Danish-born film director Nicolas Winding Refn hit the mark with his directorial debut, the 1996 crime drama Pusher, a European hit that earned worldwide distribution. The film was such a success that Refn returned to it eight years later, shooting two sequels back to back. Refn's breakthrough in North America was 2011's Drive, with Ryan Gosling playing a getaway driver. The brutally violent follow-up, Only God Forgives, was a commercial miss, but Refn is back in U.S. theaters today with The Neon Demon, a hallucinatory look at the U.S. fashion industry, as seen through the eyes of a 16-year-old model (Elle Fanning) just arrived in L.A. Things get creepy, and then they become weird, and eventually they turn downright horrific. The film is divisive, but it's also one of the year's most highly stylized visual experiences. Here's what we know about its director, his frame of mind, and how The Neon Demon was made.

Refn didn't want to be a director. 

Refn says his cinephile parents were devotées of the French New Wave of filmmakers, leading him to rebel against that style of filmmaking. Instead, he told the DGA Quarterly, he embraced The Texas Chain Saw Massacre after catching a revival screening in New York City. "I realized: I don't want to be a director, I don't want to be a writer, I don't want to be a producer, I don't want to be a photographer, I don't want to be an editor, I don't want to be a sound man," he said. "I want to be all of them at once. And [Texas Chain Saw] proved that you can do it, because that movie is not a normal movie."

Budget? $5.5 million. 

Refn is candid about the budgets of his recent films. Drive was made for $10 million. Only God Forgives cost just under $4 million. And now The Neon Demon falls in between, at $5.5 million, Refn tells DeadlineAmong the difficulties presented by such a small budget is costuming — a problem for a film that's supposed to be set in a profligate high-fashion world. "It's easy to get your hands on clothing all over the world, but not necessarily editorial-style high fashion clothes," remarked costume designer Erin Benach to Fashionista. "That was one of our initial goals: How [were] we going to set the bar as high as possible for that with our limited budget and funds?"

Nicolas Winding Refn

Nicolas Winding Refn on set.

Refn does a lot of takes with few set-ups.

“I do very few setups,” he told The Guardian. “But once I have them, I can do what I enjoy, which is the same thing over and over.”

Refn hired women to help tell a women's story.

The Neon Demon deals with themes of female exploitation, narcissism and sexuality. Refn put women in key collaborative positions to bring the other gender's perspectives to his own scenario. Cinematographer Natasha Braier is an accomplished DP best known for Spanish language features (In the City of Sylvia, The Milk of Sorrow) and music videos for the likes of LCD Soundsystem and David Byrne and St. Vincent. And co-writers Polly Stenham and Mary Laws are playwrights. "The way [Braier] paid attention to the close-ups of the women — I doubt if you would have had the same interest or nuances if you had a man doing that," Refn told Sight & Sound magazine (in an interview that's not available online).

Nicolas Winding Refn and DP Natasha Braier

Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier.

Hard looks, soft lenses.

Though Refn's imagery is bright, colorful and sometimes severe, there is a haze around the edges that gives scenes the dreamy quality of fairy tales. That look comes down partly to the Cooke Xtal Express lenses — rehoused lenses featuring glass dating to the 1930s modified by Joe Dunton for anamorphic shooting in the 1980s. The same glass was also used to shoot Ex Machina and the opening sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy. "We tested six different types of anamorphic lenses on the soft side of the spectrum," Braier, who shot with the ARRI Alexa XT Plus, told Moviemaker. "I wanted to find the ones that were the most cosmetic for the skin tones." Refn said it was key to get that look in camera since the film's budget precluded tweaking each shot in the DI. (Panavision C Series primes and a 50–95mm zoom were also used.)

As usual for director Nicolas Winding Refn, it was shot in continuity (script order). 

"I like the fear of not being able to fully see how the film will turn out until the end," Refn said. "It forces everyone to submit themselves because it's a constant organism that needs to be handled and needs to be touched and felt." Source: Production notes.

As the shoot and the edit progressed, Refn was writing and rewriting.

Editor Matthew Newman was staying in Refn's pool house, where a cutting room was set up to assemble the film as it was shot in script order. As Refn saw the pieces come together, it made him see things differently. "I could see the film unfolding in front of my eyes editorially — not just photographically — and that sometimes necessitated rewriting and/or making other logistical changes going forward," Refn said. "Halfway through the movie, I changed my mind about one character's fate, and this was really the result of sitting with Matt and reflecting on how the film was living and breathing and transforming into whatever it was essentially going to be." Source: Production notes.

Jena Malone

Jena Malone.

Refn wanted composer Cliff Martinez to have Hitchcock on the brain.

The temp score featured music by Bernard Herrmann, best known for scoring iconic Alfred Hitchcock films including Psycho and Vertigo. Because Cliff Martinez is a very contemporary composer known for industrial and ambient soundscapes, he was puzzled by the assignment until Refn explained: "I don't want the score to sound like that. I want it to feel like that." Source: Production notes.

Earlier this year, it was loudly booed when it screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

As The New York Times reported, that puts Refn in good company. Other films jeered at Cannes include Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. More recently, Hitfix noted, such titles as Inglourious Basterds, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and The Tree of Life have gotten Cannes boos. (Refn won the Best Director prize at Cannes in 2011 for Drive.) 

It's brought to you by Amazon.

It's one of the first films to be acquired for distribution by Amazon Studios, which launched last June. That earns it a three-month theatrical window followed by streaming on Amazon Prime's streaming service. That's fine with Refn, who feels the iPhone is as important a cinematic venue as the theatrical screen. "Talking to my kids about the importance of a movie theater is like trying to teach them about David Bowie," Refn told Deadline. "They're like, 'Yeah, right, we got our own.'"


Elle Fanning.

The U.K.'s Daily Mail published a piece calling for the film to be banned.

Columnist Clare Foges, a former speech-writer for now-outgoing U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, reflected on the good old days, when films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Straw Dogs were routinely banned by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), before urging the BBFC to bar the release of The Neon Demon in the U.K. However, it was clear from the piece that Foges has not actually seen the film. Refn responded on Twitter by inviting the writer to a screening. Forges' objections were to no avail — the BBFC passed the film with an "18" rating, citing "strong bloody images, necrophilia, [and] sexual assault." Compare to the MPAA, which rated the film R and cataloged its "disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language." Keep that in mind — if you do plan to watch on your iPhone, it's probably not a good idea to bring this one on the plane.