Birth. Movies. Interview: Nicolas Winding Refn And Cliff Martinez Talk THE NEON DEMON

Jacob Knight interviews the director and composer of 2016's strangest horror movie.

Over the course of three films (Drive, Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon), Nicolas Winding Refn and Cliff Martinez have developed a set of distinct soundtracks that are just as sonically impressive as the Danish director’s idiosyncratic visual style. Drive features a concoction of ambient electronic drifts and pop catchiness, while the OST for Only God Forgives creeps up on the viewer like a maniacal karaoke slayer, ready to plunge a steel blade into their back. With The Neon Demon, driving 4/4 club beats have been added to the mix, providing a dance flair to the movie’s cold, terrifying tale of a young model (Elle Fanning) navigating the seedy world of LA centerfolds. Emotionally distant and completely engrossing, The Neon Demon is yet another daft deconstruction from two men who have made slices of impressionistic genre cinema their forte.

We had a chance to sit down with Refn and Martinez for a discussion that covered The Neon Demon, its influences, and just what the hell a Refn/Martinez musical might actually look like…

BMD: With each of your movies, there seems to be a very basic notion or image that’s expanded upon. With Drive, it was a guy who cruised around at night listening to pop music. With Only God Forgives, it was “a man who wants to fight God”. What was the initial seed for The Neon Demon?

Nicolas Winding Refn: Opening shot – Elle Fanning lying on the couch, covered in blood. Death and beauty. Snow White just died.

BMD: You and Cliff have become frequent collaborators. With Drive, there was a mix of ambient drifts and pop music. With Only God Forgives, it was a sort of electro horror score. Neon Demon almost sounds like a club record. I wanted to put it in my car as soon as the film ended. How do you guys determine the sonic design of each OST?

NWR: I don’t think we come up with it. For me, it comes organically. When we start talking about the concept, the images come together, and Cliff takes it away and does his thing.

Cliff Martinez: The film steers the ship; gives you the structure and the ideas. Interestingly, I don’t see the three works as fitting into distinct categories as you just described. They always seem like they blurred together. We both share a love of sparse electronic music. We both love '70s and '80s electronic music. I think every work shares these sensibilities. We’ve always talked about Kraftwerk, Goblin, [Giorgio] Moroder – those artists have always been reference points. It always seems like an evolution to me, but we’ve always tried to consciously steer clear of past work. But can we actually escape our pasts?

NWR: I think you can by just evolving. Look at the high point of Bowie’s career. Every album was different, but there was always some sort of unifying element. You just have to do it in a different way.

CM: Maybe the pounding 4/4 rhythm is a new wrinkle, and that’s what kind gives it that…

[Refn starts making disco high hat noises with his mouth.]

CM: Yeah, that thing.

BMD: I guess the club imagery from Neon Demon is also what got stuck in my head. Strobe lights and floating, bound, naked bodies. Obviously kind of a perverted, whacked out club…

NWR: I think they have them in Texas…

BMD: I don’t know, man. I mean, I’m definitely still looking…

There are long, silent sequences in each movie you’ve made together that are set to music…

CM: And they’re getting longer…

BMD: But I kinda like that.

CM: So does the music department.

BMD: Have you guys ever considered ever doing a full-blown musical?

CM: He keeps threatening to do a silent movie.

NWR: Just music everywhere! The musical idea is so interesting. I’d love to do a musical.

CM: I just can’t stand people singing their dialogue. It’s the worst.

[Refn begins singing lines of dialogue like ad-libbed show tunes.]

BMD: But you could always do something along the lines of a “non-traditional” musical. Something like Streets of Fire or Purple Rain, where the performances are inserted amongst the narrative and speak more to themes and character.

NWR: Purple Rain is the Holy Grail. But then Cliff would have to be in it…in high heels, of course.

CM: I could do that. Do I have to grow a mustache?

NWR: Purple Rain is just an incredible movie with the greatest soundtrack ever written. That was the first album I ever got where I thought it was written specifically for me. It was given to me by Brigitte Stallone.

BMD: So do you think that’s what your musical would look like: a silent movie?

CM: I thought we were halfway there with Only God Forgives, frankly.

NWR: Yeah, that’s pretty close! I really like The Who’s Tommy, too. I’d probably steal a bunch from that. It’s a great rock musical. But Cliff’s aversion to sung dialogue really throws me off…

BMD: It’s doesn’t have to be like a Jacques Demy movie or anything.

