Nicolas Winding Refn Calls 'The Neon Demon' His 'Fetish' & Talks Casting Villains Against Type

The director's new horror film sends Elle Fanning into the jungle of the high fashion industry.

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Experiencing Nicolas Winding Refn's new film The Neon Demon is a kind of sensory overload. Like its name might suggest, the movie is awash in fluorescents and lights as well as darkness. This stage of the Drive director's career has morphed into the abstract. He's become a painter of films.

The Neon Demon is a vision and, whether you feel it or not, there's little doubt you won't be affected by his movie in some way. A big part of that vision is the music and, as anyone who owns the Drive soundtrack knows, Cliff Martinez is Refn's guy. We were lucky enough to sit down with both Refn and Martinez in San Francisco recently to discuss The Neon Demon.

Zimbio: The Neon Demon is a sweet title. I've got it ranked second  for your movies behind Valhalla Rising. Am I right in assuming the "demon" is, not only Jesse (Elle Fanning), but temptation?

Nicolas Winding Refn: It's everything.

Everything, eh?

NWR: Jealousy, obsession, beauty, vulgarity, death, everything. It's all consuming of us. We all have those emotions within us one way or another.

I'm interested in the word "neon."

It came from a word game. I'm dyslexic. So I had to use a word I could spell. I can spell "neon." I can spell "demon." Neon had a kind of flamboyance to it. "Demon" is danger. And "the" meant the action. 

Nicolas Winding Refn Calls 'The Neon Demon' His 'Fetish' & Talks Casting Villains Against Type

Cliff Martinez: Were there alternate titles that were entertained at any point?

That was my next question.

NWR: Not really. This one just seemed to fit. It was just, one night I was playing a word game.

This movie reminded me of three movies: Boogie Nights, Mulholland Drive, and The Graduate. When you're on set, are there specific shots you recall from movie history or is everything from your own vision?

NWR: We don't work like that...I don't know how to answer that.

When you're in the middle of making the film, are there shots from other films you refer to?

Cliff Martinez (Getty)
Cliff Martinez (Getty)

NWR: I'm sure I've been inspired by some things. Everyone steals.

But there wasn't anything in particular?

NWR: My own fetish.

Which is?

NWR: What you see.

Which is everything and... nothing, maybe?

NWR: That too.

Cliff, how about you?

CM: Of course, I like to think of myself as being 100 percent original, but the truth is I have a recipe for originality which basically is plagiarize/pay homage to/borrow/model...

NWR: Steal...

CM: ...Steal, from two sources. You put them together and that passes for originality. My favorite musical piece in Only God Forgives is the fight scene and that is equal parts Philip Glass, Goblin, Ennio Moricone, and Bach. So you put those things together and people go, "Oh, that's original." Not knowing that I ripped the material from rather disparate sources. As you get more developed as an artist you become more discrete and can conceal your plagiarism much better. 

Nicolas Winding Refn Calls 'The Neon Demon' His 'Fetish' & Talks Casting Villains Against Type

When does your process start? Do you wait for the film itself or dailies...?

CM: Nicolas is unique because last couple films he's known very far in advance he wanted to work with me. So he called me when this was kind of in the hot air stage, before there was a script. He called me and told me his ideas. When there was a script, he sent me that. But the real work doesn't start until I see the picture. Experience has taught me that trying to write music to a script or to a phone conversation doesn't turn out too well. That's where it really starts, but, for me, it's a very successful score and I think part of it is this hot air exchange that begins months and months in advance of actually seeing the picture.

Nicolas, how hard was it to find a composer to deliver what you have in your head?

NWR: In my head? I can't play an instrument to save my life, or sing a song, I don't even dance. I think it's about finding someone you connect with musically. When it works you don't really question it. I have the same relationship with Matt Newman who edits all my films. I call Matt, Cliff and myself "the trio." Those are the three people to make sure we have the essentials, then of course there's the cast, photographer, production designer, who are equally as important, but the people that are the first initiators of what I like to do are Cliff and Matt.

CM: People have asked about executing what it is that you hear in your head, and I don't know what your process is. It's probably similar to mine. For me, my head is empty most of the time. I don't ever have a vision. I look at the film for the first time and I don't get a vision in any particular way. For me, it's a process of discovering and having the wisdom and the good taste to recognize a good thing when it arrives. For me its a slow process of improvising, sculpting, and chiseling and getting feedback. But I've never had a very fleshed-out mental picture of the music, even when I'm in the process of creating it.

Nicolas Winding Refn Calls 'The Neon Demon' His 'Fetish' & Talks Casting Villains Against Type

That makes sense. Next subject for you, Nicolas, is casting. It seems like you like to cast against type for your antagonists. Is that true?

NWR: Well, I don't know what you mean "against type..."

Nicolas Winding Refn Calls 'The Neon Demon' His 'Fetish' & Talks Casting Villains Against Type

Giving actors roles they maybe haven't done before.

NWR: Like Jena Malone, you mean?

Yeah, in this one, Jena and Keanu Reeves. Kristin Scott Thomas in the last one (Only God Forgives).

NWR: Of course, there are actors who tend to get cast in the same role again and again. Certain actors should join the police force because they always play cops. Some actors play gangsters and that's all they play. I always find it interesting if you take something opposite because it forces you to look at it in a different way. I find that more interesting.

CM: Albert Brooks in Drive. I thought that was one of the coolest casting decisions since John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.

Absolutely, that's the best one... I interviewed Jena Malone last year and she said this was her favorite role she had done. Was she or were any of the actors nervous to work with you? 

NWR: No, Jena Malone is an incredible artist. She's beyond a performer, she's an artist herself. She's just a force of nature. But everyone's nervous. I'm nervous. when you start there's always this, but there's also an acceptance. Which is great about Jena—she's fearless, and it's about creating chemistry between yourself and the performer. That you can trust each other and not be afraid to do wrong things because right things will come out of those wrong choices. Same with Keanu. I think we were just very lucky that people were willing to be in the movie.

The stars of The Neon Demon, from left: Christina Hendricks, Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, and Keanu Reeves. Click here for more premiere photos (Getty).

What movies have you seen recently that you've liked, maybe in the last six months or so?

NWR: Well, I've been watching old Star Trek. And my eldest daughter is old enough now to appreciate Friends. It's very, very funny. I have to say, it's a really funny show. (Laughs)

Surprising answers so far.

Nicolas Winding Refn Calls 'The Neon Demon' His 'Fetish' & Talks Casting Villains Against Type

CM: Just last night at dinner we were talking about cool scores, recent scores. The Babadook, It Follows...

NWR: It Follows! That's a great film.

That is.

CM: Those were some recent things that knocked me out.

How about The Guest

CM: I don't know that one. Horror film?

Yeah it has the same kind of Tangerine Dream-type soundtrack as Drive...

NWR: I thought you said last six months, I was trying to limit...

I did, at first.. sorry (laughs). Well, that's all we've got for time. Thanks very much you guys. Good luck with the Demon.

NWR: Thanks

CM: Thank you

The Neon Demon opens June 24 in theaters. The movie stars Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, and Karl Glusman.

Nicolas Winding Refn
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Managing Editor, Zimbio — entertainment writer, critic, and reporter since 2011. Bay Area. Origin: Shark City.