Killing It: Elle Fanning And The Stars Of The Neon Demon

Killing It: Elle Fanning And The Stars Of The Neon Demon

This summer, Elle Fanning, Bella Heathcote, and Abbey Lee star as ruthless models in the most talked-about film to come out of Cannes. Along with the film's notorious director, Nicolas Winding Refn, they discuss the mutual attraction between horror and fashion

This summer, Elle Fanning, Bella Heathcote, and Abbey Lee star as ruthless models in the most talked-about film to come out of Cannes. Along with the film's notorious director, Nicolas Winding Refn, they discuss the mutual attraction between horror and fashion

Photography: Steven Klein

Styling: Patti Wilson

Text: Kevin McGarry

This story is taken from V102, on newsstands July 14. Click here to pre-order the issue.

“What’s it feel like—you walk into a room, it’s like in the middle of winter, and you’re the sun?” About halfway through Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, in theaters now, real-life model Abbey Lee poses this question to Elle Fanning. A relative mainstay from the cutthroat underbelly of the Los Angeles modeling world, Abbey Lee’s Sarah is clearly threatened by Fanning’s Jesse, a nubile new recruit. After only one casting, the younger model is receiving the Aphrodite treatment from the fashion industry. In response to Sarah’s desperation, Jesse musters a mimetic reply, more menacing than confident: “It’s everything.” With this line, the hoary twenty-something is eviscerated by her teenage replacement. It’s these impassive moments—hollowed out and flattened, save for their hyperstylized cruelty—in which Refn’s new opus strikes its most cutting tone.

ELLE WEARS DRESS PREEN BRA MAISON CLOSE BRIEFS GOOSEBERRY ON EYELASHES DIOR SHOW WATERPROOF IN 258 AZURE BLUE

The Danish director is a notorious outsider. In fact, The Neon Demon is his first film properly produced within the Hollywood studio system. His last two directing credits, Drive and Only God Forgives, fashioned heartthrob Ryan Gosling as a Byronic hero railing against glowing, grisly visions of L.A. and Bangkok, respectively. His latest effort delves even further into the shadows of the former hub, and from the seedy buzz of neon to the fizz of flash bulbs, there are plenty of lights guiding the way. At its core, though, the movie is pitch black. While watching Demon, one wonders if its auteur even likes this city, or if his is a fascination born from disgust.

“I don’t like Los Angeles,” Refn tells me over the phone from Copenhagen, “I love Los Angeles. And I don’t drive a car, so I’ve really got to love it.”

Maybe his love of genres cooked up in Hollywood comes across more unequivocally. While Drive was hailed as a neo-noir, Demon has been called a psychological thriller, and even “horror.” “I’ve always wanted to do a teenage horror movie,” Refn says, “but possibly without the horror. I think there’s a 16-year-old girl in every man. I’d always wanted to fantasize what it’d be like to be a beautiful girl. Innocence—and virginity—is a great analysis of genre. And then moving into the big city, it’s always very frightening, especially when it’s L.A., because L.A. is such a mysterious place. It’s like the moon in some ways; it’s unearthly.” What’s perhaps unique to Refn’s latest vision is the vacuum he’s created around these feelings. Unlike many similarly themed films, plot plays a smaller role than atmosphere. “Italian music from the ’70s” and the 1961 film Night Tide, about a murderess convinced she is a mermaid, were inspirations.

ABBEY WEARS DRESS MARC JACOBS BRIEFS LONELY HEARTS EARRINGS (THROUGHOUT) HER OWN ON CHEEKS DIORBLUSH IN 986 STAR FUCHSIA  BELLA WEARS CLOTHING PREEN

The axiom of Refn’s Demon world is that the most beautiful girl of all is Jesse, a 16-year-old orphan taught to pose as 19, navigating treacherous waters unaccompanied. I met 18-year-old Fanning on a cold day in May at a brunch spot in the West Village that had come recommended by her friend Sofia Coppola (who directed Fanning in her 2010 film, Somewhere). In an embroidered bomber jacket, fishnets, and a Prada backpack the size of an iPhone 6 Plus, she was sweetly composed and surprisingly grown-up, while exuding the effortless, trendy sparkle of the recent high school graduate that she is. It’s hard to imagine that her own assimilation into Hollywood at such a young age was anything as sordid as her character’s.

“I was born in Georgia. My sister [Dakota Fanning] started first, so she went out with my mom to test it out,” the younger Fanning sister recalls. “Me and my dad stayed behind. Then my sister got all this stuff and was doing movies and we were like, I guess we have to move to L.A. We just stayed. That’s my home. I mean, I was so young. I’m a California girl.” Elle famously played the younger version of her sister in 2001’s I Am Sam, at two. For her role in that film, Dakota became the youngest actor to be nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award, at eight. Elle has now been nominated for just about every Young, Teen, or Breakout award out there, and with Demon, she’s won high praise for her performance from even those critics who can’t stomach the film itself.

Fanning’s on-screen nemeses are, coincidentally, both Australian by birth, Angeleno by trade (and they’re both 29). Abbey Lee Kershaw dropped her last name professionally when she became an in-demand model, rising in the fashion ranks—but in New York and Europe rather than Downtown L.A. and the Valley. She recently made a sideways entrance into Hollywood, breaking out in 2015’s Best Picture-nominated Mad Max: Fury Road. For her part, Heathcote has gone from Australian soap star to dark comic Hollywood hot commodity thanks to films like 2012’s Dark Shadows and this year’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

ELLE WEARS DRESS EDWARD MEADHAM FOR SOPHIA WEBSTER SHOES SOPHIA WEBSTER ON LIPS ROUGE DIOR IN 844 TRAFALGAR

“Every girl I know has one girl in L.A. who you bump into and she will always do everything she can to destabilize you or undermine you or get the power in the circumstance,” says Heathcote. Her Demon character, “Gigi’s kind of like that. She’s a bit of a bitch, but it’s born out of a place of insecurity.” Indeed, Gigi refers to “plastics” (surgery) as just good grooming, citing ear pinning as a necessity for wearing a ponytail. “She doesn’t like the way she looks. I don’t think she even thinks about who she is as a person, it’s just a matter of, How does this make me feel? How can I feel better?”

