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.”
It’s a Hollywood film, but you’re coming at it from the fashion perspective, from the fashion industry. What about that angle gives you a different way in to the story?
Refn: Well, we didn’t set out to make a movie about the fashion industry. There’s so much television that kind of deals with that. I think we wanted to make a film about beauty and the fashion world just seemed to be the right arena to set it in because it’s the heightened version of the obsession of beauty. The thing about fashion is that we are drawn to it and we are repulsed by it. There’s this constant love and hate within it. Because fashion is very much a mirror of our evolution, the subject of beauty’s a very complex one. On one hand, it’s maybe shallow or can be dismissed as being shallow because physical surface is just all about how you look, it’s not about who you are. But at the same time, we’re all looking.
One thing I like about the film, and your performance in it, is that you capture how disarming beauty can be. Your character has an unsettling effect on people.
Fanning: I think that it even grew because we filmed in chronological order, so we realized, as she gains this power, it’s also about how the people react around her and how she’s aware of their reactions also and how that affects her even more as she becomes aware of how they see her. She starts to fall deeper in love.
I was watching Game of Thrones last night and I was thinking the level of violence there is not that far removed from Valhalla Rising. Do you feel like you need to go to more extremes to keep up?
Refn: No. I think if you try to keep up, you’re just going to repeat more violence, and violence for the sake of violence is not particularly interesting. It’s like bad pornography.
Refn: I try certainly not to keep up.
That said, there’s some extreme imagery and moments in this film that feel like nothing else I’ve seen in a film this year. Is there sort of a sense of giving viewers something they’re not going to see elsewhere?
Refn: I think it’s about sexualizing the violence. That is always very effective. Most violence is very mechanical, so it’s non-sexual, but it’s like watching bad pornography because it just repeats. If you sexualize it, fetishize it, it has a much deeper effect.
What’s the line there? Where do you know you’ve found the effect you wanted in terms of sexualizing violence versus just repulsing people with violence?
Refn: When I love it. I can only use the audience of one.
With that being said, were both of you surprised by the reaction it got at Cannes, or to other screenings of this film?
Refn: I had been to Cannes twice for the same kind of insanity. Both Drive and certainly Only God Forgives and this. I’ve got to be honest: It’s kind of like it’s a symbol of success, both personally and professionally. If you can create anything that stirs up so much emotions in people, you’ve obviously done something very, very right. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s almost irrelevant to me. I feel like what’s good or bad is your Chinese dinner.
We live in a way… And it’s a reactionary system because the essence of creativity is to react. We live in a way now where culture is so instant. It’s such an instant element that it’s getting harder and harder for it to let it to breathe. But culture is an experience. It needs to stick with you, sit with you, but we want this now effect, this now, this minute reaction. I very much react against that. I think it’s a very dangerous route to fall into because then you end up just having to be nice. Like you walk into a room and somebody’s nice to you, you’re nice to them. All right, it was a nice experience, but it kind of defeats the purpose of creativity.
It’s about consumerism, which is different and it’s great. It’s a great thing to make money and, believe me, I love money. But I think it’s more important to give an experience because it plants a thought. It makes you react to your surroundings around you. That is the power of creativity. It’s like weapons of mass destructions. Where violence destroys, art inspires, but in order to inspire, it needs to penetrate your mind.
Was this your most challenging role physically? You’ve got some rough scenes in this movie.
Fanning: Physically, I never really… I haven’t thought about that. It was a challenging role in general, but … The way that we shot it, because things were changing constantly, I think it was more challenging. But I also loved it because we constantly were… I mean, the script is very unlike the movie. We made Jesse kind of, she took a different path from where she did in the script and scenes were deleted and added. The spontaneity of it I guess was a challenge, but a great challenge because you were constantly going off your instinct, so you never knew what was going to happen next. I think you had to have… We had immense trust between us to kind of just, “Here we go.”
Can you talk a little bit about what diverged from the script versus what ended up on the screen?
Refn: It’s not a fancy list where this is now [this]. It’s more like… I always shoot in chronological order. It’s like, every time my financiers gets the phone call that the movie’s completed and shooting, they always ask very jokingly, “So, did you shoot the script?” I say, “What script?” Everyone knows that it’s a process. I love the canvas of not really knowing how I’m going to get to the end. I mean, we knew what the film was going to end, but how we would get there was, in a way, what’s exciting. Or else, it just becomes a written manual. That, to me, is not as exciting.
Has that always been your process?
Refn: Yeah. Done it on every movie.
Have you experienced that before?
Fanning: Never. Never before. First one.
Are there advantages to that?
Fanning: Huge advantages, because you’re not tied down to anything, which is so nice because… I don’t know if I’ll ever get to work that way again.
Refn: We’ll do it again.
Fanning: Yeah, with Nick.
Refn: We’ll do it again.
You almost have a stock company. People always come back to work with you it seems.
Refn: Yeah, we’ll do it again.
Fanning: Yeah, it’s fine. We’ll do it again.