Even though Promising Young Woman is writer/director Emerald Fennell’s vision, it took a team of talented artists to deliver on the promise of her script, not the least of which was veteran film editor Frédéric Thoraval, who was tasked with the challenge of cutting a film that is supposed to not only weave between genre and tone, but keep the audience guessing right until the final moment of the film.
The French editor got his start in France, but made his name on this side of the ocean, first with Taken in 2008, then with Sinister in 2012 and, most recently, with Peppermint in 2018.
I got to chat with Thoraval about how it was to work with first-time director Fennell, and whether his particular set of skills working on thrillers and horror films helped him on Promising Young Woman. We also talk Sundance, working with Paris Hilton and Juice Newton, Jennifer Coolidge’s improv skills and what about this movie still gives him goosebumps, even a year later.
**NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD**
Catherine Springer: You are a veteran film editor and this is [writer/director] Emerald Fennell’s first feature. A film’s editor and director need to be completely in sync. Tell me a little bit how you came to work together and how quickly you picked up on each other’s rhythms.
Frédéric Thoraval: I met with her the first time for an interview. I had been sent the script, my agents had read it and really loved it. This is the kind of script that when you start, you can’t stop. You have to go until the last page, because it’s very intense. So when I met with her, it’s funny because I kind of spaced out at that moment. I just remember being in a coffee shop and seeing her arrive and then, very quickly, I had the feeling that we were talking about the same things. It was not an interview for a job, it was meeting someone. The connection happened very quickly, because at the end of the meeting, I was thinking she would be meeting with other people, but then she told me, “Ok, good, let’s go to production!” And, it was done. It happened that quickly. There was something that matched. And in the cutting room it was the same. The shoot is always a bit difficult because you’re not with people, but very quickly we felt that everybody was on the same page. Because she had all the details in the script, everybody was on board to help her put her vision on screen. And that was the aim of everybody.
How hands-on was she in the editing room?
Actually, it was very interesting, because even though she’s the writer of the script, she gave us a lot of freedom. And that was great, because I love to work in a kind of ping-pong way. The chance to do a first pass on something, and knowing where the director wants to go, trying to get there, but, at the same time, it’s a playground. With the dailies, you can try stuff, you can take that chance, and she let me do that. It did raise some questions. Sometimes you can fail, but it’s helping you to learn something. And with her, it was great because we had that back-and-forth. And she was not stuck on one idea. Her idea was to have the best movie possible. And she knew that there would be some adjustments to be done between the writing and the final movie. But her writing is so precise. She’s very precise with words. Everybody in the cutting room was helping the movie, it was great to have that kind of dynamic in the room.
How close to the script was the final edit?
It’s fairly close. There were a lot of elements that were baked in the script and were working very well. We had to do a few adjustments, structurally, but most of it was there. I mean, the big thing that she brought up in the cutting room was the idea of the Roman numerals. That helped a lot to structure it and help the audience understand what’s going on. Other than that, it was mostly just in the beginning, making sure we understood her routine. It’s in the adjustment of structure that you do go back and forth. It’s a process. Finding the balance of the overall movie was something we worked on. Some scenes we worked on, like the Paris Hilton [song] scene in the pharmacy, creating moments by playing with the structure. For example, there was a moment where we needed more time in order to get her back to where she had been, back to the loneliness she felt as she’s leaving Ryan’s apartment. So we repurposed a lot of shots that were in other scenes that we didn’t use, so we could have that moment where she’s lonely, which helped us get the space enough to own that moment where we could be in the pharmacy with a song.
Speaking of the pharmacy, and the montage, what was your approach to the “love montage?”
In all the lead up to it, it was very important for that moment to pay off, so when we cut the montage, it was really in the idea of the –what’s the best word—the ideal pink-ish rom-com. We really played a lot with what Emerald was doing in the script, which was to use the tropes of the genre, to play with them and subvert them. That moment is exactly that. And we needed to have that kind of feel-good moment where she falls for him, and the audience needs to fall for him. So we really played with the song and the score, enjoying the best moments with them, kissing and everything—everything that could happen in a perfect life, if they were staying together. And what was important was all the lead up to that, making sure that audience was falling for him, too. And having that moment in the pharmacy that feels like a normal thing, with the music in the in the background and him starting to play with it and starting to sing it—then she was falling in that moment. And that was our lead to the montage.
I would assume that a first-time director would still be building their confidence, so would probably do a lot of takes. Was that true with Emerald? Did you give you a lot to work with?
