Nicolas Winding Refn on The Neon Demon
We met Danish director and writer Nicolas Winding Refn on the set of his new film, the horror-thriller The Neon Demon, starring Elle Fanning and Keanu Reeves. It's the story of an aspiring model Jesse (Fanning) who moves to Los Angeles, when her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has. Reeves plays the manager of the motel where Jesse in staying, an enigmatic type.
Refn, 46, is known for the cult crime dramas Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), both with Ryan Gosling. Born in Denmark, Refn was 11 when his parents moved to New York, a city he now calls home. We sat with him during a lunch break, on a sound stage in the Valley, on an April day, one year ago. He was wearing short pants and a Native themed blanket wrapped around his waist.
QUESTION: Mr. Refn, where did you get the Neon Demon idea?
ANSWER: I made a few movies prior to this, featuring violent men, and I thought it was time to have a woman in the lead role. I was asked to film a commercial for a fashion campaign and the light for the idea went off. That's how the film was going to start.
Q.: About women, then?
A.: Young women, yes. That's why I co-wrote the script with two female writers, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. The DP is also a woman, Natasha Braier. But we are also writing and re-writing along while filming. The film, once on the set, takes its own path. I'm still not sure where this journey will take me.
Q.: Can you tell us more specifically the story of Neon Demon?
A.: I'd rather keep it secret. I even created a fake script! Things on Internet go so fast today: I was trying to put on some smoke screens. To me a movie it's like a Christmas tree – you don't want to know what's wrapped underneath until that morning.
Q.: And yet the digital age is featured in this film.
A.: Right, because I find interesting the myth of Narcissus who finds himself reflected in the water and falls in love with that image – today the water is the digital world, we reflect ourselves on a reality which is unattainable. I have two young daughters, and I see them looking at the show of reality through the digital media. But if that's unattainable, what happens then? It's a groovy concept.
Q.: What do you mean by unattainable?
A.: You can't be younger, prettier, thinner or smarter, but you can admire an artificial transformation. Again, I see my daughters using the digital world to think and feel, and through an iPhone or iPad being able to retouch a photo.
Q.: Plastic surgery is part of this concept?
A.: Of course. You try to transform yourself in an alternative version of yourself based on an image which you hope will obtain the unattainable.
Q.: Do you delve in the myth of perpetual beauty?
A.: Yes, and the idea that after turning 40 you stop being beautiful, made worse by the digital imagery.
Q.: Why did you choose to analyze the idea of beauty in the fashion world instead of film?
A.: They are tied to the waist. They are two faces of the same coin.
Q.: Is there a "villain" in this movie?
A.: Of course, in every story there always must be a nemesis. The bad guy here is the Neon Demon, maybe a person, maybe not. I still don't know myself! You could speculate Keanu Reeves is the bad guy – to me Neon Demon is the city itself.
Q.: In the scene you're shooting today we see Elle Fanning as a model in a catwalk. Care to elaborate?
A.: Well, maybe tomorrow that will change. All I'm interested in is creativity; I don't care about the result. Being creative during the filming process.
Q.: The film is set completely in Los Angeles?
A.: Yes, and as always I like to use real locations in a urban environment, make the city a character. We're shooting in Downtown L.A., Echo Park, here in the Valley, Griffith Park, Silverlake. Not the beaches. If you want to film on the beach go to South France or Italy!
Q.: Do you think Los Angeles still means Hollywood?
A.: Of course, there's a whole mythology about the relation between this place and the movie industry. And as a European filming in Los Angeles I feel this connection very strongly. It's a mythological landscape, you see it on the walls, on the streets, on the buildings, and everything has been touched by generations of filmmakers. Many came from Europe, there's still a romantic notion about coming here to film and to create. The film industry is sexy, I like it a lot, and I use the Hollywood lifestyle as a creative experience. I mean I don't like living it, but rather experimenting it.
Q.: Have you been influenced by Hollywood as a filmmaker?
A.: Of course, it is the most powerful cinema scene in the world. It's a pity that filming here in Los Angeles has become difficult and so expensive. They should issue more permits, be less strict, and it's ironic that this city makes things difficult for filmmakers. I was able to partly finance The Neon Demon with the money I made filming the Lincoln commercials with Matthew McConaughey, I swear to God!