Nicolas Winding Refn: “Every Image In The Film Had To Have A Sense Of Death And Beauty”

The Neon Demon director discusses that morgue scene and James Bond.

Nicolas Winding Refn
Nicolas Winding Refn Alongside Neon Demon stars Elle Fanning and Abby Lee Image Dimitros Kambouris/Getty

Nicolas Winding Refn likes to keep his cards close to his chest.

Meeting loaded in a quiet London location, the secretive filmmaker is tight-lipped when it comes to his next project (“I don’t really know what I am going to do until I do it,” he tells us) but happy to talk in explicit detail about his latest effort, Neon Demon.

A psychological horror movie thriller unlike any other, the film has proved divisive with audiences but remains a striking must-see for anyone with the stomach for both the inner workings of the beauty industry and a spot of girl-on-girl cannibalism.

To mark the film’s Blu-Ray release, loaded spoke to Refn about Neon Demon, fairytales and…James Bond.

loaded: Neon Demon polarised audiences and critics alike. Is that something you set out to do as a filmmaker?

Refn: You can’t set out to polarise. It’s like someone asking ‘How are you going to make a cult movie?’ You can’t. All have to go on is your instincts. It’s the one thing God can never take away from you.

loaded: Do you think there are enough major filmmakers out there taking risks though?

Refn: I can’t really answer that without sounding like an asshole. (pause) I think there are a lot of great filmmakers out there that are doing what they want to do. It’s hard for me to say who is and who isn’t though.

loaded: Are you always conscious of challenging yourself as a director?

Refn: I do think it’s important to look into the future. 

loaded: It felt like you really pushed Elle Fanning to the limits in this film – is that something you always look to do with your actors?

Refn: You’d have to ask her but I think she is limitless. Elle Fanning is the most extraordinary thing I have ever seen, actually.

loaded: But you’ve certainly challenged the likes of Ryan Gosling and Tom Hardy to explore new avenues with their performances in your films?

Refn: I’ve done that with everyone I have worked with in a way.

loaded: Neon Demon is set in the seedy world of fashion, which is a departure from the criminal underworld your previous films have focused on. Can audiences draw parallels between the two though?

Refn: (Laughs) Well, both worlds look great but I don’t necessarily see a parallel. I like fairytales and that kind of heightened reality. The beauty industry, like crime, is also a great mirror for society.

Shakespeare wrote about the royal families because that mirrored society at the time. Nowadays the royal families are no more than tourist attractions. If Shakespeare were alive today, he would probably write about crime, horror, fetish and even fantasy.

“If Shakespeare were alive today, he would probably write about crime, horror, fetish and even fantasy”

loaded: The film’s most controversial scene involves Jena Malone’s character (Ruby) and a dead body – what was the inspiration behind it?

Refn: Ah yes, the necrophilia scene. The idea was that every image in the film had to have a sense of death and beauty and it would all come to a head with the morgue scene where there is actual physical sexuality alongside death.

But also a way to explore the Ruby character (Malone) and her fear of rejection. She wants Jesse’s (Fanning) purity, she’s in love with her virginity, her inner beauty, her youth. But she’s denounced by Jesse so goes to death, where she won’t be rejected.

loaded: Did that fairytale aspect inform Jesse’s rather grisly fate then?

Refn: Yes, it goes back to that idea. Drive, Only God Forgives and Neon Demon are all set in the world of fairytale language.

loaded: Do you look back on Drive fondly or do you get tired of fielding questions on it and whether you might work with Ryan Gosling again?

Refn: No, I’m happy with the movie. I’d love to work with Ryan Gosling again.

loaded: Are there any actors would like to work with?

Refn: I’ve been very lucky with the people I have worked with, so no. In terms of male leads, actors like Tom Hardy, Mads Mikkelsen and Ryan Gosling represent the highest quality of performers. The same goes with Elle Fanning and Christina Hendricks, always.

I like all the big names though. I like Tom Cruise, I like Brad Pitt, I like Clint Eastwood, I like… Justin Timberlake. There are still a lot of people that I would love to work with.

loaded: What about those rumours you want to do a comic book adaptation – any truth to it?

Refn: No. I got asked about doing a comic book film and said Wonder Woman with Christina Hendricks. Next thing I know, it’s breaking news and I’m just like ‘okay’. But I would love to try it. I just haven’t found the right project.

“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a masterpiece”

loaded: How about doing a James Bond film?

Refn: I’m a huge Bond fan and really like Daniel Craig as an actor, so I’m open to anything.

loaded: What do you thing you could bring to Bond?

Refn: Hard for me to say as it’s very successful and it would be wrong for me to criticise it. But I’ve always loved the James Bond character and all the movies. I’m excited to see what happens when Bond runs in to a single mum, that’s for sure.

loaded: Would you ever go down the route of the Timothy Dalton movies, with a more adult tone?

Refn: They were particularly nasty as I remember and I don’t really like that. For me Dr No and From Russia With Love are the blueprint of everything Bond.

The director, Terrence Young created what is now the established world of Bond. He’s more of an average kind of guy who is in dire situations. It was before the gadgets got too out of hand – even though I love the gadgets.

For me, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a masterpiece. It’s just a really good story, great villain and a really heavy ending. That’s why it’s the greatest Bond movie ever made – it has true meaning to it.

Keanu Reeves and the Neon Demon cast
The Neon Demon cast Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, Bella Heathcote, Elle Fanning and dirctor Nicolas Winding Refn Image Kevin Winter/Getty

loaded: You’ve wanted to work with Keanu Reeves for a while – how was that?

Refn: Keanu is amazing. My first job in Hollywood was going to be making a reboot of the old Universal horror movie, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with Keanu Reeves. In the end it didn’t happen. I actually got fired but was able to meet Keanu and found him fascinating.

Keanu is that he is one of the only movie stars to go through all genres but not just go through them but in the creative process.

My Own Private Idaho is probably the crown jewel of American independent cinema and there would be no Hangover movies without Bill and Ted. Speed was the first high-concept franchise film and then there’s Point Break, The Matrix and John Wick which is such a good film.

He’s just an all-round amazing person.

Neon Demon is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and On Demand Now.

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