Nicholas Winding Refn and Elle Fanning don’t seem at first like natural collaborators. The Denmark-born director made his reputation with brutal films like the Pusher trilogy, Bronson, and the Viking drama Valhalla Rising. With his 2011 film Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, Refn inched a bit into the mainstream, introducing a wider audience to his hypnotic tone, carefully composed visuals, and unblinking approach to violence. He re-teamed with Gosling for the less warmly received thriller Only God Forgives in 2013.
Fanning has been in the public eye since she was a toddler, first appearing on screen as the younger version of her sister Dakota Fanning’s character in I Am Sam. She’s a naturally sunny presence, but she’s often taken on roles that work against this quality even as a child actor, including appearances in projects like the challenging cult movie The Nines, David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. (And for a great, underseen Fanning performance, check out Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa.) If there’s a quintessential Elle Fanning moment, it’s the scene in J.J. Abarams’ Super 8 where her girl-next-door character effortlessly delivers an angst-ridden, emotionally devastating performance once her friends’ cameras start to roll. She’s full of surprises.
So in that sense, it’s not that surprising to see Fanning starring in Refn’s latest, The Neon Demon, the story of Jesse, a 16-year-old aspiring model who arrives in L.A. and quickly finds the darkest corners of the fashion industry. Or maybe she seeks them out. It’s tough to get a handle on who’s who in the film, which surrounds Jesse with threatening, hungry characters in awe of a beauty that stirs their worst impulses. (As inspiration, Refn has cited experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s lyrical, bloody Hollywood Babylon books, collections of gossip that have portray the film industry as a machine driven by the blood of the young.)
Chatting to us in a Chicago hotel suite, Refn they seem not only like simpatico collaborators but artists eager to work together again. It may take a touch of perversity to surround an actress we’ve watched grow up with such sordidness and violence — the film’s a disturbing but worthwhile experience — but Refn’s not the type of director to see perversity as an unwelcome quality, as the following conversation makes clear.
Let’s start with L.A. because this is like Drive. It’s a film that’s shot in the most photographed city in the world. How do you find a unique look for Los Angeles?
Refn: By not trying. If you try, you usually fail. I think what sometime can be an asset is not living there because, if you don’t live there, you will find… You will automatically see the city in a different way. Whether good or bad, that’s kind of a different discussion, but a lot of the film, where Drive was about the highways, the freeways, Neon Demon is a lot about the interiors. They’re both movies about the mythology of Hollywood, about the Hollywood Babylon.
Kenneth Anger is someone you’ve cited as an influence before if I’m not mistaken.
Refn: Oh, very much.
Did Hollywood Babylon inform the films?
Refn: Yeah, I gave Elle the books.
What were your impressions?
Fanning: I haven’t read it yet!
Refn: You saw the pictures.
Fanning: Yeah, I saw the photos.
With those books the pictures are enough.
Fanning: Yeah, exactly. I mean, people have … I grew up in L.A.. L.A.’s my home, so I feel very close to it. I love it as a city. To me, I see it in a whole different way of it’s, oh, the calmness of it, the easy… neighborhood aspect of it. Then, of course, there’s another side to it. That’s why I love it so much because there’s so many different places you can go and they all have such a different vibe, but they all kind of have this fairy tale quality to them, but set in the neon lights. For a while, I thought the Neon Demon was L.A., the city, when we first started filming. Because the whole time we were trying to figure out what the Neon Demon is, who it is. I moved from a small town in Georgia to L.A., so it has a quality to it that it’s unlike any other place.
You’ve been at this for a long time and you’ve come up through the business in a way that was, I would imagine, protected and nothing like the experience of your character who comes in with no experience and no defenses at all. How do you get into the mindset of a character like that?
Fanning: There are some… I was 16, she’s 16. Just being a teenage girl and growing up, you can relate automatically. Jesse is an exaggerated version of this. I feel like she’s a creature of her … She’s not a human. Moving to the city and being the youngest, I know the feeling of how it feels to be the youngest person in a room with people who are older than you and they kind of look at you in a certain way and that feeling of, not that they want to devour you, but they’re like, “What are you doing here?” But you’re kind of naïve to it all. I understand that feeling, but also wanting to not be viewed so much as an innocent as well. When you’re young, you want to be older. That’s just a thing. It’s a universal feeling. You’re like, “Give me more credit.” I think Jesse, she even says that to Ruby’s character, “I’m not as innocent as I look.”