Interview: 'The Neon Demon' Director Nicolas Winding Refn On Narcissism And The Essence Of Creativity

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 ForgivesDrive, and Bronson tells a story from a woman's perspective — which is a first in his career.

The Neon Demon stars Elle FanningJena MaloneAbbey 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 unpredictable, and also curious, engaged and not without a good sense of humor about himself and his movies.

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.

Yeah, I've heard you mention that a few times. After Only God Forgives and maybe some artful macho movies, did it feel right to finally 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 ForgivesRyan 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.

The Neon Demon

It's funny, a shot in The Neon Demon makes me think about that sequence. When Jesse kisses her reflection, you cut to black, and she opens up these curtains, looking completely reborn as if she's exiting a womb.

Absolutely. I mean, that is the fulfillment of the narcissism. She is now the fully-fledged the Neon Demon.

When you're figuring out the story, do you often have specific images in mind from the beginning? 

Sometimes. Something there's not specific directions, usually involving dialogue scenes. At first, you work with the actors and see how they feel comfortable with the scene, and then you figure out how to shoot it afterward. The only image I had [in mind] before going into the movie was the opening image, where she's lying on the couch. That's what started the whole movie.

Was there anything memorable about the day that image came to you?

[Pauses.] That shot probably came from doing the dishes or from being really bored.

[Laughs.] I know you changed the ending of The Neon Demon during the shoot. How else did the film evolve?

It just became more pure to what it wanted to be. It became a mixture of everything. Most of all, it needed to be visceral, exciting, needed to live, needed to curve, be needed to bend when it needed to go straight, was needed to go backward and forwards, and it needed to breathe and live. It's a bit like painting.

The second time I saw the film, some sequences made me look around to see how the audience was responding. It was evident, whether they liked what they were seeing or not, that they were having a reaction.

Which is the essence of creativity. You must never forget that: reaction. Good and bad, that's your Chinese dinner. Creativity is about a reaction.

You said how you focus more on the experience than the result, so how do you decide whether a film is successful? Is it based on your opinion alone, the audience's, or both?

I think you have to be so indulgent in creativity, in that if you're happy, it's successful. If it's then financially successful, which is different parameters, then you're also happy. It has to start with you being satisfied. If you're satisfied, then hopefully other people will feel the same way. You can only make films — or any other type of creative experience — from the audience of one. Just remember, there are people like you, and there are people not like you. That's what's so beautiful about creativity, and you could talk about it until the end of the world. I think it's important to remember to ask, "Are you happy?" And then there are the practicalities. So far, The Neon Demon has been very successful, financially, so it's a wonderful journey to continue.

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The Neon Demon is now in theaters.