Hailed as everything from a masterpiece to an embarrassment, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is among the most divisive films of the year. That’s nothing new for him — he did make the absurdly violent Pusher trilogy and the much-hated 2014 Ryan Gosling splatterfest Only God Forgives, after all — but Refn has gone out of his way to embrace controversy and confrontation in recent years. We sat down last week to discuss whether he’s ever crossed a line in his career, why he tells his children that narcissism can be a virtue, and what it’s like being reborn as a sixteen-year-old girl. And since the director is never shy about confronting his critics, we even discussed some of my own issues with his latest work. (Note: There are some spoilers for The Neon Demon.)
Neon Demon had a divisive reception at Cannes. How was that for you?
It’s great being in the eye of the storm, because the storm is all about you, and part of creativity is being self-indulgent. After the press screening, people asked, “What’s it like to be so polarizing?” And I just wanted to say, “Guys, if it wasn’t for me, there would be no Cannes!” If you go into the world of art, or sculpture, or poetry — it’s about scandal, controversy, outrage, polarization. Cinema is also an art form; we forget that sometimes. We keep trying to make it just “nice,” “satisfying.” That’s not what it’s about. Creativity is about an expression, a reaction — good or bad, I don’t fucking care.
You also got a reaction with Only God Forgives — a much more vitriolic one.
What was so beautiful with Only God Forgives was this: I’m sitting on a boat in Cannes — a yacht some millionaire gave me for the night. I’m with [composer] Cliff Martinez. And we’ve just had our official premiere, which had gone quite well. But of course the press screening in the morning had been vicious — I mean, absolutely vicious. I hadn’t experienced this kind of hatred on such a scale, where people feel this sense of betrayal. And then Cliff Martinez, who’s been around a long time — drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Captain Beefheart, the whole rock and roll scene — says, “All right, show me some reviews.” So I show him. And he says, “What are you worried about? You’re the Sex Pistols of cinema. Enjoy it.” And that was like…the chains were lifted off. I’d worked my whole life to fight the establishment, to fight good taste, to destroy the idea of normalcy. Now I’m actually doing it.
You seem to have a healthier relationship to success and failure now. In the 2006 documentary Gambler, which is about how the failure of your film Fear X forced you to make a sequel to Pusher and get your career back on track, you’re much more anguished.
It was much more dire. Fear X was my third movie. It failed, miserably — artistically, financially. But I was lucky. I was 24 when I made my first film, Pusher. I then bounced around between the two films that followed, Bleeder and Fear X. But I was searching for an identity, seeking approval and acceptance. So, that was a huge blow to my ego and vanity. I owed my bank a million dollars. We’d just had our first child. I was also making films for the wrong reasons: I wanted it to go on a shelf of “Great Cinema.” So with Pusher 2 and 3, it was like I was starting over again. I hated making them in the beginning. But I realized, it’s okay to fail. If you’re going to fail, make sure you fail on all accounts — because it’ll make a man out of you. It’ll show you what it really takes.
But I paid my debt. God gave me a second chance. [After the Pusher trilogy,] I thought, “I know now what I must do.” I would make movies purely based on what I wanted to see. I would make them indulgent, egotistical. I no longer wanted to join, I wanted to run away. So with Bronson, I made a biography of my own life. And after that, with every film, I simply want to say: This is me.
This mirrors a change in your characters. In early films like Pusher and Bleeder, they’re compulsive, going around in circles, unable to break free.
And there’s always a downfall. But ever since Bronson, the characters win. Even though they may not seem to — Bronson ends up in a box. But he marries his alter ego; he becomes what he sets out to be.
Your style has also changed. The Pusher films are handheld, gritty. But recently you’ve moved into this hyper-stylized, aestheticized realm.
With those early films, I wanted to capture authenticity, and it got ridiculous. The drugs can’t be any more real (because they were real), the violence was almost real, the actors were real gangsters. It was like reality television. I think I’m done with real. I want to do heightened reality, because I want to control it much more.
Do you always end where you want to end, though?
Wanting to end and ending as planned are two different things. It’s like walking into this room, knowing that eventually I will kiss you, but getting from the doorknob to here, I’m going to have an odyssey — so that by the time I kiss you, I will have a completely different reason than when I opened the door.… But it’ll be the right reason. I force myself to react creatively to everything that happens around me. In Neon Demon, I knew that Jesse had to be devoured at the end. I wanted the eye to be what brings it all full circle.
