Nicolas Winding Refn interview: The Neon Demon, creativity in a digital age

Maverick director Nicolas Winding Refn talks to us about The Neon Demon, out this month on disc, and creativity in the digital age...

The breakthrough hit Drive aside, Nicolas Winding Refn’s films seldom play nicely with their audience. Only God Forgives, the Danish director’s follow-up to Drive and also starring Ryan Gosling, was a garish revenge fantasy set in Thailand but seemingly shot in the depths of hell; released in 2013, it received an openly hostile reception at Cannes.

Likewise The Neon Demon, another fantastical horror-thriller which depicts Hollywood as a kind of colour-saturated purgatory. Young waif Jessie (Elle Fanning) shows up here with ambitions of becoming a top model; she achieves her ambition, but the price of fame is bloody and bewilderingly strange. Once again, the film polarised critics and audiences; while some dismissed it as cold and superficial, others – including your humble writer – were mesmerised by it.

Just like his movies, Nicolas Winding Refn can be aloof, difficult to pin down, and wont to making bold proclamations in his interviews; “I’m glamour,” he said to Danny Leigh back in July; “I’m vulgarity. I’m scandal. I’m gossip. I’m the future.”

In 2015, however, the director’s filmmaker wife Liv Corfixen made My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn. That film caught the director in his private moments, mulling over the details of Only God Forgives during its Bangkok shoot. It was a rare glimpse of the self-doubting, sensitive man beneath the public persona, and it was that version of Refn I was keen to learn more about when I met him in a London hotel for the home release of The Neon Demon.

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Over coffee and some very odd things that may or may not have been biscuits, Refn talked thoughtfully about the reaction to The Neon Demon and its possible status as a movie for the post-YouTube, digital age: a fable about the making of images and how they’re consumed. At a time when just about anyone can chop up and re-edit images and put them on the web, where does that leave cinema?

The future, science fiction, David Cronenberg… the further the conversation drifted away from The Neon Demon, and towards more general musings about creativity and modern filmmaking, the more relaxed and talkative Mr Refn became – less like the aloof filmmaker of big newspaper interviews, and more like the Refn in his wife’s documentary. The director may describe himself as glamour, vulgarity and scandal, but he’s also, clearly, a regular guy who loves movies: not least the classic RoboCop

How are you finding London? Have you been here long?

[Slightly weary] I got here an hour and a half ago.

Crikey. So you just got off a plane?

Yeah. But I flew from Copenhagen so it’s only about an hour and a half.

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I loved The Neon Demon. I actually found it very funny.

Well, it’s a comedy.

Yeah. A black horror comedy, I guess. I wonder if you think that aspect may have been a bit overlooked in some quarters.

Well, some of the people who laughed probably thought it was very funny. It’s not that I have this kind of, like – about anything I’ve ever done – “It’s misunderstood.” The more diverse everything is, the more confusion you can create. I think the film, in a way, created its own audience.

Do you think Neon Demon’s representative of the digital age, in a way?

Definitely… [waiter comes in. Mr Refn orders a double espresso]

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…so yeah, is it a film for the digital age?

Very much. 

The way we process images. With films; if I go onto YouTube, I can find clips of your films, all chopped up.

The Neon Demon is very much designed to be like a YouTube movie. It’s designed to be chopped up. You can cut it up into seven or eight pieces and they’re, like, vignettes. You can put them together, or not – you can put them in a different order. I think that one of the things that has come because of the digital revolution is, in the past, there was a lot more control over content. How it was distributed, how it was relatable, how it was sold, how it was marketed, how it was consumed, if you know what I mean.

Go back a hundred years, and the only way you could see a film was in a theatre at a specific time if you paid this amount. So it was completely out of the consumer’s control. Now it’s the exact opposite. So it’s like, the identity is very quickly taken and something new comes out of it. I find that very interesting. I’m a big advocate of that kind of nourishment. Because I think that in the end, creativity is not a thing, it’s an experience. So for me the thing is essentially dead, but the experience of seeing it still really lives on. I think that’s something very important to remember.

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Do you think some film critics are a bit behind the times in that regard, in the sense that they tend to distinguish between high culture and low culture? Whereas I get the impression that you don’t.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I need to be careful, because I’ve said so many things in the last eight months that have gotten people very angry and sad as well… [Laughs] I don’t think certain critics are behind the times, but I think certain film critics are very afraid of the future. Like, a lot of things. But I’ve always felt that I was from the future, because the future is really not about what you make, but what you stand for.

