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Interview: Nicolas Winding Refn on The Neon Demon

The Danish wunderkind minced few words about how much he enjoys working within his comfort zone.

Interview: Nicolas Winding Refn on The Neon Demon
Photo: Broad Green Pictures

A little candor goes a long way—at least, that’s what I told myself disconnecting the phone after my talk with Nicolas Winding Refn about The Neon Demon. In the five years since Drive, the Danish wunderkind has taken to asking his interviewers—the majority of whom I have to assume he addresses, as he did me, like the potentially amusing courtside nuisances we are—what they thought of his latest movie. In the instance of The Neon Demon, starring Elle Fanning as a waifish teenager who moves to Los Angeles in search of modeling fame only to find it a little too easily, that’s a tricky question: The film’s silken textures, pounding Italo Disco, and vivisecting sense of humor would be novel if Refn hadn’t already exhausted the same ground in Drive and Only God Forgives. If the below conversation indicates much, it’s that the filmmaker is an exceedingly good sport, down for whatever in his art-house provoc-auteur mode. Refn shrugged off my concerns about the redundancy of his work, mincing few words about how much he enjoys working within his comfort zone. For The Neon Demon’s 100-minute runtime, I tried to wear the film’s vague, withholding misanthropy like a pair of wraparound Guccis, but it would appear I didn’t try hard enough, as Refn managed to get a little armchair-psychologizing in on his end as well.

So, I can’t be the first person to point this out: The Neon Demon has more than a few things in common with Drive, at least insofar as it portrays the city of Los Angeles.

Well, first you have to tell me the similarities.

The color palette, the score by Cliff Martinez, this vision of a downtrodden, film-noir underclass that’s nonetheless very hip. It seems to borrow more from movies than from reality.

Well said. I agree with everything you just stated. [laughs]

And that’s it?

I don’t know what else to add!

Tell me how you got here.

Well, I love L.A. It’s a very inspiring city to be around. I don’t drive a car, so it says a lot. I love the mythology and the Babylon of Hollywood. And, I think, especially Demon and Drive are based on that mythology: the hemisphere of mystery around Hollywood. In that way, they’re very much L.A. movies: Drive is very much about the freeways of Los Angeles and Hollywood, and The Neon Demon is about the interiors of L.A.

Is this a real L.A. that you want to go out and capture? Or is this your “take” on the city?

I’m seeing from my alien perspective. What I like about L.A., I always feel like a stranger in a strange land.

Tell me about your decision to cast Keanu Reeves as the sleazy motel proprietor?

I had the fortune of meeting Keanu many years ago, and I’ve always been very fascinated by him. My wife and I are big, big fans. So when it got time to do the film, I just reached out and asked if he would be willing to come and do a movie like this—to sit in a plastic chair and have really bad coffee, in three takes.

I believe you’ve said this film isn’t meant to criticize the fashion industry.

Absolutely. I cannot criticize something that I love.

You don’t believe it’s possible to do both?

No, but I can show both sides of it: the glamour and the vulgarity.

But this is an industry that goes beyond “vulgarity” at times. For instance, you have a sequence where Jessie goes to her first big shoot. It’s heavily implied that this photographer is a monster. He dismisses everybody else from the set and tells her to take her clothes off. And then it goes great, actually.

Yes. It’s tracking Jessie’s evolution as she comes closer and closer to her own narcissism. She has to pass each level: being photographed, being selected for the fashion show, and going through the fashion show. Each is like a step in A Star Is Born.

Building on that a little bit, let’s talk about her character: She has no backstory, her parents are dead, and she’s moving to L.A. to start a new life for herself—which is a quintessential film-noir setup. She’s like an empty vessel.

She’s very similar to One Eye in Valhalla Rising: She just appears.

Is there something about that you find compelling, script-wise?

Yes. It’s because being enigmatic can become a strength. On one level, Jessie can be seen as, you know, a deer in the headlights, an innocent coming to a giant city of sin. At the same time, she could be an evil Dorothy, coming to the city in order to poison the Wizard.

It seems like a lot of the dialogue is designed to betray the emptiness of this milieu. Christina Hendricks’s character says, “People will believe what they are told,” which got a big laugh at my screening—and also reminded me of Ed Wood.

The movie is very funny. It’s a very campy movie; I laugh a lot, even, seeing it through.

So you wrote it as a comedy?

There’s nothing better in horror than comedy.

Did you laugh while you were writing it?

No, because it’s not a one-two-three joke; it’s very much about the performances. The dialogue itself isn’t especially funny, but if you approach it the right way, it is. You’re meant to laugh through the whole film, even at the end.

Your last few have leaned heavier on the experiential, nonverbal aspects cinema has to offer. Do you ever wish you could direct a film with no dialogue?

I’ve always threatened Cliff Martinez that one day I’ll make a silent movie. But I don’t know if I’m there yet.

What would it take for you to get to that point?

Well, I just don’t like the rules of the silent movie. Maybe if it was a silent movie with a few words.

Which rules?

Well, if it has to be silent…I don’t like authority.

Regarding a number of the camera setups, at first I thought I was looking at a camera angle that embodied the male gaze, you know, the lustful way a man is supposed to look at a model. Later on, though, I realized it was less about Jessie’s looks and more about her fear, her apprehension.

