Nicolas Winding Refn: “I have great pleasure in fantasising”
In Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn channelled his inner hero through star Ryan Gosling. For his new feature, The Neon Demon, a silky horror set within the LA fashion world, he tells us he's exploring the inner 16-year-old girl inside of him
“I really fucking love LA,” Nicolas Winding Refn tells us by phone as he sits by a pool in the city, his two daughters audible in the background as they mess around trying to get their father’s attention. “I really, truly love it.”
This won’t be news to anyone who’s seen his minimalist car-chase thriller Drive, from 2011. The Danish filmmaker fetishises the city’s neon-lit streets, full moon-filled skies and sun-bleach strips, turning it into a kind of concrete fairy tale kingdom, where a laconic getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) in a white satin jacket becomes a white knight for his neighbour and her son. “There’s a very magical sensibility here,” he continues, “a kind of almost sci-fi like quality. It’s very much a city that has on one side a very real reality and on the other this superstitious, almost other-worldly side."
The same fairy tale rhythms are at play in the 45-year-old’s tenth feature, The Neon Demon, a slick psychological horror that takes the form of the Snow White tale transposed to the backstabbing milieu of LA's fashion world. Beautiful supermodel queens who spend their nights admiring themselves in bathroom mirrors at exclusive parties have their feathers ruffled when Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old natural beauty, begins to turn heads in their circle. There’s even a big bad wolf in the form of a lupine Keanu Reeves as a sleazy motel owner. Refn tells us he sees Jesse as a female version of Gosling’s character in Drive: “She has a mysterious past, just like Driver, and both films are based on the mythology of Hollywood.”
Refn’s not the first foreigner to point his camera at the City of Angels; some of the greatest LA movies have been made by Europeans. Think Repo Man and Point Blank from Englishmen Alex Cox and John Boorman, or all those great noirs from the flood of German directors who fled fascism in the 30s. “I do think that being a stranger in a strange land will always give you a different point-of-view to what's considered normal,” says Refn, who has become an international director in the mould of someone like Nic Roeg, Louis Malle or Werner Herzog; the world is his film set. “You can either shoot your film on a sound stage or you can use the country you're in as a source of inspiration. I’ve always preferred the latter.” For Refn, it’s not just the process of making the movie that he loves, it’s the whole experience of travel. “That’s how my family and I live. The way I look at it, it’s something we do together. So whether we’ve been in the Scottish hills of Valhalla Rising, or the Highways of LA, or the streets of Bangkok [for Only God Forgives], it’s always very much the whole package that I enjoy.”
As well as embracing the location, with The Neon Demon Refn’s also embracing another side of himself. Up until now, his image has been a slave to his male leads, who’ve included Mads Mikkelsen and Tom Hardy as well as Gosling. Now he’s channeling his feminine side. “I think that every man has a 16 year-old-girl inside of him, and I think that The Neon Demon is the version of mine.” Like his films, it’s sometimes difficult to tell when Refn has his tongue in his cheek. We ask if he’s joking, but he assures us he’s serious. “It’s just like how every man has a hero inside of him – Drive was my version of that.”
So he’s living out his fantasies in his films?
“That’s the only thing I can really relate to,” he says, “and it’s a lot of course about who plays the protagonist in my films because I very much mirror myself in them, they become my alter egos.”
Did he have any trouble imagining himself as a 16-year-old girl?
“Strangely it wasn’t very difficult at all, which worried me in the beginning,” he laughs. “I have great pleasure in fantasising. And especially with Elle Fanning, we were a great team.” We wonder how Fanning compares to Gosling, who's played Refn's most recent onscreen avatars. “They’re both born with something kind of incredible,” he says. “They’re both born with ‘the thing’. I don’t know what you call it, it just makes you special.”
Throughout The Neon Demon, characters make similar assertions about Jesse. 'What's it feel like to walk into a room, it's like the middle of winter, and you're the sun?' a fellow model, whose beauty is on the wane, asks her forlornly. Later, a cynical designer calls Jesse 'a diamond in a sea of glass' after shedding tears when he sees her for the first time. Refn is exploring what it’s like to be adored; the pleasure and pain one feels at being objectified. What it’s like when people only judge you on how you look? 'Beauty isn’t everything,' says the fashion designer Jesse moves to tears, 'it’s the only thing.'
It’s tempting to assume that Refn shares the same sentiments. Color and texture are his strong suit; each of his scenes is meticulously designed, each shot fastidiously composed. His critics would argue there is no substance to his style. Fans, this writer included, believe his bravura style is the substance. In The Neon Demon’s greatest moments, the dream logic plot is abandoned altogether for a cinema close to pure abstraction. Midway through the film, Refn goes full Jodorowsky as Jesse has her first runway show, depicting it as if she’s stepping through a series of neon triangles into a cave of mirrors where she can make out with herself.
Refn argues, however, that there’s plenty to chew on beyond the film's form – you just have to look. “I think that sometimes, when the surface looks shallow, there’s so much more going on underneath. You know, beauty is a subject that everybody has an opinion about, it’s a subject that becomes very individual, and that, to me, is what makes it so interesting: that on one level it can be as shallow as you can possibly get. At the same time, it’s as complex as you want it to be.”
Many at The Neon Demon’s world premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival would beg to differ. As Sia’s Waving Goodbye swells on the soundtrack as the end credits roll, it was reportedly drowned out by boos and whistles as some critics took to their feet to holler their disapproval. It’s a sound Refn knows well. His previous film, Only God Forgives, was given similar treatment at the same festival. One gets the feeling Refn enjoys getting these buttoned-up critics hot under the collar, but the Danish enfant terrible insists that’s not the case. “The only pleasure I get is tearing down the establishment of what is ‘correct’,” he says. “But what was great and quite ironic about the reaction to The Neon Demon is that it was like showing them a mirror. Like The Neon Demon, Cannes is a combination of vulgarity and glitter.”
Looking back over the ups and downs of Refn’s career, which at the low point saw him direct a feature-length episode of ITV’s Marple, it’s one of two halves, with the gritty realism of the Pusher series and Bleeder giving way to a visually richer, more abstract phase. “With the Pusher trilogy I kind of felt that the idea of trying to capture authenticity is essentially just an impossible task, because real life will always catch up with you,” he says. From 2008's Bronson, his in-your-face biopic of notorious prisoner Charles Bronson, Refn has been more concerned on working within a heightened reality. “I felt much more interested in that language because it became more about my own inner canvas,” he says. “And in a way, I had much more fun with that because, you know, it’s always more interesting when you use one’s self as the focus point. Creativity is a lot about one’s self.”
Is this why, despite multiple offers from Hollywood (directing gigs he's turned down include the Denzel Washington-starring remake of The Equalizer and a big-screen version of Wonder Woman) he continues to work on a relatively small, indie scale?
“There’s nothing more pleasurable than doing exactly what you like to do,” says Refn. “And I’ve been fortunate enough to have these experiences on indie films and I just prefer those more. Not that the other way is bad, it’s just, for me, less interesting. But I would one day love to make a big Hollywood movie; it could be great fun. I just haven’t found the one that’s worth trading off my creative independence.”
The Neon Demon is released 8 Jul by Icon