2016 marks the twenty-year anniversary of Nicolas Winding Refn’s emergence as a feature writer/director. His 1996 debut, the street-level Danish crime film “Pusher,” led to a string of other gritty stories of marginalized malcontents, including two “Pusher” sequels. In the two decades since, particularly following the 2008 film “Bronson,” Refn has developed into a provocateur whose arresting combinations of bold images and atypical narrative explore dark corners of genre storytelling.
Refn’s latest film, the cold and quiet fashion industry horror vision “The Neon Demon,” features Elle Fanning as a 16-year old Los Angeles neophyte whose meteoric rise in the fashion industry puts her on a collision course with the desires and insecurities of a makeup artist and two rival models. The film’s deliberate pace seems designed to provoke audiences just as severely as the flow of blood and raw visual shocks, but Elle Fanning’s extraordinary expressiveness guides us along the film’s glossy, unusual pathway. As sharp and thin as shards of glass, the movie is a peculiar nightmare, an occult mass by way of a Vogue photo spread.
We spoke to Refn in Los Angeles on the eve of the film’s domestic premiere, in a brief staccato conversation that covered the director’s self-awareness and conception of his own career to taking casting advice from Gaspar Noe and his developing future endeavors.
You’ve made comments about the span of films from “Drive” to now, moving from the “pure masculinity” of “Drive” through the womb of “Only God Forgives” to being reborn here as a teen girl. Is there a sense of rebalancing your own work as you go?
Not that I know of! Not intentionally, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come off like that, or that it’s not true. I enjoy seeing potential connections between one film and another. Why “this” — not why I make it, but why this?
What’s “this” in the case of this film?
I don’t know yet!
Do you think thematically as you write, or does that emerge later?
No, well, it depends. Everything is kind of different. Certain things can be thematic for ten pages, then non-thematic for 90 pages and you realize at the end that everything connects. I like the process of not always knowing, and then take it from there.
We spoke while you were shooting this movie last year, and at the time you talked about having rewritten big sections as you went. Was that effort shaped by your work with Elle Fanning?
She was essential. Once Elle came in to play Jesse, the whole movie really started to change. Suddenly there was something to relate to rather than a fantasy idea. It became real, then I had to follow that path, in a way. It’s not that things changed from what it used to be, it just mutated.
What did she do to surprise you?
It’s not that she surprised me, it’s just that she’s so amazingly good!
This movie has some intense ideas — did you ever push her too far?
You’d have to ask her, not intentionally! She’s totally fearless, so she seeks out anything that challenges her.
You have some great supporting actors her. Tell me about Karl Glusman.
He found me, because he kept on texting me and I didn’t know who he was. Then Gaspar Noe called and said “I was the one who gave him your number, he just did my movie ‘Love‘ and he was really good.” We brought him in when he was in LA, he did a scene with Elle and got hired right away.
And while Keanu Reeves is grimy, Desmond Harrington does some really intense work as a fashion photographer.
I think Desmond was the last key actor I hired. I’d seen a lot of really wonderful actors, but he came in with that sense of fashion chic that I thought could be interesting.
What’s your conception of fashion chic?
I love it, what’s not to love about it? Glitter and vulgarity in one word. It dominates our lives, and we let it dominate. I find it very creative, it’s a great mirror of society’s evolution, especially for women, who are so much more fascinating in fashion than men. I enjoy making and working with fashion.