DRIVEN BY DEMONS

Empire (UK) - - CINEMAS - WORDS DAMON WISE

AF­TER DRIVE, DIREC­TOR NI­CO­LAS WIND­ING REFN COULD HAVE MOVED ON TO BLOCK­BUSTERS. IN­STEAD, HE DIVED OFF DOWN HIS OWN DARK PATH, ONE THAT’S BROUGHT HIM TO HIS CRA­ZI­EST FILM YET: THE NEON DE­MON

FOUR YEARS AGO, NI­CO­LAS Wind­ing Refn had the movie world at his feet. The then-41 year-old Dane hit big with his pul­sat­ing La-set neon-noir

Drive, and the of­fers came rush­ing in: a re­make of Lo­gan’s Run, a big-screen

Won­der Woman, a mini-series based on Bar­barella. He met with Har­ri­son Ford about a pos­si­ble spy thriller, and was hired to di­rect Sony Pic­tures’ The

Equal­izer, star­ring Den­zel Wash­ing­ton. Yes, the movie world was at his feet. And Ni­co­las Wind­ing Refn stepped right over it. He and Ford didn’t see eye-to-eye over the fate of the thriller’s main char­ac­ter (who, says Refn, Ford didn’t want to kill off ) and went their sep­a­rate ways. Three months be­fore it was set to shoot, he quit The Equal­izer. And his next movie, 2013’s Bangkok­set Only God For­gives, turned out to be a med­i­ta­tive, ul­tra­vi­o­lent study of pur­ga­tory var­i­ously de­scribed as “spell­bind­ing, vi­sion­ary, am­bi­tious and deeply af­fect­ing” and “plot­less, creepy, meat-headed and bor­ing”. In short, it couldn’t have been less ‘Hol­ly­wood’.

Af­ter its pre­miere at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, Refn sat on a yacht with Cliff Martinez, his go-to com­poser. “We were talk­ing about the re­cep­tion,” the direc­tor re­calls, “and I was still strug­gling to process it. Peo­ple just couldn’t stop talk­ing about it: there were sup­port­ers and there were haters. And Cliff turned to me and said, ‘Wow — you’re the Sex Pis­tols of cin­ema.’” He laughs. “I re­mem­ber go­ing, ‘Fuck, yeah!’ And it felt great. Be­cause there is a per­verse plea­sure in creat­ing so much may­hem of opin­ions. And I’m re­silient, y’know? I’m golden.”

FOR MANY FILM­MAK­ERS,

re­fus­ing to play the game can have dire con­se­quences. It has, for ex­am­ple, fin­ished the ca­reers of Tony Kaye, Michael Cimino and even the late Michael Pow­ell. Refn does ad­mit to

feel­ing the pres­sure. “There comes a point where they stop tak­ing you se­ri­ously as a can­di­date,” he re­flects. “That hap­pened to me, es­pe­cially af­ter Only God For­gives (which scraped

a mere $10 mil­lion world­wide). But also be­cause I was turn­ing things down.”

When we meet, it’s been nearly a year since Refn re­ceived his bloody nose for Only God For­gives, but no scars, vis­i­ble or men­tal, are ap­par­ent; Refn has moved on. “You have to go through a lit­tle bit of a trans­for­ma­tion,” he shrugs. “I went into Cannes ex­pect­ing to win the Palme d’or.” He chuck­les. “Like, ‘What more is there to talk about? I’m from the fu­ture. Beam me up af­ter­wards!’ But of course it didn’t turn out like that. In a way, it didn’t re­ally mat­ter, be­cause I was on a larger path.”

That path has brought him back to Hol­ly­wood, al­though not, stresses the direc­tor, to make a Hol­ly­wood movie. Those projects he turned down, he turned down for The Neon De­mon, a psy­che­delic shocker set in the fash­ion world and in­spired by ’70s splat­ter, ’80s slash­ers and… The Wiz­ard Of

Oz. Em­pire finds Refn on set at The Paramour Man­sion in Sil­ver Lake, a sup­pos­edly haunted house built in 1923 as an ex­clu­sive, 22-room pri­vate es­tate and later used as a con­vent and a girls’ school. It’s a lux­u­ri­ous, melan­choly and some­what sin­is­ter place, which is why he chose it as a lo­ca­tion for his study of “beauty and in­san­ity” that stars Elle Fanning as an as­pir­ing 16 year-old model. “I wanted to make a hor­ror film with­out hor­ror,” he ex­plains. “I wanted to make it vis­ceral and fun, melo­dra­matic and campy — all those dif­fer­ent things en­tan­gled.”

An­other gor­geous but lan­guorous pic­ture, which fea­tures scenes of les­bian necrophilia, can­ni­bal­ism and self-

im­mo­la­tion, it’s safe to say The Neon

De­mon isn’t ex­actly go­ing to re-warm him to stu­dio heads. Though life for

The Neon De­mon might be eas­ier now ev­ery­one knows what to ex­pect — or what not to ex­pect. Which in the case of Only God For­gives was Drive 2.

“I didn’t want to pro­hibit my­self, and I was also, in a way, test­ing my own re­silience,” he rea­sons. “I didn’t want to make Drive 2, be­cause that would have been the eas­i­est thing to do, for all the wrong rea­sons.” Refn draws com­par­isons with Lou Reed, who re­leased the ca­cophonous Metal

Ma­chine Mu­sic — 64 min­utes and 11 sec­onds of feed­back — at the height of his main­stream suc­cess. “But re­ally,” he adds, “it was also about not want­ing to be con­trolled.”

