Promising Young Woman — director Emerald Fennell’s debut film starring Carey Mulligan — has become central to film discussions over the course of its slow, pandemic-addled rollout. Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman who seeks to hold accountable the people (mostly but not exclusively men) who played a role in her medical school friend’s rape and death. It’s a brilliant twist on the revenge flick and easily avoids cliche. The tone of the film walks the line between dark humor and an analysis of the effects of trauma, and helping to tell the story is Los Angeles-based, British score composer Anthony Willis.
Willis’ BAFTA-nominated, organic-electronic score cues — including but not limited to the popular iteration of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” — deftly navigate bleakness and levity in a poignant film that also stars Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, and Connie Britton.
Willis cut his teeth working alongside John Powell on fare like Solo: A Star Wars Story, Jason Bourne, and Ralph Breaks the Internet; Henry Jackman on films like The Birth of a Nation; and Harry Gregson-Williams on The Martian, and that experience has clearly contributed to Willis confidently stepping into his own as the main composer this time around. He spent about five weeks writing and recording the score for Promising Young Woman and the end result executes and complements Fennell’s vision with aplomb.
“There was no rule book for Promising Young Woman, because the genre and tone are so original,” Willis told Vehlinggo recently in a Zoom chat. “You can’t just fall back on the conventional way of doing something. Even the moments that are conventional in the film are unconventionally conventional.”
In this Q&A, we dive a bit more into how the score came to be, what it’s like to navigate scoring a film that invokes both humor and serious trauma, and, of course, how that “Toxic” cue was spawned. (Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and house style, and some of it was left on the cutting room floor in the interest of brevity, or Vehlinggo’s version of brevity, anyway.)
Vehlinggo: I’ve seen Promising Young Women three times now and it’s striking to me how it so expertly manages the balance between levity and deep trauma. When you’re scoring this thing, how do you score to the trauma? How did you make the decisions you made with respect to composition?
Anthony Willis: That’s a good question. This isn’t my definition, but this is my way of decoding it: Trauma, in its essence, is the abuse of something that was once wonderful or could have been wonderful. Or, in this movie’s case, could have been promising. My way of doing that was to associate the main theme that I wrote for Cassie and [her deceased friend] Nina as a lullaby for a lost friendship. It’s a haunted version of a lullaby.
So, what I basically experimented with was how can I harmonize it and how can I change the implied harmony so that it gives you a darker feeling as opposed to a light feeling. When making things dark, obviously, there are sounds and colors that we associate being dark or low-end — things that are brittle, things that evoke tension.
But to create trauma, you need to take something that could have been light and make it dark. Because, as I said, you’re showing that something has been subverted from it’s natural existence. And that was sort of my way into that. We used a vocal pad that evoked the character of Nina, and it has a very stark, haunted quality to it that keeps her presence there. It has a ghostly feeling to it. It’s all very subtle as part of the score, but it was a way of giving it a more distinct character. And then within that, harmonically, for a lot of the score, the underscore is quite tense and sort of bleak and stark. So that was sort of how I conceptualized the trauma of what had happened to Nina.
It’s very seamless how your score fits in with what the music supervisor(s) chose for the pop songs, even though there’s a stark contrast between some of the darker cues and, say, the choice of Paris Hilton’s delectably catchy “Stars Are Blind” in a key scene. It’s like a look into what could be a normal life for Cassie, right? She’s just with this guy she’s interested in (played by Burnham) and they’re having fun goofing off at a store — it’s kind of a throwback scene from, say, an ‘80s or ‘90s movie, where there’s a cute-date kind-of scenario. But boiling up underneath is this reminder that Cassie is living with this huge weight on her shoulders.
Yeah, that was one of the decisions where I took on the theme that Emerald very much supported: Even at this moment that appears to be a romantic escape, is Cassie going to be pulled out of this purgatory… and into this new life, and is he going to be able to rescue her? Even then I’m using the meaner theme.
So, if you want to get analytical about it, there’s a commentary going on: Even the romance in the score that does become very romantic in a conventional fairy tale sense, there’s still a kind of melancholy to it.
One question I always like to ask composers — because I’m interested in it and the readers like it — is the relationship between the director and the composer. There are so many different variations on that creative dynamic. I’m curious what your process or work flow was like with Fennell? Were you working closely with her from the start or was it more scoring to picture?