While Heathcote is friendly to the point of perky, Gigi, somewhat resembling an evil version of her famed blonde namefellow, Hadid, is none too welcoming when she meets Jesse at a party. Neither is Sarah, who spits out the staccato line to Gigi, “Who is she fucking, or who could she fuck? How high could she climb?”

“In a weird way,” Fanning explains, “I kind of idolized [Abbey Lee] when I was young because I loved fashion. She had to teach me how to do the walk for the casting scene. I thought she was just walking, and she was like, ‘No, there’re rules to it. You can’t move your arms. Lean back. Make your legs look longer.’ It’s so intense.”

ABBEY LEE WEARS CLOTHING GUCCI  SHOES CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN RING AND EARRING ELLAGEM ON LIPS ROUGE DIOR IN 775 DARLING  BELLA WEARS COAT BURBERRY DRESS ASHISH SHOES AND BAG SOPHIA WEBSTER GLOVES GASPAR GLOVES ON LIPS ROUGE DIOR IN 766 ROSE HARPERS

The scene Fanning refers to is particularly wrenching, channeling the pain of Italian art star Vanessa Beecroft’s tableaux of stripped women planted in heels for hours on end. The girls line up in their underwear to be graded and degraded by an apathetic casting director and a pompous designer, whose cold hearts melt when they first see innocent Jesse move towards them. A fashion show scene—the film’s dramatic climax, complete with slow, kaleidoscopic zooms and Refn’s signature neon-colored lighting—is quick to folow. Throughout the film, the girls’ ambiguous successes and diminishing returns are visceral. Apparently, relentless expectations made it into the filming process, too. “Nic’s style of working is really challenging, I think in a positive way,” Abbey Lee explains. “Anything about your character can change at any time. Nic has a real obsession with stillness and being able to convey a message in a much more simple way. He takes a really dramatic scene and knocks it back to just saying the lines. I would say the same line over and over, maybe 30 times.”

This film, like most of Refn’s, was shot in chronological order. “It was insane,” Fanning squeals. “I had never done that before. Things changed all the time. Even the ending is different than what the script was.” Refn describes it as a forced creative free fall. “I, most of the time, base my decisions on instinct,” he says. “There’s something very satisfying about that, both because it’s frightening and because creativity is fueled by fear.”

While the fashion world—albeit a demented Ventura Boulevard version of it—is front and center here, Refn maintains that the film is much more universal. “I think that it’s not so much the modeling world in L.A., it’s what L.A. represents,” says Refn. “In terms of authenticity, the modeling world is very much surrounded by New York or Paris. But Hollywood is the theme of everything. Even though various industries have been detained, whether it’s music or fashion or painting, everything leads

back to Los Angeles. It’s the one thing everyone has in common. It beams out as a digital link to the rest of the world. The idea was more like: Where would the wizard be if this were The Wizard of Oz? Well, the wizard would be in Los Angeles, of course.”

ELLE WEARS CORSET JIVOMIR DOMOUSTCHIEV BRA AND BRIEFS VEX SHOES CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN

Like a modern-day Dorothy, with an entourage of predators rather than good-natured friends, Jesse traipses down a path towards an empire of smoke and mirrors. Demon is a parable about an appearance-obsessed industry in an industry-obsessed society. “We realized, as we were filming, who the Neon Demon was,” says Fanning. “I thought it was L.A. or the models, but actually it’s kind of...me. But it’s also beauty. Beauty can be your demise. And this is so prevalent now because of social media and apps that make you look a certain way. People really care about the way they look—all the time.”

Refn imagines beauty as potently sinister, describing three trajectories: “One is, it’s like the most secure stock you can invest in—it’s always gonna go up,” he bullet points. “Secondly, the longevity of how we define beauty continues to shrink, shrink, shrink.” And, most disturbingly, “Thirdly, the age of how we define beauty continues to become younger and younger. So, what’s gonna happen when these three, let’s say, speeding trains collide, or pass each other in the incorrect order?” His answer is the film itself, followed by another question: “What’s gonna happen if beauty becomes insanity?”

The Neon Demon is in theaters this Friday.

ABBEY LEE WEARS DRESS CALVIN KLEIN COLLECTION  ELLE FANNING AND BELLA HEATHCOTE WEAR CLOTHING CHANEL ON CHEEKS DIORBLUSH IN 986 STAR FUCHSIA
ELLE FANNING WEARS DRESS COACH 1941 ON LIPS ROUGE DIOR IN 844 TRAFALGAR
Credits:

Makeup Kabuki using Dior Cosmetics  Hair Garren USING R+Co (Garren New York)  Manicure Honey (Exposure NY)  Set design Andrea Stanley (Streeters)  Production Caroline Stridfeldt and Natalie Pfister (LOLA Production)  Digital technician Tadaaki Shibuya  Photo assistants Alex Lockett, Mark Luckasavage, Tim Shin, Willy Ward, Adam Kaninowski  Stylist assistant Taylor Kim  Makeup assistant Yumi Kaizuka  Hair assistant Jerrod Roberts  Set design assistantS Colin Lytton and Devin Rutz  Production assistants Rachel Kober and William Kannar  Location ROOT NYC

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