Nicolas Winding Refn and Elle Fanning on Neon Demon, Fanning’s Physical Beauty, and a Knife-Wielding Keanu

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Photo: Luca Teuchmann/Getty Images

Danish provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn claims his new, Amazon-backed horror film, The Neon Demon (in theaters June 24), prompted passionate boos at Cannes because it celebrates rather than criticizes the taboo subjects of narcissism and obsession with youth and beauty. I thought Refn was just posturing until I had my own experience getting iced out for bringing up the unspeakable at Cannes: At the festival’s final press conference, I stood up and asked George Miller's jury if the opulence and wealth of their surroundings — yachts and black-tie galas for ten straight nights — had any impact on their decision to give the Palme d'Or to I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach's devastating critique of the British welfare state, or if the film had made them consider their own guilt or privilege in a different light. The moderator let out a derisive laugh as I spoke.

But even with his inclination toward positive spin, at least Refn and his leading lady, Elle Fanning — who has a kind of cinematic sexual awakening as 16-year-old model, Jesse, entering an L.A. culture that literally wants to eat her up — have zero filters. We spoke about getting booed, loving vulgarity, and a scene involving, as Fanning says, “deep throating” and Keanu Reeves.

What did you think when people were shouting things at your wife when the dedication “For Liv” came up in the end credits?

Nicolas Winding Refn: I was like, With that kind of reaction you know you’ve done something right.

Did you hear that someone shouted, “Fuck you, Liv!”?

Refn: There are so many rumors I keep hearing of what took place in these two press screenings. [Note: Press screenings take place before gala premieres and directors don’t attend them.] There’s been that, there’s been the Catholics from Spain that all stood up and collectively screamed at the screen. On two occasions we’ve heard of journalists getting into physical reactions with each other, and [while that’s happening] we’re sitting at amfAR in the world of glamour knowing that, well, we are the Sex Pistols of cinema again. We are punk rock in all its glam and vulgarity.

What did your wife think of the screaming at her?

Elle Fanning: Liv was, like, laughing!

Refn: She was like, Whatever. Here we go again. You know, if it weren’t for us, Cannes would be really boring.

Elle, this must be your first experience with something like that.

Fanning: This was my first Cannes experience, as well. And I intensely love the movie. So I’m one of those. It’s hilarious that we were at amfAR during the first screening.

Refn: We were in the real world of Neon Demon.

Fanning: It was 70s, disco-themed, so glitter is everywhere, and then we’re finding out people were booing it and then also people were loving it. That’s cool! At least they’re talking about it! If it was just, “Eh, it’s fine,” then you didn’t do anything. You have to do something.

You’re so young to be doing such provocative movies. I mean, you make out with yourself, and [SPOILER] practically get raped by a lesbian. Are your parents totally fine with it?

Fanning: They are! My mom was on set every day and they came to the premiere. She knew there was, like, no telling me I wasn’t going to do it. And obviously it’s not just, Oh, do this because it looks sexy. No, it’s a part of the story and my character. So she was there, and she was very emotional during the standing ovation thing. [Note: At the premiere, the movie got a ten-minute standing ovation. Ah, the contradictions of Cannes.] It was a sweet moment. She liked it a lot.

Nic, you’ve said you’re fulfilling your perverse dream that every man has of being a 16-year-old girl. What makes you think being a 16-year-old girl is all that great? I’ve been one and I disagree.

Fanning: Right!

Refn: Well, I can fantasize about all the good things — all the glam and the acceptable narcissism that’s even celebrated, and the idea [of a time] when self-discovery of the body and the sexuality and beauty is the one theme that just surrounds you. There is something very sexy and intoxicating and powerful about being the beautiful girl in your school, because there’s so few of them. It’s a very provocative thing to even fantasize about, because we tell each other that beauty is all about the inside. But there’s also this part of everyone — I don’t care who they are — that has vanity and is haunted by physical beauty.

There is something very powerful about a 16-year-old girl’s ability to turn men into idiots.

Refn: I mean, one of the great controversial novels of all time is Lolita, and you can certainly discuss who is the demon and not in that. Because men are easy. They are really dumb, and women are so much more complex and sophisticated.

Elle, do you have a sense that you’re beautiful? Your character in the movie does.

Fanning: [Laughs.] Nic asked me that on our first meeting! I remember I was like, This is so awkward. But the thing is, people get like that, and that’s what our film is about, because beauty makes you uncomfortable. It’s a thing that you just don’t talk about it.

Charlotte Rampling talks about it. I interviewed her once.

Refn: And what did she say?

Essentially, “I know I’ve gotten many advantages because I’m beautiful,” but also that beautiful people don’t have a relationship with their beauty except as a currency, that it’s more about other people’s reactions to them.

Refn: Say no more.

