Nicholas Winding Refn’s Wages of “Fear X”
by Anthony Kaufman
Thirty-four-year-old Danish maverick Nicholas Winding Refn assembled a creative dream team for his third-feature film “Fear X” (which opened in the U.S. on Jan. 28). John Turturro plays the disturbed Harry Cane, a mall security guard searching for his wife’s murderer; late great author Hubert Selby, Jr. (“Requiem for a Dream”) wrote the script; sound maven Brian Eno composed the score; and cinematographer James Lewis (who worked on Kubrick‘s “Eyes Wide Shut”) shot the movie. When the film premiered at Sundance 2003, it generated a small group of rabid followers, mesmerized by its enigmatic storyline, mystifying visuals and moral ambiguity.
Yet “Fear X” languished without a distributor for nearly three years. Now, with Silver Nitrate kick-starting this late January release in its final territory, the United States, Refn feels like he can finally put this entrancing, yet troubled film behind him: its poor performance at the Danish box office in 2003 reportedly lead to the collapse of Refn’s production company. But the young director is back in full swing; “Pusher 2,” the sequel to his heralded debut, is already playing well in Europe, and premiering at the Rotterdam Film Festival; “Pusher 3” will open later this year; and he’s finishing a new script, a horror-thriller called “Billy’s People,” written with Abel Ferrara scribe Nicholas St. John.
A Danish film-school drop out who spent much of his adolescence in New York City and the son of editor Anders Refn (“Breaking the Waves”), Refn has tried to break away from the Danish filmmaking establishment and make a name for himself as a unique Euro-American hybrid. “I grew up in America and grew up with the American mentality of just do it,” he says, “which contrasts with the Scandinavian and European mentality, which is, don’t stand out.” As Elia Kazan once told him, Refn recalls, “Do it your way, kid.”
Scrapped together from various conservations over the last few years, Refn talks with indieWIRE about some of the film’s mysteries, collaborations, and risks.
indieWIRE: I remember the first-time I saw your film in January 2003 and I thought it had something to do with 9/11 and that fear of losing someone close to you by a random, inexplicable act. But at the end of 2005, I had a very different reading of the movie in light of the Iraq war and man’s ability to kill man. What do you think of the film’s shifting meanings over time?
Nicholas Winding Refn: This film was conceived before September 11, and after September 11, I think a lot of people read things into films and scripts. But I think “Fear X” is about idealists and when they’re confronted with reality, a lot of the time their ideals are tested and turned and they’re no longer what they thought they would be. And that could apply to many issues around the world. It’s a moral dilemma that you face every day. It also confronts the strength of the movie, because you can view it many different ways. I recently had an interview with a Swiss journalist and we discussed the philosophical questions in the film, and if you don’t look beneath the surface, you tend to miss a lot of the film’s strengths. And we also talked about another film “Eyes Wide Shut,” which I think also suffered because people didn’t really look beneath its surface.
iW: You’ve said you shot the movie in sequence and found things along the way. And yet you worked on the script closely with Selby. So did you adhere to a screenplay or not?
Refn: I believe shooting chronologically gives you a very fresh perspective and you’re always aware of where you are in the development of the characters. I am not a fan of improvisation, because it bores me. Working off a tight scenario gives you the confidence and ability to — why don’t we change this a little bit and bring it back to the script. You always discover things while shooting.
iW: What sort of things did you discover?
Refn: How were we going to end this, without giving anything away, without making it too obvious, because the minute the audience’s mind begins to work, you’re on very dangerous ground. Because if you tell them too much, they’re disappointed and if you don’t give them any clues, they get confused. So it’s that fine line of giving the audience as they walk out, okay, I believe it’s this or I believe it’s that. We never gave more in the script.
iW: Were those blood-red freak-out abstractions in the script?
Refn: Originally I had done a more traditional approach in the darkness, but I felt if I did that, it wouldn’t give the audience a new level of interpretation. I asked myself: How do you surprise the audience? Now it can represent a murder, a meltdown, a breakdown, a mixture of everything, but it’s so up to your own interpretation.
iW: With those scenes and the surveillance footage and the static on the screen, I wondered if you have an experimental film background?
