IBC365 speaks with Oscar-nominated editor Frédéric Thoraval about how he cut Promising Young Woman.
When Emerald Fennell took over from Phoebe Waller-Bridge as lead writer for the second season of Killing Eve, she said, “What I’m most interested in is how women win in a world where the deck is stacked against them.
“I think the feminist statement maybe in [Season] 2 is if you are a woman and you are vulnerable, how do you exact power?” she continued. “I think it’s about how women survive, and what you lose and gain, when you have to survive something.”
There is more than a hint of Killing Eve’s Villanelle to Cassie, the central character played by Carey Mulligan in Fennell’s feature directorial debut Promising Young Woman.
It’s a wickedly funny #metoo era revenge movie which takes on masculine complacency and feminine complicity with a subversive wit not seen in the cinema since Heathers back in 1989. That’s evident from the first scene which counterpoints the macho idiocy of men dancing in a nightclub (in slow-motion) to the pop hit Boys by Charli XCX.
There’s a sinister undercurrent to a tale which ultimately stems from sexual assault and maybe why Fennel, who wrote and exec producers, selected Frédéric Thoraval to edit. He is most closely associated with director Pierre Morel with whom he has made the action thrillers District 13, Taken, Peppermint and The Gunman.
“Normally with a revenge movie you have a trauma at the very beginning and the revenge is motivated from that,” he tells IBC365. “In this case, you discover gradually that there was a trauma in Cassie’s past at the same time as you see her try to make other people aware of what happened and the impact of what they’ve done. What I loved about the script was that Emerald keeps a lot of question marks so you don’t know what to expect next.”
Thoraval explains that Fennell’s script contained a mood board and a playlist of songs and that both were crucial to his process.
“The mood board contained a lot of visual elements that informed every department from cinematography to hair and make-up and costume,” he says. “There were specific visual elements like the suffocating feeling of Cassie’s parent’s house. There were references to Clueless and Twin Peaks and ideas about using candy colours to create the world of the film. The script I saw was always set in America but the location is not-defined to keep that fairy-tale quality.
“The second element was the soundtrack. Emerald had baked specific songs into the script as well as other music cues which were all part of the DNA of the movie. She was insistent that they couldn’t be changed. The film wouldn’t work if you took one away.”
All the songs are recorded by female artists and have a strong female perspective. They include several unreleased existing songs, four covers (one of The Weather Girls’ classic It’s Raining Men given suitably ironic treatment), and four originals composed for the film.
“The songs are intimately connected to conveying Cassie’s emotion at different times”, explains Thoraval.
“For instance, after she vents her anger at being insulted by a male driver and smashes the body of his car, we hear Liebestod from Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’. The camera circles around Cassie. It is glorious and operatic.”
The film slips between charming rom-com, thriller and macabre horror in a way that might seem problematic for an editor to judge but Thoraval says it flowed naturally.
“Emerald is playing with the genre tropes but that is all contained in the script. The connection between Cassie and the music is actually a brilliant way of guiding the audience through the rollercoaster of her emotions.”
He adds, “In more conventional films you might use the soundtrack to create a continuity when there are drastic changes to story. Here, Emerald’s script is pulling the rug from the audience all the time and the shift of music is part of that tonal shift.”
“The mood board contained a lot of visual elements that informed every department from cinematography to hair and make-up and costume,” Frédéric Thoraval
A scene in which Cassie is shown at her happiest, having just made up with boyfriend Brian (Bo Burnham), is the closest the film comes to breaking into a musical. In any other film the showstopper of the couple dancing and singing in the middle of a drug store to Paris Hilton’s Stars Are Blind would give the audience a big romantic hug. By this time in Promising Young Woman the viewer is prepared for the cliche to be short lived.
“Carey and Bo played the scene out with karaoke of the track. There couldn’t have been another song; this was the one Emerald wanted. This is the narrative peak of the movie because it has that emotional connection of a new love that is what everyone wants in a rom-com. There’s a montage which is very poppy and designed to show the audience that Cassie is blissfully happy with life.”
Thoraval worked with assistant editor Emily Freund to cut this scene. “The challenge for us was to find best way to lead into it. We have to show she is sad and alone in order to give more weight to the moment when the two of them kiss. She goes from sad to ecstatic and gives us the opportunity to create a more traditionally comic scene where they are dancing oblivious to everyone else. In order for the rest of the story to work we had to nail this moment when they are in love.”
Later, in the film and posing as a stripper, Cassie prepares to enter the lion’s den of a stag party, to an instrumental version of Britney Spears’ Toxic.
Fennell had contemplated using the Dirty Dancing theme (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life or a cover of The Walker Brothers’ No Regrets, for the finale but used a new track written for the film by singer-songwriter Fletcher.
“My revenge is sweeter than honey,” she sings on Last Laugh.
The ending was necessary for the character and for Fennell, says Thoraval. “There’s no other way for this to end if you follow the logic of Cassie’s situation. It may not be a classic Hollywood ending but it’s still a happy ending - just not the one you were expecting.”