Nicolas Winding Refn Unleashes a Demon
Creativity Breeds Controversy
Photo by Gunther Campine | Written by Elizabeth Marcellino
We spoke with writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn in 2016 upon the release of his movie The Neon Demon, set to be released this month on Amazon Prime. The visually voluptuous film targets the fashion industry’s obsession with beauty in a dark, twisted and sometimes comic tale centered on Elle Fanning as Jesse, modeling’s new “it girl.” The movie drew both outrage and acclaim at its Cannes premiere, a response that the filmmaker sees as a sign of artistic success.
Why did you decide to make a horror film?
It’s a very fun language to work in. It’s probably the closest thing you get to writing a fairy tale in film.
Though this is not a fairy tale you’d want your children to see, I don’t think.
Well, a cautionary tale.
It presents a fashion world that’s ruthless to the point of deadly. I wonder whether you see parallels here between the world of modeling and the world of acting.
I was interested in the obsession of beauty, and that obsession lives everywhere. So, of course, there’s a very strong similarity between acting and modeling and other very media-exposed art forms.
As you watch Elle Fanning [in character] at her runway audition, you can’t help but imagine her auditioning for the film and facing some of the same kind of judgment.
Well, regarding Elle, I never [auditioned] her. I just chose her because I just wanted her for the part. She was the only one who could play it. But in terms of casting in that specific scene, yeah, unfortunately, that’s very much what it’s like. You are very exposed. I always find casting sessions very uncomfortable personally, and I’m sure it’s even more uncomfortable for the people who are doing the audition. But, you know, it’s the nature of the beast.
Elle’s an incredible performer, as an actor, as a craftsman. She’s born with this aura. She has the same thing that Ryan Gosling has, that they’re able to portray emotions by doing very little. There is a sense of mystique around them. They are visually perfect.
The film didn’t seem to have a lot of boundaries in terms of where it would and wouldn’t go. Is there a line that you won’t cross?
[Laughs.] In the name of art, I don’t know. I’ve never come to that [point]. Not yet. But maybe. I do have children, so I’m very morally concerned. But self-censorship is not particularly a good thing.
Audiences seem to be polarized by this film, and you seemed to be just as pleased by the people who were booing it as the people who were cheering it.
Do you know how hard it is to create diversity? It’s actually very, very difficult because it means you have to make something that is so of its own identity that some people are going to cherish it like a treasure and other people are going to hate it with such a passion. ... If you look at things that are considered purely art, controversy was always a symbol of success. ... I like to make experiences. ...That is the essence of creativity. You just have to figure out how to make good business out of it. [Laughs.] x