We were very fortunate to have a director that knew exactly where they wanted to go. She was very detailed. One thing was that when we received the script, we had both the playlist and the mood board too. The day before the first day of shooting, she sent everybody on whole crew the feel of what the movie would be. So everybody knew exactly where she wanted to go. And she was very precise, at every level, from having the wings from the couch or from the bed, or the makeup, or the year, everything was really in her mind. And I think that the great thing is that everybody helped her to get there, on set. And this helped us tremendously in the cutting room to create that world, to put it on screen. And we have a lot in the performance from Carey [Mulligan] that was helping us hugely because she was spot on, she was very quickly in the character from day one, so there was no need for a lot of takes because she was already there. They worked together a lot. So they knew exactly where they wanted to go. So from one take to another, it was just fine tuning. The whole cast around her was helping as well. There was one thing that was very important, and that was to have that chemistry between Bo Burnham and Carey. And I remember it was on day three. That was the first scene in the coffee shop with him. And I remember watching the dailies and everything was clicking. They were having that magic connection, which helped us a lot. This was not a movie where we had 20 takes. We only had, I think, 23 days to shoot, so it was very, very, very tight. But at the same time, the fact that they were going for something precise helped us a lot, and gave us more than enough in the cutting room to play with.
Do you think the fact that Bo is himself a director and that Emerald is an actress played into the process at all?
That would be a good question for Emerald, but Bo was really focused on the acting. And with all the comedic elements that he was bringing to the movie as well, but, for Emerald, the fact that she’s an actress—and I saw it mostly in the post process, when we were working, for example, on the ADR—it was very interesting and impressive to see how she was dealing with the actors, in general. And in the way she was talking to them. I was imagining how that was the same on set, and it was something rare. I mean, it’s, as you said, a rare chance to work with someone that is an actor, a writer, not only a screenwriter, she’s a writer as well–an author of books– and directing at the same time. It was very interesting to see how she was going from one to the other and how one was nourishing the other.
You miraculously brought the final edit in under two hours. Do you ever fall in love with a scene and then realize it has to go?
On this one, I must say that the fact that it was a tight schedule made that happen. What we have in the movie is more or less everything we had. There’s not a lot that that we didn’t use. We used everything. I mean, we repurposed some elements, for sure. But anything that was shot we used and re-used! The sad element was when we had to let go of some very fun moments, like I remember that scene with Jennifer Coolidge, the dinner with the parents scene. This is the standard meeting-the-parents scene, you know, that we see in rom-com movies and what was great was Jennifer Coolidge started to improv. And she was just hilarious! I remember that moment when they asked her, what is your job, and she was like, “Oh, I’m a fish tank designer.” And she started with that. And it was nonsense, and it was so funny. Unfortunately, we were not able to keep everything, but we did keep some of those moments.
Well, she is an improv genius! I would love to have seen that.
Yeah. Her in the same room with Clancy Brown as well, and both playing that game, it was fun. I loved to watch the dailies with this movie, and sometimes even go on set. There was a refreshing and nice feeling on set. In the whole process of the movie, from day one, it was very nice and pleasant. There were some times when I would look over at my assistant and just say, “it’s nice.” And that’s not always the case for us working on a movie.
Looking at your filmography, I see a lot of horror and thrillers, not a lot of rom-coms or comedies. Do you think that was something Emerald was really looking for?
Again, that would be a good question for her. And I would love to hear the answer actually. [laughs] I’ve actually done a lot of everything. There are some movies that you didn’t see here that I did in France. I don’t want to have a label so I try all the time to work in different genres. I’ve only done one horror movie, actually, Sinister, and the others were, well, mostly thrillers, but I’ve done other movies in France and here, including some comedies. I try to have a range. I try to use all my past experiences in the movies I’m cutting. I try to think outside of the box as much as I can. My relation with each movie is very organic. I feel more like a midwife in a way, like I’m here to listen to what the movie has to say. And most of the time when it doesn’t like it, it rejects it. So I’m trying to listen to that, and use the fact that yes, I did some thriller movies. Like when I’m on a scene like the one with Madison or the Dean, I’m using those elements that I know how to play with, and we try to do things a bit differently. Like, for example, in the Dean scene, when you are in the very intense moment when the character is realizing what’s going on, she’s shouting, and she’s freaking out. And instead of staying with her and being in that tense moment, we go outside, and have that slight comedic moment that deflates the tension. Then, when we go back in, we are already on a different step. This is a movie where we can do that. And most of the time, we can’t. So I was trying to, yeah, use everything I could. It could also have been the fact that I’ve worked with women directors before, which I really love doing. And maybe it’s the fact that I did all these different genres that brought us to work together, or the fact that I’m European, even though I’ve been working here for 10 years. I have a bit of a foot in each continent in a way.
