"I Am From The Future": A Sometimes Contentious Conversation With 'The Neon Demon' Director Nicolas Winding Refn & Composer Cliff Martinez

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.

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So what is cinema in ten years? Virtual reality? The death of the studio system?

Refn: You see, you're... That's too traditional. It's not what it is. It's going to be millions of ways of what cinema is. It's not a thing. It's just a mutation, like how you went from film to TV and TV went to internet and they came up with new devices for the digital revolution and how to do things. That's just a canvas. What's going to be interesting in the future is what's the thought behind doing it?

Are actors also hungry for this kind of revolution and this kind of material? You have a lot of interesting actors in this movie like Elle Fanning and Keanu Reeves, people who are best known for being in more mainstream entertainment. 

Refn: I was very lucky. I didn't have a lot of money to make the movie. So I could only pay people little, but everyone agreed to do it because they wanted to do an experience. And that was great. We were very, very lucky to have this opportunity to work with these people. Everyone from Keanu Reeves to Christina Hendricks to Elle Fanning, you could sense there was a lot of excitement. Especially from Elle Fanning because she wanted to make a movie for her generation. Apparently, this is what her generation wants to see. You and I are old men in that world. So I'll let them decide the film.

Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon can't help but feel like direct responses to the mainstream acceptance of Drive, which saw many people just enjoying it as a violent action movie where Ryan Gosling just beats up a bunch of people. Was that on your mind when you made these? Was this a deliberate left turn?

Refn: It's like I'm aware or not aware. People react to Drive in a way that is very primal. I ask you this. What was Drive about?

A man with nothing in his life who finally finds something to fight for and still ends up completely empty.

Refn: Yeah, yeah. But what's the storyline?

[I pause for a little too long.]

Refn: You see? You couldn't even remember it! That's my point. A movie like Drive was created out of an emotional connection between the driver protecting purity, but the storyline itself you can't even remember because the storyline didn't really mean very much in the film. It was a MacGuffin. What I find interesting is how little you actually need for engagement. It's beyond structure. Structure is a form of limitation sometimes because you have to fit it in a narrative reality that we're used to. Creativity is about taking what is the norm and expanding it and continuing to expand it and expand it and expand it and expand it. Otherwise, nothing will change and if nothing changes, then why even write about it? When we were at Cannes this year and there were a lot of questions about "What is this movie about? Why is it so divisive? Do you think like this? Why do you do this? Wouldn't it be better if...?" In the end I just said guys, let's just say it how it is. If it wasn't for me, this festival wouldn't even exist anymore because you'd be at home watching television. You need this. You may love it or hate it. That's irrelevant to me, but it's an experience. That's what creativity is all about. You can cater things to an audience, sure. You can pre-manufacture things, but I think that...it's great, some very [good] movies are made like that. But I think it's so much more respectful to the human mind and to the individual to say I'm not just going to entertain you, I'm going to give you an experience. You can be the judge of your own life.

I was at the screening of Farewell Uncle Tom that you hosted at Fantastic Fest last year and that's a movie that pushes more buttons and upsets more people than just about anything else I've ever seen. You definitely seem to appreciate cinema that divides audiences or riles them up, as long as it just gets people talking.

Refn: You're trying to put a defining label on good or bad or wrong or right. An experience can be right for one person and wrong for another person. It's up to the individual.

But as long as there's something happening and getting a reaction it's worthwhile.

Refn: Anything is a sign of good. It's because... As Cliff was saying, in music, reactions are what people fight to get. A lot of musical genres do everything they can to create scandals with their music. Movies have become such a well-manufactured stock and you don't do anything to anyone because then everyone will find it nice. I totally respect that. I think it's a great invention. Especially when I own pieces of the stock. The money that is being made on less and less movies is justifiable because they make so much money. And I think that is a wonderful solution. It has helped to pay for everyone else in this ecosystem. But films also create a forum and if you don't expand that forum while dealing with the laws of financial gravity, which is always a thin red line, then what's the fun? Even for the viewer? It's an important thing to remember that we're here to celebrate creativity. We're here in Austin because Austin celebrates creativity. I think that's what it should all be about. Good and bad, that's your Chinese dinner.

Martinez: I don't think people quite realize how difficult it is to create a film or music that is divisive or controversial. You have to have a big enough audience that is in love with it for the controversy [to exist]. For the people at Cannes who booed it, you have to have enough people cheering it for that to happen. If you make a shitty film, it just dies a swift, miserable death. You really have to burn a lot of calories to create something that people will want to talk about. When I was in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, we tried really hard to be Sex Pistols 2. That was the birth of us coming on stage with nothing on except a strategically placed tube sock. Even then, people found us endearing, because everywhere we played the club owner would say "You're going to do the sock thing, right?" It was a real crowdpleaser. So to be commercial or uncommercial, controversial or divisive, to make a big stink with a film is an accomplishment that we should all be proud of.

What's the difference between working with Mr. Refn and someone like Steven Soderbergh? Their temperaments seem so different. 

Martinez: It's always different. They have such strong artistic identities and there's hardly any room for comparison except that they both work with me.

Refn: We both have great taste in music.

Martinez: [Laughs.] That's where the similarities begin and end.

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The Neon Demon is in theaters June 24.