The Neon Demon centers on a teenage girl, Jesse (Elle Fanning), who moves to Los Angeles to model and soon becomes the target of a group of women who desperately want her beauty, magnetism, and more.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) from a script he wrote with Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, the film also features Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Desmond Harrington, and Karl Glusman — and it marks Refn’s foray into horror. In advance of its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday, and theatrical release on June 24, Refn details his vision, inspirations, filmmaking process, and how he toyed with genre.
As for the meaning of the title, Refn says “The Neon Demon is something that feeds on youth and beauty and devours it, and be very careful that it won’t catch you.” Read on for more, and see exclusive images of Fanning’s character, above and below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your vision going into the film, thematically and visually, and how did that evolve throughout the filmmaking process?
NICOLAS WINDING REFN: It usually starts with an image, but I should talk about the origin of the image. I’d always wanted to make a horror film and I’ve done various versions, concepts, ideas. I’d written various ways into it, but I could never find a way into it. I’ve learned if it doesn’t come easy, then let it lie until it comes, so I put it in the back of my mind and then a chain of circumstance happened recently. L.A. was the only place my wife wanted to go, so alright, that became the backdrop very quickly. I’d done Drive, which was very much about my complete fantasized fetish of masculinity, and I wanted to get away from that. Then Only God Forgives, it was about the exact opposite; deconstructing it, but in a much more installation way, like a picture book — and that movie leads to a man crawling into his mother’s belly again.
I thought, “Okay, there’s maybe something going on inside of me in this process” because suddenly I came up with this idea that I wanted to do a movie about a 16-year-old girl coming to Los Angeles. I believe there’s a 16-year-old girl in every man, so I was like, “Now I can make a version of my 16-year-old girl. I can be reborn as that character.” I had this idea that I wanted to make a horror film about beauty. I wasn’t born beautiful. My wife is, and I have very beautiful girls, but I’m not, so I was like, ‘What would it be like, being born beautiful, and how do you make a horror film out of that?’ I’d recently done a few campaigns for brands, which I very much enjoyed, and I was very fascinated by this fashion backdrop. It was very visual, but it was also very dramatic, melodramatic. All those circumstances led me to this idea at the opening of the film, and once I had that I could see how I would end it all. Once that was in place, I knew I had a story and then it was practical, mechanical, putting it together — and that became The Neon Demon.
What were your inspirations for the film?
Many things, but I very much enjoyed a movie called Valley of the Dolls that was made in the ’60s. I always had a fascination with that movie. It has a lot of color, and actually I showed [it to] Elle before we started shooting. That was really it, otherwise it’s all very fetishized. I don’t storyboard. I shoot in chronological order, so I come to set everyday having changed the script — just going about what would I like to see, and not so much what would be the right thing to do.
How did you adjust and respond to the film as you were shooting?
I like fear, I like a constant freefall, and the idea that you start off with something you know you want to get to, but you don’t know how you’re going to get to it. Everyday we automatically changed because a performer comes, changes their feel of the scene, you get an idea, somebody else on the crew says something that sparks an idea. It’s like you’re trying to paint something and keep it alive. You’re juggling all the ideas you have and anything can happen. I like that fear, I like that freefall because creativity breathes that fear, it breaths on that constant gamble of everything [falling] apart right in front of you. There’s no safety net.
I like that creatively, so I come to work everyday going, “Let’s try it over here instead,” or “That character is not going to do this, it’s going to do that.” It can be a little bit turbulent, especially for the actors, but if you submit to the creative process of following your instincts, it becomes very dominating, like the result of the film dictates that this is how the film wanted to be. I’m always more interested in the process than the result because the process is where it’s alive; the result is mostly about your ego, your vanity, because you can’t really do anything with it afterward. The actual creative process is in the act of doing. The more I can make that spontaneous for myself, the more that I have to purely go on instinct, the more fetishized it becomes, the more I enjoy it.
It’s interesting, to me, that you like an element of fear behind the scenes, because this is a horror film, so it’s almost like your process and the product are mirroring each other. Is that something you had in mind as well?
No, I do it on every film, like every film I’ve made has been the same process. It’s intense, it’s terrifying. You have mood swings like you wouldn’t believe. At the same time, you have to show constant confidence, which is scary because it’s like anything that’s living and breathing; it’s very delicate and can be very intimate and I seek that of course, but once it works and you’re satisfied, the high, it’s better than any drug. It’s the ultimate kick.
This is a horror film, but there are lots of other elements at play. How did you approach The Neon Demon genre-wise?
I wanted to make a teenage horror film. That itself was very intriguing to me because it’s like, what is that? I had to figure out what that is. I’m not very interested in pursuing things [if] I know what they’re going to be. I don’t find that very satisfying. I like things that I don’t understand — like I had no knowledge of cars, I don’t have a driver’s license, I don’t have an interest in cars, but I’m very good at sexualizing them, so there’s a reason that worked very well to my instincts [with] Drive. It’s approaching a story or themes that I maybe don’t understand very well, but that’s what makes them interesting to me, or it could be something I don’t even have an interest in and it forces you to look at it in a different way. Creativity is very much about turning your weaknesses into strength.
The first trailer was recently released, and it shows Fannings’s character as being this alluring force, but she also describes herself as “dangerous.” Considering, what made her right for the role?
When I started casting the film, I basically had two approaches: Either it was going to be an unknown actress or Elle. While we were setting up the meeting between Elle and I, I’d started casting and I saw some wonderful up-and-coming actresses — and then I met Elle in my house. We spoke for about 20 minutes, about what I thought could be interesting about the film and I was like, ‘Do you want to do it?’ and she was like, ‘I’d love to do it.’ For me, she had everything, but she also had this ability to transform herself as an actress. She really understood the idea of being patient from where she starts to where she ends, and the idea that the Neon Demon is almost like a ghost that reappears again and again throughout civilization and drives everyone insane.
After The Neon Demon, what’s coming up for you?
Like every director, you’ve got to have your TV shows in development because everyone has that; it’s like a standard thing to get. Then I’d like to make another movie in Japan. [My ideas for that are] all different things. It’s like a storm on top of my brain of what it could be, like a thunder storm.