Last week, Loser City film editor Kayleigh Hughes was invited to take part in a press screening and roundtable interview for Nicolas Winding Refn’s new movie The Neon Demon. You can read Kayleigh’s review of the film at Vox, where she made her debut over the weekend, but we’re thrilled to present the full roundtable interview with Refn and his composer Cliff Martinez, which we feel you’ll find to be an interesting glimpse inside Refn’s thought process with this polarizing film. The interview took place at the Hotel San Jose in Austin, Texas, and also featured a few other local reporters. And for the spoiler adverse, please note that this interview does refer to some plot twists.
[Nicholas Refn asks the “ladies” what we thought of the movie]
Christine Thompson for AMFM Magazine: I think it spoke some truths as far as beauty and the fashion industry, and I know it’s not about the fashion industry, it’s really about beauty. I really liked it, I thought that it was very interesting, I saw ______ at the end, you know Emerson Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery, that model on the cover that Geiger drew, it looks just like the models I thought — super interesting!
Nicolas Refn: What about you [directed at Kayleigh]?
Kayleigh Hughes for Loser City: I mean, it made me think a lot, I was very curious, I was curious about the positioning of women and men in the film together and the actions of the men and their consequences as compared to the women, and it made me think a lot.
NR: That’s good. Thinking is good. When was the last time you thought about a movie that long?
KH: I tend to think about most movies pretty long.
KH: I was wondering if you could talk about your intentions of what you were trying to convey with the men in the film. They don’t take up a lot of screentime but they do seem to have really notable actions.
NR: Well the males were written as the girlfriends of other movies. When you see movies and there’s a guy, usually he has a girlfriend, he meets a girl, and they’re usually there for plot points, as the sidekick. The joke between me and Elle is that now the guys are the girlfriends. This is all about women. And the four male characters are written very specifically that they represent certain definitions of the story about beauty. Start with the boyfriend, young, good natured guy, he has all the right opinions, but he’s also very hypocritical because behind all the right opinions he can’t argue against, “well if she wasn’t beautiful, you wouldn’t even have looked.”
CT: Which you represented in the movie as she was walking with the skyline behind her and the look of admiration on his face.
NR: So he’s completely like everyone else.
NR: And then you have the fashion photographer who kind of represents a certain sense of authority in a world of quality about fashion.
CT: He’s cold.
NR: He’s cold. He is one of those who uses the women as pure props. But he’s not doing it out of evil or anything degrading. He’s just feeding a higher machine. Because what I find interesting is that, and [gestures toward the two women reporters] this you will have to really tell me here–that the beauty industry, generally is geared toward women. Do you agree with that?
NR: So he, in a sense, is not an authority, he’s a portal in that world.
KH: It’s geared towards women but it doesn’t necessarily come from women at the highest levels.
NR: When you say “highest levels” what do you mean?
KH: The people creating the standards.
NR: Are generally women, if you look at all the fashion magazines, they are edited by women.
NR: So the question is, who is the real predator; who is the lamb? And that’s why the men, to go on, are actually there in places because as an overall theme, they have no function. If you take, then, Keanu Reeves, the motel owner, he represents the sexual threat that Jessie fears because she is a virgin, she fears penetration in a violent way, she fears that danger of innocence sexually, like a wolf. And on the top you have the designer who of course represents the heightened version of the world that the film takes places in, which is “beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” because that’s what that whole industry is about.
NR: Yes. It comes down to: that’s what they value. So, when you have that scene at the restaurant at the fashion show where they’re having their celebration and at this time, Jessie has gone through a transformation and she brings in her boyfriend into that world, it’s like me coming into the world of high fashion through a magazine and looking at it, obviously feeling “well this isn’t everything, or this is so fake, or beauty is not just everything, there’s something else” and someone saying to me “Well if they weren’t beautiful you wouldn’t even be looking.” So a lot of the movie has a design very specifically to have these running themes that entangle into each other.
CT: Metaphors, as such?
NR: Many different things.
CT: I saw that. Yeah, narcissism, Narcissus, I thought it was curious that the pool was empty, that she was staring into, because ordinarily with Narcissus he was staring into a pool of his own reflection, it was staring back, but her pool was empty was that on purpose?
NR: Yes, because she had already found her reflection, it had already kind of entered her.
CT: Mhm, okay, got it.
NR: So like Narcissus swam after his reflection for ever and ever and everyone laughed at him, they ridiculed him for it [we’re not sure where Refn is getting this interpretation of Narcissus, since historically Narcissus wastes away after staring at his own reflection, not swimming with it – ed.]. She’s actually gone one step beyond, she’s actually morphed into it, and now the swimming pool is danger, because she’s gonna fall into it and die. And of course that’s where the film becomes a cautionary tale about the danger of narcissism, but at the same time the film celebrates narcissism as a virtue because she’s basically saying “I am what I am and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
KH: How do you reconcile that then with her meeting her demise in the way that she does?
