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James Franco Interviews Nicolas Winding Refn: His ‘Extreme’ Career, Cocaine and the ‘Ritualistic Witchcraft’ of ‘Neon Demon’

The friends and collaborators discuss Refn's entire career in an amazingly candid Q&A.

James Franco and Nicolas Winding Refn

James Franco and Nicolas Winding Refn

PJB/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock and Antonelli/AGF/REX/Shutterstock

JF: Let’s get into “Neon Demon.” You’re talking about tearing down and new trajectories. I worked with you shortly before “Only God Forgives” came out. So maybe that’s why I’m seeing things through the lens of that experience. But when you were talking about silence and film, and imagery being able to tell a story just as powerfully as words, that you are exploring in different ways over your past four movies, including “Neon Demon.”

NWR: I think that there’s certainly a kind of obsessiveness in trying to understand my own philosophy of  “less is more, nothing is everything.” But also you have to continue. I will not be controlled, defined, categorized, sometimes even understood. I will not be labeled. A part of it was also that I was interested in the sexual ambiguity that I played around with in “Bronson.” The idea of what it would be like to be a woman. Recently, someone said something very interesting and I didn’t realize it. With “Drive” you can say that I reached the height of my interest with male masculinity. So, with “Only God Forgives” it was very much about destroying that kind of all-powerful male speak, because part of “Only God Forgives” is about impotence. So sexual dysfunction because of the mother, which is in itself a very complex idea. But the idea of Ryan cutting up the womb of his mother, and sticking his hand in like he’s sexualizing it and crawling back into the womb, was a way for me to be born a 16-year-old girl in “Neon Demon.” It was a way for me to live out my own fantasy of what it would be like to be a beautiful woman.

You see, I wasn’t born beautiful. So I don’t know what that would be like. You’re good looking, James. I’m what they call “charismatic” if I’m lucky. You are beautiful, which is different. I didn’t get a girlfriend until I was 24. I’ve been with her all my life, but it wasn’t until I was 24.  When you and I met, and did the Gucci ad, I had already done some fashion work. I shot a Gucci ad with Blake Lively, who is an extremely beautiful woman. A beautiful creature. I was very aware of the fact of my own obsession with beauty and my own obsession with wanting to be a beautiful woman. So in a way, “Neon Demon” was my ability to live out that fantasy, and of course touching on my own thoughts regarding the obsession with beauty that we have in our world. The idea that obsession with beauty continues to rise and longevity continues to shrink and it’s becoming younger and younger so it will eventually feed on itself. I wanted to make a horror film about beauty.

Read More: ‘The Neon Demon’: Nicolas Winding Refn Anatomizes Elle Fanning’s Audition Scene for the New York Times

I thought the fashion world would be the perfect place to set a movie like this because it’s the heightened landscape of the obsession with beauty. It’s literally where people would say, “Beauty is everything, it’s the only thing.” Besides making a horror film, I wanted to make a science-fiction film. I wanted to make melodrama. I wanted to make camp. I wanted to make a comedy. I wanted to do everything that I was fetishizing about at that time when I was making the film and of course seeing it through the eyes of a young girl. She had to be 16, which led me to the opportunity to work with Elle Fanning. “Neon Demon” for me was like a ritualistic witchcraft analysis of beauty. It’s the creation of the demonic.

JF: That’s great. Tell me about the stylistic approach. The images are so precise. The rhythms, the way that the actors perform, the movements of the camera, the cuts, everything seems to move in it’s own rhythm. It’s all in the same controlled line. In that sense it’s a very different movie than other movies. How do you pull that off?

NWR: Sounds interesting. I’ll see that movie. But it’s all based on what I would like to see and then finding that combination of how to do it. One of the final frontiers that we can still continue to experiment with, and find new ways, is structure and rhythm. Those are two components we can use to travel into the beyond or the next level of this canvas of filmmaking, which is now becoming a digital canvas.

Read More: In ‘The Neon Demon,’ The Real Villain Is Female Competition – Girl Talk

I always felt that I was from the future, even when I was little. Coming to New York was like coming to an alien planet. The idea of questioning what the future is. With the “Neon Demon,” it was also about making a film from the future. It’s my own ritual of what this canvas can do. Beauty is so universal. On one level it can be dismissed as shallow, evil, or superficial. Something negative. On the other hand, it’s one of the most complex themes. It’s titillating. It’s exciting. It’s beautiful. It’s something that we can all relate to. It’s such a gigantic theme that, to me, it was like I wanted to make a film into a film that could be chopped up into small pieces because that’s what the future is going to be, like me turning the channels when I was little, but if I took all those channels together, the ritual became one clear emotion of everything. “The Neon Demon” was like everything around that I found interesting.

As you know, films begin to dictate how they want to be told. Sometimes they want to be told with the speed of light. Sometimes it’s the opposite. In the end though, it always comes down to the same approach; “less is more, nothing is everything.”

JF: Did you ever say “less is more, nothing is everything” to Elle Fanning on set?

NWR: I would say it repeatedly to her. I would also make her repeat it to me. Then I would say [instead of “Action!”], “So let’s fuck.”

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