My interview with writer/director Emerald Fennell didn’t start how I expected it to. After commenting on what a rollercoaster her latest film Saltburn is, the Oscar-winning filmmaker asks me which theme park ride I’d compare it to. Admitting I’m not exactly much of a roller coaster enthusiast, I eventually decided on Thirteen at Alton Towers, thanks to its gothic setting and third act twist. Of course, I then wanted to know which one she would compare her movie to, but instead Fennell references a fairground film scene: "Did you see Fear with Reese Witherspoon? It’s a ‘90s thriller and there’s a great scene that was very important to me in my teen years where her character gets fingered on a rollercoaster. I hope that’s the kind of ride Saltburn is."
Although I am yet to catch up with the ‘90s cult favorite, a quick watch of the scene on YouTube confirms that Fennell’s hopes have been achieved, with Saltburn being just as seductively exciting yet sinister. Set in 2006, we follow Barry Keoghan’s Oliver Quick as he meets the charming, aristocratic Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who invites him to his family’s lavish home Saltburn for a summer never to be forgotten. However, the more time Quick spends at Saltburn, the more he becomes alarmingly infatuated with the Catton family, particularly Felix who he is completely and utterly obsessed with.
Creatures of the night
As Fennell tells the Inside Total Film podcast and GamesRadar+, Oliver is "in love with Felix in all ways – in every conceivable way you could be in love with someone", with that feeling becoming dangerously all-consuming. The sensation drives Oliver to do some things which will undoubtedly shock audiences – without spoilers, look out for a particular moment with a bathtub. These scenes are certainly uncomfortable to watch, but Fennell emphasises that they aren’t in any way there for shock value: "A lot of this film is an interrogation of desire. With this type of love, there has to be this element of revulsion, and for us to feel what Oliver is feeling and understand that, you need to physically react to stuff. We did a lot of work then to make it a physical experience – uncomfortable, sexy, difficult, queasy. I thought a lot about the feeling of popping a spot – queasy pleasure."
Oliver's perverse actions are both unnerving and frightening, so whilst Saltburn is billed as a psychological black comedy, you could easily argue that it is also a horror movie. In fact, Fennell sees it as a very particular type of horror, as she revealed in our chat: "It absolutely is a Gothic film and the thing about the Gothic which I love so much is that Gothic romance is Gothic horror – they are the same thing. When I first spoke to Linus [Sandgren] my amazing cinematographer, he asked me what word I would use to describe the way the film makes me feel – I said 'vampire' as it's a vampire movie where everyone is a vampire but no one is I guess."
Fennell is right – whilst none of the characters have fangs, they are all vampires of the night sucking the life out of something. This rings particularly true for Oliver, a strange, mysterious outsider who is drawing blood from people who is completely besotted with. He haunts the dark, twisting corridors of Saltburn, the gorgeous yet imposing mansion which provides the perfect location for this Gothic tale of sex and power.
Get lost in Saltburn
Setting this story at a British countryside estate has naturally earned Saltburn comparisons to the likes of Brideshead Revisited and The Go-Between, especially since it also features a young man obsessing with the wealthy, upper class. Fennell admits that her film certainly fits into the "very specific British genre of 'something happened in a country house one summer'", but emphasizes that she thinks it has international appeal too. At the end of the day, whilst the class system on these shores is very different, all over the world there is an unhealthy fascination with the rich, therefore we can all relate.
"We have exported the British country house so effectively in literature and film, everyone internationally is familiar with how their workings. As we are talking about power, class, and sex, this film could have existed at the Kardashians' compound or the Hamptons, but the thing about British aristocracy is that people know the rules because of the films we have seen before. We all have an entry level familiarity so we know from a glance that Oliver has screwed up breakfast. It's all familiar but the things that are restrained about the genre are overt here – as we look at what we do when nobody is watching us."
One of the things we all do when we think nobody is looking is have a boogie – let's face it, 'dance like nobody's watching' is a famous saying for a reason! And Saltburn features a whole lotta boogying to an electrifying pop soundtrack of iconic 2000s hits, from Sophie Ellis-Bextor's 'Murder on the Dancefloor' to the classic Girls Aloud track 'Sound of the Underground'. Even The Cheeky Girls feature with their festive banger 'Have A Cheeky Christmas'.
For anyone familiar with Fennell's astonishing previous feature Promising Young Woman, you will know that music plays a key role in her filmmaking. Who could forget that incredible scene set to Paris Hilton's 'Stars Are Blind'?! Asking the filmmaker about the soundtrack, Fennell says she is somewhat surprised that her choice to include pop songs is such a huge talking point, speaking to a strange attitude that exists within cinema.
"It’s interesting as we have this thing now where we expect movies to exist outside of pop culture – they live in a world where nobody is drinking Coca Cola or wearing Nikes. But even the most basic levels of our lives are branded. For me, it feels crazy to make a film which doesn’t acknowledge that or the audience's relationship with it. Our relationship with every single thing on the screen is made up from pop culture references and personal ones. So, the moment you hear The Cheeky Girls, it takes you back to a very specific time. It's a great song which tells you about the characters, but as an audience you have a personal relationship with it too. It takes you to your own place and you can never get away from that stuff nor would I ever want you to .Thats what I like about making films. Also, 'touch my bum, this is life' – that's Shakespeare! It's better than Shakespeare actually!" Well, I can't help but agree with her.
For more from our interview with Fennell, you can listen to the full conversation now on this week's episode of the Inside Total Film podcast as well as reading our chat with Fennell about how similar Saltburn is to her first film.
Saltburn is out in cinemas now. For more great films coming your way, check out our guide to the most exciting upcoming movies of the rest of 2023 and beyond.