CRIME & PUNISHMENT

Benjamin Kračun /Promising Young Woman

Carey Mulligan (front) stars as "Cassie" and Bo Burnham (back) stars as "Ryan“ in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release.  
Credit : Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features

CRIME & PUNISHMENT

Benjamin Kračun /Promising Young Woman

By Valentina Valentini

If you crossed Vertigo (1958) with Clueless (1995) then you’d begin to get an idea of what cinematographer Benjamin Kračun’s job entailed on Emerald Fennel’s directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, releasing later in 2020. Whilst directors Alfred Hitchcock and Cher Horowitz seem an unlikely pair, their preferences for colours, scores and tension throughout both films were what Kračun and Fennel connected on.

Promising Young Woman is written and directed by Fennel, an actress whose credits include Call The Midwife and The Crown, and the Emmy-nominated TV writer and showrunner of Killing Eve. The movie is a story about Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan) who decides to take justice against sexual predators into her own hands.

“It’s hard to describe what this movie is,” says Kračun, who met Fennell when he shot her two-minute short for a Ted Conference back in spring of 2018, where their time working together proved really harmonious. “I sum it up as a romantic, revenge, rom-com thriller.”

DP Benjamin Kračun with director Emerald Fennel
DP Benjamin Kračun with director Emerald Fennel

When Kračun got the script from Fennel’s team, about seven months after they’d worked together, he was immediately on-board. It was a page-turner, and the twist at the end was so surprising – something that doesn’t usually happen in Hollywood movies. Also, the story was, for the most part, interior with two-hander dialogue scenes. This didn’t daunt Kračun, who is comfortable with psychological thrillers that are heavy on dialogue and subjectivity, having shot Beast (2017, dir. Michael Pearce) – which Fennell told him she really loved—and Beats (2019, dir. Brian Welsh). But, it did give him pause, as he wanted to make sure he was going to be able to do the story the visual justice it deserved.

“Emerald is very visual and has an aesthetic that is very pop-heavy,” says Kračun. “Promising Young Woman is very Sweet Valley High and Clueless on the surface, on purpose, because we wanted to create this illusion of safety. If it started off all dark and heavy, you’d know where it was going; subverting the audience’s expectations with the colour allowed us lead them down a different path so that the ending is truly surprising. The most important thing for us was to make sure the film was a thrilling, suspenseful and fun ride. We were not making some stiff, arthouse movie.”

Carey Mulligan stars as "Cassie" in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release.  
Credit : Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features

“A lot of the beginning of the film is visually quite static with some pretty oblique framing. Whilst the character of Cassie is in a stasis of sorts until her mission becomes clear – the morph into the avenging angel, if you will – gives her the power which she uses to start her path towards revenge. That’s when the camera starts moving more and I incorporated shafts of light and very formal framing to reinforce Cassie as this biblical martyr.”

- Benjamin Kračun

Kračun’s first visual ideas came from wanting to make the camera move and circulate in a predatory fashion, and that this would become more so as the story went along. Another visual motif came from the idea that Cassie is an avenging angel, and there are a few scenes where angel wings appear in some manner or another.

“A lot of the beginning of the film is visually quite static with some pretty oblique framing,” says Kračun. “Whilst the character of Cassie is in a stasis of sorts until her mission becomes clear – the morph into the avenging angel, if you will – gives her the power which she uses to start her path towards revenge. That’s when the camera starts moving more and I incorporated shafts of light and very formal framing to reinforce Cassie as this biblical martyr.”

Kračun has filmed his last six projects on an Alexa, and he wasn’t looking to switch out camera systems. But for his glass, he and Fennel went through a bunch of different Panavision lenses - both full spherical and Anamorphic – and ended up with G-series Anamorphics which he felt had just the right amount of aberrations and oddities in them to help when framing with a lot of negative space, as they were planning on doing.

(L to R) Actor Carey Mulligan, writer / director Emerald Fennell, actor Laverne Cox, and actor Bo Burnham on the set of PROMSING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. 
Credit : Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features

“We were going to be in living rooms and in restaurants and in bars and dingy apartments,” he says, explaining that Focus Features didn’t come on-board until a week before they started filming, which meant the limited budget and 23-day shoot was what they’d prepped for and was how they were already operating the production. “And having that scope really helps along with broken-up, edgy frames and quite contrasting elements. I also think that when you’re in thriller mode, Anamorphic reminds you that you’re watching a movie. It’s like when you’re watching a wildlife film and you see the elks standing there, just grazing, but as the lion comes into frame, it all takes off.”

For the colour palate, Kračun and Fennel’s look books were filled with references like Nicole Kidman in To Die For (1995, dir. Gus Van Sant, DP Eric Alan Edwards), Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995, DP Alex Nepomniaschy), and artist Cindy Sherman’s The Centerfolds from 1981, where she was both the photographer and the pin-up girl.

“With my DIT Chase Abrams I built a LUT that was influenced by those soft, ‘90’s aesthetics to help bring out the pastels,” says Kračun. “What was in front of the camera was strong and pronounced and quite clear the colours we were going for. They were all there in Cassie’s manicure ­– a rainbow of turquoise, teal, yellow, light pink and fuchsia.”

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Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release.  
Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

And since the camera and lighting can take away from those punches of colour with its sharpness, Kračun made sure he diffused his lenses and that the lighting was kept very soft. “I wanted to give it some edge without being hyper-real,” he says.

The DI was done at Harbor Picture Company by Katie Jordan, who’s most recent work can be seen in The Dark Crystal and Suicide Squad. And though they weren’t heavy-handed on the colouring, Jordan keyed into the luminance of certain colours in the frame – like the blue of the cupcakes when Cassie is working in the cafe.

“Emerald loves pink and Cassie’s parents’ house had this crazy pink carpet that we could just key in to so that there is subtly something surreal going on,” he says. “Working with Emerald on this film gave me the chance to embrace my brighter side and the artistry of Britney Spears.”