Upon meeting Nicolas Winding Refn in the NOMO SOHO suite where he was fielding interviews earlier this week I told him I was weirdly invested in his existential state. “Oh cool,” replied the director of 2011's universally acclaimed Drive.
The reason for my investment is the 2014 documentary My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, in which his wife, Liv Corfixen, documented his turmoil and self-loathing during the creation of 2013's Only God Forgives, which went on to be universally panned. It was as poorly received as Refn feared during its creation, a real disappointment after Refn had achieved global success with Drive. In it, Refn put his megalomania on display and projected atypical candor for a public figure. He seemed unpredictable and eccentric. That’s why I wanted to talk to him.
We had convened to discuss his new movie The Neon Demon, a grotesquely gorgeous fairy tale starring Elle Fanning whose character breaks into the L.A. modeling world with deadly results. Thick with atmosphere, thin on plot and characterization, and with dialogue so halting that you can feel the ellipses on its actors’ tongues, The Neon Demon reminds me of the best work of cult director Jess Franco (Eugénie is the comparison that immediately comes to mind, though that movie isn’t quite as florescent). As I spoke with Refn about Demon, he stood the entire time, dramatically pacing, posing, and pausing. Without ever missing a beat, he had a ponderous answer to each of my questions about filmmaking and the ensuing response. That is to say that whether Nicolas Winding Refn is behind, in front of, or off camera, he knows how to put on a show.
A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation is below.
Gawker: Was making this movie as emotionally fraught as making Only God Forgives?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Always. Same process. Anxieties, paranoia, doubts, hatred, sometimes completely godlike state of mind, paranoia. The good thing on this one is I used [legendary director] Alejandro Jodorowsky a lot more, so I had a tarot reading every weekend by him.
That’s basically therapy.
In a way it was. I spoke to him this morning, even. He’s in Paris. I called him. He said to me, “You’re a warrior.”
So much of what plagued you when you were making Only God Forgives were the expectations coming off of Drive, which was beloved. Only God Forgives was much more divisive, to put it nicely.
Oh, you can put it clearly. It was very, very, very…it was an outrage.
Was it easier to go into your next movie with lessened expectations, then?
It was. It’s interesting you touch upon it. The best way for me to explain it is you know when Lou Reed did Metal Machine Music? Before that he made Transformer, probably one of the five greatest rock albums of all time. What do you do? He makes Metal Machine.
Burned it to the ground.
He destroys everything in order to continue. I knew I had to do that. I’ve always done that in all my films. You go right, then you go left. It doesn’t mean that you’re not making great, it’s just very different. But a lot of it was just myself deconstructing my… Drive’s about my own obsession with male fetish, to the point of a sense of homoeroticism. Where do I go? I need to emasculate it. I could do Drive 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, until the end of the world. But that would be the exact reason for not doing it. I needed to emasculate it. Deconstruct it. Reverse it. But also, at the same time, making a film that was much more interesting in order for me to be reborn into something else.
Do you feel reborn?
Well, I always wanted to be a 16-year-old girl and that was the way to do it.
Is that true?
I think there’s a 16-year-old girl in every man, and I think that part of Neon Demon was my opportunity to live out my own fetish of what it would be like having been born a beautiful woman.
Right. I feel like more than most movies, yours are obviously directed. Your gaze is present. The slow way that everyone talks in this movie—you can feel the ellipses. When I watch your movies, I feel your presence.
That’s the same thing Ryan said to me—Gosling. We did a Q&A in L.A., and when he saw the movie he said the same things to me, which is kind of ironic.
I read that you told Elle to watch Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to prepare for this movie.
I wanted to make a movie about women. There’s not a lot of films that are so surrounded by women that the male identity doesn’t really exist. There’s not a lot of cinema. Elle was only 16 when we started filming, so I showed it to her.
Beyond is my favorite movie of all time.
It’s a masterpiece.
