THE WORLD IS A VAMPIRE

Bondage, Necrophilia, and Models: Making ‘Neon Demon,’ the Most Twisted Movie of the Year

The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato spent time on the set of the fashion world nightmare Neon Demon, observing the beautiful madness that is director Nic Refn’s filmmaking process.

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On Day Three of a tight six-week shoot on his 10th film Neon Demon, a phantasmagorical fashion nightmare about a young girl seduced into the dark, depraved depths of the modeling world, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn was beaming.

“In independent films you’re always running,” he shrugged, taking a seat at a folding table in a makeshift mess hall buzzing with crew members and dozens of genetically-gifted extras. Breaking for lunch, a flurry of bodies scurried across the basement of downtown Los Angeles’s historic Orpheum Theater where Refn had just shot a stunning sequence filled with strobe lights and bondage.

“It’s the exact opposite of the Rod Stewart song: ‘Time is on your side,’” he said. “But at the same time, there is no such thing as an excuse.”

Refn had toyed with the idea for Neon Demon, a femme horror opus for the teenage girl he likes to say lives inside of him, for a decade. But he was stymied on how to translate that concept into a film until it finally clicked three years ago while directing a luxury perfume ad for Gucci, starring none other than she of the self-described L.A. face: Blake Lively.

“I did this Gucci campaign with Blake Lively and that’s how I suddenly got this thing in my head,” Refn explained. “Something happened there that suddenly gave me a very specific image. It gave me a very specific… thing. And that thing basically became the whole movie. I was like, ‘THIS is the way into it.’”

In that 2012 spot, Lively (whose shark survival thriller The Shallows coincidentally opens against Neon Demon this weekend), poses swathed in a sensual golden gown, her blonde hair styled in old Hollywood glamour. She coos over a bottle of Gucci Premiere perfume while staring out of the glass windows of a mansion in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, entranced by the city lights below, and sashays that so-called Oakland booty through a meta-photo shoot featuring a cameo by Refn himself.

In fact there are echoes of that gold-electric palette and glam image-worship in Neon Demon, which hinges on a dreamlike runway scene of fetishistic, orgasmic narcissism in which star Elle Fanning wears a similarly glittery gold number.

So just what was that “thing” that crawled out of their gilded Gucci ad and lodged itself into Refn’s brain, seeding his nightmarish fable about the darkness within and around beautiful, image-obsessed young women? He smiled, catching himself. “I can’t tell you.”

Refn revels in the questions that trail in his wake, particularly this early in the creative process, and long before Neon Demon would eventually world premiere at Cannes to a very enthusiastically French mixed reception. Most films go into production with a script as Bible and shoot out of order for practicality’s sake. Refn famously shoots in sequence, constantly tweaking and collaborating with his cast and crew, allowing the story to evolve organically in the moment as they go.

That’s why, although the cameras have been rolling for days, Refn and Co. don’t exactly know where their story will end up. By the time he’s done with Neon Demon, he will have scrapped the original ending altogether in place of a new one, inspired by the intriguing chemistry he saw develop between Fanning’s Jessie, a 16-year-old model new to Los Angeles, and Jena Malone’s Ruby, the makeup artist who kindly and lustily takes her under her wing—and, at one point, works out her sexual frustrations on a cadaver—as she descends into a poison-tipped glam-goth fantasy.

At least on Day Three, when I asked what he felt the story is about—at least, in its current iteration—he cracked an impish grin: “It’s hard to speak about it without context. But then the best part of a mystery is not knowing.”

By his own admission Refn gets off on the risk. He seems to find gratification in the process, an auteur in the sense that he is authoring not a hard-lined text, but orchestrating the organic birth of a story destined to take unexpected detours as it grows. Which almost makes moot the mixed reviews Neon Demon has received to date, with critics split—as they tend to be with unapologetically challenging fare—between praising it as brilliant and condemning it as shallow. Almost.

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“The fun part about creativity is the challenge, more than anything else,” he offered, still in the adrenaline rush of Day Three and a year away from seeing his finished film open in theaters. “I love being out of control. I love being out of my depth. I love being completely staring into the abyss where the only options are success or failure. That’s where you get high.”

