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‘Neon Demon’s’ Refn inspired by beauty, death, selfies

How Nicolas Winding Refn went from macho male fanatasies to a horror movie about the modeling industry

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Nicolas Winding Refn had a vision in his head of a model, arched on a couch in a provocative pose, drenched in blood from the neck down.

The image represented beauty, death, and the death of beauty.

“I wondered, how I can make a movie about this? Where can I find it?” the director says.

That was the starting point for the visionary filmmaker’s latest provocation, “The Neon Demon.”

Like his previous films, which include “Bronson,” “Drive” and “Only God Forgives,” “The Neon Demon” is a highly stylized, darkly violent mood piece that will undoubtedly stoke a reaction, positive or negative.

The film received a vile reaction when it premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But to Refn, there’s a difference between getting slapped around by audiences and making films that polarize crowds.

“I fundamentally believe the act of creativity is about a reaction,” says the Danish-born director on the phone last week from Austin, Texas. “If you don’t challenge, if you don’t ask questions, if you don’t make experiences, then what’s the point, really?”

Refn — his last name is pronounced “Reff-in” — has been creating those experiences not only in films, but in his commercial work as well; he’s the director behind those mystifying Lincoln ads starring Matthew McConaughey.

Good, bad, it leaves an impression. And that’s what’s important to Refn.

Raised in New York by his stepfather and his strict mother, who rejected “anything that wasn’t Scandanavian,” Refn found his artistic path when as a 14-year-old he saw a screening of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” at Cinema Village in Manhattan.

“That movie had a profound effect on me, because I saw film as an art form,” says the 45-year-old, who wears dark-rimmed glasses and is usually seen in sharp, tailored clothing. “Film could be a painting, it could be a poem. Structure didn’t have to be conventional. It was relentless, anti-authority, and very frightening. And it made my mother very angry.”

Refn wrote and directed his first film, the violent crime tale “Pusher,” in 1996, and made four more films (including two sequels to “Pusher”) in Denmark before making a big splash with “Bronson,” which helped make a star out of Tom Hardy.

While his films have been largely macho explorations of the male id, Refn sees a direct line to “The Neon Demon.”

“With ‘Drive’ I reached a kind of high point of male fetish, and ‘Only God Forgives’ was about emasculating the exact same creation into basically crawling back into the womb of the mother,” he says. “And I always wondered why that was, and then it dawned on me: it was the only way I could be reborn as a 16-year-old girl.”

Also influencing “The Neon Demon” were his own children — he has two daughters with his wife, Danish actress Liv Corfixen — and his teenage daughter’s relationship with social media and selfie culture.

“Our children are exposed to this obsessiveness in a way that is partly very dangerous and partly very exhilarating,” says Refn.

“The younger generation is no longer inhibited by narcissism, it’s no longer something negative. It’s also scary, but the way that narcissism is celebrated as a virtue now, as a quality, it’s certainly expanding the mind of what we grew up with, and our parents before that,” he says. “It’s leading to a new reality.”

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