Danish Director Nicolas Winding Refn has made a career of stylish, groundbreaking films. His latest, The Neon Demon, is a twisted tale of beauty and fashion in Los Angeles. It stars Elle Fanning as a naive girl surrounded by jealous acolytes. There are scenes so graphic and disturbing, even a jaded critic like me was stunned. The Neon Demon will certainly elicit a visceral reaction.
Refn’s take on the modelling world is dark and macabre. With Los Angeles as the backdrop, he paints an ugly picture of the fashion industry. The women are plastic surgery addicts. Mutilating themselves to fit an impossible ideal of beauty. Even worse are the agents, photographers, and designers that prey on girls like vultures.
The dialogue from the characters is narcissism incarnate. It’s heavily satirical, but their delivery is so raw and unflinching. One particularly brutal scene has a designer shredding a girl’s tailored beauty to the natural look of his muse.
Refn is portraying a sinister world of artificial beauty. Few women can achieve this state naturally. His point is that those that commit to this goal are giving up their souls. The path taken is bleak and unforgiving, leading to heinous acts of barbarism.
I had the good fortune to interview Nicolas Winding Refn last week in New York City. He was a bit tired after doing weeks of constant press. He spoke about the where this story came from, casting his young star, and why New York City has a special place in his heart. The Neon Demon is in theaters now and streaming on Amazing Prime. It’s not for the fainthearted, but is certainly a must see for any real fan of cinema. Please see our interview below:
The Neon Demon is a very visceral film. I saw it cold, no trailers, no posters, and it blew my mind. What was the impetus for this story? Why make this film?
Nicolas Winding Refn: I wanted to make a horror film about beauty.
So why was this idea brewing? Did you feel like you had to make a statement?
Nicolas Winding Refn: It was more my own fascination with beauty. It’s my children’s fascination beauty. I’ve been lucky to have a beautiful wife and children. The idea that something so beautiful can be so horrific at the same time. Beauty is a complex thing.
The models are portrayed a certain way, but what struck me was the various lecherous people in the industry, the agents, photographers, make-up artists etc. Did you have personal experience meeting these kinds of people?
Nicolas Winding Refn: It’s a combination of course, because my movie is a hyper-version of the obsession with beauty. As this crazy obsession grows, longevity does not. Everything seems to become younger and younger. The girls and people around them cannibalize themselves.
The initial photographer scene, that depraved look on his face, how does a director pull that from an actor? No words are spoken, but the look conveys so much meaning about his intent? How do you direct a look?
Nicolas Winding Refn: I’ve stopped showing actors what to actually do. I rather just talk to them about it. Then I usually play music. That’s a great way to convey inner emotion, bring the power of style and acting together. That’s really what it is, very good acting without talking.
That leads in perfectly to you longtime collaboration with composer Cliff Martinez. The music is so striking throughout the film. Did you play a piece by him during the photographer scene?
Nicolas Winding Refn: It’s different. It varies. I sometimes play different kinds of music to see where the performers end up. I play one genre. Then something else when I do it again. It really helps.
I want to get to the cast in a second, but let’s talk about Los Angeles in general. I lived in LA for a while and agree that vapidity pervades. So it makes sense how the young and naive can be so easily corrupted by the cutthroat nature of Hollywood. Is that how you see the city?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Not as much actually, on the surface that can be true, but personally I kept my feelings out of it and created a fantasy. That’s the process of going through this world being beautiful.
Let’s talk about your star Elle Fanning. She’s very young. I believe she just turned eighteen. Talk about getting a fifteen to sixteen year old girl to make this type of film?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Elle Fanning was fifteen when we started. She turned seventeen during the shoot. Four weeks before Cannes, she turned eighteen. She had her prom at Cannes. (laughs) I think that no one could play that character but her. She was the perfect choice. I was fortunate she agreed to do it. It was very much a collaboration. We had to design this entity between us. She was playing it, but I was steering through her as much as possible.
So to follow up, being a minor in America, I assume her parents or handlers were very involved. Where you worried that the script was too dark, too adult for her?
Nicolas Winding Refn: No, I didn’t cast her. I just offered her the role.
Nicolas Winding Refn: Oh yes, I didn’t need to. She was perfect. I did ask her, in our meeting when I offered her the role, if I should speak to her parents about anything. She said no.
Let’s talk about Jenna Malone’s character. She’s great in the film. Her motivations are very interesting. Where was her character born from?
Nicolas Winding Refn: She was always the acolyte, crowding, the witch. She was fragile in her DNA. I will say that a lot of that character creation was her. She really breathed life into Ruby that was quite unique.
The scenes with her are just fascinating. Would you agree that she’s always wanting?
Nicolas Winding Refn: She was a very important piece of how the film turned out.
You also have two professional models as costars, Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee. Did they share your viewpoint on the fashion and beauty? Especially regarding the plastic surgery, starvation, and jealousy?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Yes, they agreed with this viewpoint. Abbey Lee was a very famous model and had great success. She was very open about the negative aspects of that industry.
How do you feel about promoting the film? Your work has always been well received, but The Neon Demon was especially a festival favorite, like at Cannes. Do you enjoy the festival circuit or is just a part of the business?
Nicolas Winding Refn: I like doing the promotional work. It’s part of the film’s process. Cannes was very wonderful to premiere. Elle and I have going to various cities around the world. It’s exciting. I love meeting people and seeing the reactions. I love their creativity.
On a personal level, what was a film that came out within the last year that you really liked?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Probably It Follows.
You’ve generated a lot of buzz with this film. What are doing you next? Something in a similar genre, or are you going in a totally different direction?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Well I haven’t decided it…but I think it could be fun to do a spy movie.
A spy movie? Wow, now that could be interesting. I use to spend a lot of time in Copenhagen, the city you live in. I was always intrigued by the Danish general level of happiness. Why is that? Or is that bulls**t and people there are just as bummed as everywhere else?
Nicolas Winding Refn: I think that Danish people may be thought off as the happiest people, but honestly…I love America. (laughs) I always say I have a Danish passport, but I am a New Yorker at heart.
That’s awesome, I’ve lived in the city now for almost twenty years and love it. What’s your favorite thing about The Big Apple?
Nicolas Winding Refn: The vibe, it’s that excitement. New York, you just can’t describe it. You get a similar thing from Paris and London, but it’s not New York. Sometimes I just play the theme from Arthur. (laughs) It reminds me of my childhood in New York and I just love it.