Nicolas Winding Refn: “There’s something exciting about being The Sex Pistols of cinema”

The Neon Demon’s Nicolas Winding Refn on making a film “about my inner 16 year old girl”

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Nicolas Winding Refn knows a thing or two about being provocative. His last three films, Drive, Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon, have played to shocked reactions at the Cannes Film Festival, and the latest is about the hit the UK.

The Neon Demon stars Elle Fanning (Maleficent, Super 8) as Jesse, a 16 year old who moves to LA to become a model. She’s on the path to stardom, but there’s something dark beneath this world’s glossy surface that may just consume her…

We’re big fans of the film, which also stars Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks and Alessandro Nivola, and we were thrilled to be able to get the chance to talk to Refn about his vision of the fashion industry, how he sees LA, and why it’s exciting to get a reaction from your audience.

“I never really think about what I do,” he told us. “I just do what I like to do.”

It’s also worth noting that this interview was conducted shortly before The Neon Demon played at Cannes, and it definitely got the reaction he was hoping for…

You’ve had horror films in the works for a while, including I Walk With The Dead. Were you actively looking to work in horror?

I always wanted to make a horror film, but I was working on multiple ideas as always so I just decided to do Neon Demon instead. I just found it very exciting. Especially when you make it into a teenage horror film.

As well as a shift in genres, it’s also a shift in terms of subject. Was there a conscious choice to tell a story about a female character rather than a male protagonist?

I think it’s inevitable that you always have to go against expectations in a way, creatively. It’s more fun. But you know, I also felt it was time for me to make the movie about the inner 16 year old girl that every man has inside of them, and I wanted to make a film about my inner 16 year old girl.

Was it always conceived as a Los Angeles story?

Absolutely. First, it was a practical thing because LA was the only place that my wife wanted to go to and live, so it had to be shot there. But I very much like Los Angeles. When I was designing the story in my mind, originally I had this idea of LA as the background in a way, this city where this young girl would come to, because there’s something very seductive about Los Angeles.

And so with that it was more like the fairytale notion that I very much used on Drive, but this time the protagonist was a 16 year old girl.

Elle Fanning as Jesse in The Neon Demon
Elle Fanning as Jesse in The Neon Demon

There’s obviously a great tradition of films about innocents being seduced by the movie industry; was there ever a point where you considered telling a story in that world or was it always fashion?

I felt that part of the industry had been very exposed and very well. But I wasn’t really interested in the acting world. What I was interested in was in beauty, and so I chose the fashion world.

Of course, even though I guess the fashion world is much more strong in New York or Paris, it always leads back to Los Angeles in one way or another. All the money flows back there one way or another. It’s the place that beams everything out again. So it became more like a Wizard Of Oz concept in a way.

I find that world very seductive. Beauty is a very intoxicating arena to work in.

How have you found the reaction from people who work in the fashion world?

Well, I wasn’t making a documentary. I chose the fashion world because I had great pleasure in doing a few campaigns and I really was very intrigued by how everything looked and felt. And when it came to being accurate about specific things, one of the actresses that I chose for the film, Abbey Lee, was a supermodel and so I would just ask her is this the right way or is this the wrong way, would kind of shoes would you wear, how would you hold your book, all those things. Like a checklist. Like going to the dentist.

How did you settle on Elle Fanning for the role of Jesse?

I basically had two options. Either I was going to cast unknowns, or it was going to be Elle Fanning. So while I was setting up our meeting with Elle Fanning, I was also casting unknown actresses, and there were some wonderful unknowns in there. But then in the end when I met Elle Fanning it was just like “You’re it, would you like to play the role?” And she said “Sure!” And a week later we were shooting.

Refn on the set of The Neon Demon
Refn on the set of The Neon Demon

It’s a great ensemble cast as well. There are actors in there that you’ve worked with before and some that you haven’t. Did you have people in mind?

Every casting is like a puzzle. But I didn’t find it difficult, it was very enjoyable but there were so many people to see. So that was more what was taking time, there were so many possibilities. Because I was shooting in Los Angeles, it makes it a lot easier to attract a cast just because you’re shooting at home. So there were a lot of practicalities involved in that but it was very enjoyable.

How important is Cliff Martinez as a collaborator and composer?

Cliff is very much integrated in how I make films now. He’s involved very early in the process and everything that comes with that. He’s there all the way to the mix. So he’s a very important piece of the team that I surround myself with.

Are you happy with film being categorised as a horror film?

Well I’m promoting it as a horror film, so obviously! But I can say that it’s a horror film without horror.

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I’m a big fan of Only God Forgives, but that Cannes reception has become kind of legendary. Were you surprised by how strongly people took against it?

No, because Drive did the same thing. It was just not as loud. I guess what was great about Only God Forgives was that it was very much like Cliff Martinez said; “Now you’re the Sex Pistols of cinema.” And that of course is always great.

I always find it peculiar that we spend so much time how to define good art and bad art, like Chinese food, but for me it’s not about what’s good or bad, it’s much more: what is interesting, or how does it affect you and so forth. So everything has been very pleasant, but the reality is, as long as your movies make money, they’re going to allow you to make more movies the way you want to make them. So that’s always the main goal in a way.

But I guess I was a little surprised by some of the more aggressive reviews, but at the same time there was also something exciting about being the Sex Pistols of cinema.

I mean, I made the movie exactly like always: how I want it. They can never take that away from me.

There are moments in your films which do provoke audible and physical reactions from the viewer. Do you enjoy watching your films with an audience, and seeing that reaction up close?

No, I find it frightening. I don’t, I never do that. At Cannes they force you to do it but I don’t ever do it again. It’s too painful! Eurgh! Terrifying.

The Neon Demon is released in UK cinemas on 8 July. Read our review here and keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.