In partnership with Warner Bros. UK
In Saltburn, the second feature film written and directed by Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman), privilege and ambition collide at Oxford University with explosive consequences. When scholarship boy Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) clocks his magnetic classmate Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), he’s drawn to his aristocratic glamour and unshakable confidence. Their friendship develops in beautiful buildings steeped in history, including an atmospheric college library, but the pair seem to be partying harder than they study.
“The thing about something like Oxford is that often it’s so beautiful, so mysterious, so walled-in, so ’elite’, I suppose,” Fennell said recently. “But, of course, in the [dorm] rooms, they’re shitty and people are throwing up in their sinks.” Felix’s room in particular looks like it could do with a clean – something Oliver is quick to point out. For Fennell and the film’s producer Josey McNamara, authenticity was paramount from the start. “There were some conversations about trying to mirror Oxford somewhere else,” says McNamara. “It’s a very expensive location so sometimes [film crews] use St. Albans as a stand-in, but we decided to shoot in Oxford and budget accordingly because we wanted the audience to recognise some of the locations we were shooting in.”
Fennell really captures the city’s romantic ambience by shooting key scenes in Radcliffe Square. This historic cobbled square in central Oxford flanks the famous Radcliffe Camera, an 18th century library that was paid for by eminent scientist John Radcliffe. There’s space for 600,000 books in the rooms beneath Radcliffe Square, and the library itself has become an iconic symbol of the university. “It’s a beautifully historic place that obviously we wanted to be protective and respectful of,” says McNamara. “And then there were logistical considerations when it came to locking off that area [for filming], because obviously it’s also a big tourist attraction.”
Oxford University is made up of 39 individual colleges spread over the city centre with no central campus. Because it’s especially busy during term-time, Fennell and her crew shot there in early September, several weeks before the student population returned for the start of the academic year. “We really had to schedule carefully to make sure we got into university locations on time because we wouldn’t have been able to get in any later,” McNamara says. The university gatekeepers, he adds, were “incredibly collaborative”, but everyone involved was very wary of “messing up the student timetable in any way”.
Saltburn evokes the uniquely intimate experience that Oxford students enjoy with scenes set in the unnamed college that Oliver and Felix are enrolled at. It’s a close-knit community where everyone eats, sleeps, studies and socialises in the same cloistered space. Like every Oxford college, it has its own common room and (presumably well subsidised) student bar. Fennell based its mix of grandeur and griminess partly on her own experience studying at Greyfriars College in Oxford in the early 2000s. “We wanted the audience to feel like they were going on a journey with Oliver at Oxford,” McNamara says, so as many scenes as possible were shot in the same college that we first see an awestruck Oliver walking into.
For the same reason, scenes set in Oliver and Felix’s dorm rooms were filmed in actual college dorm rooms that “some very kind students” loaned to the production. “Those rooms aren’t very big and you can only get a few crew members in at a time, so we had to have the locations pre-prepared in advance so we could kind of seamlessly jump around,” says McNamara. “Again, we needed that fluidity so the audience would feel like they were right there on a journey with Oliver.” There’s no doubt that Saltburn has really captured the idiosyncrasies of the Oxford student experience: it’s a place that can feel incredibly inspiring on a crisp spring morning, but just as grotty as any other student digs when you wake up with a thumping hangover. Even someone as rich as Felix can’t protect himself from that.
‘Saltburn’ is in UK cinemas from November 17