Rapid Round: 'Neon Demon' Director Nicolas Refn on How to Shoot a Sex Scene With a Cadaver

Elle Fanning and Nicholas Refn

The controversial Danish director spills the secrets behind his film about the beauty industry.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest movie, The Neon Demon, drew boos as well as cheers at a press screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But he wasn’t there to see it. “I wait outside [during screenings],” says the director. “I get very nervous. I never enjoy it.”

The Danish filmmaker got a much better reception that same evening in Cannes, when his in-competition movie received a 17-minute standing ovation (though it reportedly also led to two fights).

Refn has had other bouts with controversy. He was tossed out of drama school for throwing a table at a wall; he had a documentary made about how he recuperated from debt after making 2003’s Fear X; he apologized for his countryman Lars von Trier’s 2011 remarks at Cannes (when von Trier said, “I’m a Nazi,” and added that he “understands Hitler”), saying he was doing so on behalf of Denmark. Refn also once called himself a “pornographer.”

Demon, which opens June 24 and is being released by Broad Green Pictures and Amazon, is a visually stunning, female-centered horror film set in the modeling industry, about a young model (Elle Fanning) who moves to Los Angeles, where she competes against established models (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee) and befriends a makeup artist who may have ulterior motives (Jena Malone). It also stars Keanu Reeves.

How did the sex scene between Jena Malone's character and a female cadaver in a morgue come about?

I had just written that she only kisses the corpse and then we would cut to Elle. That’s what was in the script. And then we got ready to do it and I sat there with the camera — because I like to operate — and she kisses the corpse, and then I say: “Can you spit in her mouth?” And she spits in her mouth. What was great was, that’s where we found the character. And then all I needed to do was change the second half. I was shooting in chronological order, but the morgue scene had to be shot earlier because I wanted to shoot in a real morgue. So Jena had to do the morgue scene the first week.

So you were lucky you shot that out of order?

It was like God had a plan, because it changed everything. Originally she was going to die, but after that scene I decided she was not going to die anymore. Something else is going to happen. So I changed the second half of the movie. I said, “You’ll have a script in a couple of weeks.” And we were shooting at the same time.

You got boos and cheers at Cannes. Do you enjoy watching people watch your movies?

No, not at all. I wait outside. I get very nervous. I never enjoy it. I admire people that love it and laugh at their own jokes and eat popcorn, but I’m just too anxious.

How do you relate to the story of a young woman in the fashion industry?

I don’t relate to the story of a young woman in the fashion industry, but I found the fashion industry very intoxicating. I mean, I’ve done a lot of fashion work, which I very much enjoy. So I found the backdrop of that world very imaginative, because it’s heightened reality. It’s a perfect mixture of vulgarity and glamor. It started with: I wanted to make a horror film about beauty. But where best to place it, in terms of my own children and their exposure to the digital revolution, is the world of fashion, because that form of obsession has kind of just taken over everyday life for them. So it was something that I could relate to through them, in a way. 

Speaking of beauty, what’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?

Well, the birth of my children was, of course, extremely beautiful. But probably the most beautiful thing was when the midwife held up the afterbirth of my first daughter. She held it up against a fluorescent light in the room, and it was transparent, and you can see all the veins. And she said, “This is what we call the tree of life.” And I thought, “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

What’s the ugliest thing you’ve seen?

Well, it’s hard, because I kind of don’t really remember anything ugly in life. I mean, of course there are things you don’t appreciate, but who am I to say that it’s ugly?

You have two daughters. Would you let them join the entertainment industry?

Well, yes. My eldest has already asked her mother when she can be a model.

That’s not terrifying?

No, I would never stop my kids living out what they would like to try. You just have to know how to navigate it.

Have you talked to Ryan Gosling, whom you directed in Drive and Only God Forgives, about working together again?

All the time. I got a text an hour ago about it. Clearly he and I are very close personally, and we’re very professionally close. And I think he’s everything to me. So of course we will work together again. I mean, we’re the best at it.

What has been the best moment of your career?

Well, it’s hard to say what the best moment is because there’s been so many fun or crazy, exciting moments. I would probably say the most significant moment was many years ago when I made a massive failure, because without that failure, I wouldn’t have done all the other things that came after.

What is your favorite thing about the film industry?

Unpredictability.

And your least favorite?

Everyone telling me they have an answer.

What’s next for you?

I'm not sure. Probably a spy movie, but I haven’t written it yet.

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