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Welcome to Saltburn’s Twisted Gothic Tale

“There has to be an element of revulsion,” says Emerald Fennell of her sophomore film about desire and obsession, starring Barry Keoghan.
Welcome to Saltburns Twisted Gothic Tale
Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios.

“The thing is, we’re all disgusting perverts, aren’t we?” says Emerald Fennell with a laugh.

The British writer-director who made her feature directorial debut with 2020’s Promising Young Woman knows a thing or two about making an audience feel uncomfortable, and she’ll ratchet that up a notch with her upcoming film, Saltburn, a darkly comedic drama centered on a group of wealthy Oxford students who escape to a lush estate for the summer.

Saltburn tells a wicked tale about privilege and desire, following a student named Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) who is an outsider at Oxford, until he’s drawn to a handsome member of the wealthy elite, Felix Catton (Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi). Felix invites him to his family’s sprawling estate, where Oliver meets a twisted bunch of characters who say and do things that will make you squirm—but Fennell is betting big on the fact that these dark moments will be relatable in their humanity. “If it feels real, if it feels like something you really might do alone in the grips of desire, then it doesn’t feel too much for me,” Fennell tells Vanity Fair. “For that completely overwhelming carnal desire to take hold, there has to be an element of revulsion, there has to be an element of transgression.”

Jacob Elordi as Felix.

Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios.

Set in the mid-2000s, Saltburn, which will open the London Film Festival before being theatrically released by Amazon and MGM on November 24, is a classic gothic tale that is a tightrope walk of tones funny, dark, and disturbing. Keoghan, known for his Oscar-nominated work in The Banshees of Inisherin, takes on the demanding lead role that requires a delicate touch and a captivating presence. This tale of outsiders and obsession features a delicious collection of performances from its supporting cast, all playing characters who are easy to hate but not impossible to understand.

“My favorite thing in general is sympathy for the devil,” says Fennell, who won the original-screenplay Oscar for Promising Young Woman in 2021. “The sorts of people that we can’t stand, the sorts of people who are abhorrent—if we can love them, if we can fall in love with these people, if we can understand why this is so alluring, in spite of its palpable cruelty and unfairness and sort of strangeness, if we all want to be there too, I think that’s just such an interesting dynamic.”

Born and raised in London, Fennell is very familiar with the British gothic tradition of the country-house-set book or film. As a fan of novels like The Go-Between, Brideshead Revisited, Jude the Obscure, and The Remains of the Day, Fennell had long been thinking about creating her own film set in this world, centered on an individual reminiscing about a period of time that changed their life. “It’s always fun to play in a genre that feels well worn, that we’re all familiar with,” says Fennell. “If there’s a world that we have some relationship with already, that’s quite fun to subvert in ways and surprise.”

Barry Koeghan as Oliver.

Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios.

She set the story in 2006, when we first meet Oliver at Oxford. Intelligent but socially awkward, he doesn’t come from money and has a tragic backstory, which leads him to be treated like an outsider right from the start. By setting the story 17 years ago, Fennell is able to dabble in portraying the recent past, which she says “really knocks the fucking glamour off things. There’s nothing like a Livestrong bracelet and a ‘carpe diem’ tattoo and an eyebrow star and a boot-cut jean that deglamorizes things.”

Fennell, an actor herself, most recently seen in Barbie and The Crown, has had her eye on Keoghan since watching him in 2017’s creepy psychological thriller The Killing of a Sacred Deer. “I just thought, That’s a once-in-a-lifetime performer. There’s no equivalent,” she remembers.

But she doesn’t write her characters with actors in mind, saying she kept an open mind in casting. She met with Keoghan and also watched some of the audition tapes that he’d made for other roles. “He’s just so compelling. He’s got a kind of sex appeal and a vulnerability and a physical presence and a sort of darkness, or he can at least communicate these things in a way that is very rare,” she says, adding that their collaboration felt a bit like they were “holding hands and jumping off a cliff, because a lot of the time we were looking to make something that is sort of visceral and surprising and dark and sexy, and that takes a lot of commitment.”

Keoghan and Archie Madekwe as Farleigh.

Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios.

