Nicolas Winding Refn is the kind of director who wouldn't have dreamed of including a CGI mountain lion in a surprising scene in his tenth feature, "The Neon Demon," which has its world premiere in Cannes Competition.
"That's a real fucking lion!" he says with a laugh, quick to squash any rumours that it was a computer-generated beast like the bear in "The Revenant."
Refn likes authenticity on set, so he let a genuine mountain lion loose in a California hotel room and filmed the results. "It was really difficult, I was going into overtime, I knew I was burning money like a motherfucker, we had to let the cat loose and I just had to hope we got what we needed. It jumped around the hotel room…we had to get the room smashed up anyway."
That's just one of the examples of how Refn – known among fellow Danes by his nickname Jang -- is determined to see his original ideas come alive on the big screen. For "The Neon Demon," he moves into new creative territory, crafting his first horror film and also offering his first film with female characters at the centre.
The story explores beauty-obsessed women in the Los Angeles fashion world. Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a teenage aspiring model who moves from the Midwest to Los Angeles, where she meets a make-up artist (Jena Malone) and other models (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee) who turn out to be more dangerous than that mountain lion.
The concept came to him, he says, because "I am surrounded by a lot of beauty, I have a beautiful wife [actress/director Liv Corfixen], I have beautiful children."
He began to think about society's fascination with beauty. As one of the characters in the film says, "Beauty isn't everything, it's the only thing."
"That obsession has never gone away, it's the constant stock that has risen," the writer/director explains. The pursuit of beauty is only getting more ruthless in the modern age, he thinks: "What's interesting is that because of the digital revolution, it seems to me the longevity of beauty is shrinking at a rapid speed. It's going to continue to shrink."
Both Elle Fanning and Jena Malone deliver brave performances that are unlike anything they've done previously in their careers. "They worked really well together. Jena was great to work with, she really defined that character through that process," he says. And he says Fanning, who his wife spotted in 2012's "Ginger & Rosa," is a "unique" performer who had the perfect look and approach to the role; she was just 17 during shooting.
Photo: Gunther Campine
The power of collaboration
In many ways, he is one of the great contemporary auteurs – a Refn film alway feels like nobody else could have directed it. Yet eschewing the traditional auteur theory, he is very quick to recognise the value of his contributors. That's anyone from his regular producer Lene Børglum to long-time editor Matt Newman, composer Cliff Martinez, and costume designer Erin Benach to newer team members like "The Neon Demon"'s DoP Natasha Braier.
With Martinez, Refn says, "I rely very much on him," recalling that some parts of the script where he'd just type "Cliff music."
"There were moments where I knew, 'This is where Cliff is going to come in and tie everything together,'" Refn says. "It's a very creative collaboration, it's a long, ongoing process that I very much enjoy."
Refn likes to shoot almost exclusively on location, and the locations in "The Neon Demon" included stylish mansions by the Pacific Ocean, photo studios, trendy restaurants and a nightclub.
On set, Refn is ready to let the project evolve rather than stick to every single word in the script – he says projects tend to morph as much as 50% during shooting. He likes to listen to music on set, and says they played a lot of disco and synth pioneer Giorgio Moroder on "The Neon Demon's" set.
Nicolas Winding Refn on set. Photo: Gunther Campine
"Being a director is making everyone feel safe, to bring focus to everyone," he says of his on-set attitude. Shooting in chronological order is something like being in "constant freefall," he says. "We felt we had to be very fast and moving things around, in case another idea comes up."
He was hugely impressed with DoP Natasha Braier, an Argentine-born cinematographer who he spotted from her work on Lynne Ramsay's 2012 short film "Swimmer" (her features include "XXY" and "The Rover"). "Natasha was great at being receptive to change constantly. She is relentless in pursuing what she wants and what the film needs, which is a great quality. She's very funny on set. She adapts which is a very important thing."
With editor Matt Newman, he did the first cut in Los Angeles and then the finecut back in Demark. Refn likes to involve him from the script stage. "We talk about structure, he's there throughout the whole prep after we have the script, he's working when we're producing, he supervises all the post production up to the mix, he's with me all the way and he's very, very instrumental to me."
Refn developed the script in two different stages using two different writers, British Polly Stenham and American Mary Laws. He found Stenham via his British agent Sue Rodgers at Independent, and found Laws, a recent Yale graduate, at the suggestion of his US agency WME. "I wanted playwrights specifically. Not screenplay writers. It was about I wasn't interested in anyone knowing how to write a script. I was interested in people who could write character and dialogue… Both women were very good collaborators at certain parts of the process."
Jena Malone and Elle Fanning in "The Neon Demon". Photo: Gunther Campine
His producer Lene Børglum, who co-owns their Copenhagen-based production company Space Rocket, has been a collaborator since 2009's "Valhalla Rising." He also knew her for decades beforehand, when she worked as a key executive at Zentropa for 15 years. "Knowing her for so many years was a good indicator she had what I needed [in a producer]," he says. "She's just amazing at putting all the physical production together and the paperwork and bond companies and banks. Her qualities match my weaknesses, it's a perfect combo."
He adds, "I feel very secure with her, which is a very important feeling, I don't like feeling exposed. With her, I know things are going to run smoothly…. She also understands the dynamic when I make my films it's all about what do I need to make that work. I can be pretty annoyingly obsessive about things and she can handle that!"
The budget for "The Neon Demon" was $6 million, which isn't much considering what's seen on screen, and the fact they shot for almost eight weeks in LA. He doesn't mind a stretched budget. "That's what's great about having obstacles, you have to be creative," he says.
Photo: Gunther Campine
A New Yorker by heart
In many ways, Refn sees American film as more influential to him than Danish film. The director, now 45, was born in Copenhagen to film-friendly parents editor Anders Refn and photographer/cinematographer Vibeke Winding; he moved to New York City when he was 11, which had a huge influence on him as a young film lover and future filmmaker. He returned to Denmark at age 18, and later left the National Film School of Denmark after only a month there, preferring to dive straight into his first feature, the gritty "Pusher," at age 24.
"I have a Danish passport but I feel like an alien in a stranger's land [in Denmark]. I'm a New Yorker by heart. I grew up in New York, that very much created me. I also love LA, it's an amazing place [he previously shot "Drive" there as well as multiple commercials]." Still, he likes living most of the time in Denmark because he says "Denmark is nice to bring up kids… If the family is happy, then I can take on any kind of obstacle professionally. I work best if I have something strong to come home to."
He's not sure what his next directorial project will be, but he's "stoked" to produce the "Maniac Cop" remake in Los Angeles later this year, with John Hyams directing.
Refn is also considering both film and TV projects to direct, noting that working in the English (rather than Danish) language makes the most sense at this stage of his career. "It's kind of mandatory to have a TV show in development," he says with a laugh. "I guess I'm now one of those guys."
The Neon Demon is produced by Lene Børglum for Space Rocket Nation with support from the Danish Film Institute. Other backers include French sales companies Wild Bunch and Gaumont, Bold Films (which produced "Drive") and Vendian Entertainment. Scanbox will release in Denmark on June 9; Amazon Studios has North American rights.