The Neon Demon takes a haunting descent into narcissisism and even Nicolas Winding Refn isn’t sure how it’s going to end
The Pasada Motel in Pasadena, California sits, as it has for decades, on the edge of what is now known as Colorado Blvd. Once upon a time, it was the western end of Route 66, one of the final stops on a highway that stretched across the nation. Last April, the Pasada was selected by Nicolas Winding Refn for one of the key locations in his latest feature, The Neon Demon. It is at the Pasada that Elle Fanning‘s Jesse, an aspiring model, finds a place to stay as she tries to follow her dreams and make her way in an unforgiving industry. The building’s history merges on celluloid with Refn’s haunting fiction and, after all these years, the neon sign of the Pasada still burns. But the building itself is showing its age and the motel’s amenities begin and end with “No questions asked.”
“I told Elle it was ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,'” Nicolas Winding Refn tells ComingSoon.net on the Neon Demon set. “One of the greatest movies ever made.”
Whether that’s an accurate comparison or not remains to be seen. Refn has a uniquely stylized approach to filmmaking and just because he’s the film’s writer and director, that doesn’t mean that he knows what it’s about to become or even how it’s going to end.
“Every one is an experimental movie,” he says, looking back at his filmography. “You name it. ‘Bronson’ was like, ‘Okay, I’ll do a movie about my own life.’ It became an experiment. ‘Valhalla Rising’ was sold as a viking movie with Mads Mikkelsen. It was action, but I wanted to do a science fiction movie because I can’t stand vikings. They’re so stupid. But I loved the concept of it and I wanted to make a science fiction movie. ‘Drive’ was just me and Ryan [Gosling] having a little homoerotic love affair that led to some kind of ‘Let’s do this.’ You must go along. The elevator scene was three weeks into shooting. I said, ‘I think I want to shoot this instead of something else.’ Everything is always an experiment.”
As part of the day’s shoot, Fanning lies on the floor of the motel with a techno beat playing over her performance. The music won’t necessarily be the same in the final version of the film, but Refn, who tends to deliver quite a few dialogue-free scenes, uses existing music as a tool for capturing exactly the mood he’s looking for.
“It’s sometimes easier to do things with music for the performances. I’ve been using a lot the last couple of years. Or readings. I actually do a lot of the readings myself. It helps visualization and conceptualization as well… It’s a bit like painting. You’ve got a canvas and you go, ‘Give me red. Okay, okay. That’s interesting. Now blue! Mix them correctly. Okay, okay. That’s good.’ Tomorrow we’ll put something else in.”
Although Refn’s past films have focused primarily on male characters, The Neon Demon features a mostly female cast with more women behind the scenes. Refn himself originated the story for the film and then turned to first-time screenwriters Mary Laws and Polly Stenham to flesh out the script.
“[They] had never written a script before,” Refn explains, “Which I liked. Not knowing can be a benefit.”
The film also boasts dazzling cinematography by The Rover‘s Natasha Braier.
“I thought it was important to have a woman — because this movie has so many women — to photograph them,” Refn continues. “…Women take time.”
In fact, The Neon Demon became Refn’s next project primarily because of his wife, filmmaker Liv Corfixen.
“Liv basically didn’t want to go to Tokyo,” Refn smiles, “Where I want to film this other movie. She said, ‘I’ll only go to LA.’ I said, ‘Okay. That solves that.'”
Even though he has a script in a place going in, Refn lets fate take the wheel to a certain degree by shooting the story in sequence.
“What it does is that it allows complete control and to morph,” he explains. “The film will essentially change radically. Yesterday morning, I woke up and knew that the movie needed to end differently… I may come tomorrow and go, ‘F–k, we’ve got to do everything completely different.’ It’ll be the same scene, but the subtext is different. It constantly evolves… We shot a scene yesterday, me and Elle, that changed the whole movie. That has happened numerously. It’s very common. I like that process. I like not knowing.”
Of course, shooting in sequence is something that most actors don’t get the chance to do and for someone like Keanu Reeves, who plays a supporting role as the proprietor of The Neon Demon‘s sleazy motel, it means his five days on set wind up getting spread out across the production.
“[A collaborator]? Is that what I am?” he laughs about his approach to the project. “I’m a meat puppet. I’m here to serve. I’m of service and I feel free.”
Reeves was anxious to work with Refn as a fan of Refn’s previous films.
“I had only seen the construction as far as the other films,” he says. “…From what he puts on the page to what he ends up doing, maybe text and location and action will change, but I haven’t had anything change tone-wise or as far as what I actually do yet.”
As far as his character goes, Reeves plays a man named Hank who may very well be something very different than he appears on the surface.
“I’m kind of like a witness,” Reeves explains. “I’m a gatekeeper. I’m someone that you pass. I’m someone that has their own way of doing things. The Jesse character kinds of carves herself. She shapes herself. She’s revealed by being challenged… [Hank] has a bit of a bark, but not much bite. But he has a little bit of a bite.”
To whom or what, then, does the film’s title refer?
“There is a character in the movie who is the Neon Demon,” smiles Refn. “But I haven’t chosen who yet… I like uncertainty even though it f–ing freaks me out. But I like what the fear can lead to. It keeps you on your toes.”
“Everything changes,” Refn continues, “but that journey that Elle is on is very specific. The alteration of that has been very significant. It’s been beautiful. I have to be on my toes to go, ‘It looks like we went that way, but we really went that way.'”
As such, inspiration can come from anywhere and, in the case of The Neon Demon, Refn tells a strange and tragic tale of an incident that happened off the set.
“The power blanket is a must have for every movie,” he says, explaining one of his many superstitions about the filmmaking process. “I wrap it around my stomach and it contains all the energy and calmness within it like a genie in a bottle. I used to take a piece of fabric from the costume. Now it’s becoming like a ritualistic thing. I take it in different colors and designs and so forth. But I had a very weird incident a week ago where I went to Musso and Frank’s because I had to see the locations and I came ten minutes late from dropping off my daughter at school. There was a guy lying in a parking lot bleeding from a stab wound in the chest. Another man was holding on, putting pressure on it. It was really weird because the man had no shoes on, but white socks and a tie. This man, who was bleeding. There was no one else there. I got out of the car and went over. I said, ‘Hey, do you need help?’ They already called 911, but he needed something to hold the blood in. So I gave him my blanket. It was the only thing I had. Then the guy died. That was pretty weird. Then it became a homicide. I was blocked in and had to go shoot. If we didn’t make the day, I wasn’t going to get it back. They were able to get me out, the police, through Musso and Frank’s, to set. As I was getting ready to go, they were covering this dead body and they took my blanket away. I felt the urge to hear ‘Homicide’ by 999. That used to be one of my favorite songs.”
Refn shows off his new power blanket, which his wife brought to him on set later that day.
“Listening to that at that specific moment gave me a whole perspective of how I was going to shoot the rest of the day,” says Refn. “I say, ‘I tried. It didn’t work out. But God gave me a great inspiration.'”
The Neon Demon hits theaters next Friday, June 24. Check back next week for video interviews with Refn and the film’s cast.