Who is the Neon Demon in "The Neon Demon"?
It's a fair question, as the latest from Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is purposefully ambiguous as to whether the entity of the title is a specific person or being or maybe instead the hunger for fame and its flashbulb shine of glamour and beauty. Or perhaps it is that indefinable, ineffable "it" some people possess — or even the city of Los Angeles itself.
During production of the film in spring of last year, as the sun set over a ramshackle motel on the outer edges of Pasadena, costar Keanu Reeves laughed at the question.
"We're all the Neon Demon," he responded with the kind of mock seriousness only Reeves can summon.
The film finds Refn, 45, returning to Los Angeles for the first time since the unexpected success of his 2011 romantic crime drama "Drive." Yet rather than the wounded machismo of Refn's previous films — he has worked with an enviable list of actors including Ryan Gosling, Mads Mikkelsen and Tom Hardy — "The Neon Demon" explores a world populated chiefly by women.
"For a couple of years I had wanted to make a movie about women," Refn said. "And I didn't know how to approach it. And then I became interested in beauty. I have a very beautiful family, a beautiful wife and beautiful children. And it's the only stock that's never gone down, it's only gone up.
"And the currency of it is at such a premium, but the longevity is so limited," he added. "So I thought what would happen if that currency disappeared. You would have insanity."
In the film, a young model named Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of stardom. She makes her way through many doors and past many obstacles, including Christina Hendricks as a gatekeeping agent, Alessandro Nivola as a powerful fashion designer and Reeves as a predatory motel manager.
Jesse meets a make-up artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces her to models Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) and the four of them are soon locked in a cycle of ambition, desire and jealousy that also becomes a catalyst for occult mysticism, necrophilia and cannibalism. Things can get pretty crazy in the big city.
To create the stylish look and glamorous feel of "The Neon Demon," which pulses with an unsettling grubbiness prowling at the edges, Refn worked with his frequent collaborators, composer Cliff Martinez and editor Matthew Newman, and for the first time with cinematographer Natasha Braier. In Refn's hands, a fashion show becomes a psychedelic invocation and a seedy motel room a locus for spiritual transformation.
Rather than use the success of the lean "Drive" to launch into large-scale Hollywood filmmaking, Refn has kept his budgets low and crews small, working with a nimble footprint. In part this is because of his preference to shoot in chronological order as closely as possible so that the story can more easily evolve as it goes.
"It's not really expensive to shoot in chronological order," said Refn of his preferred production methods. "It's more like a mindset and you have to write with that in mind and you have to address production with that in mind. 'Drive' was shot mostly the same way as well. So it's not a money thing, it's more that things will change.
"And of course that's about trust," he continued. "You can do this with any movie but you have to accept that you can't predict the outcome. And that of course is very scary if you have $100 million invested and not $5 million."
Night had fully fallen as the film was in production somewhere in Pasadena, and the crew was working to prepare for a few setups around a staircase that led from a parking lot to the balcony of second story doorways. Refn bounded down the stairs dressed in navy Bermuda shorts, a white, loose button-down shirt and a pair of slip-on Tom's shoes. Tied around his midsection was the "power blanket" he ceremonially wears while shooting. Refn is completely in his element, all but relishing the air of creative uncertainty that permeated the set — enjoying the fact no one could, at this point in production, exactly explain the story.
"I don't really want to know how it's going to turn out," he said. "I'm more interested in the process. That's the creativity, the process of doing it with your collaborators."
Refn sets the mood by playing music from his phone between takes — at the moment it's Bauhaus' spooky classic "Bela Lugosi's' Dead." After Fanning goes through a few takes of what will turn out to be a key moment in the film, as Jesse is beginning to really come into herself and declares as such to a hanger-on photographer played by Karl Glusman, Refn gives her some adjustments. From take to take her line readings become both dreamier and more focused, gaining a somnambulant snap that underlines Jesse's growing power.
As the camera crew changes position, Fanning, in a glam get-up of low-cut sequined top and skin-tight pants, takes a moment to describe the ambiguous tension between her character's innocent exterior and manipulative behavior.
"There's always an undertow of mystery to her," she said. "I describe her as like a spirit, like a ghost that comes in and she's very dangerous, she messes with all the people around her. She's either toxin or the antidote."
Indeed, Refn's uniquely intuitive filmmaking has unleashed a dark power in "The Neon Demon" that even the people who made the movie are still in the process of figuring out. The filmmaker noted a connection between masculine and feminine symbology in a scene that only came to him as he was watching a technical projection check the morning before the L.A. premiere.
"It's like we were all possessed and the story was telling us how to arrange it," Fanning said. "Even though you make the film and you know what it's about, you don't necessarily know what it's about. I'm never had a film I've done that I watched and didn't just go, 'Oh, that's the story.'
"But this is not that. It's something else."