylvan… 2006?
Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan, “The Banshees of Inisherin”) is a student at Oxford University who is working to find his place; attracted to the seeming savor faire of effortlessly louche aristocrat Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who invites him to Saltburn, his family’s sprawling estate, for the summer. Class complications ensue. Plus: a multitude of the carnal collisions are pronouncedly perverse, if not just shocking. Felix’s father is played by Richard E. Grant; his mother, Rosamund Pike; one of the family hangers-on is played by a near-unrecognizable actress from Fennell’s first feature, “Promising Young Woman.”
“I wanted to make a film about love,” Fennell writes aptly of her intentions. “More specifically, the kind of locust, scorched-earth, cannibal love that you feel at a certain age. It’s the age when you finally get to be an adult, where you’re making yourself, where you get to be someone, or hope to be. The fluctuating identity, the often-unconsummated desire, the sense of becoming another person, of wanting to take over and be taken over is really at the centre of the Gothic tradition. With ‘Saltburn,’ I wanted to make a modern Gothic Romance (and horror, since they’re one and the same), precisely the kind of British country house gothic found in ‘The Go Between,’ ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and ‘Rebecca.’ A place where class, power and sex collide.” (There’s also a tincture of David Fincher’s film of “Gone Girl.”) “Saltburn” is a near-period piece, not so far in the past but certainly not in the here-and-now.
Why do we have to set this in 2006 instead of now or a distant epoch? It’s a period film, but for just a moment feels like it’s now. There are karaoke machines, but there are no cell phones, the bane of horror movies.
Honestly, firstly, the first thing is that for it to be a take on the country house tradition, we had to be looking at the recent past. I also think that there’s nothing more humanizing than setting something years ago. Oh, you know, closer to twenty years ago now, it’s not cool. The things of the recent past, where you look a little bit lame, you know, the bad hair extensions and the Livestrong bracelets and the kind of dodgy tattoos, all of that is of importance in “Saltburn,” because it reminds you always that they are still people, they’re still fallible, they’re still going to wear clunky accessories. That really enriches the world. If it had been set now, it would have felt too much like a photo shoot. And if it had been set back to even like Y2K, it would have been, you know, back on trend. It was about finding a place where everyone wasn’t just cool and sexy. There’s something kind of humanizing about being a little bit lame. And also, it was the last year in England that you could smoke inside! And nothing makes something better as a period drama more than seeing people smoke in a restaurant or a pub.
That’s why the Coen brothers have set all their movies in at least the recent past. They have never made a contemporary piece. You can make a mistake in a contemporary piece, but you can’t make a mistake in a period piece.
That’s amazing. We’re also just more comfortable as an audience, especially when it comes to satire, being a little removed. So there’s a plausible deniability when we’re looking at ourselves! It feels a little less brutal somehow.
From the opening shots of the setting to the square, Academy screen ratio to the ruddy color palette in the early scenes, I settled into think that “Saltburn” was setting out as a latter-day Ealing Studios picture. Oliver’s like an Alec Guinness character dropped into a 1950s Technicolor try at Caravaggio’s studio.
Thank you so much. I mean, that’s a huge honor. Yeah, “Kind Hearts And Coronets” was obviously a huge inspiration for this slightly heightened world.
And Keoghan is certainly a great actor for that, because he isn’t a classic bounder or cad, he seems working-class, you don’t think he’s sly, he seems to drown in it all. You’ve mentioned a lot of references, so it’s okay to talk about references, and I’d bring in Pasolini’s “Teorema,” where Terence Stamp is the seductive young man who comes into the home and everybody wants to fuck him. Even though they don’t understand that polysexual thing. But he’s got his own charisma, which he plays closer to Guinness. A little bit of rough. Then an hour or so in, you get the shape of what’s happening.
He has both the kind of vulnerability and the sort of natural, dark charisma. It was just always trying to balance those things, you know, at what point do we, it is that… you know, oh, he’s the person who’s gonna… you know, he’s the person who… and I won’t be able to stop thinking about it.
And it’s also his eyes. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything I’ve seen in them in earlier films where Keoghan’s eyes specifically, you would say, oh, his eyes look dead, all of a sudden, but they have a different alertness or liveliness. And that seems to be also something you’ve done with your cinematographer, Linus Sandgren (“La La Land,” “Babylon”), in each setting, he’s so aware of eyes. Movies nowadays so often don’t shoot for the life in an actor’s eyes.
