With The Neon Demon the Danish writer/director has made his most provocative film yet. We travelled to Copenhagen to meet him.
Is Nicolas Winding Refn a feminist? However you define that increasingly ambiguous term, it’s not an ideology that’s synonymous with the Danish writer/director. Which is understandable, given that he tends to make visceral, fetishistic films about violent men. And yet the signs are all right there in his work. Take Valhalla Rising, which pits Mads Mikkelsen’s one-eyed Viking warrior against pagan crusaders in a primordial world conspicuously devoid of women. Or his best known film to date, Drive, where Ryan Gosling’s strong-silent antihero rescues Carey Mulligan’s abused single mother. Or Only God Forgives, about a man chained to the womb of his mother, in which Refn simultaneously deconstructs and feminises the homoerotic undertow that simmered under the hood of Drive. Power protects purity. In the 20 years he’s been making movies, rarely has Refn strayed from this core theme – these hypermasculine alter egos allow him to explore the world and the different roles men and women play within it. All of which brings us to The Neon Demon…
In Refn’s tenth feature, Elle Fanning plays a young model named Jesse who arrives in Los Angeles dreaming of making it in the fashion world. Fresh-faced and vulnerable, she’s a lamb waiting to be devoured in an industry run by wolves. The Neon Demon is the first Nicolas Winding Refn film to be told almost exclusively from a female perspective. The primary supporting cast of Jena Malone, Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote set an ominous tone by channelling the Weird Sisters from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’. With this flipped perspective in mind, does Refn see the film as a departure from his previous work? Not exactly. “I always wanted to make a film about the 16-year-old girl inside of me.”
“I’ve always felt that every man has a 16-year-old girl inside them, and I wanted to make a movie about mine. Going from Drive to re-entering my mother’s womb in Only God Forgives, I lived out that fantasy, so now I can make a movie from the point of view of the teenage girl inside of me. It’s like being reborn.”
Refn clearly gets a rise out of being provocative, yet when interviewing him you get the impression that he sometimes feels misunderstood. The last time we spoke, when Only God Forgives was busy polarising critics at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, he was quick to dangle a juicy line about wanting to “fuck the audience”. For better and worse, Refn got his wish that year. But it always felt like he was putting up a front, a well-rehearsed reaction to the reaction rather than an honest statement of intent. Now, over open sandwiches and pickled herring in a trendy Copenhagen restaurant close to Refn’s home, he seems comparatively relaxed when the conversation turns to negative criticism. Is he as thick skinned as he likes to appear? “Of course not,” he admits, “but it all depends how many negative reviews there are and whether they affect the box office. With Only God Forgives, I was so positive I was gonna get the Palme d’Or, you know, they might as well have just mailed it to me.”
He flashes a wry smile. “It didn’t work out like that. So on a financial level, yes, I was worried, but on a personal level it was like, ‘Well, now I’m the Sex Pistols,’ because the kids loved it, the establishment hated it. Who the fuck wants to make films for old people, you know? What’s great is the people who really hated Only God Forgives are still talking about it. ‘Ching ching!’ I make films purely based on what I want to see, but if it makes money then I’m gonna get to do the next one. I just approach everything like, ‘How little can I make this for?’ It’s a healthy thing, I think, because it allows you creative freedom. If you make it exactly how you want to make it, that’s the one thing they can’t take away from you.” How, then, would Refn react if The Neon Demon was universally adored? “Fuck, I made it wrong.”
In essence The Neon Demon is about the mystical power of women, who to Refn are “the centre of the universe.” But it’s also an ode to emotionally strong, superficially beautiful women. When viewed in this light, Refn’s decision to adopt a female alter ego takes on a more personal sphere of meaning. Where he dedicated Only God Forgives to cult Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky (who Refn received tarot readings from every weekend during the production on The Neon Demon), his latest is dedicated to Liv Corfixen, Refn’s wife. In 2014 Liv made a film called My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, documenting the family’s temporary relocation to Bangkok for the filming of Only God Forgives. Outwardly, Refn comes across as assertive and full of confidence, but this intimate home movie reveals a different side to him. Apparently racked with anxiety and self-doubt, he questions virtually every creative decision he makes and visibly cracks under the added strain of having Liv and their two young daughters around. As fascinating as it is to see Refn exposed in this way, the fact that he put himself under intense pressure in pursuit of artistic fulfilment and commercial success is hardly surprising given his career trajectory.
