A rollicking revenge drama wrapped up in darkly funny rom-com packaging, 2021’s Promising Young Woman marked the emergence of a bold new voice in British filmmaking – Emerald Fennell. Armed with exquisite needledrops, razor sharp social commentary, and a slick sense of visual style, the writer-director proved herself to be quite the provoc-auteur. And now she’s back, taking aim at the seedy, seductive world of the Oxfordian elite with Saltburn, which sees Barry Keoghan’s socially outcast student Oliver Quick lured to the sprawling titular estate of Jacob Elordi’s Felix Catton for a summer he’ll never forget. It’s also a period piece. “Which period?” we hear you cry? Why, the Noughties, of course!
Writing exclusively in this month’s issue of Empire, Fennell explains the significance of the film’s specific mid-2000s setting. “The bulk of the film is set in 2006/7. The classic Gothic framing narrative required it to be set in the recent past,” Fennell writes, “but it also had the crucial effect of undercutting the glamour and humanising everyone. 2006 was the time of sideburns, patchy fake tans, bad hair extensions, BlackBerrys and tiny glittery scarves — no matter how sexy or rich you were, it was hard to pull off.” It’s a setting that also allowed Fennell to capture a world pre-indoor smoking ban: “nothing makes something feel more like a period drama than seeing someone light up in a pub,” she writes.
When it came to balancing the film’s classical framework with its' 00s setting, Fennell – who describes spending much of Saltburn’s production as either “running between floors, looking at fabric and wallpaper samples”, “marvelling at the horror of the mid-’00s shoe-boot”, or “trying to work out the most embarrassing gap-yah tattoo for Felix (“carpe diem”)” – found her and her collaborators “toeing the line between Barry Lyndon and ’00s indie sleaze”. And if things ever veered too stately? Well, there was a plan for that. “By the end of production, the art department had what they called ‘Emerald’s Shit Table’,” writes Fennell, “because if a shot looked too artful, it would usually require the addition of a packet of Nik Naks or a poster of Kelly Brook.” In fairness, we can’t see Piranha 3D joining the Criterion Collection anytime soon. Nik Naks on the other hand… they can be artful, right? Right?!
Read Emerald Fennell’s full deep-dive into making Saltburn, exclusively written for Empire, in our December 2023 issue. Order a copy online here, or pick up a copy on newsstands from today. Saltburn releases in UK cinemas on 17 November.