Linus was just so thorough when we were making a film. It’s about artifice, it is about the way we perceive things, we want people to perceive ourselves. The eyes… Linus is such a genius with eyes, particularly blue eyes, he always found a way to light the iris, even when we’re just shooting in silhouette. I always said to Barry that he has this thing that sharks have, or something from when I was a child so I don’t know that it’s necessarily true, and I’ve never Googled it. But sharks have double eyelids and the one underneath is clear and it means they’re going to attack. I think that if you have that ability, even in super close-up… He does not move but his eyes change and it’s the most thrilling… this is mesmerizing.
It’s also gratifying to see the light on all the actor’s eyes, because you have such a variety of performers and faces. I want to trust any filmmaker who knows how to put the light on that aspect as well as that wild hair on the great Richard E. Grant, who plays the scattered head of the family.
Oh yes, oh, Richard! They’re all so exceptional. The thing is, wherever your film is set, whatever it’s about, it’s always really just about eight people. That kind of violence, the tension, how close everyone is with each other. That’s the only interesting thing. How do we interact with each other? What are we trying to get out of everything? What are our eyes saying, what are our faces saying, it’s just, you know, it’s endlessly fun.
Your key genre armature is the British “heritage film.” Did “Saltburn” begin with that? Did it begin with the characters? While you have diverse and Gothic tones, the elements aren’t warring. But I’m interested in the sequence. Did you think about a character like this entering a place like this? Or are you also thinking in the bigger picture of this whole history, ever since Helena Bonham Carter first put her hair up in heritage film, her industry.
Well, you know, it’s kind of a waste. I’m never very good at putting my finger on it because it tends to take years and it always starts with a character. And so with this movie, it begins with a character saying, “I wasn’t in love with him.” And then, and then, you know, seeing things that really very much tell you that the contrary is true. I suppose that after years and years of thinking about Oliver, it becomes a place and then it becomes apparent that this is in the old tradition of the British country house films. Then you start to know that’s interesting because that is about being an outsider. And once it all happens over years and years and years of thinking, then it hardens and finally when I feel like I’ve gone everywhere, I’ve been into every room of the house, I’ve held hands with every character, I’ve smelled them all, I know what every detail that is ready to write down. But that takes years and it’s very difficult to know what happens first.
That makes me hope that you have a lot of years-old fragments that are still circulating, that are all waiting to calculate.
Yeah, there are a lot of places, currently, that I go and visit. There always have been, I think I’d go mad if I couldn’t.
Could you talk a little bit about “locust cannibal love, the hunger of the unrequited flame”?
No matter what you’re talking about, everyone understands that feeling and I think it’s just the most human kind of relatable thing and it makes sense that so much literature and so much of the work that I grew up with, they were doomed, doomed love stories to some degree. I don’t know, it feels very human to me.
You also have a lot of things stitching up the hard, harsh boundaries of class and cash, they’re really all aware of it but at the same time they don’t want to be. They just want to be, oh fancy-free, we’re the wealthy, our privilege is effortless, but then that leads to their weaknesses, their failures.
Well, absolutely. I think, aren’t we all blind to our own privilege and our own faults? You know, the thing about the Cattons that was incredibly important was that we couldn’t be immune to that. And so part of what they do is weaponized. Yeah, this weaponized intimacy that you find that not just, you know, members of the aristocracy [wield], but anyone charismatic, anyone, you know, famous people wherever there’s a power center and you have somebody disarming. The key is that all of us know better, we know better, we’re smart enough to know that it doesn’t matter how we like our eggs in the morning, we’re smart enough to know that these people pick people up and put them down as fast as a cigarette. But we want them to look at us and we want them to see us and we want them to like us.
Oliver is the “boy of the summer” without the baggage of all the previous boys of the summer. They go through them like those cigarettes.
Yeah. The new girl. How do you turn yourself, how do you make yourself not a toy? How do you make yourself not something they play with for a minute? And the answer is the same as how did they get the house, how do these families live, how do they exist? And it’s, you know, you don’t get it by being sweet.
“Saltburn” is in theaters from November 24.