Fanning: Gigi [Bella Heathcoate] says to Jesse in the movie, “Well, no one likes the way they look,” and she’s like, “Well, I do.” And that’s not a narcissistic moment. You should be comfortable with yourself. She’s just saying it innocently.

Refn: Or ...

Fanning: Or very not! [Laughs.]

Tell me if I’m wrong, but the movie doesn’t really critique that world. You’re presenting beauty-obsession with a sort of fascination but without comment.

Refn: No, we would not be where we are today with the reactions being what they were if we were critiquing it, because then we would just fall into the “good taste” category and everyone would be like, Oh great, somebody’s finally saying what we all go and talk about between ourselves. But we are not critiquing it. On the contrary we are saying, “This is probably one of the most seductive elements of human nature, so we’re just going to show it, because we are from the future. It’s up to you to critique it.” Are there issues that I have myself? Absolutely. Do I find it frightening? Absolutely. Am I critical of it? Absolutely. But I am also extremely seduced by it and interested in it, obsessed by it. I love to look at beauty.

At amfAR, this room filled with wealth and presumably plastic surgery, were you looking at the natural beauty versus the unnatural beauty?

Refn: Yeah, it was really like something out of our movie, because by having Elle there, you could see everybody wanted to be her. She didn’t want to be them.

Fanning: [Laughs.] You were being Alessandro [Nivola, who plays a lecherous designer].

Refn: I was being Alessandro going, “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. If you’re not born beautiful, you never will be. And you never will be! Any of you! Now, look at Elle!”

Elle, what do you think when Nic says you’re him, that he sees himself in you?

Fanning: I understand it. Not that I feel like Nic, but there’s a part of us that we got. We’re like a team, which I hadn’t really experienced. Usually it’s more like the director being much higher than you and always having the right answers.

Are you darker inside than you come off, or has his darkness rubbed off on you?

Fanning: I feel like everyone has things they’ve experienced, and that’s the mystery of what you bring [into a project]. I’m not going to say what — it’s hard to say, Oh, I’m dark inside. What does that mean? [Laughs.] But we collaborated in a way that I was able to bring my personal experiences and Nic was very like, Okay, here’s the character, but we will mold it to you.

Did you try to educate Elle with any twisted influences?

Refn: Educate her? She’s done more movies than I have! She’s been in the business longer than I have! So I don’t think there’s anything to educate. Thing is, you know what I’ve done with other people [Tom Hardy, Ryan Gosling], and what it has meant for their careers and my career, but Elle, despite her age, has a confidence I’d never quite experienced from any performer. And her professionalism — I mean, she’s been working since she was two, so she knows more about eyeliners than I do.

I can be a bit like, I don’t know, let’s just listen to some music and maybe put the camera over there, which can be very provoking for people who are very much like, I need to know. But she can adapt to any kind of surroundings, and once I felt that, I thought, Well, this is going to be a very intimate ride between us. Because there is something very intimate in collaborating, and I don’t mean sexuality, but on an emotional level. Elle came at 16. The story was about a 16-year-old girl. She just turned 18. We’re premiering The Neon Demon in Cannes, which is the representation of The Neon Demon, which is all about glamour and vulgarity.

Fanning: We said, “It’s like a mirror!”

Refn: And she’s a bona fide megastar. She has the beauty, the sophistication, and she has that thing. When I was doing the scene in the diner where Elle was between the three girls talking about the Jesse character, Jena Malone and I were like, How do we describe Elle? So we improvised some dialogue, and we came down to — she just has “that thing,” which is that magical thing that God gives you, and very few people have it. The movie would not have worked without Elle. There was no option.

Nic, is this a feminist movie?

Refn: I consider this movie to be beyond feminist because it’s not quote-unquote political. But is it all about women? Absolutely. There is no man that has a place as the movie progresses along. And the men that are in the movie are only there possessing women because women are allowing them to do so.

And Elle, this is the most sexual role you’ve done. How do you feel about entering into that world? [SPOILERS AHEAD.]

Fanning: Yeah, I guess it is, but teenage girls are discovering their sexuality and starting to be comfortable with it, and it’s like, Okay, this is happening. And so I guess the best way to ease into it was with Keanu [Reeves] and deep-throating a knife. [Laughs.] I was like, Okay great! So this is how this is going to be!

Refn: Which is interesting because that’s where the movie touches upon Jesse’s fear of penetration, and that’s what she imagines. That’s her nightmare about the predatorial aspect of the film, because beauty is not about just what you look like, it’s also what other people want from the inside — youth, perfection, purity, and virginity.

I’m glad you brought up the scene with Keanu. What was it like getting mounted and knifed by the guy from The Matrix?

Fanning: It was crazy. I actually found it really fun. I mean the knife was rubber. It wasn’t real. But he was like, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” He was shaking! He’s the most polite guy. He was so sweet. He was like, “Is this all right? Is this all right?” “Yeah, it’s great!”