On the phone from his Copenhagen kitchen the week before Cannes, Nic Winding Refn knows the drill. He’d already brought two violent underworld thrillers starring Ryan Gosling to compete at Cannes, and served on the jury. Los Angeles-set “Drive” was a global hit, while “Only God Forgives,” set in Thailand, was more divisive and controversial.
So as soon as Refn finished his latest film, horror story “The Neon Demon” (which had already been acquired by his “Drive” distributor Bob Berney for Amazon Studios release, one of five in the festival), he submitted it to Cannes. “Then you hold your breath as long as you can,” he told me. “I was lucky I didn’t have to hold it for too long. I was able to go on living.”
And Refn loves being in the Competition in Cannes. “I’ve only had wonderful Cannes experiences,” he said. “It’s like the first time was magical because it was so unexpected, the result that came out of it was fantastic. The second time with ‘Only God Forgives,’ I became the Sex Pistols of the cinema. There’s a very sadistic pleasure in seeing reactions to the things we do… they’re very operatic in their reactions. Because ‘Drive’ was mixed, people who loved it were very passionate, people who hated it were very operatic.
“With ‘Only God Forgives,’ there was lots more opera going on at the same time,” he said. ‘It was the establishment versus all of the kids who were loving it and eating it up. That’s what’s great about art, no matter how much people react, it’s good. The whole notion of good or bad— it’s not even significant. It’s, Do you react? How does it resonate? There’s a general fear that if you are not liked, something bad will happen. That’s not true. Sometimes things become more interesting.”
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So, Refn sought out a strong reaction at Cannes: “Controversy is just too good, it’s fucking great! When you’re from the future, for the fools like me, it’s like Christmas, it’s just going to be really exciting.”
At the behest of his wife, the Danish filmmaker shot “The Neon Demon” in Los Angeles. “It’s the only place my wife Liv wanted to go after Bangkok,” he said. “‘OK, so I’d better figure out a movie to do in L.A.’ When I’m at home, I am very passive, submissive, sadomasochistic. I am completely dominated by women.”
Luckily, Refn likes the city where he shot “Drive.” Wooing Gosling to take the role was a memorable day. “I had a high fever and was on drugs that made me extremely high,” he recalled. “American pharmaceuticals are not the same as in Scandinavia. We had never met before, and had an awkward dinner that didn’t turn out well. I asked him to give me a lift home, because I’d be driving stoned out of my mind, and he was very relaxed and calm but I built myself into a frenzy of crying. He said, ‘We are going to make the movie,’ he filled the car with music as an emotional release, I was screaming at Ryan as he’s driving. [he said] ‘I’m in.’ That’s how we fell in love, literally.”
“The Neon Demon” is set in a bloodthirsty, competitive milieu within L.A.’s fashion world, where Elle Fanning plays a young model. The setting allows Refn to frighten the audience, as well as wow them with gorgeous images.
“She’s a 16-year-old-girl version of me,” he said, “coming to LA, having been born beautiful. Then you have to see what happens after that… If you go to a movie and watch some of the great painters, they are always very esthetic. There’s great drama and horror in it, so the more pleasing it is for the eye, the more it penetrates the mind. The more you sexualize something, the deeper it resonates.”
This movie was not easy to shoot. “This was a really difficult one,” the director said. “The more difficult it is, the more you kind of love it.” That’s trademark Refn: he likes to throw himself outside of any comfort zone.
“I always I thrive on fear,” he said. “I thrive on the idea of doing something that can collapse right in front of me. I love that kind of constant stage of paranoia. At the same time, it forces me to be as sensual as I possibly can, which is a very pleasant experience. Sometimes I even go out of my way to find obstacles, and try to solve that. I thrive on danger creatively, pointing myself in the most difficult direction.”
Refn likes to work from his instinct, he said. “It’s about waking up every morning and saying, ‘What I would like to see today?’ Then everything is moving in the right direction. I may not understand what I’m doing, but it feels right. It’s like having sex: Sometimes you have to let go and go with the flow, it’s more interesting. I like going back to that inner canvas when I work on my films. Then I’m narcissistic and self-absorbed, everything has to lead back to me, that’s how I can give myself everything if I am myself.”
While Refn starts from a script, “that doesn’t mean I’m going to do what it says,” he said. “I have to get the script in order to get finances and distributors. They now trust me, knowing that usually the end of the shoot: ‘did you shoot the script?’ ‘what script?’ Everyone laughs. So far so good.”
“The Neon Demon” marks Refn’s third collaboration with composer Cliff Martinez. “He’s just getting more and more integrated in my life, he composed my wife’s documentary, we are great friends personally. I hear Cliff’s music in the script, and editorially, I know this section will work when Cliff puts music on it. He becomes integrated in the creative process, when I make films.”
UPDATE: As usual, reactions were divisive at Cannes, where the press got first crack at “The Neon Demon,” which opens June 24: that’s when we’ll see how the film resonates.