Watching movies is “like sex — there are many different ways of doing it, but it’s always fun.” That’s Nicolas Winding Refn speaking at the recent launch of the online My French Film Festival in Paris. The Drive and Only God Forgives helmer is presiding over the jury for the month-long digital fest which fits right in his wheelhouse. “I think it’s strange that we are still defining cinema based on an auditorium, because to be really frank, none of us lived through the heyday of cinema,” he told me when we sat down recently to chat about his views on technology, his past films and the upcoming release of his latest, The Neon Demon.
That LA-set horror tale sees the director for the first time work with a predominantly female cast. He tells me below how that decision came about after huddling for years with a trio of “alter egos” in Mads Mikkelsen, Tom Hardy and Ryan Gosling. Neon Demon features Elle Fanning, Abbey Lee, Jena Malone, Christina Hendricks, Bella Heathcote and Keanu Reeves in a story about vicious beauty. Amazon acquired the pic during the AFM and is expected to release it later this year. This is Refn’s first feature helming effort since Only God Forgives divided audiences in Cannes in 2013, two years after he won the directing prize at the festival with Drive. We discuss that below, as well as whether his next film may — or may not — be The Avenging Silence. Here’s our chat:
DEADLINE: You’ve said you’re just as happy watching a movie on an iPad or iPhone as in a cinema and called the Internet the greatest invention “since the woman.” We know you are a fan of digital, but it’s somewhat jarring to hear a Cannes-decorated European auteur say it doesn’t matter where films are consumed. Can you elaborate?
REFN: The day that television was invented, cinema changed. That was many years ago, so whatever we cling on to is like saying the French New Wave was the only cinema… Now it’s a screen in stadium Imax, but it’s also an iPhone and both are equally as important.
DEADLINE: What about the new generation of consumers? You’ve said your kids are tech-savvy, do you encourage them to seek out films in cinemas?
REFN: Talking to my kids about the importance of a movie theater is like trying to teach them about David Bowie. They’re like “Yeah right, we got our own.” I try more to teach them or tell them the variations and that to understand the future it’s good to know your past; but you don’t have to cling on to it. You don’t have to define it as quality and not quality; just maybe knowing it is enough.
What has happened because of the digital revolution and especially because of the Internet is that we have consumers on one side and then we have the middle which is distribution and then you have the artist. The gap between the artist and the audience used to be a solid wall of control — whether it was distribution, or quality control, or the definition of what’s right and wrong — the power of that was like the Berlin Wall. And then came the Internet and that wall is so thin now and it’s just about to crack completely. That’s what I’m trying to tell my children, that I wish to live a hundred more years to see what comes. Good and bad is no longer a meaningful objective because there’s an audience for everything.
DEADLINE: Did your appreciation for new platforms influence your decision to go with Amazon on Neon Demon?
REFN: Amazon came with the best proposal that I’ve ever gotten. Bob Berney and Ted Hope are so important to independent cinema and Scott Foundas was a real champion. They gave me a three-month theatrical window which is as long as you can possibly get because the reality is that most films have a weekend to a week. They’ll stream the movie from the end of the three months. That to me was the best of both worlds. It’s the future because cinema is one canvas and the iPhone is another canvas, but they’re all linked to the same beam that projects it. It’s just the definition of how you want to experience something. Seeing something with a headset, you can walk, you can sit, you can adjust, you can pause it, not pause it, whatever you want. You can bring it with you or you can see it in a controlled environment where you’re more a spectator.
DEADLINE: This is another collaboration for you with French companies Wild Bunch and Gaumont. Can you talk about why you’re attracted to working here?
REFN: If it wasn’t for France there would be no European cinema. They basically fund the majority of European art films. The commercial films are kind of local entertainment that doesn’t travel particularly well. But of the ones that travel, 80% is financed out of France. And for me to be in a situation to go and make an English-speaking film if I didn’t have France I could never raise the limited funds that I actually have to make these films. Only God Forgives cost $3.5M-$4M and Neon Demon was $5.5M. Drive was $10M, but only because of France. All of the studios passed on Drive, like everyone passed on it, and that movie only got made because we were able to sell $5M at Cannes. But the one who got the ball rolling was France because they put the first million on the table, then Germany came in, then Scandinavia. Then we were able to put the puzzle together.
DEADLINE: Wouldn’t Drive have been a very different film if you had gone the studio route?
REFN: Oh, I wouldn’t be sitting here. It’s that simple.
DEADLINE: You ended up not doing The Equalizer and Logan’s Run never came together for you. Do you still want to do a studio movie?
REFN: Absolutely, I would love to do a studio film. There are certain films you do need a studio for. But you can also do the same thing with Amazon because, actually, they have more money. I know that if I want to do a certain type of film I would need a studio to back it. There hasn’t as of yet been the right project where it’s an equal swap. I’m going to give up something, they’re going to give up something. You know what I mean? There hasn’t been that yet. I would have loved to have made Logan’s Run. That was really something. It’s a good thing I didn’t end up making it, but I hope they make it. I think it’s a great idea, and with The Equalizer I just felt that I was not the right person to do what they wanted to do.
