Nicolas Winding Refn and the Arrogance of Youth

Paste talked to the director about The Neon Demon and what beauty means to him.

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Nicolas Winding Refn and the Arrogance of Youth

What is beauty? Why have we been enraptured by it since the dawn of time? What are our modern standards of what it means to be “pretty”? These are questions that drive filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s film, The Neon Demon, which has just been released on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. Refn, known for films like Bronson and Drive, brings no shortage of shock, a vibrant visual landscape and an intoxicating leading lady to his latest.

In The Neon Demon, Jesse (Elle Fanning) has just moved to LA in hopes of making it as a model in the vicious fashion scene. She’s wide-eyed, but, as much as you fear for her in the cut-throat industry, she, as Refn puts it, has a “much darker side.” After befriending a makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), Jesse’s career takes off, launching her into naked, golden photo shoots, questionable clubs and a jealous group of women out to consume her young, covetable beauty.

Paste had a chance to talk to Refn about coming from a filmmaking family (Refn’s father is Danish film director and editor Anders Refn and mother, cinematographer Vibeke Winding), why he chose this L.A. landscape for his film, and how he was inspired to delve into the journey of a young model.

Paste Magazine: You grew up in New York, went to film school and then you dropped out. Like Jesse, you were growing up trying to make it in the business. How much of Jesse is informed by your own journey?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Well, I think there’s a lot of me in Jesse. You know, subconsciously and also my own mirror of it. There’s also a lot of the whole fantasy of What was it like being a beautiful girl? Of course, it’s a very natural part of any man. I believe there’s a 17-year-old girl hiding in every man. It was very good living out the fantasy.

Paste: Did growing up as a teenager in Manhattan in the ’80s influence this film at all?
Refn: I think that kind of wanderer, walking into a dangerous fairytale land—[that] type of club, when you were just 16. It’s probably a lot of that, that part of my life.

Paste: You made Pusher by the time you were 24. How did getting acclaim at a young age inform the exploration of success in youth in The Neon Demon?
Refn: Well, it’s, like, instant, you know? I don’t think I was prepared for what it felt like. I was just very, very lucky in a way. I made the movie with the arrogance of youth.

Paste: Do you feel like you were prepared for the world that you were launched into? Did growing up in a family where you were around that prepare you in any way? With Jesse, we know very little about her background, but it seems like she’s had no knowledge of this world at all.
Refn: You could flip it because the idea of Jesse was that if The Wizard of Oz was real, what if the Wizard was Los Angeles? Dorothy would maybe be evil because there is [that] part [to] the Jesse character—even though she’s very much a deer in the headlights, she’s also very manipulative potentially. If you go back and rewatch the movie, it very quickly appears that there almost is an alternate motive in her constantly. There’s even a third version where she’s like an entity that is what everyone else wants to consume because she represents what everyone else hungers for, essentially. She’s like an enigma.

Paste: The L.A. fashion scene is the incubator for all of these ideas to grow and come together. Tell me about why you chose that landscape and then how you started crafting that world with your production designer and your team.
Refn: Well, I didn’t want to make a movie about fashion; I wanted to make a movie about beauty. I felt that a great backdrop to set that story in would be the world of fashion because it’s very fairytale-like and it’s all about beauty. It’s kind of like an artificial world. I felt that there [was] something so mundane about it, there’s something so superficial-yet there’s something so utterly complex and interesting. The contrast is enormous. Sometimes it’s not very clear how people react if they’re thrown back and forth between “upbeat,” “superficial” and “complex.”

Paste: A lot of your films have had male protagonists, now you have Jesse. Your wife mentioned Carey Mulligan to you [when you were casting Drive] and then she was the one that brought up casting Elle. Why did you choose Elle and how did she collaborate with you on the story?
Refn: The big question mark was Who’s going to play Jesse? She had to be young because the idea was that beauty, the obsession that you live in, is shrinking and it’s becoming younger and younger. Essentially it would feed on itself [until it is as small as] an infant almost.

My wife, she had seen a movie with Elle Fanning and thought she was great. We spoke to her manager, [who] sent photos of Elle from a fashion shoot while we were setting up a meeting between. The minute I got the photos, Liv and I were looking at them and I was just like, “It’s her.” That’s how we went on this journey together. I wanted to make a movie about beauty for my own reasons. She wanted to make a movie about beauty for her generation. It was a wonderful process.

Paste: Collaboration. Your DP, Natasha Braier, didn’t shoot some of your recent films, so was that a conscious choice to choose her, a different DP? Not to belabor, you know, the idea that you needed the woman’s eye, but I wonder if that was a factor in choosing her?
Refn: It was a lot of circumstances. I reached out to a couple of younger, up-and-coming kind of crew [members]. I met with Natasha and I really liked her. Her being a woman I thought would be an interesting prospect. I hired her and I loved it. We’ve been working together ever since. I think every commercial I’ve done after Neon Demon, I’ve used her.

Paste: Going back to talking about L.A., in an interview with The Guardian you said, “I know how terrifying L.A. can be because I’ve been there as a failure.” What does that mean?
Refn: I know what it’s like being one in a million trying to make it. Which makes you feel like a failure constantly until you create something. That can be very frightening.

Paste: Jesse is embodying the type of person that makes the City terrifying. On one side, she’s Bambi, and then on the other, she is a demon. She’s almost a hero and an anti-hero simultaneously. How did you construct that with Elle, that character?
Refn: Everything kind of comes up from…you know—[it’s] like painting. Let the movie go as it comes along. Taking Jesse through the experience and highs and lows, it became [clearer] that there was a much darker side to Jesse’s character than I originally had thought. You kind of have to go with your instinct and work like that a lot. It just became what it needed to be.

Paste: What does our culture define as beauty now? Are the Kardashians false? Are we consuming beauty in a false manner?
Refn: Well, it’s difficult to answer because it’s a question that asks for a very specific answer: What is wrong and what is right? You can’t look at it like that. It’s more that the obsession [with] beauty, whether we like it or not, has only grown since the dawn of man. It has shaped us. It’s part of our identity. And it’s a little bit like fairytales—very much about power.

You know, men were strong and women were beautiful. That’s how they would decide: by their power definitions. The digital revolution has allowed the obsession to emerge because now we can really start to manipulate how it starts. We know the difference between real and unreal. But I believe the generation after [my children] really won’t have that clear definition of what is real and what is unreal. It’s very interesting. It’s like we’re now finally [drifting to] narcissism as a virtue. So I think that’s encouraged.
Paste: I know. I feel strange about 16-year-olds getting plastic surgery but the next generation may not. I felt that’s kind of how the movie ended. People die and people win—and it’s sort of like: What’s next? I don’t know if that was what you were going for, sort of a cautionary tale, but it feels like how the future landscape looks.
Refn: That sounds like a good ending to me.