Saltburn is a thrilling mystery and erotic, unrequited romance. It bathes itself in eccentricities and offers viewers a look at power, class, and how intimacy runs as an undercurrent across both. The film is directed and written by Emerald Fennell and stars Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Archie Madekwe, Sadie Soverall, Rosamund Pike, Carey Mulligan, and Richard E. Grant. In the film, Oliver Quick (Keoghan) is a poor student at a prestigious university on a scholarship. He isn’t well-liked and has one friend who is more there for convenience than anything else. Then, he meets Felix Catton (Elordi), a rich, attractive, and popular student.
The two become fast friends, and Oliver begins to not understand who he is away from Felix’s side. When their relationship starts to get shakey, tragedy in Oliver’s life opens the doors to Saltburn, the Catton family estate. What ensues is an intimate story of power, sex, class, and coveting what you cannot have, unspooling around the Catton family as Oliver becomes one of them. I got the chance to speak with director Emerald Fennell about the film, its beauty, its mystery, and how she uses eroticism to craft this twisted tale.
Saltburn is a masterclass in using eroticism to build tension, taking the desire to chart mysterious paths in relationships that echo from the start of the film to its close. In the film, there is a beautiful but raw understanding of intimacy and how it shifts dynamics between friends, lovers, and social circles. For Emerald Fennell, all of this narrative crafting began with desire. Fennell explains, “The heart of every story really is attention and some kind of desire that can’t be immediately sated…This is a film about power, and how to get it, and how, I suppose, to dominate.”
That desire is mostly exhibited through Oliver’s character, which Fennell describes as, well, a vampire. She said, “It was important that Oliver [is seen as a] kind of a vampire. Saltburn is a vampire movie, but you never know who the vampires are. It can be argued that either side [is the vampire]. There’s a kind of literal vampire [in the film], but the others do their bit, too.”
But in order for a proper vampire story that made the audience question who was the predator and who was the prey, Oliver couldn’t just be the poor boy saved by the rich. He needed to be something else. Emerald Fennell said, “Oliver needed to have a kind of power that wasn’t immediately apparent, but also that that was different to [the Catton’s] power because their power is very much part of the structure of the world that we live in. They have weaponized charm, they have beauty, they have money, they have all of the trappings, but what [Oliver] has is the thing that all kinds of like Acolytes have, which is an incredibly supernatural ability to see what people want— what they really want—even if they don’t know themselves and give it to them. Early on, it really felt like a lot of that a lot of that power had to be erotic. And especially given the complication that the person, the real object of his desire, is incredibly unattainable.”
Emerald Fennel continues, “You have him seducing this family—but not necessarily sexually. He’s just taking information and using it. But he never, he never really gets the thing that he wants. But I think it’s about power and the structure of the thrillers [is], who’s going to win?”
To Fennel’s point, Oliver is immensely powerful. He creates plans by expertly observing and then choosing to act. He manipulates those around him, convincing them to give him what they have, never having to take. A real vampire by any means. Typically, the poor person in a story is the one without any power when facing the rich. However, Oliver always has it. As we look at the larger themes about class and British society in Saltburn, Fennel was aware of the history involved in telling this kind of story, especially coming from the greats.
Emerald Fennel explained, “[Class] is so much baked into the sort of genre that this movie has: living in the British country house like the Gothic of Brideshead Revisited and the go-between of Atonement…going back to Bronte’s Rebecca, it’s always a place where class and kind of sex are all mixed in and kind of colliding in a really interesting way. I think there are certain things that [this genre] always has in that it’s a person remembering, going back over time where they had access to a person or a life that they couldn’t get. Whether it’s like Gatsby, or ‘Last Night I Dreamt I Went to Manderley,’ or just the past is another country where all of those things, [it’s] all somebody remembering.”