There’s so much more I want to ask you, like what you learned on this film, but I have to ask you about the final sequence with the cabin, where you really show some mastery. Tell us a little about cutting the sequence with the Juice Newton song, “Angel of the Morning.” It’s the big climax of the film, what the whole movie is leading to, and you have to cut around the song, and it works so perfectly.
We tried several different songs. We had the basic structure of the scene, so what was really important was to hit the good moments, so every time we changed the song, I had to slightly adjust. But it’s a song, of course, so you don’t have the flexibility. So we were adjusting specifically to the picture. We were matching the moments and we had to have that last chapter hit a very specific spot. I’m always very precise about all these elements. We needed to have something that was as satisfying as possible, with a very good flow. So that’s a scene where we spent a lot of time going back and forth to adjust and massage. But in a way, we had to do that a lot, not specifically cutting to the music, but we had to play a lot with source music in the movie, because that was part of the DNA of the movie. That’s part of the footage almost. I used the score as much as I could because it’s a very powerful tool to go from one emotion to another. But we couldn’t this time because we had to use these songs, like this one and the Paris Hilton song, and you have to find the best way to lead the audience into them. So that was the big thing that we had to work on in the cut. You wanted to ask me what I’ve learned? This is one of the things I learned, how to work with the source music and to transition into them as seamlessly as possible, to help the audience. And most of the time it’s to work on the previous scenes and to find the best way to ease the transitions, playing with the source music and transitioning to something that is full score, and doing all those things.
As for the very end block, that was something that I was excited about because it’s kind of a condensed version of the whole movie, emotionally. To go from her entering that place, with the montage, showing those men and what animals they can be and going into the scene where everything is explained with Al on the bed. In that moment where everything is switching, were Cassie finally talks about everything that we had just been imagining up until now. This time, she explains everything. And having that confrontation and that terrible turn that, unfortunately, is very realistic. Emerald wanted it very realistic, keeping it the length of what it would be in reality. But then, the next morning, with the Max Greenfield character, it switches again. I remember when we were doing screenings, I was looking at people and waiting to see how they would react, because we needed to have that laugh, that relief. It was so awkward and unusual so I was waiting for that. And each time, I remember very clearly, when you have that first laugh, a giggle starts in one part of the room and starts to percolate in other parts of the room, and then everybody starts to laugh. That that was the moment I was expecting and hoping for. It was a big challenge for us to have that moment. And each time we have that reaction, we were like, “phew!”
Were you at Sundance, where it premiered to a full house?
Yes, I was.
The whole world has been robbed of that experience that you guys had at Sundance. I didn’t get to see it in a full theater. This is a movie that you want to see in the full theater.
Oh, it makes a big difference. And I was very, very lucky to see it twice because we had the preview test, the screening. But Sundance was really amazing because suddenly, you just have to sit still. For once I was just sitting, there was nothing to deal with.
You didn’t have to take notes or anything…
Nope, done! Finished! [laughs] It was on screen! But it was stressful in a way because it was the first time that a real audience was going to see it. And I was on the on the edge of my seat. But to get to that moment was a huge relief.
How did it feel to know you were successful, and that everything landed just as you intended?
I will tell you, I have the hair standing up on my arms just thinking about it. The emotion, the sensation you have at that time is…. When I’m working on a movie, I’m working for like six, nine months and living with the movie and with the characters onscreen. Most of the time I don’t know the name of the actors, I know the name of the characters, and that’s what is important for me. I am immersed in that world. And that’s what’s amazing with Emerald actually, our unique perspective, how our brains work and bring us something twisted, and I loved that from day one. I would work on any other project of hers, because this was such an amazing experience. It’s like having the baby finally crying. It was that for me at Sundance. I know I was really eager to see how people would react and it is a shame. One of my friends was on the internet, watching it with friends, on Discord, so I was able to see the messages popping in and had a sense of what could have been a real screening, but without having the sense of the room, the vibration of the people around reacting. One of my friends told me when he was watching the movie, he was watching that very traumatic scene on the bed, and he was like “NO!” That’s what is important to me.
At least now people are talking about their feelings about the movie. It’s very important, I think, to be able to show it and I’m glad that my kids will be able to see it. I want my son to see it. Because even if it has some drama and some comedy, what is important at the end of the day is that it shows a reality that I don’t think men always think of, really. And even me, as I was cutting the movie at one point, I was watching the character of Neil and I was like, oh, am I a good, nice guy like him? What I love about this movie is that it feels very light and puffy and pink-ish, but at the end of the day is very deep. And it’s important for my girls to watch it because I it shows a situation that could happen and that I’ve heard in the past with female friends. So yeah, that was all there when we were at that screening.
Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.