Let’s talk about rhythm. Neon Demon is filled with long pauses, or silent characters, and then suddenly it’ll go into a montage and things will happen very quickly.
It’s like a DJ. The only frontier left to experiment in film and mass media is structure and rhythm. Most films, you know the ending before going in. One of my tools is, I can control the speed. I can control the structure. And if I make something long, it automatically feels off-key — and then you’re starting to penetrate the mind, because it goes against expectation. That’s like waking up from the expected reaction. So I like to speed things, slow things, restructure things. Silence, for example, is the loudest sound — because it’s the most unexpected. We live in a world where we’re constantly surrounded by noise. You take that noise away for five seconds and suddenly people get uncomfortable. You prolong a shot more than a few seconds, people get anxious. That’s how you penetrate the filters around us.
Does this kind of thinking come from being the son of a film editor?
Not really. (My father still edits a lot of movies. He does all of Lars [von Trier]’s good movies.) I’m dyslexic, and I didn’t learn to read until I was thirteen. Images were my understanding. I couldn’t speak English when I came to America, so for a long time I couldn’t understand the spoken word. Music and images were the only things. When I came from Denmark there was only one channel in Denmark. In America, I loved flicking on a television and going channel to channel and seeing all the commercials. I had one album, a soundtrack my mother had given me: Once Upon a Time in the West. I’d turn the volume down on my TV, and click back and forth on the images while listening to that soundtrack.
Some would say that Neon Demon, Only God Forgives, even Drive are very blunt and simplistic — in a way that something like Bronson isn’t. I remember lots of people saying they didn’t understand Bronson and Valhalla Rising. But the later films are a lot more direct.
There’s a difference between having a meaning that is clear and…how should I say this? Having a meaning that’s correct. A difference between a meaning that is clear, and a meaning that explains, or is within convention. The simpler it is, the more complex it becomes. Neon Demon is about beauty, which is written off by many people as being superficial. But generally people have a very complicated relationship to beauty, because it’s really about themselves — your own vanity, how you see yourself, narcissism. Elle [Fanning] and I wanted to make a horror film for a teenage audience about a theme that for them is much more advanced than what we’re used to. You and I were brought up to think of narcissism as a taboo, something negative. My kids’ generation, Elle’s generation, sees it as a virtue. That is so fascinating, and complex. The meaning is so clear, but how crazy is it that this is the way that it’s moved?
How do you relate to beauty? You say our generation thinks narcissism is a taboo, while Elle’s generation sees it as a virtue. And yet you’re the guy who made the movie.
Because I’m from the future.
I believe that with the ecosystem of entertainment we’re now stepping into, the same rules don’t apply anymore. Like at Cannes, all the times I’ve been there, it’s been the modernists versus the classicists. The classicists cling to a past that they can relate to and understand. My films represent the future.
Film began as an experiment, and then it became a form of documentation, then an art form. Then it was nationalized and controlled, and became a mass media opportunity. It became a propaganda opportunity, and a political opportunity. But it was controlled by the groups that distributed it, that showed it, that paid for it, in order to profit from it. Yes, it opened up a little bit here and there. Television was a big change, but all it really did was allow things to be controlled a different way.
But at the same time, Hollywood had perfected filmmaking as a money-making entity. Which is beautiful: I see a lot of those movies, and I love money. But the idea of filmmaking as art kind of got lost. So now, with the digital revolution, our cellphones open up a new canvas. This canvas has no control, everything is accessible, opinions don’t matter, there’s an audience for everything. It’s mass noise. The distance between yourself and an audience has been reduced to a button.
Our generation sees this mutation, but we’re also the generation that can be left behind. Our kids have a better understanding of this huge new canvas. The cinema has been reinvented in a new way. When you go to Cannes and you see Neon Demon, you react to it. Whether you like it or not, that has nothing to do with it. There’s a diversity of responses. Do you know how hard it is to create that kind of diversity? You gotta hit people on the nose: Some will love it, some will hate it. I tell my children: “Remain singular. Love yourself, trust yourself. Narcissism is a virtue, not a vice. Don’t give in to normalcy. Or to the idea of ‘nice.’ Give them something to talk about.”
