If Looks Could Kill

Published June 24, 2016

ELLE FANNING AS JESSE IN NICOLAS WINDING REFN’S THE NEON DEMON. PHOTO COURTESY OF BROADGREEN PICTURES/AMAZON STUDIOS.

“People see you. They notice. Do you know how lucky you are?” Sarah, a leonine, lithe-limbed model played with meta-sharpness by model-turned-actress Abbey Lee, sizes up Jesse (Elle Fanning) a doe-eyed, fresh-off-the-bus new girl, in a quintessential Hollywood stand-off.

The scene is from Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, which might have been Cannes’ most polarizing film this year. Set against an otherworldly, time-divorced Los Angeles that shares its slick, neon-soaked, Hollywood Babylon DNA with Mulholland Drive and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it’s a shadowy self-aware fairy tale of demented desire and lethal narcissism. The Drive and Only God Forgives director dives, in his signature hyper-stylized aesthetic, into the modeling world, where plastic surgery is “good grooming” and insecure, bionic-looking Amazons breed the bloodlust of the Countess Bathory to quite literally eat their young.

But to Refn, it’s all in good, perverse fun. Co-written with Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, Refn wields melodrama and satire that uses a high dose of camp to temper out The Neon Demon‘s more lurid imagery (necrophilia, cannibalism) and probes into the insidious nature of attaining impossible standards.

Interview recently spoke with the Danish provocateur by phone in anticipation of the film’s release, today.

COLLEEN KELSEY: I want to start by talking about beauty. It’s a commodity, but it’s a hard one to come by. Chasing after it usually becomes a desperate, vulgar situation. Why craft a film about that dynamic?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Well, let me ask you a question first.

KELSEY: Sure.

REFN: What would Andy Warhol have thought of The Neon Demon?

KELSEY: Andy had a preoccupation with surface. I think he would have really engaged with it.

REFN: This is like the perfect Andy Warhol movie in a way. Beauty is on one level pure surface, and on the other hand, it’s the most complex subject that we can touch upon because it says everything about us as people. It’s a subject we very quickly begin to argue about. I think that’s so interesting. Well, I woke up one day and I realized I wasn’t born beautiful, but my wife was, so I decided to make a horror film about it: what it would be like to be born beautiful. We live in a beauty-obsessed culture, which on one hand is absolutely fabulous, but on the flip side, is also dangerously extreme. It’s like living in that vulgarity. I felt like I needed to do it as a teenage horror film because it really wasn’t so much my generation. It’s my children’s generation. It was Elle Fanning’s generation. We shot the film when Elle was 16. Elle’s generation was born into the digital revolution, [technology] being like a tool, part of their everyday lives. But the next generation will be born into technology being a reality. The artificial world that we create through images will essentially become real. That’s where The Neon Demon lies. I wanted to make a film that celebrates narcissism as a quality, as a virtue. Ironically, I met Andy Warhol when I was 15 in New York, at an event with Divine. Full circle.

KELSEY: I wanted to get back to something you said about the celebration of narcissism, because narcissism is something that invites ridiculousness and invites melodrama. Did you always envision this film as a celebration of those qualities?

REFN: Oh absolutely. The minute you celebrate narcissism, which on one hand is very complex, it’s very ridiculous. You have to love oneself with humor. The Neon Demon is very funny. It’s a very campy movie because fashion is very campy. Why not embrace that? As much as it’s artistic expression, it’s also downright silly.

KELSEY: What has been your personal relationship with fashion? You’ve done some commercial jobs for Gucci and YSL.

REFN: Well, I think Prada introduced me to fashion by making me look good. [laughs] My wife, because she buys my clothes if I’m not wearing Prada, has a great sense of style. Lately I’ve been fortunate to do some campaigns for brands that I very much enjoy.

KELSEY: Before you casted Abbey Lee, were you familiar with her past career as a model?

REFN: I had no idea who she was. I just saw her at a casting call. I really liked her. My wife was like, “You know who that is?” And I was like, “No.” [She said,] “She’s Abbey Lee, this big wonder model.” I was like, “Oh, what do you know?” Then Elle also knew who she was and followed her when she was young in all the magazines. Abbey was really useful in many ways, both as an actress—she’s very good—but also whenever I had any legitimate questions about authenticity about the world, it was like, “Let’s go ask Abbey.” She was very helpful. Good actress, very instinctual. Photographs like a motherfucker. Absolutely incredible and has no problem taking off her clothes.

KELSEY: I also wanted to talk about transitioning from working with themes of over-the top-machismo, like in Drive, to this turbo charged feminist atmosphere, though it is a hyper-monstrous kind of femininity. 

REFN: I reached my high point of male fetish with Drive. It couldn’t go any higher. It was touching upon homoeroticism. With Only God Forgives it was absolutely emasculating it, deconstructing it, crawling back into the womb to be born as a 16-year-old girl. It made perfect sense in the end.

KELSEY: As you said, Elle was 16 when you started filming. Was that the perfect union of where you were creatively when you started this film? With casting her, how did she flesh out the story?

REFN: Well it wasn’t so much casting her since there was no one else to play Jesse. I started casting unknown actresses because no one had the thing, that element called the thing. I was casting unknown actresses and it’s hard. It’s very difficult finding someone who has all the pinpoints. [If] it wasn’t the right actress to play Jesse, there would be no movie. It would fall apart. My wife had seen one of Elle’s latest films. She said she was really good. We talked about her. We set up a meeting with Elle through her agent and manager. Her manager sent me a photo shoot that Elle had done and when I saw that I was like, “This is the girl. It’s her.” Instinctually it was just like, “Get Elle Fanning.”

I was like, “Without her there would be no movie.” Elle came over to my house and I was working on the film for about a year and a half, maybe a little longer, on and off, so I had accumulated a lot of ideas and various drafts of the script. I started hiring the crew even. I didn’t really have a clear sense of the singularity of what would the film be defined in one sentence. Anyway, Elle comes over and I say to her, “Listen, I would like to live out my fantasy of being a 16-year-old girl, as I believe every man has that. I want that to be you. I want to make a horror film about beauty, that also happens to be a melodramatic, science fiction film with vulgarity and a lot of melodrama and with some camp in [it].” She went, “Okay.” Ironically, she said she wants to make a film about beauty for her generation. I was like, “It’s a perfect match. We can now mutate.” I asked her the most important question, which was, “Do you think you’re beautiful?” First she giggled, and I said, “No, really, do you think you’re beautiful?” And then she said, “Yes.” That’s when it became clear to me that The Neon Demon is essentially a celebration of narcissism.

KELSEY: The mythology of Los Angeles sets the structure for the fairytale aspects of this narrative, the innocent ingénue moving to the big city and getting swallowed up by it. Obviously you’ve worked in L.A. before, but was L.A. a natural choice? Did it just come to you immediately?

REFN: L.A. really came because it was the only place my wife wanted to live. That solved that discussion. I didn’t want to make the world about fashion; I wanted to make the world about beauty, which is everything. Ironically, even the fashion in New York or Paris or Milan or whatever, or music in Berlin, or art in, I don’t know, Madrid—all these scenes come and go. Everything leads back to Hollywood. If the Wizard of Oz were real he would be in Hollywood. Jesse would be Dorothy, but would be poison rather than innocence. There’s always this duality in her character. Is she essentially here to create chaos or is she the victim of the obsession? Hollywood became the natural place.

THE NEON DEMON IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE TODAY.