Director Nicolas Winding Refn Discusses the Symbolism within “The Neon Demon”
How often have you sat in a theatre watching a unique film unfold and thought, “I wish I could ask the director about THAT scene!”? Nicolas Winding Refn‘s “The Neon Demon” invoked similar feelings in us as it’s loaded with beautiful visuals, graphic horror, and drenched in symbolism. With its release on Amazon Prime this week, we had the opportunity to revisit the film and chat with NWR regarding some its more intriguing (bizarre?) moments.
Some of the highlights include Nicolas explaining how he’s able to create such unique visuals while being color blind and describing the dangerous, animalistic allure LA has to him. There’s also some rather special hearing his delighted chuckle when the infamous eyeball scene is mentioned.
You can read the full interview below, or listen to it on our Soundcloud channel:
TCF: I know you’ve probably been asked thousands of times what the title means, but my question is a little different. When you chose this title were you intentionally being ambiguous or was there a specific thing that “The Neon Demon” was when writing the story?
NWR: Well it started in a way to describe the entity but then it became very clear, very quickly, in the shoot that the Neon Demon was essentially going to be Elle Fanning. And so everything made sense after that, but that is the fun part. Sometimes you know the act of just feeling something as well but now always knowing what it leads to can be very intriguing.
So in your process of creating this film, did this particular title come up front or did that come at the end as you know you saw this character.
No, it came kind of at the end, but before the shooting begin. The script was pretty much nearing its end when I came up with the title and I wanted the title to have certain elements that I was drawn to and I did the whole classic word game. It was various words found on index cards and then I started seeing where they would lead to.
It does seem to be a very fitting and evocative title, which is perfect for this film. What was your inspiration behind this story, was it something you just came up with or if you have personally witnessed fame and fashion devour innocent souls?
[Laughs] I have not personally had that experience, and I think that it was more that I wanted to make beauty, and the insanity of beauty and the fashion world was just a great factor of course. I make everything pretty much based on what I would like to see.
You mentioned beauty, in context to this film, what do you find more attractive, confidence or innocence?
That’s a good answer. I know many times people will say that it is confidence that they find attractive, but I’ve noticed in the movie as certain characters gain more confidence they actually became less attractive and more of a monster.
Right, right it usually ends up like that.
Yes definitely, the ending was quite unexpected
In what way?
Watching it I saw the path, it was going. You know it was a very dark fairy-tale as I would call it and it turns into a horror story at the end. There are hints that these other characters want to consume her in one way or the other. I was just not expecting literal consumption I guess and without giving anything away but the eyeball scene at the end was shocking.
That’s good. [Laugh]
Again, was that your intention was it meant to be a shock, or were you having fun with the audience or…?
Well, it’s what the whole movie is about, insanity and beauty, you know. It’s very much like fairy tales , there’s always some very extreme catharsis that it leads towards.
I see. I’ve noticed like that is a common theme in a lot of your films, it’s a fairy tale, a hyper-realistic fairy tale, and I also see a lot of transformation themes, the change of the character, they’re very large story arcs of character arcs. What draws you to these particular types of stories?
I don’t know, I wish I did but I don’t really. I just make films on based what I would like to see. I find transformation very compelling, because it’s about movement, but its movement can be moving in different ways. So it’s transformation but it’s also about standing still. I find storytelling is more compelling if the movie is actually standing still, but it’s you who is watching it and going to go from A to B, not the film. That’s where transformation comes in, of course.
One of the things I enjoyed about the movie, to me it was eye candy in the purest form in so many different levels. I have also referred to it as being like “color porn,” but then I was actually shocked to learn that you were color blind. Is that right?
How does that work, with something so dependent on colors, how do you create that?
Well, I just have to base, everything has to be made so that I could see it, and I can only see extreme colors.
That is why there is so much contrast in working with lightness and shadow right? In a lot of your films. Who makes these color choices if you can only see the extremes and you are only working with contrasts? Is that done be the DP or your art director?
I just tell everyone that it has to have as much contrast as possible and in the final production stages, that’s where I kind of finish the look of the movie at the final evolution of it. But before that there are just certain things people can’t use because I can’t see them.
It certainly lends to very unique and great looking films. You definitely have a style that stands out from the other directors.
Thank you, it’s like using your handicap as an advantage.
They always say that handicaps like that force you to be more creative in different ways.
Oh absolutely! And creativity, it’s about taking advantage of your weakness and turning them into your strengths.
I have a few questions about the symbolism in the film, some of them I think are fairly obvious, but there are a few moments that I was just confounded. What is the significance of the cougar that shows up in her room? Does it have significance? Is it a play on words and that you’ve got to watch out for the older cougars or are they going to tear you apart or…
Partly. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. I love the idea of the mythology of an animal, you know.There is some sense of an entity around them. A sense of prey. And beauty and fear and it’s also very sexy. And very seductive. Mountain lions like panthers and that breed of animals is so compelling and it’s so sexy and scary and sleek. It’s dangerous but yet you are drawn to it.
Yes, I think that is an excellent parallel.
And also the whole idea of LA, and its attitude towards animals you know.
Do you live in LA or only when you are shooting particular films.
No, I live in Copenhagen. The place America would have been if Bernie Sanders had won.
Yes, if only! So continuing on the symbolism theme here, something else that popped up a lot and I’m not sure if it had relevance was the shape of triangles, these triangles that are nested inside of themselves, and I noticed that it was very prevalent in the fashion show, and in that particular fashion show the Elle Fanning character, Jesse, makes her main transformation from being innocent to being this demonic character. Is there any significance to this shape or is it again just something that was visually appealing?
It’s the shape of the Neon Demon. It’s what the Neon Demon looks like. I felt the design of the three points was just a classic satanic symbol and in a way, and you can say that Neon Demon is on long control of beauty, like a witchcraft. In the occults the triangle is a very powerful image. It’s very female empowerment, and each point on the triangle represents the three witches, Sara, Ruby and Gigi and it was made neon because the film is called the Neon Demon.
Now would you consider Ruby as one of the villains? By the end of it, she is, but I felt that she was more one of the sympathetic characters in the entire film.
Well I would say that she starts as the antagonist, then becomes the protagonist or just as Jesse starts off as being the protagonist she ends up being the antagonist.
I think we have to wrap it up pretty quick here, one final question. Of all the features you have made so far, is there one that is your personal favorite?
I try to never even contemplate that kind of a question; I wouldn’t know how to answer it.
I guess they are kind of like your children right? You don’t want to love one more than the other.
Yeah. How can you even ask that? It’s too difficult! [Laughs] I leave that to experts like you, to feel what is the most right thing to answer.
Well, I think that is all subjective. When I personally create something, I always have certain elements that I enjoy more than the others. Things that I think I have succeeded on personally, but as a critic, it’s all subjective. I mean we can only look at it from our own perspective.
But that s when it becomes interesting, there is something to discuss and argue about.
Yeah, that’s true. Nicolas, thank you for taking time out to talk to us today.
“The Neon Demon” will be available for streaming on November 3rd only on AMAZON PRIME.