For 20 years now, director Nicolas Winding Refn has made bold and uncompromising films that explore the messy nature of men and masculinity. From the Pusher trilogy to his recent collaborations with Ryan Gosling (Drive and Only God Forgives), creating violent and difficult men has been a touchstone of his career. He flips the gender script in his new film, The Neon Demon, which stars Elle Fanning and Jena Malone in a story about a beautiful young ingenue who arrives in L.A. and immediately starts climbing the ladder of fashion industry success, only to discover the ugly underside of this new reality. The famously oddball director sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about his new movie, but the conversation quickly spun into a discussion about the nature of art, what it means to create, and why the new generation of selfie-obsessed millennials might make the greatest art yet.
The A.V. Club: The film focuses on the obsession with beauty in the fashion industry, but it seems like there are almost as many parallels with art and cinema. Did you see aspects of your own experiences in moviemaking reflected in the story as you were doing it?
Nicolas Winding Refn: A lot of people have asked me that, and it’s interesting because I’ve never thought of it like that. But I guess it evokes some kind of parallel that maybe subconsciously I wasn’t really aware of.
AVC: Because the danger of narcissism that’s depicted in the film is clear, but it does seem like there’s an element of that in any serious artistic endeavor. A willingness to obsess over ideas and—
NWR: Oh, absolutely. Creativity is very self-indulgent. I’ve heard people talk about the movie being self-indulgent, and I’m like, “Yeah.” I mean, what do you think creativity is? Nothing but self-indulgence. And the more self-indulgent it is, the more interesting it becomes. So I think that part of creativity is also falling in love with your own narcissism: accepting it, using it as an asset. I also think that something we’re seeing in the younger generation, like Elle [Fanning]’s generation, is that narcissism is no longer a taboo. It’s a sign of quality; it’s encouraged. I think those things are interesting.
AVC: It strikes me as almost this tightrope walk; you need that element of narcissism to achieve great creative endeavors, but, at the same time—
NWR: Absolutely. There’s always a danger; that’s the walk you walk. And it’s that balance—there’s no right or wrong in it. It’s a very individual journey that only you can take—do you know what I’m saying? Nobody can teach you how to do it, not even people that have gone there. You can only do it yourself. And I think the idea of individualism has become more dominating in our society. You can even see it by our political system: how people vote, the job situation, the sociological evolution that’s happening, what’s happening in the Middle East and so forth. The kind of group mentality that we had lived under since the Second World War is starting to erupt, and the craving for individualism is now much stronger. It’s not as taboo anymore, as it was when I was younger. The idea of narcissism, essentially, is and will be accepted as a virtue.
AVC: It’s interesting that you say there’s no right or wrong on how you go on that. You can’t say “this is a good way to do it,” or “this is bad,” but as the culture becomes more accepting of narcissism as a virtue, at a certain point, you do have to start making value judgments.
NWR: Oh, and that’s individual. That’s where your goddamn, old-school morality kicks in: how you were brought up, what did they teach you, how do you base your opinions. Because we still base a lot of our society on a fairly conventional—either on a religious or a law[-based] rule, which is great to have, because there’s a sense of order, but the human mind within that still needs to express its own identity. I think that nowadays it’s getting more accepting of this diversity of individuals. And we can see it as we’re moving along.
AVC: Do you have times when you see or feel your own “goddamn old-school morals” intruding, as you call it? When you’re looking at the rise of contemporary digital culture, are there moments when you feel that sense of moral outrage?
NWR: Oh, absolutely. I don’t feel outrage as much as my wife does, for example, because I think there’s something going on that’s so much more complex than we can grasp yet. I think the diversity from my parents’ parents was not very grand—we don’t have to go very far back to where Elvis shaking his pelvis was a national outrage. That was how little needed to change. And you can say, my mother and me was a lot harder—my choices were probably more alien to her. My children’s choices are obviously even more alien to me because the digital revolution has certainly made a bigger new reality than we had ever imagined would even exist. My children don’t know the orientation of that reality because they are born into it. That reality of course is the digital revolution, where partly narcissism—and those elements that were in my childhood and my parents’ childhood were certainly a very strong taboo subject—but are now becoming accepted and encouraged. And I think that, in the near future, the digital revolution and the physical, the physique, will of course mutate into something completely different.
AVC: That really ties it into the film directly, because Alessandro Nivola’s character very explicitly calls out this link of beauty with power as almost a form of currency in itself. It functions as cold water in the face of the other characters, but it’s also a pivot point moment where you see that shift in Elle Fanning’s character.
