Warning: Major spoilers ahead.
Before Emerald Fennell started writing “Promising Young Woman,” she made a playlist. It included playful pop confections (Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” Charli XCX’s “Boys”), dance anthems (“It’s Raining Men”) and Broadway standards (“Something Wonderful” from “The King and I”). But one track was more important than all the others: Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind.” By the time Fennell finished the script, Hilton’s 2006 debut single had made its way into a pivotal scene, with 30-year-old protagonist Cassie Thomas relinquishing her austerity as she and her sweet new beau, Ryan, lip-sync the song in a convenience store.
Fennell sent Carey Mulligan the playlist, alongside a mood board full of bright colors, while courting her for the lead role. She also gave it to the movie’s production designer, Michael Perry, who had worked on the TV show “Sweet Valley High,” one of Fennell’s key influences, and would be responsible for the film’s aesthetics. Most vitally, she dispatched music supervisor Susan Jacobs to secure the rights to Hilton’s ditty before shooting began. Other songs could be replaced during the editing if needed, but again: This one was more important than all the others.
“For me, it was just, ‘What song, if somebody knew every word to, would you fall more in love with them?’ What’s the song that you’d be like, ‘Ugh, you know every lyric to that? OK, you’re marriage material,’” Fennell told me during a recent Zoom conversation. “I think in another movie, it might’ve been like, ‘You know that indie deep cut of that band that only existed in the ’70s?’ Who cares about that? Who cares about the Velvet Underground? I want to know who knows every line of ‘Stars Are Blind.’”
The scene arrives about an hour into “Promising Young Woman,” at which point the film’s biting premise has reached a fever pitch. Cassie, once a medical student with rosy prospects, has formed a pastime — an “addiction,” Fennell calls it — out of feigning drunkenness at bars and outfoxing the many guys who try to take advantage of her. She exacts this mission as a way to avenge the death of her longtime best friend, Nina, who was driven to suicide after being raped by a clean-cut classmate named Al Monroe (Chris Lowell). But when Ryan (Bo Burnham) reenters her life years after they attended school together, Cassie decides that maybe not all of humanity is charmless. During their first trip to the drugstore as a couple, “Stars Are Blind” plays over the loudspeaker. Cassie is amazed that Ryan knows the lyrics, and she reluctantly joins him, dancing through the aisles as he grabs cans of Spam and Hormel chili.
The store is bathed in the neon pink glow of a large “pharmacy” sign — the shiniest pink in a movie full of them. It’s a sequence straight out of a rom-com, interspersed with a montage of Ryan and Cassie enjoying their honeymoon phase. The aim, Perry said, was to show what Cassie was like before Nina’s death ignited her quest for retribution. It also offers a snapshot of what Cassie’s future might be if she can finally let go of her depressive spell, which even Nina’s mother (Molly Shannon) has encouraged her to do. “I wanted it to be, as much as possible, a Paris Hilton video,” Perry said.
But, like with everything in “Promising Young Woman,” the scene comes with a slight wink. The “pharmacy” sign was an existing prop used in “Murder, She Wrote” that Perry’s team found at Universal Television’s facilities. Fittingly, the classic series about a savvy amateur detective was another of Fennell’s inspirations; early on, she had sent Perry an Instagram account dedicated to sets from the long-running show, wanting Cassie to share Jessica Fletcher’s self-determination. (The theme song from “The Night of the Hunter,” the 1955 thriller about a charismatic serial killer, is another Easter egg that calls back to the suspense canon.)
“She’s learned to subvert her femininity and her prettiness and her blondness to effectively hide and mislead — like lots of addicts do, actually,” Fennell said. “And so she’s just learned the tricks to keep things functioning on the surface, to stop people from asking too many questions. For me, if she’s fluffy and pink and welcoming but she’s boiling with this terrible rage, then I think it was important that the film itself reflected that, that it felt just as inviting as her and just as misleading as she is.”
To establish that paradox, Perry emphasized light blues and soft pinks in every scene — friendly hues that counter the predatory behavior Cassie routinely encounters. But he planted a flash of red everywhere she goes. The café where she works, for example, has a blue sign, blue shelves, blue curtains and ruby-red mugs. As the movie progresses, those reds become more pronounced, as though Cassie is inching closer and closer to bloodshed.
When her romantic contentment is punctured by the news that Ryan witnessed Nina’s rape and did nothing to stop it, red suddenly overwhelms the pastels we’ve grown accustomed to. Distraught, Cassie sets out to enact her ultimate revenge at Al’s bachelor party, wearing red pumps and a red-trimmed nurse’s outfit and camouflaging herself in a decadent multicolored wig. A piercing instrumental cover of “Toxic” scores her march toward the party house, again treating pop music subversively.
Daniel Curet, who oversaw the hair department, said that he and Fennell decided to use extensions for Cassie’s everyday appearance. Her final disguise needed to be a striking contrast. “We looked at several costume wigs, and the rainbow stripes was the one that we kept going back to and asking, ‘Do we dare?’” Curet said. “In retrospect, it was a perfect choice given all the candy colors used in the set design at the coffee shop and in Cassie’s bedroom. Funny enough, it was Carey’s idea to cut it at that particular length, and I went through at least 10 razor blades until I finally used utility scissors to cut all that synthetic hair into the choppy bob, which gave it a homespun vibe.”
At Al’s wedding, after he has suffocated Cassie and burned her body, the aisle is covered in a river of crimson flowers, with a vibrant red ribbon draped across the archway behind the bride and groom. “That’s to reinforce her death,” Perry explained.
This was Fennell’s vision from the moment she sat down to write the movie. She wanted color, as well as songs like “Stars Are Blind” and “Boys,” to create a cohesive irony. Cassie, in Fennell’s eyes, is a spiritual descendent of the murderous weather girl Nicole Kidman portrays in the delicious 1995 satire “To Die For.” And the movie as a whole takes cues from “The Virgin Suicides,” which coats its gloom in a dreamy guise. “A lot of nasty things happen in beautiful places,” Fennell said. “This is a movie about appearances being deceptive.” In that sense, “Promising Young Woman” parallels the HBO series “I May Destroy You,” which also depicts the aftermath of sexual assault, using surrealism and bold fashion to capture its heroine’s mindset.
Susan Jacobs, the music supervisor, felt at home with “Woman” because it reminded her of working on “Little Miss Sunshine.” When she first read the “Sunshine” script, she thought it seemed “quite dark,” until learning that the filmmakers wanted yellow to be the central color, thereby sharpening its whimsical undertone. Jacobs estimated that the rights to “Stars Are Blind” totaled almost half of her music budget, but the high cost pays off. It’s the centerpiece of a movie that starts dark, turns bright and then careens back toward darkness.
“The first thing we talked about was Paris Hilton, and then all of a sudden you get the tone,” Jacobs said of Fennell. “Some [filmmakers] want independent cred, and they’re hanging out with the Bon Ivers or whatever. It’s always the same thing: ‘I want something really edgy. Where’s Tom Waits?’ And so to have a conversation with someone that’s like, ‘I want to talk about Paris Hilton. I want to talk about pop music’ — that’s interesting.”