Is that why much of the marketing for Neon Demon focuses on you? You yourself were on some posters at Cannes, sitting next to Elle Fanning.
You’ve got to. In creativity there’s also a narcissism. In the previous movies I’d fallen into myself completely. And I can see myself now through the eyes of the protagonist. Especially in Drive and Neon Demon, I thought, “What would Picasso do? I’ll do that.”
Why did you dedicate the film to your wife, Liv?
She was the idea behind the film. Two years ago, I woke up depressed one morning. I wasn’t born beautiful, but my wife was. And I thought, “I wonder what it’d be like to have been born beautiful.” And of course, there’s a sixteen-year-old girl in every man. This is a way to do my version of her. It made sense going from Drive, which was the height of masculinity, and my own fetishization of a hero, and even Only God Forgives, where Ryan’s character is my own male obsession deconstructing itself and emasculating itself, trying to crawl back into the womb of the mother. And now, I am reborn as a sixteen-year old girl. In the end, beauty was what I was making a film about, and the only person I knew around me who was beautiful was my wife.
At what point did you know this idea would be an actual film?
I worked on the story with some people, but it wasn’t until I met Elle Fanning. My wife had seen a movie that she’d been in, Ginger and Rosa — which my father had edited, actually. Then we saw a fashion shoot of her. And there she was. “Get Elle Fanning!” We met, and I told her, “Look, you’re a sixteen-year-old girl. My film is about a sixteen-year-old girl. I always wanted to be a sixteen-year-old girl. I want to live through you. But I want to make a horror film about beauty.” Luckily, she wanted to make a film about her generation, so we had the same agenda.
Do you see the end of this film as tragic?
No, it’s positive. Because, Jesse is partly a ghost that has gone through this thousands of times. Partly, she’s innocence that’s devoured by the industry. She may have initiated it, or she may not have — again, both sides of the coin. But when she’s devoured, three things happen: Jena Malone’s character, who initiates this whole ceremony of beauty, menstruates again, has something flowing through her. Bella Heathcote, who wants to manufacture her own beauty, dies — because that’s the one thing that you can’t do. And then there’s Abbey Lee, the supermodel, who felt like a ghost, but finds everything within her again, by eating the thing that Jesse is.
When I interviewed you years ago, we talked about a scene in Bleeder (1999) where a character beats up his pregnant girlfriend and causes her miscarriage. You said you regretted that scene and wouldn’t shoot something like it again. Have there been any other instances since then where you felt you crossed a line?
No. But I can’t do anything that hurts young children — or puts them in danger. Just like I won’t advertise for soft drinks, fast food, chemicals, or anything related to children as a victim. I don’t mean as consumer, I mean as victim. Because we’re in a world where people prey on children like wolves.
Now let me ask you: What were some of your problems with Neon Demon?
I thought the film was beautiful, but the genre elements, which seemed to want to get a rise out of me, felt tired. Things like cannibalism, necrophilia — you can find those in any midnight movie. Also, the film ended just as it was starting to get interesting. But in retrospect that last point might actually be a virtue. I have this idea of “earworm cinema.” There’s a theory that earworms — which are those songs that get stuck in your head — operate because your brain is missing some element of the song, and is trying to complete it, so it plays it over and over again. And some films are incomplete in such a way that you can’t forget them, and you start to obsess over them.
I understand. Neon Demon ends at a point where everything has been fulfilled; it can’t go on. You want it to go on, because now it has revealed what it essentially is. But I ended the movie on a note that is off-key, so it penetrates your mind. But if I completed it, it’d have vanished from your mind. Now it stays within you. It’s a trick. You’re looking for the last note to finish it.
As for the genre elements, like cannibalism, necrophilia, and all that. Yes, you need movies like this to have certain routine genre elements, or else it takes out the fun for the average viewer. It’s not that they’re eating her; if you want cannibalism, turn on the TV, it’s on every Sunday. But it’s why they eat her that’s more interesting. That’s why I never show her being eaten; that would be counterproductive. I wanted to have these very conventional genre beats, but it’s structured in a way that it deconstructs every convention. If this was Jimi Hendrix, Elle Fanning would be the guitar on fire.