Nicolas Winding Refn's 5 Ways to Make Subversive Movies
Nicolas Winding Refn has an aesthetic that's hard to miss. Here's how it all came to be.
During a Q&A at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Nicolas Winding Refn discussed everything from colorblindness to ideas on culture and beauty to how a childhood in 1980's New York affected the style of his new release, The Neon Demon, a horror film set in the fashion world.
Refn came to art-house prominence with his first feature, the violent and naturalistic Pusher (the first in a trilogy that followed the drug underworld in Copenhagen, Denmark). But the outspoken director broke through in a big way with 2011's Drive, which earned him the Best Director prize at Cannes and was the first of two films he made with Ryan Gosling (the other being Only God Forgives).
Neon Demon, though, is a film unlike any other in his career—not only on a stylistic level, but also in its subversive gender and genre-pushing. Here are five takeaways from the talented and affable enfant terrible.
1. Harness your weaknesses— and make them your stylistic strengths
Colorblindness could seem like a liability for a film director, but Refn insists it works for him. In the past, he's said that he can't see "mid-colors...that's why all my films are very contrasted. If it were anything else, I couldn't see it."
At the Film Society, when asked about his affinity for the color red, Refn spoke of his conversations with DP Natasha Braier, who talked about color palettes he couldn't see. "I want everything to be more colorful," Refn said. "Colorblindness is a beautiful thing."
"Colorblindness is a beautiful thing."
All of his films have had a unique color scheme, and Neon Demon is no different. At its beginning, a striking, pivotal scene in the film plays out in a surrealistic non-space, an off-white world that resembles a vacant floor in some anonymous, unfinished downtown LA high-rise. In this scene, the Kubrickian framing and focus (notice the mannequins in the shots behind the fashion designer) highlight the interchangeability of the aspiring models— except, of course, for Elle Fanning's Jesse.
2. Make every movie as it if will be your last
For a director who makes, as he put it, "expensive films," Refn has a surprisingly relaxed style when it comes to production. He makes every movie as if it will be his last, and he does so by operating on feeling rather than logic.
Refn attributes the genesis of Neon Demon to when the director "woke up one morning and realized I wasn't born beautiful and my wife was," he said. "I wondered what that would be like [to be beautiful]."
"I live out my fetish through what I do."
His ideas about beauty began to crystallize around the idea of contemporary culture and what Refn perceives as a pervasive and endemic narcissism. In today's world, according to Refn, "narcissism is accepted; it's a virtue." He added: "Narcissism is almost the way we define our evolution. In the future, beauty will become the class marks that defines us as human beings."
Refn related how his eldest child asked his wife if she could pursue a career in modeling, and how the idea of the film slowly coalesced into a "horror film about a teenager." It didn't take shape, though, until his meeting with star Elle Fanning, who was recommended to him by his wife. At their meeting—which he was worried about, considering "my last conversation was with Ryan Gosling...What am I going to say to a 16-year-old?"—he asked Fanning, "Do you think you're pretty?" When Fanning, taken aback, finally answered yes, he realized that he had found his star and his film. "I said, 'that's the movie,'" he recalled. "We could title it The Birth of Narcissism."
Much of the film was written through improvisation; a change to a pivotal scene that occurs halfway through the movie caused Refn to alter the film's direction two weeks into shooting. He called this process "terrifying...like an infant making a drawing," though he maintained it was the only way he could work. "I tend to make films about what I'd like to see," he said. "I live out my fetish through what I do."
3. Use your childhood as material
A fact not widely known about Refn is that, though born in Denmark, he spent many of his formative years in the Manhattan of the mid-1980s, when the city was "degenerate and beautiful."
"There was so much alternative culture," said Refn, a self-described "club kid," referring to a scene depicted in films as diverse as Downtown 81 and (perhaps less authentically) Party Monster. Because his parents were "enlightened hippies" who worked in creative fields, where sex and drugs were common—though he never indulged, he said, staying on the outskirts and observing—the only way for the future filmmaker to rebel was to haunt the movie theaters. There, exploitation and B-movies were cheap and plentiful; Refn cited Michael Lustig's 1980 slasher film Maniac as formative. He also revealed that he has an obsession with former President Ronald Reagan, one he developed just to annoy his parents.
While developing the look of Neon Demon, the director came back to the idea of a neon aesthetic that has played has a prominent role in his previous work. "Neon reminds me of my youth in New York," he said. "There's a sense of retro and sci-fi there." He cited the "the strange rectangular lines" in the now-antiquated signage, as well as the 1982 indie sci-fi movie Liquid Sky, which takes place in New York's punk subculture, as a profound influence.
4. Embrace the digital revolution
In Refn's view, we are living in a new age, one unprecedented in history. "I love digital," he said. "The digital revolution is a new canvas where we accept reality. We're in a new ecosystem. A new system where there is no regulation or control. Opinions are oblivious."
"The digital revolution is a new canvas where we accept reality."
As he explained it, the top-down model of control that dominated film for decades had caused it to "stagnate"; only the invention of TV, which the director called a "financial institution that has creativity as a secondary choice," and, decades later, the introduction of VHS (followed by DVD, and then the internet) let loose a "gold rush of entertainment" and a culture where "it's not about what you do, but what you stand for. Creativity is movement."
5. Steal from everyone
When asked about his creative influences, both formative and current, Refn was straightforward: "I watched everything under the moon. If anyone tells you they're not stealing, they're lying." Explaining his predilection for collecting, he said he had purchased the rights to the early Dennis Hopper film Night Tide, though he had no plans to re-release it, and that he had screened Valley of the Dolls, the famously bad (or, more charitably, camp) 1967 film about beauty, drugs, and decadence that he wanted Fanning to internalize for her performance in Neon Demon.
"If anyone tells you they're not stealing, they're lying."
The director also went into detail regarding his creative process, echoing the sentiments of French novelist Gustave Flaubert, whose advice to artists was to "be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work."
Describing his nightly routine, Refn said, "I stay at home. I don't drink alcohol, and my wife goes to bed at 9:30 PM. These are my hours of solitude. I walk around. Maybe watch the news. I get ideas at night."
While his ideas (and films) are not exactly optimistic, Refn is hardly a depressive character. He comes across as an engaged artist, one who is fascinated by what he sees and possessed of an obsessive motivation to turn his obsessions into realities. Aside from a few profanities, he seemed completely normal— even if his films are anything but.