Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman was one of the ‘buzziest’ films of Sundance 2020, which was certainly helped by the release of a trailer shortly before the festival. Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman who pretends to be drunk almost to the point of unconsciousness in night clubs, waits until a man lures her back to his place in order to take advantage of her and then teaches them a lesson. The film is something of a twist on the rape-revenge trope because it blends genres such as horror, thriller and mystery with what is essentially a rom-com. The film uses some iconic pop tracks in unusual ways but also has a sumptuous, romantic orchestral score from young British composer Anthony Willis. We met up with him in Park City to discuss working with the exciting new director and of course, had to ask him about that cover of Britney Spears’ Toxic from both the film and trailer. 

What was the process of collaboration with Emerald Fennell like?

Coincidentally, we went to the same school, but she was older and fancier than me. I knew who she was because she was an actress in all the plays and hasn’t stopped being a force of nature since.

She came up to me at a party and said “I just want to get your advice on my film, I’m looking for a composer.” It’s a huge decision, especially with a film as original as Promising Young Woman. It was sort of unclear exactly what she was looking for because none of us knew exactly what the film was. She said it was a “dark horror thriller comedy….with a romance.” And I thought that sounded amazing. Musically that can be interpreted in so many different ways.

She realised that she was looking for a score that was a counterpoint to the songs, as opposed to trying to be like them. We did have conversations about going down a mangled-pop route and in my early demos I did some things that she liked with twisted vinyl. But then she gravitated towards a score that was more like a classical thriller with a contemporary twist. So we stripped away a lot of those things and ended up with the string orchestra, there’s also some piano in there and some beautiful voices. I use a synth that I made which is a woman half-screaming/half-singing, but it’s very quiet and soft that creates a sort of tension and this is the presence of Nina, who is the unspoken friend.

Emerald said “why don’t you watch the film and write a demo?” It was giving her a chance to see what a composer who comes from my background of more traditional orchestral scores could do for the film. The music supervisor Sue Jacobs and I had conversations early on about creating a cohesive through-line with the score and maybe try a theme for the character (of Cassie), so you fall in love with the character even more. I found Carey’s performance so compelling, so likeable anyway, in spite of the slightly crazy things she does. Obviously, you really empathise with her. You desperately are longing for her to be able to live a happy life and move on. I was thinking “well I found her pretty likeable anyway.” But it was about how we can make her journey articulated through a theme.

I like to call it a barber’s pole. It’s a shape that keeps rising, you could keep going and you’re never quite sure where it starts and stops. Emerald listened to the demos and said “that’s it.” I think that’s the power of getting a feeling from a character over the course of watching a film. It was a feeling of her broken soul longing for something else.

The score first becomes really noticeable in a scene where Cassie starts searching for Al Monroe (the film’s main villain) on the internet. This theme is picked up again when her best friend Nina’s mother (played by Molly Shannon) says: “you gotta let it go.” What were you going for with the use of soaring strings in these moments?

Yes, so those two scenes where she’s on her laptop are connected, the second is a counterpoint to the first. You’re looking at an incredibly intimate scene with a woman in her bedroom and emotionally, what she’s going through at that moment is as big as the film can be. Emerald really cranked the cue the first time she’s on her laptop and that’s the thing about composers is we do what we can and deliver it and then the director does what they want with it. We looked a little bit at death marches, which Mica Levi is so good at when she finally decides to go down the rabbit hole. What I would call a low-fi drum groove, it’s indicative of something that’s not quite right. It’s not really supposed to make you feel good, it’s almost like a warning.

But the second moment is the complete opposite, it’s the romantic cello version with the orchestra doing still a pulsating texture around it. What’s interesting about the character is that Cassie is at times, so in control and that’s the more horror-thrillery aspect, Emerald wanted it to feel strong and in control. But then with the second scene, I thought; “I wonder if Emerald will go for this, with this cello solo? If I make it literally the most emotional version of the scene I can, very much juxtaposing the intimacy of the bedroom?” and she said; “Yep! Next! That’s it! Done!”

This then becomes the part of the film where it leans most into being a romantic-comedy…

Yes, exactly. The next cue after that is called Blue Halo and it’s when Cassie and Ryan very much consolidate their romance, before the Paris Hilton track. That’s where the barber’s pole was really useful because it’s the most beautiful kissing moment and it sort of seems to last forever. I think that’s the feeling you get from this rising shape is that it makes you get stuck in the moment. And that’s what I wanted to try and achieve in that scene – a feeling of; “my God, this kiss.” Emerald said “I want it to be the most romantic thing.” And I thought that’s a challenge, but Emerald was like; “more strings! more romantic!” I did a more modest version, but she said; “no, let’s get the whole orchestra!” It’s really wonderful to work with a filmmaker like Emerald who is so bold in her decisions and she really wants to push. It’s the opposite of what a lot of people want a music score to do, they want it to be very subtle. There are more subtle moments at other times, that underpin this feeling of righteousness and deliverance that Emerald was trying to achieve. But it’s wonderful to be empowered by a filmmaker with a vision as strong as Emerald’s.

I have to ask you about the version of Toxic that is used in the movie and in the trailer.

I think of all the moments in the film, it’s probably the most iconic, that sequence. It’s certainly a marriage with the music. That said, it’s really Emerald’s vision. I don’t know at what point in the process she actually conceived that idea but that was something where she found some old recordings and tried them and slowed them down. And then we recreated it and we played with the structure of it, so we got to the chorus earlier. It was actually quite hard to do it, it just wanted to be the most mangled, warped and horrific version of what’s actually one of the coolest songs ever written. It’s just a genius choice, really. When I first came on the project, I was thinking “there’s no way they’re going to license Toxic. That’s gonna cost a billion dollars.”

I was going to ask if you had any problems getting the rights for it.

Rightfully so, it was such an integral part of Emerald’s vision, it was a big priority. So the music supervisor worked hard to make sure that was acquired. I’ve seen on Twitter a lot of people talking about it.

As soon as the trailer came out, everyone was talking about that version of Toxic.

Yeah, it’s really cool. I think it tonally captures that moment so well, it’s so horrific but that’s the really interesting thing about using something that recognisable. There’s a difference between a piece of music you know in a film versus a piece of music you don’t know. It has a really different effect and I think it’s things like that that allow Emerald to keep everybody having fun while also keeping them immersed in this real goliath of a story. It’s like; “that’s hilarious and brilliant but oh my God where’s she going? What is happening?” I was just a pawn in Emerald’s plan for that, but it was cool to be a part of that for sure.

I know that certainly the film has got a lot of attention, it’s very unconventional and I know it’s been criticised a bit for that and the way that it does that. But I think Emerald’s not afraid of that, she’s probably thinking “brilliant” when she reads those reviews “yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to do.” It’s bizarre that I ended up being on it, I’m really glad I did, I’m really lucky to have been a part of this film.