- Emerald Fennell explains how her psychological black comedy “Saltburn” is a satire on the British class system using the vehicle of a grand stately home setting.
- Cinematographer Linus Sandgren uses a square aspect ratio and shoots on 35mm to film “disgustingly beautiful moments.”
- Fennell says, “We did a lot of work then to make it a physical experience — uncomfortable, sexy, difficult. I thought a lot about the feeling of popping a spot — queasy pleasure.”
Emerald Fennell’s latest cinematic spectacle, Saltburn, savagely peels back the veneer of the British upper class of the mid-2000s, crossing Brideshead Revisited with The Talented Mr. Ripley served with a twist of vampire-infused black comedy.
The film revels “in voyeuristic repulsion and the fetishization of beauty,” writes IndieWire’s Bill Desowitz, told through the point of view of cunning Oxford student Oliver (Barry Keoghan), who becomes infatuated with his aristocratic schoolmate, Felix (Jacob Elordi), following an invitation to stay for the summer with his eccentric Catton family at their titular estate.
“I’m setting out to be honest and unsparing, and I’m not frightened of people not liking it,” Fennel explains to Salon’s Jacob Hall. “I mind if people don’t appreciate the craft or they think I haven’t done my homework, or they think I’ve made decisions that aren’t deliberate. That gets my goat, because that’s a different argument. But if you don’t like it, I don’t mind.”
Fennell’s bold visual plans began with shooting in 35mm to capitalize on the rich color and contrast, and using the 1.33 aspect ratio to enhance the story’s voyeurism.
“She wanted to convey the hot summer and foggy night, influenced by the legendary landscape painter Gainsborough, as well as more dramatic lighting inspired by Hitchcock, Nosferatu, and baroque painters Caravaggio and Gentileschi,” we learn from Desowitz’s interview with the film’s cinematographer, Linus Sandgren (La La Land).
The DP landed the job at the suggestion of Saltburn producer Margot Robbie, who had just worked with Sandgren on Babylon and knew first-hand what dark beauty he could achieve shooting in 35mm.
“I had seen Emerald’s debut film, [Promising Young Woman], where she made some very interesting decisions,” Sandgren said. “For example, letting the lady die in a single take, which was horrible to watch. And then when I got the Saltburn script, I thought it was brilliant. She writes very visually and in a descriptive way and I got some very clear images in my head.”
READ MORE: ‘I Wonder How Many People Are Going to Buy This?’ Inside the Sensual, Stylized ‘Saltburn’ Cinematography (IndieWire)
They both agreed that shooting on film was right for the story, as Sandgren explained following a screening at Camerimage, as reported by Will Tizard at Variety. The medium’s reaction to red light in some key scenes inside the family home was particularly well-suited to the growing sense of horror, Sandgren said. So were close-ups of characters feeling extremes of emotions, with sweat, hair and bodily detail helping to build on the descent into obsession.
To strike just the right tone in these scenes, Company3 colorist Matt Wallach says, “We got into using tools in the Resolve, like the Custom Curves and the Color Warper, to subtly bring out, say, the red lights in a party scene or the steely blue moonlit tones and a night exterior while always keeping the skin tones where they should be. With Linus, skin tone always has priority.”
Sandgren shot with the Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 camera equipped with Primo prime lenses to get colors and contrast with under-corrected spherical aberration. It all worked out well to propel the journey into darkness, Sandgren said, growing into other scenes of seduction that push boundaries. All of which just enriches “the bloody cocktail of Saltburn,” he says, noting that, after all, “Vampires are sexual beings.”
READ MORE: Emerald Fennell-Directed ‘Saltburn’ Conjured Images of Dark, Bloody Comedy, Says Cinematographer Linus Sandgren at Camerimage (Variety)
When the director first spoke with Sandgren about the project, she described it as a vampire movie “where everyone is a vampire.”
Elaborating on this to Emily Murray at Games Radar, Fennell says she liked the vampire metaphor as a vehicle for attacking the class system and our unhealthy fascination with the rich and famous.
“We have exported the British country house so effectively in literature and film, everyone internationally is familiar with… their workings,” she says. “As we are talking about power, class, and sex, this film could have existed at the Kardashians’ compound or the Hamptons, but the thing about British aristocracy is that people know the rules because of the films we have seen before. We all have an entry level familiarity but the things that are restrained about the genre are overt here — as we look at what we do when nobody is watching us.”
