Interview: Nicolas Winding Refn

The Danish director speaks to Tom Huddleston about his provocative style as he sets his sights on the world of fashion in his latest film

Nicolas Winding Refn

Did you know there was an article in the Daily Mail calling for the British Board of Film Classification to ban The Neon Demon?
“Fucking A. Come on, the kids love it! And I love it. Absolutely love, love, love it. It’s not so much about publicity, it’s that art is mostly interesting when it’s combined with controversy.”

But creating controversy is easy, you just need to depict something horrific. Is there a line that you draw?
“I only draw a line on what I would like to see. I can only use myself as the audience. If I want to see it, I’m cool with it. If I don’t want to see it, I wouldn’t do it.”

Is that a moral decision or an aesthetic one?
“It’s a combination. Like when I make advertisements, there are certain things I will not advertise. I won’t do toys, or soft drinks, or anything geared towards children. And that’s out of moral choice.”

You clearly see yourself as an anti-establishment figure, but can you be the director of multi-million-dollar movies and be truly anti-establishment?
“Absolutely, because I make them inexpensively. Art and commerce walk hand in hand. You can have all the contractual creative power you ever want, but what defines true creative freedom is the money, and the less you have to make back, the more creative freedom you have. I make a balance so I can do whatever I want, knowing it’s going to be okay. That gives me the security of approaching art as it should be, a very singular expression.”

So you don’t remotely care about negative reactions to your films?
“Do you expect me to cry? The attack’s on me – that’s the whole point of it. If you don’t react to what I do, why would you want to spend two hours with me? Why not just stay home and watch television?Only God Forgives had a very violent reaction. People were extremely negative. But what was great about it was that all the people who were young at heart got it, and the others went out there to tear it down. But no matter what, it’s still out there.”

You’ve said in interviews that you made The Neon Demon because there’s a 16-year-old girl in every man.
“Beauty is an intoxicating and powerful thing. It’s so universal. It’s vulgarity and it’s glamour. It’s the lowest common denominator; it’s the highest form of art. It’s shallow as hell but it’s the most complex because it asks a lot about who we are, how we live our lives and how we view other people. I wasn’t born beautiful, but I wonder what it’s like. There’s a part of me that fantasizes about all that, immersing myself in it. And my films are just my fantasies, whether it’s of masculinity, with Ryan [Gosling], or if it’s the pure girliness of Elle Fanning.”

The movie asks a lot of its lead actress. What led you to Elle Fanning?
“She was the only one. It was all about getting her into this film. We met at my house and ironically my agenda was to get her in the movie and her agenda was to be in the movie, so it took half an hour. ‘Great! We’re shooting in eight weeks!’ It was like the first meeting between Ryan [Gosling] and me; God had some kind of plan. She’s so unique. You can’t just say she’s talented and beautiful – she’s beyond all those conventions, she just has that… thing.”

What are your feelings towards the world of fashion?
“Fashion is not a very interesting world; I don’t read the magazines. But I have a lot of respect for it, I’ve done fashion commercials and I find it very amusing and campy and ridiculous. It’s intoxicating and seductive and sexy. I didn’t have any interest in making a documentary. But I’d also never criticize it, because I think it’s great fun.”