Interview: ‘The Neon Demon’ Director Nicolas Winding Refn on Narcissism and the Essence of Creativity
Posted on Thursday, June 30th, 2016 by Jack Giroux
Nicolas Winding Refn‘s name appears many times in The Neon Demon, in both the opening and closing credits. But even if his name weren’t mentioned, nobody would mistake this darkly funny horror movie as anything but a Refn film. This time around, however, the director behind Only God Forgives, Drive, and Bronson tells a story from a woman’s perspective — which is a first in his career.
The Neon Demon stars Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Bella Heathcote, and, in a part that was shot over the course of three days, Keanu Reeves. Which one of these characters, with the possible exception of Reeves’ sleazy motel manager, is the titular demon is up to the viewer to decide. In my brief conversation with Refn, he refers to Jesse as the Neon Demon, but his story, which he co-wrote with Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, leaves plenty of room for an audience to think otherwise.
Sometimes you never fully know what to expect from Refn, as proven by our own Jacob Hall’s somewhat contentious interview with him and composer Cliff Martinez. I’ve spoken to the director a handful of times over the years, and just like his work, he’s occasionally unpredictable, but he’s also always engaged and not without a sense of humor, both about himself and his films.
Below, read our Nicolas Winding Refn interview, which has some mild spoilers for The Neon Demon.
You’ve called The Neon Demon a “celebration of narcissism.” Why do you see it that way?
Because the film is about acceptance of one’s own self. The creation of Narcissus, in the original story, he keeps swimming after his image; he dives in, and he can’t grab it. Here, she finds it, morphs into it, and then is fulfilled, which is the one, in a way, terror, because if we loved ourselves completely we maybe wouldn’t create so much beauty we try to obtain.
I actually like to think Jesse gets punished for her narcissism.
She’s not punished. The people punish her because she has what they devour. The danger of becoming or accepting one’s narcissus is all the jealousy that comes all around you.
She makes that decision — embracing her narcissism — in the second act, in that dreamlike scene where she kisses her reflection. How did you conceive of that sequence?
Well, I had this idea of the triangle being the sign of the Neon Demon that would appear to her, as a symbol of narcissism. Then, in her imagination, she’s finally drawn towards what she first fears and realizes what’s waiting inside is just her own reflection, and she can now morph into it. I shot it in two days, in a really tiny studio in the Valley.
How many shooting days did you have?
Seven weeks. We had to be very specific in what we were shooting because there was no time to go back. There was no time to alternate. I like that kind of pressure on me because it helps me to focus. I base everything on my instinctual approach. There’s something very satisfying in that creativity, and it’s a bit like an infant drawing.
Do you always approach your work instinctually?
I’ve certainly always enjoyed that because it is the act of movement. The act of creativity becomes more essential. I’m less interested in the result as I am in the experience of it.
What do you take away the most from the experience of The Neon Demon?
I got to live out a very specific fantasy that all men have, which is the 16-year-old girl inside of them.
I’ve heard you mention that a few times. After Only God Forgives, what made you finally want to make a film about women?
I don’t know. I think that…it just felt natural this was the time. If you look at Only God Forgives, Ryan Gosling‘s character’s main journey is emasculating until crawling back into the womb of his mother. There must be a reason for that, which is to come out.