READ MORE: Saltburn director Emerald Fennell on why her follow-up to Promising Young Woman is actually a vampire movie (Games Radar)
This embodied the vampire ethos at night in all its gothic beauty and ugliness. “Emerald’s attracted to something gross happening, but you see it in a perfectly composed image with the light just hitting perfectly,” Sandgren said in an interview with Tomris Laffly at Filmmaker Magazine. “I think the challenge was finding a language for the film with secrets that you don’t want to reveal and having it seem ambiguous.”
Fennell wrote Saltburn during COVID, when people couldn’t even be in the same room together, “let alone touch each other, let alone lick each other,” she said, commenting on some of the film’s explicit scenes. “This is a film really about not being able to touch. Now, especially, we have an extra complicated relationship with bodily fluids.”
As Laffly prompts, this sounds like Fennell wanted to unleash a beast we all have in ourselves that was so oppressed during lockdown.
“That certainly felt like one of the motives,” she admits. “There’s nothing that is more of a rigid structure than the British country house and the aristocracy, nothing more impenetrable. So yes, to unleash the viscerally human into that arena was so much of it.”
To Fennell, so much of film is “frictionless, smooth, so consistent. And I feel like cinema — without being so grandiose and pompous — is designed to be watched in a dark room of strangers, and it can be expressive, it can be to some degree metaphorical. When I look at the filmmakers that I love [like David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick] these are people who are making films that I feel in my body.”
This idea of foregrounding intimacy led to their decision to shoot within the Academy ratio. Again, she and Sandgren referenced classic portrait painters.
“To do that formal framing, if you’re looking at Caravaggio or lighting in a Joshua Reynolds and that kind of blocking, it is so much easier the more square you are. And I like extreme closeups, especially when you’re talking about sex and intimacy and inhuman beauty,” she told Filmmaker. “If you’re 1.33, you can have a full face. It can fill the frame completely.”
READ MORE: “The Crueler My Friends Are, the Funnier I Think They Are”: Emerald Fennell on Saltburn (Filmmaker Magazine)
Scenes in the film are deliberately uncomfortable to watch. They are what Desowitz calls “disgustingly beautiful moments,” but Fennell emphasizes that they aren’t in any way there for shock value: “A lot of this film is an interrogation of desire,” she tells the Inside Total Film podcast.
“With this type of love, there has to be this element of revulsion, and for us to feel what Oliver is feeling and understand that, you need to physically react to stuff. We did a lot of work then to make it a physical experience — uncomfortable, sexy, difficult, queasy. I thought a lot about the feeling of popping a spot — queasy pleasure.”
Much of the more salacious coverage of Saltburn has concentrated on its final scene where Keoghan dances stark naked through the estate to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s hit 2001 song, “Murder on the Dancefloor.” “Everything is diabolical, but it’s exhilarating,” Fennell explained to Jazz Tangcay at Variety. “It’s post-coital, euphoric, solitary and it’s mad.”
As for Sandgren’s camera moves, he pointed out that Oliver was always in frame for most of the film. “But this way, we see him full-figured. I think it was clear we wanted to follow him. Following him through that scene felt more natural to watch everything about him, and watch from the outside. It’s about his physicality and how he feels in that moment.”
It’s a tour de force for Keoghan, who, according to the cinematographer, was fearless throughout, but worked especially hard at rehearsing and shooting the choreographed dance sequence.
In capturing it, Fennell used 11 takes. “They were all very beautiful,” she said. “It’s quite a complicated and technical camera. A lot of the time, he was immensely patient because there was a lot of naked dancing. Take #7 was technically perfect. You could hear everyone’s overjoyed response, but I had to say ‘sorry’ because it was missing whatever it was that made Oliver that slightly human messiness. So, we had to do it a further four times.”
“[I]t was incredibly difficult to do because obviously it’s a oner, and we had to light every room completely from outside without seeing any of the kit,” Fennel tells Salon. “We had to set up all of the sound so we could switch to every room because of the lag, without again, seeing any of the kit.”
Fennell likens the actor to Robert Mitchum, as she explains to Filmmaker Magazine. “I think he’s just exceptional, not just now but for all time — someone like Robert Mitchum is a good comparison. There are actors who have a thing that nobody else has had before, and I think Barry has that.”