NWR: Well, Demy’s movies were incredible. Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an absolute masterpiece. But I think Demy’s words were irrelevant, because he visually told the story so well. The dialogue ended up becoming part of the movie’s playfulness. [looks to Cliff] Have you ever seen that one?

CM: No, I really don’t know what you guys are talking about.

NWR: It’s amazing – Catherine Deneuve in one of her first roles.

CM: So they’re singing the dialogue in French?

NWR: Yeah. It’s amazing to the ear.

BMD: It’s almost like a pop operetta.

CM: What period are we talking about?

BMD: 1964, I believe.

NWR: It’s a classic. We have to watch it together sometime. You’ll flip. He’s putting ideas in our head.

BMD: Well, whatever your guys’ musical looks like, I’d watch the shit out of it.

Nicolas, you’re obviously a rather devoted cinephile – you’re involved in AGFA, you present screenings at Fantastic Fest. You ooze love for movies. What’d you look to for inspiration with Neon Demon?

NWR: It doesn’t really work that way for me. I get most of my inspiration from not seeing anything. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t get inspired when I watch stuff – I’ll steal left, right and center because that’s what you do. But it’s more like – I’m gonna tell you a movie I was super fascinated by: Night Tide. That bled into Neon Demon quite a bit.

BMD: The Curtis Harrington film?

NWR: It’s a movie I love so much that I bought the negative to add to my private collection.

BMD: I remember talking to you about it last year when your book [“The Act of Seeing”] came out.

NWR: I’m a huge admirer of Curtis. His biography is so sad. I also looked to a film called Liquid Sky.

BMD: Ah, the New Wave heroin aliens movie from the early '80s…

NWR: You’ve actually seen that?

BMD: I saw it in Philly a few years ago with the director in attendance.

NWR: How is that guy? I hear he’s kinda reclusive.

BMD: Daylight is not his friend. Let’s put it that way.

NWR: Liquid Sky is the best movie about the '80s New York club scene ever made.

BMD: You talk about stealing from other movies and, a few years back, you threatened at a screening you presented to lift a whole scene from The Astrologer. I was looking for it the whole time while watching the movie. Did it make it in?

[Refn thinks for a moment.]

NWR: No. It didn’t. I talk a lot of shit. I say a lot of things. That doesn’t mean I’m gonna actually do them.

The Astrologer has the most amazing dialogue. What was that scene? Near the end, when the main character’s friend goes “you’re not an astrologer…”

BMD: “…you’re an asshole.”

NWR: [turns to Cliff] This is the most amazing movie you could ever imagine. It’s written, directed, produced and stars one guy. It’s about an astrologer who rises to fame and travels the globe and then, of course, fails miserably. It’s from that weird period in the '70s where anybody could make a movie if they raised the cash.

CM: Is it underground or something?

BMD: It’s that same DIY period that produced dudes like Duke Mitchell who just made the nuttiest outsider art imaginable.

NWR: I just bought a movie called Speed Lovers.

BMD: I don’t know that one.

NWR: It’s again one of those one man army types like you just described. It’s about NASCAR driving. It’s amazing.

But don’t worry. The Astrologer reference will be in the next one.

BMD: Your movies always straddle genre, for lack of a better term. Do you consider Neon Demon your horror picture? Because again – it kinda is, and it kinda isn’t.

NWR: Like Charlie Bronson says in Bronson: “can’t put me in a box, mate.”

There’s a lot horror in Neon Demon. For God’s sake, the poor girl gets into all kinds of trouble. But it’s also a coming of age movie; a melodramatic, campy, funny, glamorous, suspenseful, existential, partly science fiction, film full of color. So add the horror to that mix.

BMD: Did you ever see Der Fan? It’s a German film from the early '80s where a girl becomes obsessed with a pop musician. It’s also called Trance in certain countries. It ends very similarly to yours in that it involves blood and guts and some cannibalism.

NWR: Holy shit.

BMD: You might dig it.

So what’s next for you two?

NWR: Well, I’m producing Maniac Cop and there’s the What Have You Done to Solange? remake. As far as directing: who knows?

CM: I’m currently working on a film called The Foreigner. It’s got Pierce Brosnan, Jackie Chan and it’s directed by Martin Campbell.

BMD: You’re scoring a Jackie Chan movie?

CM: Yeah, it’s super exciting. My first action film.

BMD: Again – I will watch the shit out of that.

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