As we mere mortals watch great films, from time to time we entertain the notion that the artists responsible simply inhabit another level, hearing and seeing things on a frequency ordinary people cannot hope to tap into. In Danish troublemaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s case, this is fact. Born with a strain of colorblindness that deadens all but the most eye-poppingly lurid hues, he supercharges his cinema with fantastical imagery to stimulate his own creative mind, singular as it is. Not everyone sees eye to eye with him (pun hyper-intended), as audiences at the Cannes Film Festival press screening of his latest psychotropic trip into depravity, “The Neon Demon,” dealt him cheers and jeers alike. But with such recent works as “Drive” — a Cannes award-winner back in 2011 — and “Only God Forgives,” he’s established an unmistakable aesthetic that electrifies all who look upon it, regardless of the polarity of their opinion.
His latest muse is Elle Fanning, a preternatural talent in the role of Jessie in “The Neon Demon.” A starry-eyed hopeful in search of fashion-world fame, she exudes the innocence that the part calls for, but counterbalances it with a fearsome knowingness that seduces that audience, then confronts them with the immorality of that feeling. She pulls off a precarious balancing act of a performance, and like all great actresses, makes it look like the easiest thing in the world. The Playlist sat down with the director and budding star at the Cannes Film Festival to discuss sticking it to the man, maintaining trust in a high-wire production, and the difference between Hollywood and Los Angeles.
Fighting The Establishment
“Elle and I are from the future,” Refn said. “We’re modernism versus classicism. So of course, we come here to Cannes with everything that modernism represents against the classics. We’re gonna search and destroy and conquer. We already have — [“The Neon Demon”] was the event of the festival. If you’re not making cinema within the Hollywood machinery of producing high-quality products that generate billions of dollars, the only way to rebel against anything, and I mean this in a good way, is if your movies become experiences. If you want to watch a film, you can turn on a television. But for a visceral experience, a reactionary experience, a questionable experience, you need a movie that provokes your inner thoughts, a movie that takes you to places you have never gone before. Or if you have, it forces you to ask questions about things within yourself. That’s what art can do, that’s how art travels with you. The counterculture need for creativity always has to push the boundaries of anything, because that’s when [art] really starts to penetrate the brain.
“I think cinema can challenge us in a mass form that no other art form can,” he continued. “It’s a combination of everything, and that’s why it makes such a heated debate. In one sense, there’s the billion-dollar industry, and in another sense, there’s the singular experience of a filmmaker. To really create menace and insanity and all the good things, you need the neon demon.”
We made the movie for a sixteen-year-old audience, preferably girls.
Working With Horror
On scary movies in the Fanning household: “My family was a sports family, so we didn’t grow up watching many movies,” Fanning said. “I still haven’t seen so many movies. Maybe that’s a young thing. But with horror, like in Disney movies, I always liked the villain. There are elements of horror, it can be anything, it’s what scares you. I like that feeling. I love roller coasters, that feeling — that’s fear, that adrenaline rush. I love it.”
The Atmosphere On-Set
“I’m of the belief that the more secure the crew and the performers feel,” Refn said, “the more willing they are to give themselves over, the more they feel they’re in hands that will catch them when they fall, the more they will give one hundred percent. Anything where a performer or crew member feels insecure, they start to protect themselves, which then affects the emotional ride. So one of the aspects of directing, and there are many aspects, is to inspire everyone else to give their best.”
“I trust [Nicolas] with everything,” Fanning added. “From the start, I felt like we were a team with this huge friendship. I completely trusted him. Halfway through the movie, he told me, ‘I threw the ending in the trash, I don’t think it works anymore.’ We shot in chronological order, and he didn’t like the ending. Nicolas was asking the crew, ‘So, how do you think the movie should end?’ So you’ve got to have massive trust in that person, because you’re discovering the movie together. When we first started talking, Nic told me, ‘This is going to be a journey. We don’t necessarily know what or who the neon demon even is. We’re just going to have to find that out as we go along.’”
“I don’t know how things are going to turn out,” Refn confessed, “and I don’t have an interest in knowing that until it’s time to make a decision. That’s why I shoot in chronological order, because it forces me to make it as instinctually as I can, like an infant drawing. It’s much more satisfying that way, the more quote-unquote ‘pure’ you make it, because then it’s about the act of creativity and it’s not about anything else that stands in the way. On this movie, there were many aspects where we’d see where Elle’s journey was taking us, and it was like, ‘Wow, this is going to a whole new arena that I didn’t even imagine we’d step into.’ I wanted to see where that goes, but I also have to prove to other people that I know what the plan is, so I was painting the film at the same time as I was making it up.”
Accepting Audience Response
On dealing with the press: “It all depends on what the agenda of the press is, which can be sometimes cynical, sometimes not,” Refn reasoned. “I enjoy speaking to the press if I feel that the journalist has interesting questions, and at the same time, I know how the medium evolves into a much more singular discussion… I enjoy it sometimes, and other times it’s excruciatingly annoying.”
On his target audience for “The Neon Demon”: “We made the movie for a sixteen-year-old audience, preferably girls,” Refn said. “I have a twelve-year-old daughter, and there’s not a lot of entertainment that questions their future on a mass level. It’s always very set in terms of explaining everything, there’s not a lot left up to the imagination, and I think that’s sad because imagination means you use your brain, form your own opinion. I think this movie’s made for every woman in the world.”
“I think films, especially for teenage girls, get dumbed down,” Fanning said. “I’m a big daydreamer, and I like coming up with my own conclusions on things, living in a fantasy land. It’s nice to have a movie that’s like that, where you can use your mind.”
That’s why I shoot in chronological order, because it forces me to make it as instinctually as I can, like an infant drawing.
Life In Los Angeles
“I was born in Georgia, a small town called Conyers, and then we moved to the big city when I was very young, two or three,” Fanning explained. “So I don’t remember the feeling of moving to L.A., I consider it my home. For me, it’s where all my friends are, but there’s also a side to it that can be scary. It’s a place where people go — it’s [dramatic voice] Hollywood, where people go to become a star. So it can devour you. You can have big dreams, but the city can wash those dreams away as well. My relatives back in Georgia say [tone of hushed reverence], ‘Oh, you live in Hollywood!’ Which, yes, but it’s not like that. I live in Los Angeles, Hollywood is where you go to get your picture taken with the weird guys dressed like Spider-Man.”
Comedy Alongside The Lurid
“It’s extremely campy,” Refn clarified. “Look: supermodels fighting, who want to kill each other? You don’t find that funny? I think any normal person would. With Keanu [Reeves] on top of it? When his first line of dialogue is ‘Are you hiiiigh?’ There was nothing better at the premiere, especially at the end, when people were eating it up. Melodrama is humor. You have to have a sense of humor, or else what teenager wants to see you take yourself that seriously?”
On Working With Animal Actors
“I think there’s something so primal and beautiful about them,” sighed Refn. “It’s the beauty and the danger combined in one place, and that all they do is act instinctually. It’s a very seductive arena to be in… Dogs can be pretty terrible actors sometimes, but not big beautiful animals like tigers or bulls. You don’t even want to tell them what to do! You work on their schedule. I don’t give notes to the animals.”
Amazon As Art Cinema’s Great Green Hope
“The Amazon deal came with the best offer I’ve ever gotten in my life, both in terms of distribution and finances,” Refn said. “Right now, they’re saving independent cinema because they’re out there promoting cinematic releases, powerful experiences on a whole new level. And at the same time, they represent a strong streaming platform, which is the future of entertainment. I think Amazon has really stepped into the heavens.”