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Interview: ‘The Neon Demon’ Director Nicolas Winding Refn

On the heels of Drive and Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn delves deeper into the beautiful and the bloody with The Neon Demon, sitting down with Cut Print Film‘s Karen Han to discuss his latest film. Slight spoilers follow.


CUT PRINT FILM: I was wondering about the influences on the film; you said you showed Elle Fanning Valley of the Dolls and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and the film has also drawn some comparisons to Dario Argento’s work, especially Suspiria. Was there any other work that you drew on for inspiration?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: I don’t really work so much like that, I just kind of imagine what I would like to see.

CUT PRINT FILM: Was there a particular starting point for this movie in terms of what you wanted to see?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Oh, yeah, the opening shot.

CUT PRINT FILM: The bloody—

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: —couch.

CUT PRINT FILM: Right, the photoshoot.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: That kind of was the starting point of how to define the movie.

CUT PRINT FILM: Building off of that, you see Jesse’s character like that, first. Towards the beginning of the movie, she does put off a very innocent, naive vibe, but as the film progresses, she seems more aware of how she’s using her beauty in that industry. Was that something that you saw her as being aware of from the beginning, or something that she grew into?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Well, there are certainly codes in the beginning. There are symbols that allude to the fact that, is she a deer in the headlights, or is she a sort of evil Dorothy? And then, if you look at it from two different perspectives, the film has that dual personality.

CUT PRINT FILM: It does shift from being one story into another. You see it focused so much on Jesse at the beginning and a little more on Jena Malone’s character towards the end.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Yeah, Ruby becomes the protagonist. But even in the beginning, there are two specific points in the first two scenes that allude to something else going on with Jesse. It really starts with the beginning, because the opening shot is about death and beauty, and before the scene is over, it doesn’t exist, because the couch is empty, and then you see her in the makeup room. And she’s already very enigmatic. And then you follow her into this world of style, and then you see her at the model agency, almost like the movie begins again. The first question the model woman asks is who took these pictures, and she just says, oh, some guy. And then she lies about her age. And then she meets her friend, Dean, who so anxiously wants to know what happened to his pictures. And she lies.

CUT PRINT FILM: You mentioned some of the visual imagery — there’s a lot of symbolism throughout the film. I loved Jesse’s Narcissus sequence at her first fashion show, and I wanted to ask, was there any particular symbolism behind the triangles that she sees? Because she sees them a few times throughout the film.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Yeah, the symbolism for that was like— I wanted to give The Neon Demon a logo. So the triangle became kind of the definition of its appearance, it’s appearing. And I made it in neon, so it had that kind of science fiction glow to it. But also, if you reverse it, it becomes a phallus symbol, so in her first vision, she has the triangle, and then she has it reversed. One is blue, one is red. There’s a kind of mutation, like she’s being born, and in the womb of narcissism.

CUT PRINT FILM: The womb theme was something that was also in Only God Forgives, and the idea of literally consuming power is something that shows up a few times in fairytales, and the motif of the angel of death was in Only God Forgives — are there any other motifs or tropes that you want to look into in your upcoming work?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: It doesn’t usually work like that. Usually, it’s I’ll come up with something and then I’ll go, oh! What do you know.

CUT PRINT FILM: With regards to other symbolism in The Neon Demon, at the very end of the movie, the three girls, Bella’s character, Jena’s character, and Abbey’s character, all have very distinct imagery for how they end up dealing with what happened to Jesse. Did you have that in mind from the beginning or were there specific visual cues you were going for with each of them?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: It had to have a visual ending, like a tarot card. Each one went their separate ways. Bella was pretty clear from the beginning, because she would essentially throw up the eye and cut herself open, because in a way, she’s a losing hand, because she tries to manufacture beauty, which is an impossible task. Then Abbey was shot in the desert, which becomes its own perfume ad, which I’ve shot a lot of. Well, a few of. And the Jena Malone character was basically— I came up with that ending the day we were going to shoot it.

CUT PRINT FILM: Wow, yeah. I thought that was the most striking one, because she’s sort of lying back and it looked almost—

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: She’s like a witch.

CUT PRINT FILM: In that witchy sense, did you see that as a rebirth for her? Because it does look either like she’s giving birth, or maybe menstrual blood.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Yeah. It’s the same thing. The cycle has been— (gestures in a circle). And maybe it is a birth. Something’s coming out.

CUT PRINT FILM: Going back to Gigi, she regurgitates the eye, and there’s so much other stuff, including the encounter with the cadaver, which was very explicit. I was wondering what was behind the choice not to show what ultimately happened to Jesse.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: It was more interesting as a metaphor, at the time, rather than just—

CUT PRINT FILM: —instead of being explicit about it.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Yeah, but there’s so much of that on television. People are eating each other left, right, and center. So for me, it was more about what they were consuming than their consuming it. But I think that it was interesting, now that you mention the ending with Jena, and I hadn’t even thought of it— if you think about it now, with the blood coming out, it’s almost like she’s giving birth. The menstrual blood is the blood that Jesse is washing off herself in the opening scene. It’s like she gives birth to the neon demon through blood.

