Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman provides a dazzling journey into the unexpected. Cassie (Carey Mulligan), who appears to have downgraded herself from a brilliant medical student to a burned-out barista, is actually ablaze with an ambition for justice. Nice guys (played by the likes of Bo Burnham, Adam Brody, and Max Greenfield) are never quite what they appear. The film’s bright, neon-lit palette provides, as the AV Club suggests, “eye candy with a razor blade inside.” Even the film’s super-pop soundtrack (including such songs as Britney Spears' “Toxic,” Paris Hilton’s “Stars are Blind,” and Charli XCX's "Boys") is strung like a garland of candy-colored lanterns over the film’s darker thriller elements. To create a melodic counterpoint to the film’s pop sensibility, Fennell reached out to composer Anthony Willis. Known for his lush score for How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming as well as for composing memorable additional music for movies like Pan and Solo: A Star Wars Story, Willis provided a classic tone that helps to both articulate the thriller motif and ground the film’s pop sensibility, a gesture that in its own way proves unexpected.
We spoke with Willis about finding the film’s unique tone, creating his unforgettable riff on “Toxic,” and why Promising Young Woman matters right now.
How did you get involved with Promising Young Woman?
I went to the same high school as Emerald, and although she didn't know me, I knew all about her. She was a fantastic actress. The very first thing I saw her in was Twelfth Night. I knew back then that she was somebody who was going to do really interesting things. Later, I connected with her in LA. I was working with John Powell on some additional music for Pan, a movie that Emerald was in. When she was shooting Promising Young Woman, she asked me about music. She told me the film was a dark comedic thriller, and that musically they were playing with Britney and Wagner. I had no idea what the music for that would feel like. She later sent me a really good edit of the film. Because I come from a thematic orchestral background, Emerald and music supervisor Sue Jacobs wanted to see how I would create a musical through line for Cassie's journey with a classic feeling, especially since they already had all this really awesome pop music.
What was your initial concept for the score?
I was just so taken by the character Emerald had written and the way that Carey Mulligan brought Cassie to life. Cassie was living in a haunted purgatory because of what had happened to her and her friend Nina. I found a really interesting way into the score through the friendship that Cassie had with Nina. I created a sort of optimistic lullaby for them. By darkening it, I found a way to bring Nina into the film. It became a haunted lullaby about a lost relationship. I did it for strings and Warped Vinyl. I sent that to Emerald but didn't hear back for several days. When she called, she told me, "The more I listen to this, the more I really love it." She decided that she liked it so much that she couldn't see the movie any other way.
How did you deal with the pop songs that were already in the film?
Because the pop songs are such an important part of the film’s musical narrative and they have this great sense of irony, I originally wondered if my score should be a subversion of that pop world. But Emerald was very clear, saying "No, the score very much needs to be its own thread which is a counterpart to the songs and achieve something the pop songs don't do." That is really smart filmmaking. Emerald was looking for something new in the score. What she loved from my original demo was the classic thriller style of the strings, which reminded her in parts of Bernard Herrmann [Vertigo, Psycho]. For her, adding this classic thriller sound gave the story a feeling this isn't just happening now. It's always been this way.
The film navigates such striking shifts in tone. How did your score reflect that?
The tone of the film is so original. Within the same frame, you experience things that are shocking and yet entertain you, that make you laugh and reflect on your life. There is something really nimble about how the tone of the film changes. The best thing the score can do is to try not to jump around with those beats. In the film, the score stays sincere, even as the tone of the film changes from something playful and mischievous to becoming a love story to ending up a thriller.
Were you involved in creating the film’s pop soundtrack?
I did an arrangement of “Toxic,” which is on the soundtrack and appears as the prelude to the final act of the film. Emerald had a vision for this from the start, and I came on to help create the arrangement. We did some cool experiments in slowing down and warping strings to make them sound as creepy as possible. When we were recording the score in Vienna, the orchestra was tuning up and Emerald said, “O my God, let's put that at the beginning of 'Toxic.'" What is fun about that is that initially the riff is very subverted and free-time feeling. It is not till you get into it that you recognize the tune as "Toxic." The texture of mangled stings with an orchestra tuning up is quite subtle but effective.
Did you use any of the pop songs to inspire melodies or themes in the score?
In some ways, but not really. The song “Something Wonderful,” which is from the musical The King and I, has a classic sense of melody. That did inspire me a bit. Doing a sting version of “Toxic” was really the bridge where score and song meet. It is right in the middle of the world of pop and the world of the score.
What sort of instrumentation did you use for the score’s themes?
The palate was essentially classic thriller strings. We also used a sustained organ which has a very breath-like quality to it, much like a human voice. Emerald loved the organ because of that voice quality but also because there is a tone of judgment and justice in it. We also had a female vocal pad throughout, which connected to the fact that all the pop songs were sung by women.
When you see the film now, are there any cues that you feel really worked?
Recently I got to see the film again, and I was far enough away from being the composer to be able to realize that it is really fun. There is a scene toward the end, which is quite unexpected. It is a very quiet piece of music turned up very, very loud. It took me by surprise how well it comes off in the movie.
What do you want audiences to take away from seeing Promising Young Woman?
I've been very lucky in my career to be involved with a lot of films that take you to other worlds. They are wonderful escapes. For Promising Young Woman, I got to be part of something that is so now and so here in terms of the world we really live in. It entertains you, but it doesn't distract you from the world we live in. It brings you right into it.