DEADLINE: You’re working on a project with Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Can you talk a bit about that?
REFN: I generally like to have many things and multiple ideas and don’t know in what order things will unfold. I’ve had this idea to do a spy movie for a number of years and brought Robert and Neal in when we were working on Barbarella. We have a really groovy relationship and have been working under secrecy — like real spy stuff. I was in Japan recently to figure out how practically I would make the film. I thought it would be fun to do a big extravagant action film; maybe a studio thing with a lot of stuff happening. I’m by no means opposed to doing a studio movie, I think it could be great fun. Sometimes you can invent it yourself and find a way to make it work within the system. But to work in that system takes a certain kind of caliber and approach and I’m very interested in doing it in South East Asia because it’s foreign in terms of being a westerner. It would be funky to do it in Japan.
DEADLINE: So, is this The Avenging Silence at which you’ve hinted in the past?
REFN: Well, I think it may very well be. But it’s always fun to suddenly change things around.
DEADLINE: How did you settle on Neon Demon and doing a film in LA?
REFN: I love LA. It’s probably my very favorite city in the world — and I can’t drive a car so that takes a lot of love. I love being there, I love the mythology, everything about it. But I used to make films about trying to capture reality and I realized that was essentially always going to be a lose-lose. So, I decided to make things about heightened reality and LA is such an inspiring place because in a way it’s such an alien world. New York, Chicago, those more metropolitan landmarks in America, are very real, concrete. LA is a very odd vibe of this was the last frontier, this was where everything kind of stopped because they couldn’t go any further. It is the end of the world, the next stop is Tokyo.
DEADLINE: You’ve worked with some very strong male leads, with whom you seem to identify. How did you come to this departure with a female cast?
REFN: I had been very fortunate to work with Mads Mikkelsen, Tom Hardy, and Ryan Gosling. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to collaborate — and more than once with some of them — in a very satisfying way. But also what I was interested in, having worked with three men, was that I would like to work with an all-female cast. Not all-female, but I wanted to work with a young woman. Elle Fanning is like unearthly, she’s just extraordinary.
DEADLINE: Those men have all gone on to major careers. How do you go about casting?
REFN: In a sense, I think I’ve just been incredibly lucky to be at the right place and the right time. We’ve been lucky together. But also instinctually going with it… I am very self-absorbed when it comes to work. If it’s not about me I don’t have an interest, so all three men were incredible alter egos within me. Not to say they weren’t themselves, but I was able to project myself into them and see myself within themselves. It was always very intimate and it gradually became more and more intimate going from Mads to Tom to Ryan. Not that there was a homoeroticism, but the mutation became more and more inter-linked.
DEADLINE: You’re talking about the actual men, and the characters?
REFN: Certainly. When I met Mads, we started with Pusher which was very much about perceiving reality as a spectator. Our last film together was Valhalla Rising but we also did Pusher 2 which was a very critical time in my life personally. I had gone bankrupt. I did the movie only for money and I had just had my first child. There was a lot of transformation within me and he was able to play that in a way that so when we made Valhalla Rising, it was the real first time that we were inter-linked in a completely different way.
And Bronson [starring Tom Hardy] is a biography of my own life, it’s the masculine and the feminine that’s inside of the idea of being handicapped and creating your alter ego that you would rather want to live with than your own surroundings. Very much with that film even though I used someone else’s life as a rollercoaster, it was about my own crossroads at the time, but also my own past that I had to come to terms with.
With Drive, having come to terms with many things, it was about the purity of my surroundings and what it is like alienating yourself from the world but protecting innocence or love. I’ve only had one girlfriend, I’ve only had one wife. Drive was very much about what I would do for her, but also in the process alienating myself from her in the act of creativity. When I came up with the elevator scene, (it was) this idea of violence in a confined area and the idea of kissing something was sort of like a farewell. But it was also because creativity is very much like kissing your family goodbye because it is a very solitary avenue, it’s not a two-way experience.
There is that kind of you can only, at least in my world, create peace or it’s protecting what is pure. That’s why myself and Ryan became so inter-connected in a I guess homoerotic way and it was so intense that when I made Only God Forgives the idea was that I needed to go and make something very different. It’s like when Lou Reed did Transformer — the greatest rock-and-roll album probably of all time — he became a prisoner of that. So, he made Metal Machine, which is an album of guitar distortion, to kind of destroy everything because it’s like you have destroyed everything that worked.
DEADLINE: Was that intentional? Only God Forgives got a pretty visceral reaction in Cannes.
REFN: I didn’t do that intently, but I wanted something so opposite, more primal. So the idea of making an installation film with all the power I had was exhilirating. It was frightening but it was exciting. When it premiered at Cannes, the kind of mutated hatred that came out was first very shocking but it was also very exciting because it was something like I touched in a way that they’re never going to forget. There’s a perverse satisfaction from a purley vanity point of view in creating something that creates such a vital reaction. That people being so frightened by it and aggressive about it that they couldn’t stop hating it, that was great because the more you hate it, the more you’re going to love it because it’s never going to leave you.