In department head interviews for her satirical thriller Saltburn, Emerald Fennell heard a lot about beauty.
This, of course, made sense, given the film’s setting within high-society England of the mid-2000s, a stunning world of entirely unrelatable luxury. But it wasn’t until Fennell spoke with Academy Award nominee Suzie Davies that she knew she’d found her production designer.
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While a certain expressionistic beauty does play a major role in the aesthetic of Saltburn, what Fennell and Davies were in sync about from the start was accentuating the imperfections within a seemingly perfect world. Fennell says the task for Davies was about “the pursuit of the human” within ornate, historic spaces. This, the designer accomplished by filling frames of the eccentric and sprawling, titular manor, where the majority of the story takes place, with “cigarette butts and wotsits and iPod nanos, as well as all the beautiful marquetry and perfect wallpaper.”
Demonstrating massive, viral appeal with young viewers since its debut in theaters in November, Saltburn tells the story of Oliver (Barry Keoghan), an Oxford student who initially struggles to find his place at the university, before undertaking some cunning social climbing. After making his way into the world of the charming and aristocratic Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), with whom he becomes obsessed, he’s invited to his eccentric and uber-wealthy family’s estate for a summer he’ll never forget.
A lifelong lover of character-based stories, Davies explains in conversation with Fennell in today’s episode of The Process that to arrive the assortment of character details that make a space feel lived in, she simply leans into her nature as “a magpie and a stealer of other people’s ideas and thoughts.” In building the world of Saltburn, she says, which centers on a “historic” family, she went “back to Caravaggio, pre-Raphaelites” as visual references, “all the way through to contemporary art, modern art, bad art and everything in between.”
Fennell equates the process of worldbuilding “a constant layering up of detail,” such that “myriad, very detailed stories” are told within each frame. Her collaboration with Davies culminated in an experience of “playfulness” and “fun” on set, while working with such eccentric elements as a “nine-foot minotaur with a massive willy,” in the words of the designer. But Fennell underscores that it was only after a period of “incredibly hard, diligent, detailed work” that the duo were freed up to be playful on set.
Davies reveals on The Process that one of her favorite sets created for Saltburn was the enormous maze sitting outside of Felix’s family’s estate, where a pivotal encounter between Oliver and Felix takes place. Creating it was “proper filmmaking fun,” she says, given how much “smoke and mirrors” played into the process. “There wasn’t a real maze there. There was an element of a beech hedge…” explains the production designer. “The development of that is really like the whole development of the film, in finding the balance between romantic and sinister, because that maze that we built could have looked too whimsical, too beautiful.”
Helping the filmmakers to bring the maze to life was Adrian Fisher, a famed maze designer that both Fennell and Davies had discovered in prep, via an interview in The New Yorker. “We knew that we were going to have to build the maze, at least in part, but what we wanted with everything in Saltburn was detail, and something that even if it wasn’t real, was real,” says Fennell. “So, it’s a practical maze that if we pause the top shot, it can be done.”
In discussing the maze with Fisher, Fennell asked for multiple paths to the center to be created — a “cheats route,” and one that was “the hardest, most diabolically difficult” way through. Further layered into the interior sets for Saltburn, to build out a sense of subtextual backstory for the maze, were visual elements like the “viewing platform” inside the estate from which Oliver first views the maze, which hint at “layer upon layer of family lore.”
Marking Fennell’s sophomore feature, on the heels of the Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman, Saltburn‘s building of buzz began when it world premiered at last year’s Telluride Film Festival. Fennell directed from her own script and produced alongside LuckyChap’s Margot Robbie, Tom Ackerley and Josey McNamara, with Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, and Archie Madekwe rounding out the cast.
In conversation on The Process, Fennell and Davies also discuss Davies’ wish that she could’ve built the whole of Saltburn on a backlot, how having more female department heads than your average set “fostered such a lovely feeling” at work, Davies’ “genius at texture and color,” graphic designer Katie Buckley’s standout work on the film, including on its hand-painted stop-motion opening title credits, and more. View the full conversation above.