Emerald Fennell knows a beautiful thing when she sees it. For Vanity Fair‘s “Notes on a Scene” series, the Saltburn director did a deep dive on constructing the pivotal scene where Oliver (Barry Keoghan) first arrives at the lavish British estate Saltburn and is taken on a tour of the grounds by Felix (Jacob Elordi) before they spend a fateful summer together.
Fennell kicks off the video by singing the praises of Keogahn, who stars in Saltburn as Oliver Quick, an outcast Oxford student who somehow falls into the good graces of Elordi’s incredibly popular, charming, and über-wealthy Felix. “I saw Barry in Killing of a Sacred Deer and I thought it was the best performance I’ve ever seen,” says Fennell. “Just full stop. I think that the best performance any actor’s ever given. He seemed to get the thing that I really love in all movies and really wanted in this. He’s both a real person and a feeling too. He knows how how to be super grounded and real, but how to be other worldly.”
Oliver’s arrival to Saltburn kicks off what Fennell describes as the most “gothic moment of the film.” The transition from Oxford’s campus to Saltburn represents a turning point, she says. “We go from Secret History, Brideshead Revisit, to ‘Oh, we may be in a hammer house of horror movie” Fennell says. At this house of horror, Oliver greeted coolly by butler Duncan, played by Paul Reese. “He is Saltburn,” says Fennell. “He could have lived for 1000 years. He’s one of the bricks.”
Shockingly, the actual estate of Saltburn has never appeared in any piece of media before. “There are no photographs of it,” she says. Fennell knew that Saltburn had to be the location for the film when she took a tour of the property and noticed something quirky about the house. “They had hats on the busts. These kind of priceless beautiful marble statues, and they had these silly hats on them,” says Fennell, circling one in the background of a shot. “That’s exactly what this movie is, the kind of surreal and the kind of mundane kind of beautiful and the silly all, like, together in one.”
Fennell is quick to point out that Saltburn, set in the summer of 2006, is technically a period piece, which she wanted reflected in the costuming. She then points to Felix’s Livestrong bracelet, which she cheekily calls a “crucial period detail.” To capture 2006, she made sure that Felix was groomed appropriately. “Long hair, sideburns. That was 2006,” she says.
“So many times the costume designer would be like, ‘We found this super lame dress,’” quips Fennell. “I’m like, ‘It’s in my cupboard. I wear it all the time. I’m gonna burn it when I get home.’”
Fennell was immediately taken by the Euphoria star’s audition, specifically the way he played against type as a member of British aristocracy. “This is why Jacob Elordi is such an absolute genius. And why the moment he came in and auditioned I wanted him to play the part,” she says. “When people auditioned they came in and gave a sort of Brideshead type performance—it was quite lush and sort of arch. And Jacob came in and was just kind of this normal guy.” Fennell goes on to elucidate how difficult it is to play “nice guy” type characters. “When it comes to character in general I don’t think any of us are nice,” she says. “I just don’t know anyone nice… not really. Not anyone I know well. I don’t think I’m nice.”
As for the tour of Saltburn: Fennell wanted the audience be wowed by the house, but also to be focused on Felix. “This is Felix’s tour,” she says. “This is one of the reasons we chose this house. This house is so beautiful, so exceptional. It was also important to me framing-wise that even though it’s a tour of the house, even though we’re all dying to see it, even though it’s the most beautiful house in the world, we’re not looking at it.”