“I Am From the Future”: A Sometimes Contentious Conversation With ‘The Neon Demon’ Director Nicolas Winding Refn & Composer Cliff Martinez
Posted on Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016 by Jacob Hall
The Neon Demon won’t be for all tastes, but the latest film from Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn is a singular and memorable experience. It’s the kind of movie that lingers in the back of your brain for days after your screening, resurfacing every so often with a startling image or strange moment. It’s very much a companion piece to Refn’s Only God Forgives, exchanging the broken and doomed masculinity of that film to explore the feminine world of professional models, superficial beauty, and other, gnarlier subjects that don’t deserve to be spoken about in polite company.
Refn himself is polite company, even when your conversation about his divisive new film (which I quite like) turns a little contentious. I sat down with the filmmaker and his frequent collaborator, composer Cliff Martinez, to discuss why all films find audiences, the future of the entertainment industry, and how making a controversial film is harder than it looks.
I really liked the movie, but it took me a few days to really come to grips with it. I can see why people have been so divided over the film. The movie is very much its own thing. When you make a movie, how much do you think about the audience? Or do you simply concern yourself with what you want to make?
Refn: It’s such a strange question to say “you don’t think of your audience.” Because there is an audience for everything. Give me an example of someone who thinks of their audience.
Off the top of my head, let’s say Steven Spielberg. Someone whose goal is to entertain as many people as possible. You want to challenge them.
Refn: Well, then I’m proud of it. And it’s not just because there’s something wrong with either way. It’s just a different mindset. Art has the power to influence and to make you react to something that you you normally wouldn’t concern, worry, or even think about or wouldn’t want to talk about. That’s where art comes in and can mirror all of these things in front of you that is entertaining but also interesting. I think that it is strange that everyone is so obsessed with this question of what it is like to be polarizing or what it is like being so diverse or who do you make films for. Because I think the world would be a lot sadder if it wasn’t for art and, you know… Was Easy Rider made for an audience?
It had to invent its own audience.
Refn: That’s my point. I make audiences because I make experiences. That’s what we do. We don’t sit and go, “Okay, we have a little bit of this and a little bit of that and we’ll make this and we’ll even time it out…” I have a lot of admiration for that approach. I think it’s an incredible technique to be able to do that. It just doesn’t interest me. I can only make movies for an audience of one, but I believe there are millions of people like us out there, that want that experience.
Like Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon leans heavily on atmosphere and ideas rather than tell a straightforward story. How much of your process is finding the movie in the editing room? How much invention is there on set?
Refn: I mean, the story is pretty accessible. I mean, what’s a good story?
You tell me.
Refn: No, you tell me. You’re the one saying that it’s heavy on other things. I’m just wondering what makes you draw that conclusion.
I’m just saying that the movie doesn’t follow traditional or predictable arcs. It goes where it wants to go with no concern for common structure.
Refn: Is 2001: A Space Odyssey a bad story?
Of course not.
Refn: Then what’s the difference here?
Fair enough. Cliff, this is the third film where you two have collaborated together right?
Martinez: Yes. Well, I call it 3.5 because I did a film for Nicolas’ wife Liv and I think Nicolas was secretly working behind the scenes on that–
Refn: What? Are you kidding me? No! I would be castrated.
Martinez: Alright. I take it back.
How has your process with him evolved? Talking to him right now, I can get a sense of what it may be like to try to hammer out ideas with him.
Martinez: You know, I’ve tried to shake loose the kinds of things you’re trying to get from him and I get the same treatment: “What do you think?” So I’ve kind of given up. I think the beauty of Nicolas’ films is the ambiguity, the idea of engaging the viewer’s imagination. So musically, I don’t try to steer the viewer to a particular conclusion, unless that’s required. There are some things, like what does it mean to… It’s a hard film to talk about without being a spoiler. There are a lot of instances where the music could drive the viewer toward one conclusion. I think the power of Nicolas’ films is that he wants to inspire a range of reactions and interpretations to stuff. So I try to do that with music. As far as who it’s for or if we’re trying to reach a broad audience, I’ve always, in my little realm of the music department, I’m number one. If I can do something I can get excited about, I assume there will be an audience for it or it will create an audience. Next comes Nicolas. I make sure that I know what his tastes are in music and that I know the dramatic requirements of the film. I think about the audience lastly, because if I get enthused and jazzed about what I’m doing… If you build it, they will come. I like to think that if a film is a commercial success, it will define its commerciality on its own terms. It’s a challenging film. I think we know that.
Your previous collaborations, along with films like the Pusher trilogy, are portraits of masculinity. The Neon Demon is your first film to specifically look at women. You also worked with two women [Mary Laws and Polly Stenham] to write the screenplay. Did you just decide you were done talking about men for awhile?
Refn: It felt natural. It was time to do a movie with women.
Simple as that?
Refn: I’m not calculated in that sense. I’m calculated in other things, but not in what I make. I think that… You see, in the future of entertainment, where I came from, because I am from the future, the ecosystem of entertainment that you know now no longer applies. Because in the future, because of the digital revolution, there’s no control. There’s no need for opinions, because there’s an audience for everything. What you do isn’t even interesting. It’s going to come down to what you stand for. That’s the battle. But modernists are winning it because they’re seeing the future.