“I always think creativity is very feminine. It’s the closest I can ever get to being a women.”
Refn’s brief and disastrous flirt with Hollywood in the early 2000s is well documented, but as as a valuable cautionary tale for aspiring directors everywhere it’s a story that’s worth retelling. After turning heads with two stylish micro-budget street thrillers, 1996’s Pusher and 1999’s Bleeder, Refn arrived in Los Angeles with fame firmly in his sights. Fear X didn’t so much crash and burn as stall on the grid, bankrupting Refn’s production company Jang Go Star and leaving him in massive personal debt (at one point he owed his bank $1m). “That film failed on every level,” he reflects, “and it deserved to fail on every level. Even the title was bad. At the time I thought I was making what would be perceived as the greatest film ever made. It turned out to be the exact opposite. But I was making a movie about my ego. It was all about vanity and what I thought a good film was supposed to be. When it failed, whatever I had before just evaporated.”
He continues: “I thank God every day for allowing me to fail once. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have gone to England, I wouldn’t have done Bronson and we probably wouldn’t be here having this conversation. Failure – I’m talking earthquake-level failure – teaches you two things: it’s not the end of the world, and are you gonna man up or give up? I will never be bitter in my life, I will not allow that. So I had to man up. It was also around the same time that we had our first child, so I really had no choice but to take responsibility.”
Was the fear of failure there on The Neon Demon? “Oh yeah, it’s constant,” Refn confesses. “It’s like getting my period: I know it’s going to come and when it does I’m going to bitch and moan about it. But you can never show it to anyone. Not the crew or the cast. Only Liv sees that. When I get through it I feel relieved and full of life. I always think creativity is very feminine. It’s the closest I can ever get to being a woman. The idea of having something inside of you that can create life, men can never obtain that.” This sense of maternalism informs more than just Refn’s creative process. While he describes himself as “a complete egomaniac” and “totally sadistic” at work, by contrast he acknowledges that he feels “masochistic, very dominated” at home. So just how big an influence is Liv, both personally and professionally? “She’s everything,” he says. “We’ve been together 20 years, she’s the only girlfriend I ever had. I came straight out of my mother into her. I’ve never known another woman. On this movie, I would never have come up with the idea if I didn’t have a beautiful wife. I’m not born beautiful. I’m not handsome. But she is. I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be so lucky. In a way, everything comes back to her.”
Physical perfection is a key motif in The Neon Demon. It’s what separates Jesse from the other female characters, each of whom obsessively craves the one, intangible thing they can never take from her. Something commonly referred to as ‘It’. “You can’t put your finger on it,” Refn elaborates, “you can’t define it, you can’t imitate it. That’s what having ‘It’ means.” Not everyone has ‘It’, but Elle Fanning does. In order to tell this inverted fairy tale of virginity and the city, Refn recalls being faced with two options when it came to casting Jesse: “Either it was going to be an unknown actress or it was going to be Elle Fanning. I hadn’t seen a lot of the films she had been in but Liv had seen one of her more recent ones and said she was terrific. She’s very fascinating to look at. She read a draft script and we met and talked a little bit about it. She was the only one I wanted so I asked her very nicely and luckily she said yes.”
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But landing the perfect lead wasn’t enough. Refn knew that if the film was ever going to work, it needed a female touch. So he turned to cinematographer Natasha Braier (XXY, The Rover), who he hails a “revelation” for her attention to detail and eye for framing, and hired a pair of rookie screenwriters. “There’s a big difference between men writing women and women writing women,” he explains. “I wanted to bring in two playwrights to help me with the female dialogue. First I went to England and hired Polly Stenham, who’s a great writer and a lovely woman. I worked with her for a couple of months, but it wasn’t complete yet. So I moved on and went to the US where I hired an unknown playwright out of Yale called Mary Laws. Both were instrumental in realising the female characters. I would say, for example, ‘This bathroom scene, how would girls talk here?’ and Mary would go away and write a few variations of how girls would talk and I would take what I liked and edit it from there. That’s why I didn’t want screenwriters – it had to be playwrights, people who could really write characters. The last thing I wanted to do was make a movie about how men see women.”
