Beauty becomes the beast in the new fashion thriller The Neon Demon, opening in limited release this Friday. Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a wide-eyed teenager left on her own to navigate the dark, competitive world of the Los Angeles modeling scene. Jesse’s indescribable star quality captivates designers, photographers, and gatekeepers, even as her rise draws the jealousy and hunger of her modeling peers. As Jesse embraces her perfected image, the fashion world becomes an all-consuming monster in this film that reserves its worst horrors for the most beautiful.
The Neon Demon is the latest from Danish provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn, who rose out of the European art cinema circuit to international fame with the Ryan Gosling film noir Drive. Refn has a gift for color, composition, and controversy — his last film, Only God Forgives, was met with boos at Cannes, and debates about the merits of The Neon Demon have already begun. Ahead of the film’s release, Refn sat — or, more accurately, stood while holding intense eye contact — with MTV News to talk about narcissism, beauty in the Instagram age, and how he lived out his fantasy of being a 16-year-old girl through Elle Fanning.
[Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
The attitude of The Neon Demon feels oriented to a young audience, but the world that Jesse inhabits feels out of time: There's no social media or Instagram in the film, and she's not taking pictures.
Nicolas Winding Refn: There is no malady in the film. There's no drugs, there's no alcohol. There's no technology. That would be too much a mirror of our time, and I wanted to make a movie about the future. In general, the film's subject matter is very futuristic. Narcissism as a virtue, for example, is very futuristic. Narcissism as a quality is where I think things are heading.
What do you think the quality of narcissism is?
Refn: Full acceptance of one's self.
As opposed to Elle Fanning, a lot of the actors in the film are models. How did you communicate on set so that everyone was on the same page?
Refn: Well, it was all about me and Elle. I shoot films in chronological order. So scene one, scene two, scene three. Shooting this way automatically changes the film. The most important thing was Elle and me. When I hired her, I was 44, she was 16. And I said to her, ‘I always wanted to be a 16-year-old girl. I never was, so now I'm going to fantasize it through you. And I want to make a horror film about beauty.’ Elle was happy to hear that — she wanted to make a movie about beauty for her generation. I told her that I think her generation is moving into something that's very interesting — partly, that narcissism is a quality. I grew up when it was a taboo. But creativity is narcissism. Creativity is falling in love with one's self as you create. It's self-indulgent.
How do you reconcile that sense of creativity as an artistic drive with the inherently collaborative nature of working in film?
Refn: I think when you make a movie, one of your main focuses as a director is to inspire everyone else to give their best. Like manipulation.
How do you manipulate people when you're on set?
Refn: You ask actors what they would like to do, and you constantly keep them engaged. You want their engagement, input, and sensibilities. It’s that intimate collaboration that is actually directing. I don't like the mechanicalness or coldness; I like the intimacy. It’s like we are creating a child together, and the child is called Jesse [Fanning’s role in The Neon Demon].
Since you did this in chronological order, how did the story develop as you were making it?
Refn: Well, the ending was always the same ending. It was just how I got there that was interesting to me. I do that in all my movies. I shoot them in chronological order because I love fear, and fear breeds creativity. It forces you to react instinctively, which is the essence of movement. Movement is a creativity — a sense of an emotional movement. And the more instinctual you can make that, the more pleasurable it is. It's like an infant drawing. You're completely uninhibited because creativity is a wonderful expression. Good or bad, who cares? That's part of the past. The act of creativity is what's interesting. The future is not about what you do, it's about what you stand for.
Was there anything that particularly drew you to Elle versus other young actresses in her generation?
Refn: There's no one else. She has the thing. A very unique, God-given quality that just makes you stand out — makes you better. And that's a lot of what the movie was about: It was finding someone who has that thing. So it was very challenging and I was very lucky because I was casting unknown girls in L.A., but I couldn't find anyone who had the thing. My wife had seen a lot of Elle's later films and said she was really good, so we started talking about her, and then I got a fashion shoot of her set, and instinctively, right away, I knew it was going to be her.
Let’s talk about the relationships between the women in the movie. The characters’ antagonism doesn't necessarily track with how a lot of women relate to each other. Part of that is maybe the revival of feminism among women my age.
Refn: So women your age are not competitive?
I'm not competitive with my friends, no.
Refn: How old are you?
Refn: You will be. Because it's part of everything. Especially if you want to be in the industry of entertainment. Do you think you're beautiful?
Do I think I'm beautiful? Some days. If I'm looking in the mirror, I think I'm gorgeous.
Refn: See, that's different. You represent the narcissistic age as a virtue. People in my generation would never say that because it seemed to be negative because you're no longer, I should say, grouped. Individualism comes out of narcissism. Aleister Crowley — do you know who that is?
Refn: Aleister Crowley was a very interesting philosopher at the turn of the century. He believed that it was a sin not giving in to your desires, where it was the other way around in order and society. We have qualities that we don't give in to. There are pleasures we don't seek, because it's abnormal. But his theory was the exact opposite. So it's interesting to hear that you fundamentally think the power struggle between the women in the film does not apply to your generation.
I just don't relate to it.
Refn: Well, that's the difference. The difference between relating to it and it not existing.
So you think human nature is inherently competitive?
Refn: Of course. How else do you survive?