Emerald is in all the best possible ways very hands-on. This film really is a reflection of her vision — both in the writing and the direction and then, of course, the post-production process. I would have loved to have been involved earlier as it happened. However, because it was her first film, I think she wanted to feel out the whole process. When she got into post, she looked for a composer and she was very much leading the ship.
It’s wonderful to have a director like that, because they really guide you. Our collaboration on the project basically started with her inviting me to watch the film and then write some music to see what my response would be. My approach going into it was: There’s something I can write, from which anybody can learn something about the film, because it’s such an original film.
I think Emerald was basically just curious to see [what I could do], because my background is in more thematic scoring. With a film that has this very kind of wicked and ironic use of pop songs and lyrics, there are a lot of facets to the sound of the film.
In that environment can a classic thriller thematic score live? I think that was just an experiment that she wanted to try. She said to me I could go with a very edgy sound design score and just let all the songs tell the musical story. But I wanted to see if this is something that could work, and so I wrote the theme that I mentioned earlier, the theme for Cassie and Nina.
“It was a good marriage between being classic and contemporary…”
It was a good marriage between being classic and contemporary, because it’s quite modular and quite optimistic; so it keeps going up. And as I said, you can harmonize it in a lot of ways. Some of them are a bit more contemporary and some of them are rather more old-fashioned. And that’s how our collaboration sort of started. Susan Jacobs, the music supervisor, was also very wonderful and encouraging this mission. Also, a big shout out to Carey Mulligan, whose performance was so striking. That character is what helped me find the theme. So, big thanks to her. There are worse people to have to write music for, that’s for sure — both Emerald and Carey.
That was why I got brought on to the project. Emerald pushed me to try and put the theme in lots of places and pushed it to be more romantic here, darker there.
So, this being your first feature film as the main composer, really, was there anything that was super challenging, or anything that you learned from the experience being the composer on something like this, that you’re going to bring with you going forward?
I think that every film is hard in its own way. And it should be, because you should be trying to not just repeat that kind of language that has been used in similar films of the genres you’ve done. You should be looking to try to give this film a really special feeling. Obviously, that’s so much about the director’s vision for what that should be. With any film that you just repeat something that’s already been done, I think that is a shame.
Yeah, that makes sense. You don’t want to be too derivative or rest on your laurels.
Unless it’s a remake or a sequel or something, I guess. So, I think anything should be difficult. Things that feel original always do feel very fresh. By which I mean you almost need to walk out of the room and then come back and have the confidence to go, “Yes, that’s actually cool.”
I’m sure everyone has asked you about this: Your score-like take on Britney Spears’ modern classic “Toxic,” which appears in the film and on the soundtrack album (but not the score album). It’s a fresh way to take a pop song and use it in a way that is effective and poignant, but not a distracting gimmick. How’d this end up being a song to which you gave the score treatment?
I think Emerald had been working on that as she was writing. “Toxic” was very much her idea.
The thing about “Toxic” is it’s got two incredibly strong things about it. One, the riff itself. It’s such a strong, iconic riff. And two: the lyrical association in connection to this subject matter. It is so strong. It’s really wonderful. I’m so grateful for all the love for this and how much everyone has enjoyed it. But I have to say I don’t feel I deserve all the credit, because the song itself is such a banger. It’s one of the greatest tracks of the [2000s].
It was really Emerald’s vision to have it there. In one of the earliest emails she sent me about the film, she said, “I’m currently playing with Brittany and Wagner.” I was like… I’ve got no idea what that sounds like, but I can’t wait to find out. It was something she really dreamed up. Then it was a challenge of “How do you take something that’s really fun and then subvert it and make it really dark?”
What I think is fun about it is it’s a bit of a Trojan horse, because up until that point [when you hear “Toxic”], all the song covers in the film have been pretty direct. This one is disguised. You’ve had all these ironic sort of fun songs and this serious thriller score, and at that point they merge.
I was harnessing really strong associations that people have with that song. No matter what piece of music I could have tried to write there, I never would have had the power of such a strong lyric and such a strong riff that you can recognize. ###
Both Willis’ score and the multi-artist, song-focused soundtrack are available through the usual platforms now via Back Lot Music (the former) and Capitol (the latter). To learn more about Willis, here’s a nice bio.