Love it or hate it, Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest movie, The Neon Demon, is hard to forget. The film premiered at Cannes in May 2016 to divided reviews and the festival’s increasingly famous chorus of audience boos. On June 24th, it heads to American theaters, where viewers can judge for themselves whether it’s straight-faced black satire or Grand Guignol horror. There’s evidence in both columns: Elle Fanning (Super 8, Maleficent) stars as Jesse, a naïve new arrival to LA’s high-fashion photography world. The jaded local artists seize on her as the next new thing, but Refn’s version of the fashion industry is a destructive, hateful place where necrophilia, cannibalism, and bloody self-destruction reign. Openly inspired by Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert’s notorious 1970 Hollywood story Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, Refn has been frank about his intentions to create something intense, provocative, and challenging.
That aesthetic is nothing new for Refn, a Danish-born filmmaker who got his start with the visceral crime story Pusher (which eventually became a trilogy), and built a cult audience around other macho, violence-focused films like Bronson (a name-making feature for Tom Hardy) and Valhalla Rising. He picked up a more mainstream audience with the stylish crime feature Drive, starring Ryan Gosling as a nameless getaway driver, but pushed his new fans away with the more oblique, grotesque follow-up Only God Forgives. Now, after two decades of films about masculinity and violence, he’s focusing specifically on how the same urges tap into feminine vanity. Ahead of Neon Demon’s release, I talked to him and Fanning about their film, which was shot in sequence to allow for organic changes to the plot, and shot on a shockingly low $7 million budget.
Tasha Robinson: You said partway through shooting that the neon demon is a character, but you hadn't decided who it was. Did you ever reach a conclusion?
Nicolas Winding Refn: [Points emphatically to Fanning]
Elle Fanning: [Laughs] I think it's Jesse. I think we discovered that during filming.
How did this film evolve during shooting? Is it true you started out with a different ending in mind?
NWR: The ending has been kind of blown out of proportion. It didn't change. It was the same thing, it just happened in a different way, in a different order. There never was a different ending. A lot of it had to do with Jena Malone's character presenting a whole new angle.
The most creative phase of a film is in shooting, because structure is the defining element of that phase. Writing is fantasizing about what your film will be like. Shooting is reality. And the post-production is recovering the idea you had. The more you can make the shooting organic, the more post-production can continue your evolution.
You've said trust is important on film, to creating an environment where people can fully commit. For both of you, how did you get to that place of comfort with each other?
EF: I trusted Nick right away, from the moment we met. But there was never a point where it was an unwavering trust. I wanted to be a part of the film very much. We'd never met before, but when I heard he was doing a film where a 16-year-old girl was the lead, and I was 16 at the time... I hadn't read the script, but I heard it was in the fashion world, and Nick Refn was directing it, and it was mostly women in the film. He wanted to meet me, and I went to a place where he was staying in Los Angeles. We continued to build trust before filming by talking about the story, about what we were doing. I just felt like I was so connected to the story that I was as invested as he was. So we were like a team.
It was a collaboration like I've never had with a director, not this close. I'd come on the set in the morning and he'd say "What do you want to do? What do you feel like?" and that freedom was something I'd never felt before. It was such a creative space. I think about things a lot, and here, my thoughts and images could actually become a reality. I could actually try things out if I wanted to, and that freedom was really great.
Can you point to specific choices you made with that freedom, things that shaped the way the movie developed?
NWR: It was everything! It's about a 16-year-old girl, and I'm not a 16-year-old girl, though I'd like to be sometimes. It was more a sensibility than specific plot points, like "Do you want to do this in this scene?" "No, I'd rather do this." "Okay. Do you want to say that?" "No, I don't really want to say any of it." "Then don't worry about it. How would you phrase this? What do you want to wear? Where do you want to stand? How does this feel to you?" For me, it's all about having the performers feel confident in their movements and surroundings. And then I'll figure out how to photograph it afterward. They come first.
"I trusted Nick right away, from the moment we met."