NR: Well, the meeting her demise, as a character slowly through the movie, the film becomes less about her journey and more about the others’ view of her. So especially a character like Ruby halfway through the movie actually takes over as the protagonist and Jessie becomes an antagonist. Because Ruby is in love with the inner beauty of Jessie, just like the male characters are defined in this way, the female characters are defined in this way. Ruby she’s all about inner beauty, virginity, purity, the innocence that we also hunger for as we both try to ____, or we, like Sarah, fear age. And so that’s what makes beauty such a very complex theme in our society is that everyone has an opinion on it. And I have daughters, and I can see my thirteen year old get into, virtually, into the world of the digital revolution and there, like Jessie, narcissus finds his own reflection because we’re already doing it now. It’s no longer delinquent. And so to me, that’s where the film becomes a celebration of it. But her demise is that she has a thing that everyone devours, everyone else clinches for it, they fantasize about it, they’re obsessed by getting it. But that it has nothing to do with men. Nothing. Because I do not believe that women generally do this because of men.
CT: No, they don’t. And the “it” changes, too.
CT: From generation to generation, year to year, that’s why it’s so disposable, people are disposable in that industry.
NR: And that’s why at the beginning of the film, the first opening shot is beauty and death.
Chris Lambert for Film Colossus: Talking about themes and motifs in the movies, red light and blue light was a big part of Only God Forgives and there was red light and blue light playing a huge role in this film as well. For you, was that a way of connecting the two films, or do you see–
NR: Nope, it’s cause I’m colorblind.
NR: I’m colorblind.
KH: Like, red/green or–
NR: [nods] So that’s the only reason I love those colors is because I can see them.
CT: That’s awesome. I didn’t know that, it becomes empowering, then, in the film.
NR: It’s turning my weakness into my strength.
Cliff Martinez: [joking] And I’m deaf! I can see white keys and black keys–that’s it!
KH: Can you talk about how you scored the daytime scenes versus the nighttime ones?
CM: I guess I didn’t make that much of a distinction between the two, Gosh I’m sorry, I never really considered that to delineate the two. I delineate the film as Nicolas described it, as: Part one is melodrama and Part two is horror. And I thought that was a big divide–going from the scary horror music toward the end, where the music sounds like rude body noises, to the scene where Dean and Jessie are overlooking the city and that was purely romantic, so that was the continental divide of the two faces of the score.
CL: You had talked about not being able to fit the baschet crystal into this soundtrack as you had in others.
CM: I try to shoehorn it into every score, I just couldn’t find a way in.
CL: What was it, was it the characters, was it just the rest of the soundscape that was created, it just didn’t fit with that?
CM: I guess–not so much because of the film–often I have these preferences and biases and baggage I guess of things I want to bring to each film, irrespective of what the film is about. And one of my biases was I really wanted to get more and more electronic, I wanted to be more synthetic, so I was really consciously trying to think “No, I don’t want to do this, that’s a little organic.” And the bascet crystal is a pretty organic sounding instrument and I wanted to make the score as plastic and synthetic as possible. And I don’t know if that had much to do with the story, or Nicolas, but well Nicolas’ preferences are I know, toward synthetic sounds.
CL: It sounds like from what Nicolas is saying and what you’re saying that it matches up very well.
NR: Well we talked, right, when we talked music at the beginning, we talked a lot about that I wanted Cliff to find a way to have a sound that was unorganic, it had to be artificial.
CL: Which really comes through. That first scene–well it’s not the first scene. But when they’re at the party and there’s the girl sort of floating in space and just how the music is hitting and how the light was hitting it was a really cool sonic foreshadowing and light foreshadowing of what was going to come.
CT: It was great. I liked it. I thought it really worked. So, congratulations.
Okay, so I wanted to ask one more question and then you guys can have it. What kind of–um, this came out of the De Palma music and he was talking all about directors and the problems that he had and how he overcame them. And so I thought–hey! What a good question, why don’t I ask you that. What kind of technical things that you encounter on this movie and how did you overcome them…for the vision?
NR: Well it starts with, putting yourself in–and I don’t know a lot about Brian De Palma’s career–
CT: Just for yourself. That just prompted this.
NR: Well, I put myself in a situation where I make films very inexpensively so that I can control both the flow of money and the creative vision because both go hand in hand. And that’s really where it begins. And then to me there’s no such thing as an obstacle. There’s a creative challenge. And I think creativity is a lot about turning your obstacles into your strengths.
