A little candor goes a long way—at least, that’s what I told myself disconnecting the phone after my talk with Nicolas Winding Refn about The Neon Demon. In the five years since Drive, the Danish wunderkind has taken to asking his interviewers—the majority of whom I have to assume he addresses, as he did me, like the potentially amusing courtside nuisances we are—what they thought of his latest movie. In the instance of The Neon Demon, starring Elle Fanning as a waifish teenager who moves to Los Angeles in search of modeling fame only to find it a little too easily, that’s a tricky question: The film’s silken textures, pounding Italo Disco, and vivisecting sense of humor would be novel if Refn hadn’t already exhausted the same ground in Drive and Only God Forgives. If the below conversation indicates much, it’s that the filmmaker is an exceedingly good sport, down for whatever in his art-house provoc-auteur mode. Refn shrugged off my concerns about the redundancy of his work, mincing few words about how much he enjoys working within his comfort zone. For The Neon Demon’s 100-minute runtime, I tried to wear the film’s vague, withholding misanthropy like a pair of wraparound Guccis, but it would appear I didn’t try hard enough, as Refn managed to get a little armchair-psychologizing in on his end as well.
So, I can’t be the first person to point this out: The Neon Demon has more than a few things in common with Drive, at least insofar as it portrays the city of Los Angeles.
Well, first you have to tell me the similarities.
The color palette, the score by Cliff Martinez, this vision of a downtrodden, film-noir underclass that’s nonetheless very hip. It seems to borrow more from movies than from reality.
Well said. I agree with everything you just stated. [Laughs]
And that’s it?
I don’t know what else to add!
Tell me how you got here.
Well, I love L.A. It’s a very inspiring city to be around. I don’t drive a car, so it says a lot. I love the mythology and the Babylon of Hollywood. And, I think, especially Demon and Drive are based on that mythology: the hemisphere of mystery around Hollywood. In that way, they’re very much L.A. movies: Drive is very much about the freeways of Los Angeles and Hollywood, and The Neon Demon is about the interiors of L.A.
Is this a real L.A. that you want to go out and capture? Or is this your “take” on the city?
I’m seeing from my alien perspective. What I like about L.A., I always feel like a stranger in a strange land.
Tell me about your decision to cast Keanu Reeves as the sleazy motel proprietor?
I had the fortune of meeting Keanu many years ago, and I’ve always been very fascinated by him. My wife and I are big, big fans. So when it got time to do the film, I just reached out and asked if he would be willing to come and do a movie like this—to sit in a plastic chair and have really bad coffee, in three takes.
I believe you’ve said this film isn’t meant to criticize the fashion industry.
Absolutely. I cannot criticize something that I love.
You don’t believe it’s possible to do both?
No, but I can show both sides of it: the glamour and the vulgarity.
But this is an industry that goes beyond “vulgarity” at times. For instance, you have a sequence where Jessie goes to her first big shoot. It’s heavily implied that this photographer is a monster. He dismisses everybody else from the set and tells her to take her clothes off. And then it goes great, actually.
Yes. It’s tracking Jessie’s evolution as she comes closer and closer to her own narcissism. She has to pass each level: being photographed, being selected for the fashion show, and going through the fashion show. Each is like a step in A Star Is Born.
Building on that a little bit, let’s talk about her character: She has no backstory, her parents are dead, and she’s moving to L.A. to start a new life for herself—which is a quintessential film-noir setup. She’s like an empty vessel.
She’s very similar to One Eye in Valhalla Rising: She just appears.
Is there something about that you find compelling, script-wise?
Yes. It’s because being enigmatic can become a strength. On one level, Jessie can be seen as, you know, a deer in the headlights, an innocent coming to a giant city of sin. At the same time, she could be an evil Dorothy, coming to the city in order to poison the Wizard.
It seems like a lot of the dialogue is designed to betray the emptiness of this milieu. Christina Hendricks’s character says, “People will believe what they are told,” which got a big laugh at my screening—and also reminded me of Ed Wood.
The movie is very funny. It’s a very campy movie; I laugh a lot, even, seeing it through.
So you wrote it as a comedy?
There’s nothing better in horror than comedy.
Did you laugh while you were writing it?
No, because it’s not a one-two-three joke; it’s very much about the performances. The dialogue itself isn’t especially funny, but if you approach it the right way, it is. You’re meant to laugh through the whole film, even at the end.