Neon Demon: Erotic Horror Thriller about Dark Side of Beauty

The Neon Demon, the new horror thriller from stylish director Nicolas Winding Refn, world premiered at the Cannes Film Fest (In Competition).

The Premise:

the_neon_demon_posterWhen aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will use any and every means necessary to get what she possesses.  Will they succeed?

In 2010, director Nicolas Winding Refn (NWR) impressed viewers with his Los Angeles-set crime thriller Drive.  In his bold new horror thriller, The Neon Demon, NWR returns to the “city of dreams” for an unsettling look at its intense, vicious culture of beauty.




Origins of Film

the_neon_demon_4_fanning_refnThe Neon Demon first arose in NWR’s mind before production began on the first film in their deal, Only God Forgives.  The second film in a two-picture deal between Space Rocket, NWR’s production company with producing partner Lene Børglum, and French film financing entities Wild Bunch and Gaumont,

“For a number of years, I’ve had this interest in making a film about beauty, because, in my life, I’m surrounded by it,” NWR says, “And I see a lot of female empowerment with beauty.”  The director is referring to his wife, filmmaker Liv Corfixen, his two young daughters, and the myriad actresses and models he’s encountered while directing feature films and fashion advertisements for brands like Gucci, YXL, H&M and Hennessey.

The Power of Beauty

the_neon_demon_3_fanning_refnIn addition to his desire to make a film about beauty, NWR also held an interest in the horror genre, upon further meditation on the subject of the power of beauty, particularly its darker side.  “The currency of beauty continues to rise and never falls. As we evolve the lifespan of beauty becomes more limited, while our obsession with it becomes more and more extreme.” According to NWR, this obsession can often lead to a unique kind of madness.


Subverting Myth of Narcissus
To illustrate this, NWR references Narcissus, the subject of ancient Greek myth who became so enamored with his own beauty that he drowned in its reflection. NWR describes the current digital revolution as representing “the liquid Narcissus sees himself in and falls into.” Its resulting images, often achieved though digital enhancement, are impossible to achieve and yet “people create their own insanity in the search for it.”

Horror Genre: Dark Side of Beauty
the_neon_demon_2_fanning_refnA fertile ground for exploring tales of madness and obsession, the horror genre emerged the perfect vehicle for NWR’s tale.  But before beginning his initial foray into the genre, the director conducted a thorough examination of it.  He undertook this task with guidance from his friend, BBC executive and Only God Forgives executive producer Matthew Read. “With Matthew, we started to really try and understand why horror films work and why they don’t work and the various sub-genres. And then to really break [the horror film] down into a mathematical equation,” says NWR.

Genre Director?
Known for both embracing and subverting well-worn genres as the prison drama (2008’s Bronson), the historical adventure (2010’s Valhalla Rising), the action thriller (2011’s Drive), and the revenge drama (2013’s Only God Forgives), NWR was similarly curious to see if he could honor and defy the “horror movie” equation with his developing story. He asked: “Was there a way to hit all of the basic genre beats, but not necessarily in the right order?” And could he “make a horror film without the horror?”

First Female Lead

the_neon_demon_1_refn_fanningAnother challenge was crafting his first female-centric narrative. Although NWR’s past films have included strong supporting female characters ,Carey Mulligan’s vulnerable young mother in Drive and Kristin Scott Thomas’s manipulative one in Only God Forgives, NWR had never developed a film with a female lead, let alone four of them.

Femme-Driven Script, Written by Female Scribes

To help give voice to The Neon Demon‘s quartet of female characters, NWR collaborated with a young female writer, one with a background in the more dialogue-intensive world of theater. After directing three films he describes as “silent,” NWR sensed  that Neon Demon should be a more dialogue-driven affair.
NWR found all three qualities in two female writers from opposite sides of the Atlantic: one a well-known British playwright, the other an up-and-coming American one.

Polly Stenham
His first collaborator was London-based playwright Polly Stenham, who came to  theater-world attention at the precocious age of 21, when her debut play “That Face” premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2007 to rave reviews, earning her the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright and the Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright (2008).

Mary Laws

The second female was Texas-born playwright Mary Laws, a graduate of the prestigious Yale Drama School already gaining traction in the industry for her bold and innovative student plays. On the recommendation of his agent, NWR read Laws’ work and, impressed, reached out to her.
Although NWR had basic story and character ideas in mind at the outset of the script’s development, Stenham and Laws helped him build a full-bodied–and full-blooded–narrative around them.
Reflecting on the experience of working with two different writers at distinct phases of their careers, and from differing parts of the world, NWR says, “Both women were absolutely wonderful to work with, because of their differing approaches. And each brought a distinct perspective that helped mold the script in very interesting ways.”

Once production began on The Neon Demon, the story continued to evolve, a process common on all of NWR’s films, and a creative benefit of shooting in chronological order.