So let’s say, you only have two dollars and you’re shooting in this room. But at least you have two dollars and no one is going to tell you what to do. So how are you going to use that creatively. And I think that’s what I would love to teach my own children, and whenever I meet other people that are wanting tobe filmmakers, is, look, the one thing that can never ever be taken away from you by anyone–not even a critical reaction or a box office failure or whatever you want to call it that you’re going to encounter–is that you did it your way.
The one thing you have to remember–that creative satisfaction for you outweighs any amount of money they can ever pay you. And I think that’s always what I try to keep in the back of my head, and then you have to be smart about it because it is a financial game and as long as you don’t want to lose money, generally there’s always people that want to be part of what you do. So I always try to be very clear about what my challenges are and then figuring out how to make them my strengths. And I think that comes with–all my life I had to struggle a lot in that I was extremely dyslexic, didn’t learn to read until I was thirteen, I have not one good day’s experience of school, like I don’t have any. I never went to college I never went to those kinds of things because I wouldn’t be able to attend because when you’re dyslexic the way that I am, you can’t fulfil a normal education, what’s considered normal. And I would turn it around and say “who the fuck wants to be normal?”
CT: That’s right. My daughter’s dyslexic, one of them. So I know what you’re talking about.
NR: It’s a sign of genius.
CT: I think so, too!
NR: But it is! Because it allows–it offers the opportunity to say “what then can I do? What can I exercise?” And that is very much about your parents’ support. I had a lot of support from my mother, meaning she never wanted me to feel like a problem or something I couldn’t do. It was just “well, then there’s something else.” And I think the more that you can do that for your children to say, “look, there’s a norm out there, but norm doesn’t equal interesting, norm doesn’t equal happiness, norm doesn’t even equal equality.” And I think for our younger generation, it’s a question that I’ve gotten ever since Cannes, both Cliff and I, is this thing about diversity: how do you feel? How do you feel about this reaction? Are you making films for the audience or not? And are you choosing vision over story? And all these valid questions, but at the same time, are also extremely limited because all it is is about “can you fit into normality?”
CT: Well, working with a musician, musicians always transcend that boundary. You know? Correct? That’s what they’re about.
CM: We were talking about that earlier, I think musicians from Elvis to the Beatles to the Stones to Alice Cooper to the Sex Pistols. The controversy is always–people pay extra for that.
CT: Emerson, Lake, and Palmer? Yep.
CM: You know what? People have been asking me were there any influences that came to Neon Demon, and I like to think of it as one of the scores that was kind of influence-free but I just remembered when I heard you say Brain Salad Surgery, that I did try to channel Keith Emerson on those brief solos during the runway. EEEEE [imitating keyboard]
CT: EEEE [imitating keyboard]
CM: This is for you, Keith.
CT: Aww, that’s great.
CM: That was the one thing I did pay homage to. Role modeled, plagiarized.
CT: “Still you turn me on.”
CL: I loved it. I thought it was absolutely amazing.
CT: That’s so cool though, you guys. That’s why I’m really really pleased by the movie. I think I’m a little older than all of you guys, but that’s my era!
NR: Not me, I think. And he’s 75!
CM: I made a joke that I was 75 and he looked at me and goes “you…you don’t look that old.” I’m like “Are you serious? You really think I’m 75?”
NR: We were in the airport! The lighting was bad!
CL: That’s interesting what you say about normalcy in regards to your filmmaking because people have a normal expectation of cinema–the summer blockbuster they feel is normal, it hits these plot points, but cinema is still art and art’s supposed to make you feel and your movies really take a sensation to an extreme place to anyone that’s engaging.
CM: We aspire to be the new normal.
NR: Oh god, then we’re gonna be normal.
CM: You’re gonna see commercials…
CT: You know, I did think about this movie and I’ve been thinking about it. It’s the kind of thing, you asked, “were you thinking about it?” Yeah, I woke up going “Hm… You know something. I’m still thinking about that movie.” So that right there is an indicator that I was affected. Irregardless–which is not a word–Regardless of what–I know I always do that–of whatever I felt, and someone else will feel something different, but it actually resonated. So.
CM: That’s a good sign.
KH: Um. Yeah, agreed. Can you talk about Ruby, who I think is a really interesting character, and how you came to the decision to transition her from a trusted character into a threat at that middle point in the film?
NR: Well you have to go back to the beginning and you have to start with her first line when she says “Am I staring?”
CT: Mhm. She was a threat the whole time.
NR: And then she is the witch, in a way.
NR: Very much based on a Jodorowsky-esque kind of character. I mean I’m very good friends with Jodorowsky and I had a tarot reading every weekend while I made the film.
CT: That’s interesting! I would love to get a reading by him.
NR: Oh it’s amazing. I had one–
CT: What was that like?