Fail­ure is all-too-of­ten the cost of free­dom. And it’s some­thing Refn has tasted be­fore. In 2003, high on the in­ter­na­tional art-house suc­cess of his de­but, Pusher (1996), and its fol­low-up,

Bleeder (1999), Refn made his first English-lan­guage movie, Fear X (2003), star­ring John Tur­turro. He had been eye­ing the States for a while, not as a cal­cu­lated ca­reer move but be­cause he’d lived in Man­hat­tan dur­ing his teenage years (“I may have a Dan­ish pass­port,” he says earnestly, “but I’m a New Yorker by heart”). It was sup­posed to shoot in Utah, but Refn couldn’t af­ford that — a bad omen for a film that would bank­rupt him.

“My ego was out of con­trol and I felt I could walk on wa­ter. Which I couldn’t,” he says. Al­though well re­viewed, Fear X tanked at the box of­fice, and Refn still can’t bear to look at it. “Even the ti­tle is bad,” he says. “But it didn’t kill me, pro­fes­sion­ally. It just kind of bombed me back to the be­gin­ning.”

Find­ing him­self deep in debt, owing his bank a mil­lion dol­lars, Refn went to Lon­don to di­rect two episodes of Miss Marple for ITV. Yes, that’s right. Miss Marple. For ITV. “I felt like a has­been,” he ad­mits. “A used-to-be. A fail­ure. A ca­su­alty of the arts. But it was a time when I needed to step away from my own ego and just be a direc­tor for hire — not re­ally care and just, purely craft-wise, di­rect. It was im­por­tant for me, at that time, to go through that. I needed to be slapped around, be­cause as I’d made more and more, it had be­come more about my own ego and van­ity and how I wanted to be per­ceived by oth­ers as The Great­est Filmmaker Of All Time. But that didn’t hap­pen. And right­fully so.”

You can un­der­stand why

Refn is now re­luc­tant to re­turn to work as a direc­tor-for-hire. But his Marple ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t the real rea­son for his avoid­ance of the main­stream and for

The Neon De­mon be­ing his lat­est movie rather than, say, Won­der Woman.

In 2008 he en­tered what he calls “phase two” of his ca­reer with Bron­son. Star­ring Tom Hardy, it’s a sur­real, heav­ily stylised biopic of Michael Peter­son, the in­fa­mous Bri­tish crim­i­nal who changed his name to Charles Bron­son and rein­vented him­self as Bri­tain’s most vi­o­lent pris­oner dur­ing the ’70s and ’80s. It was also the first time Refn made a film for com­pletely self­ish rea­sons, based purely on what he him­self wanted to see.

“Be­fore that,” he says, “I’d al­ways been more pre­oc­cu­pied with mak­ing great cin­ema based on other peo­ple’s opin­ions. Other peo­ple ac­cept­ing me, or ac­knowl­edg­ing what I did. The need­i­ness of want­ing to be wor­shipped. And it wasn’t very healthy.” Pre-bron­son, he’d been more pre­oc­cu­pied with the end re­sult, be­cause that end re­sult would lead to re­views and crit­i­cal ac­claim — and a big boost to his ego. “Which, I’ve learned the hard way, is the ul­ti­mate killer,” he says. “It de­stroys more than it cre­ates. But now it’s more about the process for me. It’s im­por­tant I en­joy the process.”

To­day of­fers a good ex­am­ple of the process in ques­tion, one by which Refn al­lows him­self com­plete cre­ative lib­erty. Af­ter con­fer­ring with Fanning and her co-star Jena Malone, Refn has de­cided that a cer­tain char­ac­ter des­tined to die will not be ex­pir­ing af­ter all. “It’s a bit like be­ing an in­fant play­ing with paint,” he grins. “You’re not go­ing to tell me what to fuckin’ do with the paint or how to make the paint. You can sit next to me and do it with me, but if I want to smash some­thing up in the mid­dle of it, I’ll fuckin’ well do so. I’m just try­ing to ex­plain that plea­sure in cre­ativ­ity is that, essen­tially. Be­cause cre­ativ­ity is very much ex­hi­bi­tion­ism.”

This artis­tic awak­en­ing is what took him away from The Equal­izer, his first ma­jor Hol­ly­wood job af­ter a Jekyll & Hyde re­make, with Keanu Reeves, fell through back in 2009. “I liked the idea of The Equal­izer, and it was gonna make a lot of money,” he re­calls. He also ad­mits to be­ing se­duced by the idea of get­ting big Hol­ly­wood bucks to play with. “Be­cause it was very se­duc­tive. But I thought, ‘If I do this, I’m go­ing to go against ev­ery­thing I’ve fought for all my life. And on top of that, I’m go­ing to make a film where I have to com­pro­mise on ev­ery sin­gle thing, ev­ery day.’ It just wasn’t worth it. So I pulled out.”

He went back to what he does best: pleas­ing him­self. With one caveat: “In the end, what’s most im­por­tant is that my fi­nanciers make money,” he says, “be­cause that’s what will al­low me to make the next movie.” That aside, he doesn’t care what any­body else thinks. “I tell my­self, ‘If this is go­ing to be the last movie I ever make, I’m gonna go out with a bang.’ That at least forces you to make it with the ar­ro­gance of just do­ing what you want to do, and that’s where the real plea­sure lies in cre­ativ­ity. Com­pro­mis­ing is not in­ter­est­ing for me. And I don’t do it very well.”

Ni­co­las Wind­ing Refn.

From top to bot­tom: Elle Fanning as am­bi­tious model jesse in The Neon

De­mon; Ryan Gosling as get­away expert Driver in Drive; Tom Hardy bru­tally breaks through play­ing the ti­tle role in Bron­son.

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