Nicolas Winding Refn has done it again. The Danish filmmaker, in competition for the third time at the Cannes Film Festival, debuted his LA-set psychological horror thriller The Neon Demon on Friday, the day after a press screening that wildly divided critics. The reaction has been compared to the response provoked by his 2013 entry Only God Forgives, although Demon has a lot of lovers here on the ground — the official showing scored one of the longest standing ovations of the festival at a cool 17 minutes.
I sat down with Refn a few days prior at Deadline’s Cannes Studio to discuss the movie, his beginnings as a film scout in Cannes and the state of independent cinema (see video above). I also saw him after the reviews were in and asked how he was responding to the polarizing reactions. He told me it was “a surreal experience” when he began to receive the first word out of the press screening while attending the amfAR benefit with Neon Demon star Elle Fanning.
“I get the reactions coming in around 9 PM after the press screening and the first thing I hear is that two fights have broken out between critics. And I was like, ‘Yeah, baby! Search and destroy. Here we are back at Cannes’.”
In a way, he says, “It again took Cannes to the next level and what’s great about Cannes is it cherishes and is invented for those reactions of modernism versus the classics and the clashes between that. From my perspective, besides the personal satisfaction there is in that, there’s the bottom line which is, it’s great business.”
There’s no doubt Neon Demon has hit high awareness — it shot to No. 1 on Twitter after the press screening and has been one of the most hotly-debated titles here.
Amazon is releasing in the U.S. in late June with various distributors on board around the world. Each had seen the film before Cannes, Refn says, and “everyone was all-in.”
Refn’s 2011 Drive of course won him the Best Director prize here and opened his work up to a new audience. But these last two films have been divisive. I asked him if every movie he makes now has to have this sort of polarizing effect. “It’s not that it has to for me personally, but what it does is it just shows that art is more interesting when [it creates a strong reaction] because that travels with you for the rest of your life.”
He adds, “I think that one of the things with the modernism of the entertainment industry and especially working with Amazon, who understands the power when you go from theatrical to streaming, is that the integrity of the creator is really the commodity besides of course the product. The product is more a reaction to who you are. So in a way, the experience of a culture is more and more, what do you stand for as an artist?”
What does he stand for? “No compromise. Do it your way. Singularity — it’s the only thing no one can take away from you. It’s the only thing that sustains timelessness. Essentially this is what festivals like this were made for. If you want to watch a movie, go watch television.”
For our earlier chat, check out the video above in which Refn talks about the influence that Kevin Smith had on him as a burgeoning filmmaker and his meeting with Amazon Studios chief Roy Price, of whom he wonders, “Where have you been all my life?”