NWR: Absolutely. She’s gone to the other side. She has completely merged herself into her own narcissism and fallen in love with it. It’s consumed her. And in that world, that future—is like a science fiction. And when her boyfriend, who she tries to bring into that world, confronts everyone—Sarno says to her, “Higher currency: without it, you’d be nothing.” Her boyfriend’s old-school, brought-up morals bring in a very important factor, to remember that beauty isn’t everything. She’s so much more. But then Sarno very quickly sees the hypocritical nature: “Yeah, that may be true. But if she wasn’t beautiful, you wouldn’t even have looked.” And I think that’s the struggle of our normality is that we have oppressed desires because of what is accepted and not accepted in society.
AVC: The cultural acceptance of ever more distinct identities is going hand in hand with an almost rigid repression of anything that’s not blandly liberal values. Is that what you mean?
AVC: And that danger, or what we see as this sort of inevitable corruption, is also—
AVC: You could almost imagine Elle Fanning going on in the film to create great art.
NWR: Yeah. She would have been a full-fledged version of me.
AVC: You’ve said that this film was like getting in touch with your inner 16-year-old girl. Do you feel like there’s a way that power seduces or corrupts young women or men differently, or younger and older people?
NWR: I don’t know if power seduces less or more. I think power is a constant evolving mechanism that, since the dawn of time, on one level corrupts and on another level does not. But I think, no matter what, mutates. Understanding one’s own power is more interesting than someone being given something powerful.
AVC: How so?
NWR: Because she knows that she is beautiful. She knows it’s a currency. She doesn’t know the value of it in the beginning. When she transforms, she realizes that it’s the other way around. She doesn’t want to be them, as she thought; they want to be her. So the power has shifted. And it goes to show how fragile our moral society is.
AVC: The way that culture either poisons or enriches, or both at the same time in the film, feels very visceral. The emotional change you see in her is more disturbing, in a lot of ways, than the violence that then happens.
NWR: Look at the birth of anything; it’s always more violent than anything you could ever imagine.
AVC: How much of that came from your own experiences?
NWR: [Laughs.] Not so much my own experiences, but certainly the act of creation can be an extreme violent experience. The act of movement. But also the satisfaction of it is enormous, which is why you keep on going back to it. But I try not too much to look at that parallel in terms of my own career because it doesn’t really interest me. But I like the notion of what fantasizing sends you, like having been born beautiful. I mean, it must have been an incredible, beautiful life. I don’t have to go very far to see the power of beauty. Being desired, feeling desired is a very seductive aspect of our being.
AVC: And that desire to be desired is almost like a second-tier layer of it. Do you find that in your own work as you’re trying to create?
NWR: Absolutely. There’s incredible effect in being either loved or hated, but knowing that, either way, you have penetrated the mind and have altered it; that is a very pleasurable feeling. Because in the end, self-indulgence is very much about your ego and your vanity and your own id. The more you can indulge in it, the more pleasurable it becomes. And then when it feeds out, it’s able to penetrate the mind and create a reaction. There is a sense of my own—it becomes very sexualized. At the same time, I also believe on a practical level, if you’re taking time away from people, besides entertaining them, I think it’s important that there’s something to react to. Because reaction is what changes your understanding of the world. Good and bad, I don’t really care. I don’t even understand it.
AVC: In what way?
NWR: Good and bad, what’s good and bad? I don’t know. I had a Chinese dinner last night—that was pretty good. It’s like, how can creativity be bad? You can have, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it,” but, in the end, it’s an individual experience. How can you even begin to define that? I find that sometimes extremely arrogant and counter-productive. I think that experiencing through art is a wonderful way to expand the horizon and everything around it.
AVC: That shift, though—is that maybe what constitutes engagement with art? This idea that art has to be beyond good and bad, whereas our interactions with others and our social contract that we all agree to participate in, where we have to feel good or bad based on these things.
NWR: But that’s not what creativity is about. Creativity is going out of that zone into a pure reactionary system where you react to it, and however you react will obviously alter—maybe just on a small level, or a small molecule—but it will alter your view of the world. The world needs change, change needs an activity. It has to be planted by a thought. The power of art is as powerful as weapons of mass destruction; it’s just where war destroys, art inspires. But in order to inspire, you need to react to it. And, if it doesn’t penetrate your mind, you can’t react to it.
AVC: I heard somebody the other day suggest that maybe your films should come with a trigger warning—
NWR: [Laughs.] Right.
AVC: It seems like that would be counter-productive to the exact experience you’re describing.
NWR: Right. Again, it’s like you’re not—we live in a society right now which is the last phase of the ecosystem in terms of the old entertainment value, or the old entertainment construction, which is we’ve gone down to this instant gratification, instant numbers, instant understanding, instant. But it’s like the exact—it has perfected itself to the instant click, when, in a way, creativity originates as a much more complex beast. So we now have to reinvent a new canvas where we can indulge in it. And that’s where the digital revolution creates a whole new ecosystem of entertainment.