Pushing the Boundaries With Refn

INTERVIEW. "I have to feel like we are exploring the borders of what's been done before," says producer Lene Børglum about her creative partnership with Nicolas Winding Refn with whom she's worked with since 2008. Their newest collaboration, "The Neon Demon," is in the Cannes Competition.

Producer Lene Børglum learned at least one important lesson during her first American film shoot, for Nicolas Winding Refn's Cannes Competition title "The Neon Demon".

"I think it's interesting that he wants to try the female side because all of his other films have more or less only been about men – a lonely man who doesn't know how to speak, so he fights."

"LA traffic is something you have to plan about…but LA traffic is almost nonexistent after Bangkok traffic!," she says with a laugh.

Børglum is accustomed to a variety of creative and logistical challenges as Refn's producer – she started collaborating with him on 2008's "Valhalla Rising" and went to Bangkok for 2013 criminal underworld story "Only God Forgives" and now to Los Angeles for "The Neon Demon", Refn's first film centering on female lead characters.

Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, an aspiring teenage 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 are more dangerous than they seem.

Børglum sees her role as building the framework for Refn to have creative freedom, but she's clearly spurred on by the creative vision, not just the financial side of producing. She's excited for the world to see his take on a female-centric story in "The Neon Demon", for instance. "I think it's interesting that he wants to try the female side because all of his other films have more or less only been about men – a lonely man who doesn't know how to speak, so he fights," she says.

She is particularly impressed by the way he is exploring the intricacies of female relationships in "The Neon Demon". "I think he got it so much. You feel the 'game' between them and all the things that there are no real words for. I think he has done it in a really special way, we have never really seen this before."

Elle Fanning as Jesse in "Neon Demon". Photo: Gunther Campine

The LA way

Working in the US posed a new challenge for Børglum (Refn has worked in Los Angeles before, of course, on commercials and also on 2011 hit  "Drive", which was produced by Bold Films).

For "The Neon Demon", the production ultimately became a hybrid of the way Space Rocket likes to work (small, lean crews, in keeping with Danish style) combined with American crewing styles, unions and regulations.

"Of course everybody always said don't shoot in Los Angeles because it's too expensive," Børglum remembers with a laugh. "But we found a way to do it." In fact, they kept costs down so they could shoot for nearly eight weeks nearly always on location – with impressive results on screen for just a $6m production budget.

Refn likes to shoot in chronological order, but careful advance planning ensured that the production didn't move between locations (or at least not move neighborhoods) in a single day, to keep transport and other costs down. "It was trying to be smart on logistics, not moving things from one place to another," she explains.

"The American crews are very good, they really know what they are doing and they are very experienced, They are also used to producing on very high budgets, so they are prepared for everything everyday," she continues. "Whereas we are used to producing on very small budgets so we are used to saying, 'Oh, we don't need that today.' We don't bring in any equipment that we don't know will be used that day, for example."

"In the beginning, I thought it was a challenge because of all the rules and everything that you have to adapt to, it's a different system," she adds. "As soon as we found out how to move around, I actually liked it. We are going to do more in the US… I also think it's good we come from the outside, so that we weren't born into the way everybody does things."

The US crews enjoyed their hybrid way of working.

"The way we work is to involve everyone in the creative process, and the whole crew was really satisfied with that – it took some time for them to get used to it," she says with a laugh.

She and Refn are going to produce another Los Angeles-set project later this year, a remake of 1998's "Maniac Cop" to be directed by John Hyamns.

Lene Børglum

A shared history

Børglum and Refn have known each other for about 25 years, when they were part of a small circle of friends who used to watch horror movies in their spare time together. Way back then, she remembers that she and Refn shared a common taste and outlook about film.

Børglum was working in film when they met, she started working as a producer at the Danish Film Workshop before joining then-startup Zentropa in 1992. She ran the company's legal department and became a co-owner, executive producing films including Lars von Trier's "Dogville" and "The Boss of It All".

After 15 years at Zentropa, she left the company and then established Copenhagen-based boutique production company Space Rocket with Refn in 2008.

Refn says that after knowing each other for many years "it just came about" that they first collaborated on "Valhalla Rising" after she had left Zentropa. "Knowing her for so many years was a good indicator she had what I needed to put that film together…after that, we happily joined forces [for the company]."

Refn says Børglum is simply "amazing" on a practical level, "Putting all the physical production together and the paperwork and bond companies and banks." And of course, she is a creative sounding board too.

He knows when he works with her "things are going to run smoothly… She's very, very important to me in that way. I feel very secure with her which is an important feeling. I don't like feeling exposed."

He adds, "Her qualities match my weaknesses, it's a perfect combo.

The Neon Demon. Photo: Gunther Campine

That special working relationship is one reason they can keep the company so small. Despite their films' international success, Space Rocket is owned and operated by the pair of them, and they don't even employ an assistant. "Keeping the company setup at a level where we don't have a lot of employees and overhead costs allows us to keep creative control completely on our own hands throughout the entire process," Børglum says.

The lean size of the company suits her. "I was one of the four people who built up Zentropa from the beginning. It just got bigger and bigger and bigger and by the end it just felt alienated to do the things you like to do. With Space Rocket, we don't have plans to have another studio-like facility. We want to keep the focus on films that we like to do."

The only other full-time company collaborator is "The Neon Demon's" line producer Carsten Sparwath, who now helps Børglum develop new projects. "We always look to economy and practical solutions at the same time we develop the projects and the budgets in order to get the most out of the funds that are available to the project," she explains.

From Denmark to the world

Being based in Denmark works for them. "Denmark is a good base for us as we are Danish and have our lives and families here," she says. "Setting up the productions from here allows us to produce internationally and still live in Denmark with our families."

The Danish Film Institute supports Refn's films and Børglum says that is also important. "The support from the Danish Film Institute is an important base financing to build on, that helps us keep creative control even though a great part of the remaining financing from other sources are market money that comes from distributors and equity investors."

To fund "The Neon Demon'"s $6 million budget, Børglum and Refn again worked with French sales companies Wild Bunch and Gaumont – the companies are usually competitors but agreed to work together to jointly finance and sell "Only God Forgives" and "The Neon Demon" as part of a two-picture deal. As the producer explains, "They split the territories between them, who has good connections here and there, and their legal departments an marketing departments work together, and it works perfectly."

Other backers include the Danish Film Institute, Bold Films (which produced Refn's  "Drive") and Vendian Films. Scanbox will release "The Neon Demon" on June 9 in Denmark; Amazon will release in North America.

"The Neon Demon." Foto: Gunther Campine

Pushing the borders

Børglum and Refn share a similar creative drive to never repeat themselves. As she says, "None of us think it's satisfying to do the same thing again…It's necessary for me I have to feel that I identify with a project … That's why I always do director-driven films, auteur films."

Space Rocket isn't set up to exclusively produce Refn's work; Børglum has recently produced Lene Stæhr's feature documentary "Eskimo Diva", about a drag queen in Greenland; and "My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn" directed by Liv Corfixen, Refn's wife. She also has spotted rising Danish talents she wants to produce, although developing and financing those films can take more time.

They don't yet know which project Refn will develop next. "You can never say what will be next for Nicolas to direct, we are developing feature films as well as TV series, you never know what will be fastest to finance," she explains.

Whatever happens next, it's sure to be interesting. That mindset of not repeating oneself is important to both of them. She says, "I have to feel like we are creating something special, we are exploring something new and exploring the borders of what's been done before."