EF: And it felt like there was always a reason for the different things we did. The vision Nick had — I never felt like "I'm doing this thing just to do it." Everything felt so truthful. The neon demon is an exaggerated concept, but there's this sense of groundedness to it. It's Earth-shakingly truthful for me, in a wild way. Especially being the age I was.
It's a very heightened, metaphorical form of truth. What happens to Jesse in particular is entirely clear as a symbol, just like it's clear what's going on when Ryan Gosling's character tries to push back into his mother's womb in Only God Forgives. But why go so broad? Why such a literal metaphor?
NWR: It would be nice if the story is relatable, if people get what's going on. With Drive, I felt like I achieved a kind of height of male fetish. It was certainly a strong homoeroticism by the end of it. Part of Only God Forgives was deconstructing that eroticism, that fetish, and emasculating it. Flipping it on its side to take it apart, until he's crawling back into the womb. It enabled me to be born again as a 16-year-old girl. It was a rebirth, as a way to get into the idea of making a teenage horror film.
You open Neon Demon with a particularly striking fetishization of beauty and death, but you're also looking with a kind of horror on people who create and profit from these same fetishes, the entire industry built around them. How do you separate yourself from the people you're lampooning here?
NWR: I'm not really mocking it, because I'm not here to criticize the fashion world. I find it intoxicating. I find it full of glitter, and I find it very vulgar. And you need both to make it exciting, to make it entertaining. So I brought in humor and absurdity, these strong artistic views. There are wonderful artists who deal in the fashion world only, and you see by their creations that they are changing our understanding of sexuality, and freedom, and gender-bending. Our political notions of beauty are a very complex theme.
You say it's important that the story be relatable, but Jesse's reactions to things like an assault in her apartment complex feel very alien. They tell us a lot about who she's becoming, but also make it difficult to identify with her as a person. Was it important that the audience see a humanity in her?
NWR: I think by the time of the assault in particular, she needed to travel as a character. Narcissism has come full-fledged into the foreground. In her industry, it's a virtue. She's chosen herself, self-everything. I don't think that's difficult to relate to for Elle's generation, as compared to our generation.
These days, you wake up, and instead of looking in the mirror, you're looking at your phone
EF: I think in the age of Instagram and Snapchat and social media, as teenagers, we're looking at photos so much, especially photos of ourselves. You subconsciously are comparing yourself to other people in all the images around you. When you're really young, you don't know what beauty is, you don't have a concept, a point of comparison. You don't know how complex it is. And then there's a time when narcissism is woken up, when you really see yourself in the mirror for the first time, in a way. These days, you wake up, and instead of looking in the mirror, you're looking at your phone, or at pictures of yourself from the night before. And those images are dead, but you think they're beautiful. So we're back to the death and beauty theme, because these aren't living images. It's a screen. And they're so often altered images. So if you think of dead, altered images as beautiful, how do you relate to a real person? That's terrifying as well. My generation, I think we're more comfortable with talking about it, and with relating with Jesse, even if it's just as a cautionary tale.
[To Elle] What was the most useful advice or input you got about how to play Jesse, about what was going on with her?
NWR: "Are you beautiful?"
EF: [Laughs] Yes, exactly. It was the first question he asked me. "Do you think you're beautiful?" The first time we met, he asked that, and it was like, "Oh, that's the kind of movie we're making." It's really uncomfortable, because no one asks that. And I thought, "Oh, now I know what we're doing." It's not advice, but we both thought around it. It's an uncomfortable question, so is it weird that I don't feel uncomfortable answering it? We both realized that was what the film was about. It's a lot of different things.
NWR: I don't think you needed advice. The way we worked was so incestuous. We had created this character and this structure, and now we could see how we wanted to make their way through. Other people needed advice.
How did you answer the question when he first asked it?
EF: I laughed, and then I said "Yes," and I felt like I'd broken such a taboo.
NWR: And for me, that's where the movie began. Up until then, I had a conceptual approach. But when I met Elle and I asked her that, the past was erased. The movie was ahead of us. "This is what the film is going to be about."