Today Refn, known for stylish, violent, and male-centric films like Bronson, Drive, and Only God Forgives, is in the middle of filming the pulsating nightclub scenes that open Neon Demon as his young ingénue, aspiring model Jessie (Elle Fanning), takes her first steps into the seductive shadows of the fashion world.

With a relatively modest $7 million budget, productions of this size this don’t offer much wiggle room. Refn will spend the afternoon painstakingly tweaking levels and positioning of pools of colored lights with his cinematographer Natasha Braier nonetheless, directing Fanning and co-stars Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, and Bella Heathcote through scenes of tentative, icy model-on-model initiation.

Strolling out of the darkened theater into a sunlit parking lot, Malone was similarly Zen about the unknowingness of their undertaking.

“On Day Three? I don’t know! I mean, we’re still in it,” she offered. “It’s always evolving. We’re still rewriting it, in a way. Seeing how this goes to see what feeds into those relationships, which is really nice. Instead of plotting everything else out, and you hit one color here and have to digress… it’s a luxury. I’ve never shot like this before.”

She referred to the scene they’d just filmed, in which Ruby invites Jessie along on a night out and introduces her to older models Gigi (Heathcote) and Sarah (Lee)—who don’t yet realize that the “fresh meat” in town might end up stealing their jobs. Refn shouted instructions from behind the monitor as the sound of electro icon Giorgio Moroder’s “Knights In White Satin” spilled out from the director’s phone over loud speakers, filling the hallway with mood.

“Even up there, I was discovering things between me and Abbey and Bella, and you can only do that by being a body in a room with loud music and sweat,” Malone said. “He’s the type of director where there is no wrong answer. He only wants to ask more questions. He’s not interested in solving them himself. He’s constantly proposing things and asking you to dig deeper.”

Malone, 31, had just come off a six-film year when Neon Demon dropped in her lap to tempt her out of a planned work break. Cast as the half-maternal, half-predatory Ruby, the veteran actress molded a deeply wounded characterization around themes of “shame and humiliation, beauty and lust, and voyeurism and desire, security vs. insecurity.”

“The first thing he said to me was, ‘You’re playing Echo and this is like Narcissus and Echo,’” she said of Refn. “But she’s a real woman now, not just a character on the page.”

By the time I stopped by production several weeks later, Refn had already switched course.

After filming all over Los Angeles and shooting in a seedy Pasadena motel with Keanu Reeves, Refn and his crew had taken over the sprawling Canfield-Moreno Estate in Silverlake. Also known as The Paramour Mansion, the 1920s Mediterranean Revival mansion was once the home of silent movie star Antonio Moreno, whose heiress wife Daisy died when she drove right off Mulholland one night.

The estate’s haunting taxidermy-adorned hallways and empty, enormous pool lend a fateful golden age gothic atmosphere to Neon Demon’s blood-soaked denouement. But Refn was also using the set to restage his opening scene, in which Jessie, wearing an electric blue sheath covered in fake blood for an amateur photo shoot, meets Ruby for the first time in a dressing room.

Fanning, bubblier and more animated than her onscreen character, greeted a group of journalists bouncing with energy, caked blood still covering her skin. She explained why the new ending they’d rewritten necessitated going back to reshoot the beginning of the film.

“I was sitting down last time and [Malone] had to crouch,” she said. “It was more our positioning and we cut out a lot of the dialogue, because Nic is not a huge fan of a lot of dialogue. We don’t talk much! It’s more like, get to the point. We notice when there are scenes that are really long and it’s building up to that final thing that you want to say, it’s like, why do we need the buildup? Let’s just say it. He’s like, ‘Do the essentials. We don’t need the excess.’”

Fanning had leaned into Refn’s malleable shooting style. “On the weekends we’ll go and rewrite scenes,” she said. “The other day he was like, ‘I don’t like the ending, so I’m going to change the ending of the movie. What if this doesn’t happen at all?’ We’re like, WHAT?? But you have to just trust him. He knows what he’s doing and he’s watching everything.”

