DRIVEN BY DEMONS
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.