Elordi did audition, and at the time Fennell had not seen his work on HBO’s hit Euphoria. “He just gave this unbelievably potent, relaxed, real performance of a person that could so easily not be real,” says Fennell. She adds that the character of Felix could have so easily been a caricature of a wealthy, directionless youth, but Elordi was able to deliver on the layers of a young man who, while seeming glamorous and sexy and appearing to be the apple of everyone’s eye, also has some of that expectation put on him because of his looks and status, both completely out of his control.

“You can understand completely that no person would be capable of resisting this person,” says Fennell. “But at the same time, you can also understand that it is also sort of an illusion, an illusion other people are projecting onto him—and he’s actually not necessarily particularly special or interesting. He just happens to seem like he is.”

Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant play Felix’s parents, who welcome Oliver to the estate but have their own hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) agendas. Their immense generational wealth and obliviousness to the outside world give them some of the film’s most delicious—and often comedic—lines of dialogue. “She’s one of the greatest comic actresses living. And the fact that that’s just one thing in her arsenal, the fact that she’s just that good, it’s fucking crazy,” says Fennell of Pike. As for Grant, Fennell describes him as a “hero of mine. He’s always got this sort of element of surprise. He’s so real, but he can turn, and I needed that.” Fennell rounds out the cast with Alison Oliver, who plays Felix’s eccentric sister, Archie Madekwe as a troublemaking relative, and Paul Rhys, who plays a stoic estate employee. She also reunites with her Promising Young Woman star, Carey Mulligan, who takes on a small but memorable role.

Oliver arrives at the Saltburn estate.

Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios.

One of Saltburn’s major characters—and its oldest—is the estate itself. Fennell was determined not to film at an English estate that would look familiar to viewers, like the ones used in Gosford Park or Downton Abbey, so she needed to find something new (but very old). She also wanted one house to serve as the main location, so as not to need movie magic to film the interior scenes on a set. “It was important to me that we were all in there together, that the making of the film in some way had that feeling of a summer where everyone loses their mind together,” she says. “I didn’t want to be constantly picking up and moving.”

The private estate they found had never been used for filming before, and may never be again; as part of the contract, no one is allowed to reveal its location or owners. The benefit of having access to the house was that it also allowed the actors to get used to it. Although it was a stunning location with cantilever staircases, an opulent dining room, decadent bedrooms, and a breathtaking library, the actors had to remind themselves that for their characters, this was completely normal and simply just their home. “Everyone became comfortable in this unimaginably grand place, and you could feel that,” says Fennell. “That’s important too, that it felt like theirs somehow.”

Alison Oliver as Venetia.

Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios.

The characters are also hemmed in by the film’s unique 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which was the standard for television before the advent of wide-screen TV. Fennell and Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren visited the estate and took photos in a lot of different aspect ratios, but kept returning to the near-square 1.33. “It gives you the impression of peeping in, and that’s kind of what this is. It’s a doll’s house and we’re all kind of peeping in, scrabbling to get in,” she says.

Throughout the wild summer at Saltburn, Oliver and his hosts enjoy lazy, sunny days by the estate’s pools and ponds; chaotic, lavish parties that go late into the night; and twisted mind games that have lasting repercussions for all involved. In her sophomore feature, Fennell doesn’t shy away from controversial themes, or visceral, sometimes erotic moments that are sure to stick with audiences. “We are all in this very strange world now, I think, of wanting. We’re just in a perpetual state of desire and need and want,” she says. “Our relationship with the things that we want when we look on Instagram, or we look at clothes, or we look at food, whatever it is: ‘I both want it and I’m disgusted with myself for wanting it.’”

Rosamund Pike in Saltburn.

Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios.

That love-hate relationship with desire is at the center of Saltburn, which is produced by LuckyChap Entertainment; as Fennell points out, it’s a tale as old as time. “That is literally the kind of gothic tradition, isn’t it? Take Count Dracula: The reason Count Dracula is so frightening is all the women in the book want to fuck him,” says Fennell. “That’s all of our relationship with the things that we want: They have to be kind of a bit scary for them to be interesting.”

Saltburn will play at various festivals, including the London Film Festival on October 4, before being theatrically released by Amazon and MGM on November 24. This feature is part of Awards Insider’s exclusive fall-festival coverage, featuring first looks and in-depth interviews with some of this coming season’s biggest contenders.

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