The future of entertainment is really not going to be about content, but about experiences. The future of entertainment is not going to be about entertainment, because you can go on your phone and there’s a world of free entertainment. It’s what it says that you as an individual person [that will count]. And the only way to access your emotions, which is the origin of creativity, is diversity. It’s the most extremes of both clashing, which creates energy, which affects your brain, or your heart, essentially.

I think that sometimes, maybe, there’s a clinging to the past, of what film should be. We’re still very much dominated by the generation of film, you know, from the revolutionary times of the 60s or the 70s. And [sighs] there’s still maybe a certain mentality that is stuck in that world, and not so much about looking ahead.

They’re still clinging on to boxes and definitions and what is high culture, what is low culture, what is mainstream culture, what is not, what is acceptable, what is not acceptable, what is funny, what isn’t funny. My world is just one big chaos!

[The double espresso arrives with an odd-looking object on a separate plate. The object may or may not be a biscuit.]

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But also very structured in a visual sense: colour, composition. Is that something you conceive in storyboards? Is it in your head?

[Points at the odd object on the plate] What the hell is this? It looks like an installation or something.

I noticed it, but didn’t want to ask! [Laughs] I assume it’s edible.

Did it break along the way? [Laughs] Sorry, what were you asking? 

Yeah, so obviously your films are very visual. So how do you generate the ideas for those images? Do you storyboard…

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No. It’s all on set. I shoot in chronological order, so everything is a constant creative freefall. And then it starts with me waking up going, “What do I want to see today?” Then I work it out with my actors, and then it’s whatever makes them comfortable. Then you figure out how to shoot it. So that’s usually how I go about it.

Sometimes with action you need to choreograph beforehand, which I find a bit boring because it’s very sterile. It’s a bit like building a model – it’s like, I know what I’m going to get, and I don’t like knowing what I’m going to get. What I enjoy more than anything is the act of creativity – I’m not particularly interested in the result.

So the colours…

Well, I’m colour-blind.

I know you are. But I’ve read you can see high-contrast colours.

They’re the only colours I can see.

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Yes. So how do you go about figuring out these distinctive palettes?

That’s in post. A lot of that is in post-production. I mean, The Neon Demon has a lot of flare, a lot of neon, a lot of those things that I like. But I don’t really find the look of the film until we’re there in the whole digital grading system. I do that together with Matt Newman, the editor, who does all my movies. Because when you’re colour blind, you don’t really know how to explain what you want to see because you don’t know the terminology. But he knows me so well that he knows how to talk to the people so I can see – because if I can’t see it, I can’t relate to it. So I like this colour, then when I get to see it, then I’ll know it, and I’ll say, “That’s what you do.” So it’s a bit like working backwards, in a way.

I remember reading you saying that Bronson was an autobiographical film, even though it’s about a real person. Is The Neon Demon, in a certain way? I know you’ve said, “Oh, it’s my fantasy about being a 16-year-old girl”, but is it also about your experiences in Hollywood?

Not intentionally, but of course there’s the whole idea of an alien coming to Los Angeles – that’s always how you see that world. There is a very seductiveness to LA, you know? And when I mean LA, I should say I mean Hollywood. Because LA is just like, a city.

Vast, yeah.

Built in the desert. It’s a very beautiful city, a very interesting city, but of course the mythology of Hollywood is extremely seductive. But it’s all about consuming; you may feel as important or special or unique, but essentially, you’re part of the machinery. That can be very weird, the idea that you have really have no identity, and even though you walk around pretending you have, it’s all about the higher power, which is money. 

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Is it quite scary, offering yourself up to be consumed in some way by this big machine? It would be for me.

Yeah. It’s nerve-wracking, because you very quickly become… [pauses for thought] a non-identity.

Is that what the public persona you’ve created is about? Your film has your signature on it. Is that part of your fight back against the machine taking your identity? You saying, “This is me. This is my personality.”

Certainly… [seems to chuckle at the question] it’s my act of individualism. The idea that the future of entertainment is a lot more about brands.

That’s here now, isn’t it? If you look at the way Hollywood reacts to the change you were talking about is to lean heavily on brands, whether it’s Trolls or Marvel or whatever.

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Everything is about a franchise. everything is about branded content you can do other things with. So along the years I’ve been thinking about what I want to do, and I think The Neon Demon, the idea for the project I wanted to work on emerged. I felt that, essentially, that’s the definition of a brand. I mean, the movie’s about branding.

Uh-huh. And that probably makes sense, certainly to a generation much younger than me, that have grown up thinking of themselves as brands. Like, you can pick out a name for yourself on Twitter; you don’t have to go by your given name.