On a subconscious level, The Neon Demon deals with male inferiority, the anxiety and fear that stem from a fundamental lack of understanding about female sexuality. At the same time as the film entered pre-production, Refn began editing a coffee table book comprising his personal collection of vintage exploitation movie posters. ‘The Act of Seeing’ is a treasure chest of trash, crammed with titillating graphic teasers for obscure cult erotica such as Revenge of the Virgins, Valley of the Nymphs and Aqua Sex. Refn says that putting the book together provided as a vital source of inspiration. “Every time I was creatively stuck I would go back and look through it. It’s both a book about putting women on pedestals for the purposes of worship and also degrading, molesting and mutilating them.”
In past interviews Refn has revealed that his films always start out with a single image, something that arouses and excites him. Only God Forgives was of a man looking down at his hands and very slowly balling them into fists. Bronson and Drive are rooted in something darker. The seed for The Neon Demon? A young girl draped across a casting couch, drenched in her own blood. This grisly image, which feels plucked straight out of ‘The Act of Seeing’, sets up the film as a scathing satire of the fashion industry. But more than this, The Neon Demon is a comment on the commoditisation of beauty and how our consumer oriented culture feeds on youth and purity (“real ‘Lolita’ shit,” as Keanu Reeves’ seedy motel manager puts it).
“The internet is the best invention since women, but it’s a corruptive force also.”
“I’m very interested in this idea of how we value beauty,” says Refn. “You look back through the history of mythology and it’s always, ‘She was so beautiful that wars were fought,’ ‘He was so strong that he took down entire armies with his bare hands.’ Now beauty has surpassed strength as the ultimate social currency. It’s always been a rising stock, it’s never gone down, but now with the digital revolution it’s reached an unsustainable level. I think the internet is the best invention since women, but it’s a corruptive force also. We live in a very sexualised society. Men want to sexualise youth, women want to consume it. If you’re 25 you’re not 17, but what happens when you’re 17 and you’re not 14? It’s going in that direction whether we like it or not. It’s scary, especially when you have two young girls who are starting to experience the world. In Denmark we have a very open attitude towards sex and sexuality. We teach sex. But when we were in LA doing the movie, you could see that a lot of the parents were very morally protective of their children because of what they’re exposed to. It was a real eye opener.”
He’s talked about birth, mentioned menstruation and revealed how women are the centre of his world. He’s critiqued modern society’s shallow compulsion, and made a film that subverts the male gaze. So, is Nicolas Winding Refn a feminist? “I know there’s a lot of talk about gender equality – I actually believe that if more women were in power the world would be a better place – but it’s still all about whether you’re thin enough, tall enough, more beautiful than the next girl, do you have high cheekbones? Every year there’s always a big debate in the media because young girls aren’t being exposed to the right kinds of role models, but nothing really changes. It’s like we’re washing our conscience, but then as soon as we feel good about ourselves the wolves start circling again.
“We all say it’s what inside that counts, and we all want to mean that, but life doesn’t work like that. There’s the way we know we should behave and what we define as good common sense, and then there’s human instinct which is terrifying. Like, I’m surrounded by so much beauty, and I’m very envious not to be a part of that. But I’m extremely fortunate because I have very beautiful children. It fucks with your brain to even think like that and it’s the worst thing to say as a parent, to even utter those words, but believe me, it goes through everyone’s minds. Women’s lives are so much more complex though. Guys have it so much easier. It must be so crazy being a woman.”
Elle Fanning sheds her squeaky clean image for Nicolas Winding Refn’s beautiful dark twisted fantasy.
Elle Fanning bares her soul in Nicolas Winding Refn’s beautiful dark twisted fantasy.
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