Well, the camera’s not just there to document; it’s there to tell a story. That’s the fun thing about cinema: How do you tell it through a camera?

Do you feel like you’ve been revising this technique over your films? Or is every project a clean break?

It’s a technique that I’ve indulged. It’s really my self-indulgence.

Is it possible to make a film without self-indulgence? Do you compete or disagree with yourself when you’re working?

I don’t compete with myself, but I’m very self-indulgent when I work.

How so? What does it feel like to indulge yourself on set?

It’s all based in my instincts and what I feel like seeing.

You’ve never been betrayed by your instincts? You’ve never turned around after a film was completed and said, “Oh, I wish I had done this differently…”?

No! It doesn’t work like that. It’s like an infant doing a drawing: You just base your emotions on movement, and the needs are met. My movement. [pause] What did you think of the movie?

Let’s say I had mixed feelings. It was well-made, but it also reminded me intensely of your two previous films.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

If I’m being honest, I would have preferred to be more surprised. Which is why I’m asking about your instincts.

I am curious: What would have surprised you?

Probably a tighter plotline, a more conventionalized narrative. I couldn’t tell if you made this film because of the story, or because you just wanted to capture certain images.

So you wanted to be told what to think? Or you wanted an experience that would lead to your own decision?

I don’t think I’ve ever consciously wanted to be told what to think, but if a film leaves me really moved or really outraged in an explicit way, I’m suspicious as well.

What do you think the movie is about?

I think it’s about the world you’ve created for the movie—the fashion milieu, the scene, as you’re depicting it—and also about what you like to see in your movies.

And how do you look at beauty?

My eye is jaundiced. If something is too beautiful, hopefully I’ll remember to ask why.

Isn’t that surprising, then, that the movie is about beauty, because you have to ask why?

Well, it’s about a certain type of beauty—the kind you see in fashion magazines, billboards, fragrance commercials, and so on. This is why I was asking earlier about criticism.

You mean, it’s about the kind of beauty you like to look at?

Me personally?

Yes.

Even if everybody liked to look at supermodels, I don’t seek it out necessarily. Here in New York, as I’m sure you’re aware, you can’t cross the street sometimes without seeing a skyscraper-sized supermodel, naked or close to it.

And that’s good, because then you have something to look at!

Sure…to what end?

What is it that you wanted to be more surprising?

The script is a kind of bare, steady descent into a horror-film type scenario, right?

Or is it more of an odyssey about celebrating narcissism?

That is what it ends up being about, right?

Well, what’s wrong with that?

It depends what you want out of it. I tried not to be moralistic going in, but then, whose narcissism is being celebrated? The fashion industry?

No, it’s about beauty. You shouldn’t take it so literally. You should look at what else is going on. Remember: If you want to be surprised, you have to look for it! It won’t come to you.

I’ll say this: I was surprised during the final scene. The “beauty” you’re talking about was finally, truly exhausting. The images were so saturated, so widescreen, held for so long, I felt a tiny bit like I was on drugs.

Well, that’s a good thing. So you were surprised.

When I was least expecting to be.

So it goes against your expectations and you were surprised, you realized that narcissism was a virtue that even you were holding onto! And let me tell you something: If it wasn’t beautiful, you wouldn’t even have looked.

Isn’t that a line of dialogue from the film?

No. That’s me saying that to you.

But it’s also a line of dialogue from the film.

Well, I am the movie, but remember, self-indulgence is a creativity.

So this is an actual philosophy of yours: “If it wasn’t beautiful…”

Well, you too agree with it, which is interesting—especially when you say to me, “Oh, it wasn’t surprising enough,” and then in the end it became surprising. It seems to me, you haven’t really made up your mind what your feelings are about the power of beauty!

“The power of beauty.” But this is a very specific type of “beauty,” can we at least agree on that?

It’s universal, baby. You have to look at the three women: You have Abbey Lee, who’s external beauty, Bella Heathcoate is a woman who tries to recreate beauty artificially, and then you have Jena Malone—who’s all about inner beauty, virginity, and innocence. Beauty is one of the most complex subjects we have within this world, because you have to look within yourself.

Right. Did you have this fascination with beauty before, or have you always had it…?

I think everyone has it. Oh yeah.

When you say I need to make up my mind, you’re right, but those contradictions tend to make for better interviews.

Oh, very much—and therefore, you’re going to continue to think about this movie for a very, very long time.

You typically ask your interviewers what they think of the film, right?

Yes, especially when they’re struggling and can’t really make up their mind. Like giving into The Neon Demon, but can’t commit, because it’s too frightening.

Is that always what it is though?

No. For you it is.

Can you prescribe me some other movies, to deal with my beauty complex?

Drive, baby.

But not Only God Forgives? Interesting.

Oh yeah, because that one is the gateway into The Neon Demon! You have to look at it like this: Go home, watch Drive, and you’ll see the height of male fetish. You watch Only God Forgives to deconstruct it, to emasculate, so you’re crawling back into the womb of your mother to be reborn as a 16-year-old girl, who was born beautiful. Then watch The Neon Demon again.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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