CUT PRINT FILM: Right. And the cyclical nature, it’s going to start again.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Yeah.

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CUT PRINT FILM: I read that you used a specific kind of lens to achieve the look of the movie, and it’s such a gorgeous film to watch, but it does make you work to see the beauty in a couple of scenes, in terms of, for example, the first party that Jesse goes to, there’s the strobe light sequence, and if some people don’t have the stomach for the gore, then it might be hard for them to watch that. Were there any other details you wanted to achieve for the look of the film?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Everything had to look like it was a magazine. Everything is very static, very composed, controlled. And that was the fun of it.

CUT PRINT FILM: I did notice that the shots are very languorous and slow, but it doesn’t feel that way at all when you’re watching it.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: It’s that thing of, one of the few elements you still have up your sleeve nowadays to contradict normal entertainment is time. I always thought it’s interesting if you can slow time down, because we’re used to the frantic-ness [snaps fingers] around us. On the street, when we’re here, when we talk, what we see on television, everything is so sped up, and I thought, well, what if it’s the exact reverse on this movie, and everything is very, very, very still? Because it automatically becomes uncomfortable, provocative, annoying to certain people, because everyone is used to this: [snaps fingers again].

CUT PRINT FILM: You mentioned that some people would react differently to the pace of the film, and that you meant the film to be for sixteen-year old girls, that was the audience you were going for. The film’s drawn a lot of different reactions, but was there something you were looking to provoke in that crowd when they watch the movie?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: I think it’s for everyone, because beauty is a theme everyone has an opinion about, even me and you. But I think what’s interesting is how young people look at it, because I think that Elle’s generation looks at the obsession with beauty in a different way than I would. I grew up with narcissism as a taboo. I think her generation lives — and actually, you know, my own kids — they see narcissism as a virtue, and that’s a huge difference.

CUT PRINT FILM: Like selfie culture?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Yeah, whatever that’s defined as. It’s almost like selfie culture is the past, there’s something even newer emerging.

CUT PRINT FILM: Are either of your daughters old enough to watch the film?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Well, I have a thirteen- and a seven-year old, but they don’t really like movies (laughs).

CUT PRINT FILM: Really? What are they into instead?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: My youngest is very much a cinephile, but she’s only seven, she’s not seeing the film. My eldest one, who is thirteen, just doesn’t care about movies. She’s a sports freak. At least that’s healthy.

CUT PRINT FILM: Was there anything that you wanted to include in the movie that you either cut, or just ended up not making it in?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: I shoot my films very precisely, because I shoot them in chronological order, so there’s no multiple versions, there’s no alternation. It’s just pretty much, what you see is what you get. It makes life so much easier. What was it like seeing the film?

CUT PRINT FILM: It was really incredible, for me. You again mentioned, with regards to the pace of the film, it was very still and static, and I only realized it a few scenes into the movie. The first time I thought about it was during Jesse’s sequence at the club, when she first goes with Ruby, and I think knowing that pace changed how I was seeing it, and because it was so different, it was really enjoyable.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: What does it feel like, seeing the film as a woman?

CUT PRINT FILM: It was very different seeing a film that was solely based around a female protagonist, because there’s only three male characters, really, and all of them are archetypes. And the story isn’t really structured around them, they’re used as a device to get the action moving. I assume that was intentional.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Oh, yeah. The idea was that there would be no male characters of substance. All of the male characters were the girlfriends of other movies. They were there as plot devices. The film is really about women. It’s a subject that men don’t really— let me ask you something. You probably have various opinions of the beauty industry, correct? Love, hate it, your own self, understanding what beauty is, how you look, how you want to be perceived. Who is the main consumer of beauty?

CUT PRINT FILM: It would be women, I guess.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Right, so if that’s the main consumer, do men have any real existence in that world?

CUT PRINT FILM: As consumer of the consumer, maybe? That is how a lot of beauty products are still marketed, as a way to make yourself look good for a guy that you’d be seeing.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: But is it really the guy? I mean, I always felt that was a bit like a cop-out.

CUT PRINT FILM: As in instead of using it for yourself?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Yeah. I mean, isn’t that more what it really is about? If you really think about it, I’m sure everyone wants to look good for each other, but is it really for some guy? I’m asking you.

CUT PRINT FILM: For me, it’s for me.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: That’s why there’s no men in that world. Really. There was no male character that had a reason to exist there.

CUT PRINT FILM: As anything other than a prop.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Like girlfriends of other movies.

CUT PRINT FILM: I have a couple more questions. How is the Maniac Cop remake coming? I read it was supposed to start shooting in the city soon.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: We just started casting it. It’s going good. John Hyams is a great director. He’s a great, wonderful director, he’ll do a great version of it. I’ll probably shoot it in LA, instead.

CUT PRINT FILM: Oh, that’s a disappointment.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Just to, you know, spice it up a little bit.

CUT PRINT FILM: What else do you have coming up after that?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Well, I’m producing a few films, but I don’t know what I’m going to do next.

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Tintin enthusiast. NYC via the midwest.