Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn has built an impressive career out of making films about violent men. From Tom Hardy’s portrayal of ultra-violent criminal Charles Bronson in the biopic Bronson, to Mads Mikkelsen’s Viking warrior in Valhalla Rising and Ryan Gosling’s martial arts fighter in Only God Forgives, Refn’s films certainly aren’t for the faint of heart.
Bronson, which was originally released in 2009, will return to select U.K. theaters this weekend – a re-release that was preceded by a special screening of the film in London that included a Q&A with Refn himself. Between its eighties-style synth pop soundtrack and its troubled male protagonist, Bronson is arguably the most quintessential example of the style that has come to characterize Refn’s films. However, the director’s most recent project took him outside of his usual comfort zone.
The Neon Demon stars Elle Fanning (Maleficent) as an aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles with the intent of kicking off her career, only to find herself the target of “a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.” The supporting cast includes Keanu Reeves but is otherwise dominated by female actors, including Refn’s frequent collaborator Christina Hendricks and newcomer Abbey Lee, who played The Dag in Mad Max: Fury Road. The female-dominated main cast of The Neon Demon, Refn explained, is no accident.
“I just made a film about women, with women protagonists… I decided that I’d made enough films about violent men, and I wanted to do a film with only women in the film, and so I did this story because my wife would only go to L.A. if we had to travel out of Copenhagen. She’s like, ‘I’m done with Asia. I will only do Los Angeles.’ And so I came up with an idea and went to L.A., and I cast this woman called Elle Fanning who is absolutely fantastic, and she played the lead.
“It was a great enjoyment. I actually… I don’t like men, even though I’ve made a lot of films with men in them. I’m not a guy-guy. I don’t really like hanging out with guys, I don’t do guy stuff. I love women. I love anything feminine. I love pink, I love dolls, I only have daughters.”
Refn co-wrote the script for The Neon Demon with Mary Laws, a recent Yale graduate and a newcomer to the film industry. According to Refn’s wife, Liv Corfixen, the film is loosely based on Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, a member of Hungarian nobility who is credited as being the most prolific female murderer in history, and with a number of accomplices made a grim habit of torturing and killing young women. Presumably the group of beauty-obsessed L.A. women in Refn’s film will be the modern equivalent of Báthory and her cohorts, and Fanning’s character their intended victim.
This year saw the release of a documentary called My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn, which was directed by Corfixen and filmed during the making of Only God Forgives in Bangkok. Featuring behind-the-scenes footage of Gosling and Refn working together on the gruelling project, My Life Directed… also shows the stress that both Refn and his family went through during production. “I have difficulty watching it because it’s… it’s like you don’t like to see yourself naked,” Refn admitted.
Though Bronson and Drive opened to wide acclaim, Only God Forgives reportedly caused “early exits and a chorus of boos” when it screened at Cannes Film Festival in 2013, and left critics extremely divided in early reviews. Nonetheless, Refn has plenty of fans and it will certainly be interesting to see what he has cooked up in his return to the setting of Drive.
The Neon Demon will be released in early 2016.