Summoning The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn, Cliff Martinez on horror and fashion

Repulsion and obsession are the opposing and attracting poles of the magnetic force of attraction. For haute couture horror The Neon Demon, director Nicolas Winding Refn wanted to dissect the terrifying power of beauty. He said, "We can’t run from the fact that what appalls us we’re equally drawn to."

Winding Refn’s films to date have centered on male protagonists in masculine-dominated environments – Viking warriors and Crusaders in Valhalla Rising, gangsters in Only God Forgives, Drive, and the Pusher trilogy. However, The Neon Demon (the latest of the Drafthouse Recommends series) reverses the equation, pushing the men into background roles and instead focusing intently on women.

Elle Fanning (Maleficent, Trumbo) plays Jesse, a young model fresh off the Greyhound in Los Angeles, who is taken under the wing of makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone, Inherent Vice, The Hunger Games franchise) as the fashion industry tries to tear her apart. But Winding Refn's story (co-scripted with Polly Stenham and Mary Laws) doesn't take the ingenue at face value. He said, “Was she a deer in the headlights, or was she an evil Dorothy?"

However, Winding Refn said the roots of The Neon Demon really lie in 2008’s Bronson. In it, Tom Hardy plays British career criminal Michael Peterson, who renamed himself Charles Bronson after his favorite actor. The director described it as being about someone who "fell in love with his alter ego and then gave up on sex,” which makes it a close kin to his new creation. “They have two very similar constructions. Bronson is about your alter ego, and The Neon Demon is about your narcissism.”

The Neon Demon also marks Winding Refn’s third collaboration with composer and longtime Steven Soderbergh associate Cliff Martinez (The Knick, Contagion, Solaris), who highlighted the director’s unpredictability. He cited what a music teacher had told him about composition: “You fulfill the listener’s expectations about 85 percent of the time, and defy them about 15 percent of the time. You go any higher than that, and you just have chaos, and people get pissed off and stop listening. Nicolas’ ratio is much higher. He likes to throw a curve ball at a much higher rate, and I like to do the same.”

Winding Refn concurred: “It’s about making films that go exactly against the expectation. Because that is when it starts to get interesting, both for the viewer and for us creating them.”

Austin Chronicle: Your last film, Only God Forgives had a very slow, very rhythmical, almost dreamlike pacing, and it almost felt like you were reacting against that here. This is your most visually and sonically aggressive movie since Bronson, so how much of an active decision was that, to be that confrontational?

Nicolas Winding Refn: I think one of the last frontiers in terms of expanding a film experience is structure. So when anyone asks me about this sense of structure and storyline, then there is a way to look at it from what is considered normal. But then, within that world, you can expand it, you stretch it, you can condense it. And sound, which is an emotional reaction more than anything else – because it’s not particularly intellectual, it speaks to the heart.

At the same time, stretching time is an emotional experience. Like forcing your heart to slow down. In a way, the most radical thing you can be these days is slow, strangely enough. Or silent.

AC: You take some audacious decisions with the sound design. Dropping dialogue out, pumping up the music super-loud, having near silence for long periods of time.

NWR: Sound is one of those undiscovered territories, where it’s such a powerful mechanism but it’s hard to put a definition, because it’s all about emotions. Because sound is the last phase of the evolution of a movie, sometimes it’s not taken very seriously, or it’s something to underscore the image. Or the music is there to make sure things are working in the background, and it’s all about what’s happening in the foreground, which is usually the photography or the actor.

But I believe the sound and music, it all speaks to here [points to his chest], and the more you can manipulate it as a tool, as a character, the more subconscious, subliminal things creep forward.

AC: How early did Nicolas tell you what he was intending to do, Cliff, especially considering how much structure he was putting into the sound design, and what did he explain to you that he wanted?

Cliff Martinez: Long before the script, even, Nicolas was giving me his ideas. No other director brings me in at the ground floor. We begin a dialogue early on, which is great because a lot of the best material came to the surface almost subconsciously. To have that incubation period be so long is very atypical.

But the rubber meets the road when you start seeing the picture. So when Nicolas gave me the rough cut, he had put in temporary music to indicate where music starts and stops. From there, the conversation was about dramatic intention.

AC: So how much was it about putting the music into proscribed places in the soundscape, and how much were you able to say, ‘I think it will really help to have a piece here?’

NWR: We’d done musical reference in terms of where the music should come and go, and a temp score by Bernard Herman that was very different to what Cliff was going to do, but it showed the emotional in-and-out. At the same time, I always said to Cliff, "If there’s any other place you feel like coming in on, I’m all ears."

CM: It seems like, with each successive film, the interaction becomes less verbal and more intuitive. At this point, I think there’s even some psychic collaboration going on. I had an early vision about a musical sparkle, I guess you’d call it, musical glitter. Not having seen the closing title scenes, but when I saw it I went, "Oh, there’s the sparkles."

NWR: And you recorded it where? Death Valley? And the irony is that in the script, and I took it out, she comes from Death Valley.

CM: This kind of stuff happens, and I just go, "OK, now we’re finally connecting. There’s synchronicity."


The Neon Demon opens this weekend. For review and showtimes, visit our listings page.

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Drafthouse Recommends, Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon, Cliff Martinez

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