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Three years after tearing up the Croisette with his ultra-violent, shocking and divisive Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn is back in competition in Cannes with The Neon Demon, a horror film set in Los Angeles’ fashion world.
It’s the second film the Dane has shot in L.A., following his breakthrough feature Drive, which won Refn best director honors in Cannes in 2011. But this time, the focus has shifted from the macho figures of his previous work to a female protagonist: Jesse, played by Elle Fanning, an aspiring model who moves to L.A. only to be assaulted by beauty-obsessed women who want, literally, to devour her youth.
Refn, 45, who is married to Danish actress-director Liv Corfixen, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his love for ’70s disco, his search to find “the 16-year-old girl inside of me” and why, after Only God Forgives, he considers himself to be the “Sex Pistols of cinema.”
What was behind your impulse to make The Neon Demon?
I think someone made me aware that on Drive, I’d reached the ultimate fetishized masculinity — that there was a homoeroticism between myself and Ryan [Gosling]. So I wanted my next film, Only God Forgives, to be the exact opposite. A bit like Lou Reed going from Transformer to Metal Machine. It was about distortion, deconstruction and about a man crawling back into the womb of his mother, because he was chained to her … the very opposite of the fetishized masculinity of Drive.
And now that I was inside the womb again, what would be next? Of course, I really believe there is a 16-year-old girl inside of every man, and I wanted to make The Neon Demon about the 16-year-old girl inside of me.
And that is what got me obsessive moving towards to wanting to make this film. And there were some practicalities involved, like my wife would only move to L.A.. So I had to figure out a story set in L.A. I had done some really endurable fashion campaigns, so I was very interested in that world. And actually I’ve been trying to make a horror film for many years and had written down many ideas. I took them out and I could see a pattern that I could use. And that became The Neon Demon. In the end I wanted to make a teenage horror film.
Is the fashion world a particularly apt setting for a horror film?
Not necessarily. I think the fashion industry is horribly entertaining.
Is Elle Fanning’s character in this film your alter ego, as Ryan Gosling and Mads Mikkelsen’s characters have been in your previous films?
Oh, absolutely. It can only work that way. Anything I do has to lead back to me. I’m very self-absorbed in that way. I like to collaborate. But everything that is happening has to lead back to me. It’s a way of cleansing my inner demons.
Was the experience different, working from a female perspective and with a mainly female cast?
No, no. It was just very enjoyable. Going to film every day where everyone looks glamorous and everything is very melodramatic. It’s fun. There is nothing better than women in this world.
This is your second film, after Drive, set in L.A. How do you view the city?
I love L.A. I absolutely love it. It is one of my favorite places in the world. It is a very magical landscape. It is like the last place the settlers decided to say, “OK, we’re done, we can’t go any further.” There is something very “final frontier” about Los Angeles. This is the end of the West. It is a city very much built on illusions. It’s built on a desert, usually considered desert land, but you have this whole metropolitan megacity created on that basis. It is a city of dreams. (Laughs.)
How does that setting feed into the themes of The Neon Demon?
There is a whole, sub mini-genre of virginity coming to the big city. They’ve been making that movie for a long time. It was also my own situation coming here to do Drive. It was this whole stepping into this world of mega-dreams.
Have you gotten the city out of your system with this film, or would you revisit L.A.? Maybe a sequel to Drive?
I am not doing a sequel to Drive, I’ll give you that much. Though I should be careful. I always said I was never going to do a sequel to my first Pusher film, and look what happened. [Refn shot two sequels to Pusher.] But no, I would love to do more movies in L.A. And I will do more movies here, because I love being here.
Is there a particular film or helmer that you think has been especially influential on your directing style?
Well, I like all kinds of movies, so it is hard to pick out something specific, but when I was making The Neon Demon, I was listening to a lot of [pioneering disco producer] Giorgio Moroder. I think that was the biggest influence. His late 1970s, early ’80s work … he was very inventive in that period, had a certain beat. That late ’70s disco beat that started to get electronic. I think I played him 24 hours a day, driving everyone completely insane. But it was a great inspiration.
How much influence does music have on how you make your films?
Oh, it’s everything. I play music when I write it. I play music in preproduction. I play music when we are shooting. It is very much a part of the anatomy. And Cliff Martinez, who does the soundtrack, he is very, very instrumental in how the film turns out. I always know he is going to come in to do the soundtrack. I am very involved, but he is the composer. Cliff is just amazing. He’s very integrated into our lives. He did the music for my wife’s documentary. We are very close.
Your wife’s film, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, explored the making of Only God Forgives up to its premiere in Cannes, where it was one of the most controversial and divisive films of the festival.
We all knew it should have gotten the Palme d’Or, but OK, it didn’t. But with that film, I became the Sex Pistols of cinema, you know? It was so polarizing that it became a much bigger financial success. All this controversy makes it a very lucrative investment for my investors. Of course it was overwhelming at first, with all the harsh reactions. I was sitting on a yacht with Cliff Martinez in Cannes, a day after the premiere. And we were talking about all the, well, operatic reviews that were coming in. But all the kids online were loving it.
If you can evoke so many emotions with something so simple in 90 minutes, obviously it really penetrated the mind. And then it’s sort of irrelevant if it is good or bad. Because art isn’t really based on good or bad. It’s not why you enjoy it or create it. It’s rather: Does it touch you? And how does it touch you? That, I think, is much more interesting. So as long as your movies make money, you are always going to be able to make more movies and so far that has been my situation. So, despite what anybody thinks, knock on wood, I’ve been very lucky.
You sound very confident, but in your wife’s documentary, you seem a lot more questioning and anxious about whether the film will work.
But that’s the same on every movie. It’s the same thing on Drive, the same thing on Only God Forgives, the same thing on Bronson [and] on this film. You love it, then you doubt it and you’re nervous. Then you love it, then doubt it and you’re nervous. And what it all comes down to is: Will the movie make its money back, so the investors will give me money to make my next movie? And that’s the only single thing that I really do concern myself with. Because I want to make films. I need to make films.
But as far as the process, it’s the same thing on every movie. But I can’t say it to anyone because I can never show weakness or doubt or paranoia. Because if I’m paranoid, everyone else is going to get paranoid. I can only say it to my wife. And then she made a movie about it. Which is really about her and what she has to deal with. And if she should divorce me or not.
Actually, speaking as a husband, it’s more terrifying than any of the movies you’ve made.
Yes, it was.
Why did you go with Amazon for this movie?
The Amazon deal came in a wonderful way, because I didn’t expect it. I suddenly got a call from [Amazon Studios’ marketing and distribution head] Bob Berney, and he said, “I’m with Amazon now.” And he and [Amazon executives] Ted [Hope] and Scott [Foundas] came to Copenhagen and saw the movie, and we made a deal … the best offer I have ever gotten in my life.
I think what Amazon is doing, for a person like me, is just the best-case scenario. They give their films a strong theatrical push, because they believe the cinema is the best place to see a film. It’s also a very strong push into the world of streaming, which is the future of cinema. For a company to be on both sides of the fence and to be creative in understanding and utilizing both tools — it’s the best possible way. I have never been in a better situation than that.
You have been connected with studio films before, including Logan’s Run and The Equalizer, but have never made a film with them. Are your methods incompatible with the way the studios work?
I love the studios. I love meeting with people from the studios. There have been some great opportunities. Hopefully something with come up. But for a person like me, Amazon is just a really great partner. I think they very much represent the future of film and television. And I’m from the future, so I know what I’m talking about.
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