NR: Well, it’s very unique. I use it a lot now. I live in Copenhagen so I very often go to Paris and I see him every time. And right before we came here we were in a European tour, at one part we were in Paris and I went to him at midnight and spent two hours with him. And then even before I flew to L.A. for our premier I had a tarot reading about the film about–
CT: How accurate was it?
NR: Very, but what he says is very, very interesting. And…what he reads into it is extremely precise and it’s very encouraging, because whenever I am in doubt or whenever I am “should I, should I not, maybe I should just…” We all have those moments of weakness, I speak to him, he yells at me, and says “ you know, if you do that, you’ll die.” And he’s right.
CT: You mean die creatively?
NR: Yeah, as a human being.
CT: Yeah, your soul.
NR: You know, I know a lot about his journey of Dune, which in a way became the impossible movie to make and it ended up inspiring most every science fiction movie after. I don’t know if you’ve seen the documentary–it’s absolutely amazing.
CT: Yeah, we interviewed him for that. Yeah, so–
NR: Okay, he is, you know, and now he does these comic books [Jodorowsky has been making comics for almost his entire life and is most closely associated with Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal, from which he drew a number of his Dune collaborators –ed.]. I’m sorry but to go back to Ruby!
NR: It’s always been the idea that she’s the antagonist and Jessie was the protagonist but then halfway through the movie they would switch and Ruby would become the protagonist and Jessie would become the antagonist.
KH: It’s curious to have her switch to protagonist come when she attempts to rape her, that’s an interesting choice.
NR: But I think there is much difference–I think, and I’m not a woman–between a female rape and a male rape. You know, the male rape, which is [symbolized by] Keanu Reeves, is very much based on violence and violations, and degrading, and pain.
CT: And child pornography was thrown in there.
NR: And that was a certain reference to: because beauty is also becoming younger and younger. My thirteen year old daughter is a target.
CT: It’s scary.
NR: It’s very scary. When I was a teenager, we didn’t–that was–I mean–it was still a little older. But now, of course, the idea of beauty, obsession, the longevity shrinking and everything is just becoming younger and younger and shrink and shrink and everything becomes younger and younger and younger. And that, to me, is extremely terrifying. And the idea that it starts just to feed on itself which is what the movie is about. And then, when Ruby comes into Jessie, she genuinely just wants to be with her and Jessie stops her. But, does she stop? It’s like, Ruby is almost led on and then being thrown away. But then still–and all Ruby just wants is just to love her, and she’s rejected and so of course she returns to what she knows about rejection because of death. And then at the beginning of the movie, Jessie is also death.
CT: Circle circle.
CL: She mentions– If anybody in their first few lines said to you how nice your skin is I think that that’s sort of a– [laughs]
NR: A warning?
CM: I thought it came to me when she rats her out at the night club when Sarah asks, or Gigi, says–
NR: “Your parents are dead!”
CM: Yeah, [it’s like:] can’t trust you with anything.
CL: There’s that weird tension too because that’s such a betrayal and in the hallway when she calls for her to come, there’s that weird tension when somebody’s stabbed you a little bit but then they’re also your only lifeline in that situation.
NR: And of course we see other parts of Jessie: is she an evil Dorothy or is she a deer in headlights?
KH: She’s a child.
CT: That’s the narcissist thing.
NR: But is she evil? Is she going into this knowing what’s going to happen?
CL: Like, how self aware is she from the beginning? It’s arguable how much is just the fashion show and the ego coming into it and how much ego is already present.
CT: Mhm, already present.
NR: There are three key scenes at the beginning. First one is when Ruby says “are you coming” and she smiles, like almost like “they bought it, I’m in.” And the second time is at the interview with Christina Hendricks, where Christina Hendricks asks about the photo and says “who took these” and she just says “it’s just some guy who met me online.” And then when she meets up with this very nice boy with beautiful biceps and he asks her very endearingly and passionately, like he really wants it to happen, like “what did they say about my pictures.” She lies.
CT: Sounds like the fashion industry to me.
Representative: Anybody want to ask one last question?
CL: I just had one about scoring a movie that either had dinosaurs, Will Ferrell, or that documents the 2016 presidential election.
CM: Is this something I’ve done and just forgotten about? [laughs]
CL: No, it’s what you would choose–
CM: I’m sorry what were those again?
CL: If you could choose to score a movie about dinosaurs that had Will Ferrell in it or was about the 2016 presidential election, which one would you choose?
CM: Oh, dinosaurs and Will Ferrell. Sign me up!
Kayleigh Hughes is a freelance writer and critic specializing in music, film, pop culture, and feelings. In addition to contributing to Loser City, she has written for Vox, Pitchfork, The Establishment, xoJane, Ovrld, and (614) Magazine. Talk to her about literally anything–she doesn’t have that many friends–on twitter or via email.