Through that remembrance, it’s clear that our protagonist in the British gothic drama is an outsider, alone, trying to join. Fennell adds, “All of [these stories are] about an outsider, somebody who feels, for whatever reason, or is made to feel that they’re not good enough. That’s almost always a class thing. And it’s absolutely parenting, like in Rebecca. I think, in many ways, [Saltburn] is a kind of reverse.” But the tension doesn’t come from purely wanting to be somewhere or something you don’t belong to, in, or with; instead, it’s about holding onto it. She continues, “[The characters] always have that feeling that you’re there by the skin of your teeth. And you want it once you’ve seen it once you’ve been in there. How do you live your life? How do you go on? How can you go on when you’ve seen the world you can’t have? And so, so a huge amount of it for me was about then, what do we do?”
Desire, as Fennell said, is a core driver of the narrative, and ultimately, the way a need for more and restraint converge is where the best stories are told. Emerald Fennel explains this, using our isolated experiences during the pandemic as a jumping point. She says, “After COVID, and in general with the internet, I felt very much like we all feel this incredibly strong, powerful, voyeuristic, wanting, looking, hating. I just wanted to see what happens if we take that restraint that this genre has, which is all about British restraint about what’s said about subtext about looks, and take the restraints off completely. What if somebody was ruthless and perceptive and sexy enough? How could they do it? How could they take what they want? But of course, the trouble is there is still no winning. Or rather, the victory is always pyrrhic.”
Oliver’s pyrrhic pursuit of power is also complimented by a mystery that coils tighter as the tensions ramp up before being released in the film’s finale. Crafting this structure is difficult, and when blending genres, the task grows.
When asked about creating the mystery in Oliver’s actions and life Emerald Fennell explains, “I think structure is always really tricky. It’s very much the structure of the film—of the script—that really helped everyone. It meant that when we were going in, we shot every scene in different ways, with different kinds of moments, that you can kind of notice shifts. It’s also about being very conscious of detail and being conscious of—as we all did in Promising Young Woman—what’s happening [in the scene] and what’s really happening.” She continued, “It’s so difficult to talk about [this without] spoilers, but the thing about [Saltburn] is that the thing that happens at the end will not negate everything you’ve seen, but it puts into question everything you’ve seen, and that’s always quite tricky.
The trickiness of building up a mystery that puts the story into context instead of undercutting it takes viewing every little choice and action as building into something larger. Emerald Fennell says, “Those little decisions add up to what you’ve seen. So it’s not to say that your characters can’t be meticulous and manipulative, lie, and do all the things that all the characters in [Saltburn] do. But you have to look at the choices and what they add up to. Who among us [doesn’t have] a very specific end goal, whatever that is? We react to circumstances and the kind of person we are dictates how we react to those circumstances. And that’s when cataclysmic things happen— because of all those little decisions.”
Each of those little decisions pile up into a malicious and sexy thriller in Saltburn. As credits on the film role, Emerald Fennel wants you to walk away with a physical reaction to what you just saw. She explains, “I want to elicit a physical reaction. I don’t mean just disgust. I mean arousal and excitement and a physical sense that you’ve been stirred, not just because you’ve been provoked, but because you felt something you weren’t expecting to feel. And you want to talk about that. And you’ve maybe perceived something or felt emotionally or physically very different from the person sitting next to you or the room around you as a whole. It’s what’s so fascinating watching people watch it, which I couldn’t do with Promising Young Woman because of COVID. You see how different each room is and how the room responds to itself.”
The excitement of seeing such a gorgeous film about gorgeously depraved people is that physical reaction and the moments of laughter or quiet that go against how you feel. Emerald Fennell adds more to how the theater experience fits this film: “Often, you have people who are horrified, and then other people are kind of like reproaching their horror, or you have people who are amused—and rightly so there’s a lot of humor in this film. I mean, it’s just a dark comedy, after all. I’m deliberately trying to get people to the stage where it’s so awkward that you are kind of nervously laughing, and then you push past that. That’s when it’s so thrilling, and that’s why it’s important to see [Saltburn] in a theater because…it touches you in a specific way. I think the people who love it, it’s just for a specific reason and for the same reason that I love it. I think the force of being in that room should be undeniable. That’s my hope.”
Saltburn is playing nationwide now.