Yeah. You create an identity. Because of the digital revolution, we have so many alter-egos that we live through. And I find that very interesting. Partly encouraging, but partly scary, of course, because once you start pretending to be someone else, it’s sometimes hard to crawl back. That, of course, is the moral of Bronson: he lost himself in his own alter-ego. He can never return from it.

I was going to come in and say to you that I would like to watch this film as a double-bill with Suspiria


…but I’ve changed my mind. Now I think I’d watch it with Videodrome.

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Because Videodrome is about a coming technology and how people lose themselves in it, and how – a bit like Bronson again, I guess – how one identity breaks down and another takes its place.

Yeah, the morphing and the feeding which is essentially Videodrome: it starts to feed on its own flesh. 

And funnily enough, people were really horrified by that film when it came out for some reason.

I was very young when it came out. I lived in New York, so I remember it coming out. And I remember reading stories about the reactions… I remember it was said that Cronenberg didn’t write a movie for many, many years after that came out.

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No. Because he did The Dead Zone after that, didn’t he, which was kind of like a gun-for-hire movie. A good film, still, but…

Right. I think Videodrome was an absolute philosophical masterpiece.

It’s incredible. Ironically, I discovered it on videotape.

Well, that’s the proper way to see it!

Yeah, which is strange, isn’t it: the medium and the movie reflecting each other.

I think nowadays you make entertainment for many ways of experiencing it. This idea of, “I’m making it for a theatre”, which I believe is the best place to see a movie. If you go into a sterile multiplex, you might as well go and sit in the comfort of your own home – I can understand that argument.

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If you go somewhere where it’s more of an experience, where it has that atmosphere… my favourite place in London is the Screen on the Green – the one that has the bar in it, and stuff like that? I’ve been there a few times with my films, and that, to me, that’s an experience you’re walking into. It really celebrates culture in a very interesting way.

However, because of the way the world is working, 90 percent of your consumers will be through an iPhone or an iPad or a television screen. Very soon it’ll be Google glasses, you know? So I’d say you have to make films for an iPhone and a stadium. And they both have to work.

That sounds like a tricky balancing act to me.

It is, but it’s also very interesting, because it opens up possibilities. Technology doesn’t create creativity, but it gives it opportunities to evolve. 

Do you think you’ll get to make a science fiction film? [NB: Nicolas Winding Refn was developing a remake of Logan’s Run for some time, which is now in other hands.] I mean, in some ways, your films already are science fiction. But you’ve often said, “I come from the future.” So I wonder what the future would look like according to one of your films.

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I would love that. I’m a huge science fiction fan. I’ve always loved it since I was very little. But it’s hard to make it interesting. I don’t so much technology to be interesting.

Is it the social change [technology] brings about that interests you?

Yeah. I think, there’s physical science fiction and then there’s mental science fiction. And I’m far more interested in mental science fiction.

[To waiter] Do you have any biscuits? Besides that art installation? [Laughingly points to oddly-shaped biscuits]

Oh look, there’s more of them!

[To waiter again] Do you have any hummus and vegetables?

Waiter: yes we do.

That I’d love to have.

…what’s interesting about science fiction is that technology very quickly outstays its welcome, and that religion is essentially the ultimate science fiction. So it’s finding that balance.

I wonder if it’s difficult coming up with science fiction ideas when you look at the news and see how strange reality is.

I look at the television and I think, “Jesus… They can do that?” But again, a lot of that’s about technology. That’s what I mean; Valhalla Rising, the idea was to make a science fiction film only without the science.

Yeah, because he [the central character] was like an astronaut, wasn’t he? So do you know what you’re going to make next? Not a very exciting question, I realise, but I’m not sure what you’re up to right now.

I don’t know yet. I have this spy idea I’ve been working on that I’d really like to do. But who knows? I’m very interested in this kind of morphing of what we call traditional cinema and now streaming. These instant opportunities for longevity, meaning that something that is long is almost encouraged: the idea of, almost like the silent days where they’d make nine-hour movies.

That has actually opened up the possibility now that hasn’t been previously acceptable. Because the digital revolution allows a whole new way of consuming entertainment. I like what that technology allows as a canvas. I just don’t know what I’m going to put on it yet!

[Points to my RoboCop T-shirt] Cool shirt, by the way. That’s actually one of my favourite sci-fi films. RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers – Paul Verhoeven made three amazing movies in a row. I actually met him at Cannes this year, where we both had films in competition. I said, “I’m a younger version of you!” And he laughed. He’s such a great filmmaker. I like Showgirls, too!

Nicolas Winding Refn, thank you very much.

The Neon Demon is out on DVD/Blu-ray/Digital/VOD on the 31st October.