Refn, joining his star, explained further how filming in chronological order has a domino effect on the story. “When we started the movie we started, Elle and I, with one kind of odyssey,” he said, Fanning nodding in agreement. “And then very quickly the odyssey started to mutate into something else. Then it was tracking that, and going back to, ‘You know what? We started incorrectly. Let’s start another way.’”

Put another way: “It’s the whole mood of the scene that had to change, because the mood of the movie changed,” he said.

“The ending is changing so radically every day there’s an ongoing discussion between the crew who’s gonna die,” Refn laughed. “And I don’t really know! Because everyone has a different agenda, a different story, and there are so many options you can do, man.”

Are you the villain of Neon Demon? a journalist asked Fanning. She exchanged ponderous glances with Refn and laughed. “We don’t know!”

Refn reflected again on his methodology, and its effect on the final product. Does it matter if the movie he ends up with is good or bad as a result of the tinkering? “If it becomes good or bad is even irrelevant, because it is what it’s going to be.” But while he’s always preferred this method of working, he admitted that his priorities as a filmmaker have considerably evolved.

“When I was younger doing Pusher and those kinds of films it was all about, how real could I make it? The drugs were real, they were hitting each other for real—it was like it couldn’t get real enough for me,” he said. “Which of course is ludicrous and stupid, but I was young and arrogant! So you do stupid things. And when I started doing Bronson, which changed everything for the kind of films that I make, it was still the same process, but it was more about heightened reality than reality.”

There’s an agony and an ecstasy to forging his films on the fly, he suggested, embracing the punk rock spirit of working without a net. “There are nights when I’m sad and depressed, like the world is just the fucking worst because the ending I thought was going to work is not working, and I don’t know what else to put there,” he admitted. “But I like the addictive nature of this fear of failure. Because fear of failure spawns creativity—and the chief enemy of creativity is, you know, good taste.”

A financial setback that left him a million dollars in debt early in his career made Refn keenly sensitive to the profitability his esoteric films turn. His last film, the opaque art house crime drama Only God Forgives, sharply divided critics and grossed $10 million worldwide but cost less than half that to make. Drive, his first film with Ryan Gosling, is still his biggest score to date after bringing in over $76 million worldwide. And yet…

“People have spent more time talking about why Drive didn’t make more money in the States, which is kind of silly because what they should talk about is how once we left the bigger cities it dropped off like a dead fly,” Refn said. “What was interesting was that maybe there were five teenagers somewhere that went to see it and four of them were disappointed—but the fifth one said, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to New York.’”

In the documentary My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn, his wife Liv Corfixen captured his private anxieties and pressures while making Only God Forgives in Thailand. Her camera watches as he worries over budget woes, drags Gosling on a personal appearance to earn much-needed production cash, and reads the first crushing negative reviews out of Cannes—out loud.

“This idea of success can be measured in a very specific way,” he said on set of the box office-obsessed industry, “and it’s all about perfection and joy and easy and ‘Life’s great!’ But that’s not how it really lies. I certainly make movies that are very diverse. I know that.”

Maintaining artistic autonomy outside the system while making sure you make back the money to keep making movies isn’t just a balancing game, he’s learned. “It’s like playing Russian roulette,” Refn jokes. “How many bullets do you have, and how do you avoid blowing your head off?

Still, the Dane hides any nerves on set in front of his crew, and certainly in front of the press. “You know, I’m the Sex Pistols of cinema,” he said, grinning. “And I enjoy every beat of it.” Composer Cliff Martinez gave him that moniker, he explained, as he was agonizing over first Cannes reviews of Only God Forgives.

“I’d never seen that amount of aggression,” remembered Refn. “It was personal… After a couple of hours Cliff was like, ‘Look: All they’re talking about is you. There are your supporters that are fighting for you, and the people that are trying to destroy you, but they are never going to forget this night.’”

After that, he embraced the Sex Pistols comparison. They were influential rebel iconoclasts of their time, after all. And evolving into cinema’s unapologetic punk rock radical might not be such a bad way for his own story to unfold.

Called back to set to shoot a scene in which a ghostly Fanning delivers a memorable poolside monologue—the image that would be the first to be released to the public—Refn grinned. “It’s like, who do you want to be: The Ramones, or Maroon 5? You do the math.”