The Neon Demon certainly falls in the women-treating-each-other-badly sub genre…
Where men are not the reason. They’re oblivious.
This subject matter spans All About Eve to Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. Showgirls has it. The Duke of Burgundy is cast entirely with women. Did you see that?
Yes, I did. I liked that movie very much. Very well photographed.
I read reports of booing and cheering at the Neon Demon premiere of Cannes. What’s it like to have such a tangible example of how divisive your work is?
You feel like a rock star. I’ve been very fortunate that at the premieres, people are standing up and applauding. It’s at the press screening these [booings] happen. But fuck yeah. Diversity’s king. The essence of creativity is a reaction. Do you know how hard it is to make something people either love or hate? It’s not easy. But it’s the reason why it’s interesting.
Has it always been that way with you? It seems like having your work be openly hated might take some getting used to.
Your first impression is that it’s dangerous. We’re always being told, “Be nice. Do nice things.” “Be careful of diversity, it could hurt financial gain.” It’s all valid. But if I am to steal the time from people—which is essentially what entertainment is, it’s a time stealing machine—I would want something to fucking react to. Something emotionally to stir me up. Whether I love it or hate it is irrelevant to me. But it’s out of human respect, because as I said to Cannes at the end, “Guys, if it wasn’t for me, you guys might as well just stay home and watch television.” Part of creativity is scandal. Scandal means diversity. Diversity means something to talk about.
There seems to be “diversity,” as you say, even within The Neon Demon. You could read it as an indictment...
It’s not even an indictment, it’s an acceptance that beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. But to do that, you also see the danger of it. In order to deal with it, you need to accept it.
You perpetuate it. This movie is beautiful and it’s filled with beautiful women.
Absolutely. Part of the film is a celebration of narcissism as a virtue. It’s a quality that’s no longer taboo. There’s the Jesse character on one hand—deer in the headlights, A Star is Born, innocence, comes to the big city to be corrupted—we’ve all seen that movie. The flip side, she’s an evil Dorothy, coming to poison everyone else.
(Here he pauses while brooding holding my gaze for eight seconds. Initially, it seems impolite to interrupt.)
Why is narcissism a virtue?
Elle’s generation and my kids’ generation are so more advanced than we were.
You think we’re evolving?
Absolutely, and the only way to deal with this is to accept it. My generation criticizes Elle’s generation for being so wrong and so self-absorbed. But wouldn’t we do it ourselves if we were young? Wouldn’t we have done the same thing? What is so wrong with loving yourself for all of your faults? And all of the great things? What is really so wrong about it?
The trap is that if you spend a disproportionate amount of time loving yourself, you don’t have time to love the world. Oftentimes as a writer, I see my peers making big displays of self-love and then putting out bad writing. It strikes me that narcissism sometimes has the effect of complacency—people think they’re so great that they don’t have to try.
There’s always a flip side to anything. But you see that’s… Art is hard. That itself has nothing to do with loving oneself. Art is a gift, it’s a way to express. But you can also express in a way where you’re maybe not as gifted technically but you have a singularity that compensates for your handicap. I don’t think there’s any right and wrong, but I think it’s very important that you love yourself. Individualism is beautiful.
Tell me about what you think about the concept of style over substance.
I don’t believe it exists. You can only have style if the substance is interesting. It’s just a way that we usually see mass entertainment is very one-note. The minute you go off beat, confusion kicks in, but that’s when it gets interesting. Style over substance? (Sighs) Please.
Film has always struggled with this comment or art [debate]. Take sculpturing, painting, poetry, it’s always been clearly defined as artistic expression or artistic experience. Their world seeks scandal. They crave controversy. In mass entertainment, it’s the reverse. I never understood why. In the end, what’s beautiful about mass entertainment is that everyone has access to it. Life is short and if you don’t react, life goes by. Not everything has to be consumed for the sake of a financial gain the stock market. Sometimes don’t you want something else to feel alive with?
The Neon Demon is in select theaters today.