Emerald Fennell and Saltburn Cast on Grave Scene, Naked Dance

(Warning: Big “Saltburn” spoilers ahead.)

“Well, it was mostly based on the family I murdered.”

So said Emerald Fennell during a discussion of the film she wrote and directed, “Saltburn,” that was part of TheWrap Screening Series. She was, of course, joking about what inspired her latest movie, but her deadpan delivery fit right into the tonal razor’s edge that “Saltburn” assuredly walks, straddling horror, melodrama and pitch-black comedy. It’s the story of Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), an Oxford student of modest means with a tragic backstory who befriends and becomes infatuated with an aristocratic classmate named Theo Catton, played by Jacob Elordi. When Oliver joins Theo at Saltburn, his family’s dazzlingly posh estate, Oliver’s true motivations become evident.

“I wanted to make a Gothic romance and something that would make people do the things it’s done, which is make people feel something: laugh and cringe and be turned on and be f—ing furious and be bored and all the things,” Fennell told TheWrap’s CEO and Editor in Chief Sharon Waxman during the Q&A. “Making a movie is to make an experience for people, you know, so that they connect.”

Linus Sandgren, Emerald Fernell and Sharon Waxman (Randy Shropshire)

“Saltburn” has produced polarized reactions among audiences — a response that Fennell very much embraces. “It’s not it is not my job and it’s certainly not any of our jobs here to make any moral judgment,” said the writer-director, who was joined on stage by Keoghan, Rosamund Pike (who plays Theo’s mother Elspeth), cinematographer Linus Sandgren and composer Anthony Willis. “There are things in this film that are a bit messy, a bit sticky, a bit contrary, a bit overwrought, melodramatic, like all great things that I certainly love. But it’s all intentional. Everything we did was very intentional. And so you know, if people don’t like it, fine, but that’s different to thinking it’s not good.”

Waxman asked the “Saltburn” group about the film’s depiction of sex, which is daring but never graphic. There is very little nudity, for instance. One particular scene, in which a bereft Oliver breaks down and makes furious, desperate love to Theo’s grave, has been much discussed. It didn’t intimidate Keoghan, who approached it as the “next level of obsession” in Oliver’s all-consuming desire for Theo and everything he represents. “If it pushes the story forward, you know, creatively and makes sense, I’m down to do it,” he said. “And obviously, there were conversations I had with Emerald and the actions felt right. And, you know, it was a comfy set. I wasn’t made feel in any way uncomfortable.”

“It’s the most beautiful, profound, incredible, devastating, hilarious thing I’ve ever seen,” Fennell said. “We were all kind of enraptured by it because it felt truthful. It felt like trying to get at something that is impossible to get out. And it’s kind of the heart of the Gothic tradition. [In ‘Wuthering Heights’], Heathcliff tries to climb down into Cathy’s grave after he buries her, for this purpose.”

Rosamund Pike (Randy Shropshire)

For Willis, the grave scene is a perfect example of the “painterly quality” of the cinematography that he used to convey the “emotional story that goes on inside of these characters.” As an audience, we watch the sequence unfold from a distance, as if we were looking at a beautifully framed and lit painting in a museum. “You could so easily fall into actually trying to seduce the audience,” Willis said. “We don’t push in [on Oliver’s face]. We let the audience feel it themselves by just giving them the image.”

For Pike’s character, sex was a distant, almost scary, idea. “One of the first conversations I had with Emerald, she said, ‘So, Elspeth and [her husband] Sir James — do you think they have sex? And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I presume so.’ She said, ‘I don’t.’ … It was interesting to play someone for whom sex is really their greatest fear — their greatest need and their greatest fear.”

When it came to the music, Willis’ main focus was guiding the audience through Oliver’s emotions: “He might be thinking 25 things, but let’s zone in on the one: his loneliness, his dejection, his aspirations for this really grand, grand world,” Willis said. He also leaned into Oliver’s infatuation with Theo. “One of the first things that Emerald said was, ‘Let’s really push the romance.’ Barry and Jacob obviously do such an amazing job that it wasn’t hard to do at all. We wrapped the romance into this kind of slightly aristocratic language, this Neo English, classical music, which was really fun to do.”

Barry Keoghan (Randy Shropshire)

No discussion about “Saltburn” would be complete without addressing the final scene, in which Oliver, having successfully dispatched the Cattons, wears nothing but his birthday suit as he triumphantly dances through the halls of the castle to the tune of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dance Floor.” “That dance was 11 takes of quite complicated choreography, lighting, music, work from our more amazing camera operator to make sure that the exact distance was maintained,” Fennell said in the clip you see below. It was the dancing, not the nudity, that initially threw Keoghan, but once he worked out all the moves with choreographer Polly Bennett, he had a blast. And he’s quite proud of the result.

“Them turns were quite impressive,” he said in his Dublin brogue. “I didn’t know I could do them turns like that. I kept my head straight and everything.”

Added Fennell: “You would like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to dance.’ Yeah, and then off the clothes come.”

You can watch the full Q&A here.

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