Refn: I’ve never done an experimental film, like Stan Brakhage or Kenneth Anger. Honestly, I like a good solid suspense story; that’s what is interesting to me. But within that, it’s also to expand the horizons of interpretation of film as an art form.
iW: So while watching your film, undoubtedly people are going to say, this makes me think of this director, this makes me think of that director, so I’m going to throw some names at you: the Coen brothers?
Refn: I haven’t seen many of their films, but “Blood Simple” made a real impact on me. I remember John Turturro from “Barton Fink.” John and I talked about that very much.
Refn: Lynch is very inspiring, because he’s a filmmaker who says there’s a huge market for films that are like paintings. It’s an expression that’s there and then it’s up to the audience to interpret it. I never understood why in all other art forms, it’s a good thing if it’s interpreted or surprising or different, whereas film has to be more and more prepackaged product, which is the same reason you have to spend so much time stuffing it down their throats so they’ll see it.
iW: You said the movie took three years to make?
Refn: First, writing the script with Selby. It was difficult, I came to him and said, “Let’s do a thriller, but we’re not going to show anything, we’re not going to tell anything, how do we do that?” I also took some time to produce a television series called the “Chosen Seven.” Also, financing films that are demanding is a task, in itself. Because people are so afraid of taking any kind of chance now, because they’re afraid the audience isn’t going to respond. But the audience is so hungry for anything that’s a bit original, personal, or different.
iW: The other movie that came to mind a little was “Memento,” which is a movie that no one thought would succeed, which did well.
Refn: “Memento” is a fine example of a movie that was so refreshing, but from a distributor’s point of view, it was like this is a tough one, we don’t want to get involved. But there’s a huge audience out there who want something that’s demanding and want to be taken on a journey. The problem with cinema nowadays is that it’s a math problem. People can read a film mathematically; they know when this comes or that comes; in about 30 minutes, it’s going to be over and have an ending. So film has become a mathematical solution. And that is boring, because art is not mathematical.
iW: I know violence is at play in both your movies, more physical in “Pusher” and more bubbling under the surface here.
Refn: Doing your first film, it’s very important that it’s a commercial success, because that gives you a couple times to experiment until you have to hit the jackpot again. “Pusher” has some physical violence, and it’s very realistic and harsh, because that’s what violence is. But ever since “Pusher,” I’ve been trying to get away from physical violence; it’s too easy; it doesn’t satisfy me artistically to work with it. Dramatic violence is much more interesting, but it’s much more difficult.
iW: There’s some Asian filmmakers using violence in very interesting ways right now.
Refn: The Oriental approach to violence is a much more aesthetic and poetic approach, whereas in the western world, violence is put in because you can’t solve the problem. Violence is always the last solution, but unfortunately, in cinema, it’s the first solution, because it’s easy. And it’s often too easy.
iW: You mentioned “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” as an influence?
Refn: “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is my favorite film of all time. I saw it at the Cinema Village Theater when I was 14 in Manhattan, where “Pusher” actually opened. “Massacre” was the first film where I was totally torn apart. I was so terrified and it was so dark, and yet nothing really happened. There was a lot of viciousness, but there was nothing physical. You never see anybody getting killed. The sound design, it was the sound design.
iW: Can you talk about the sound in your film? So much of the film has this underlying ominous hum that reminded me of Lynch.
Refn: Sound, a lot of times, is there to underscore a picture, but I personally think that sound — like Lynch proves — is a very effective way of telling a story. But it’s completely up to interpretation, because you can’t see it. That goes back to video. The minute you see something, it becomes real; we believe it. There’s a difference between looking at a news broadcast and standing in Iraq during the bombing and then hearing it on the radio. The radio becomes much more emotional, where the image is hard facts. I approached the visual side in traditional, normal way, not doing anything glamorous or technical, but I wanted to have the sound design and music — that’s why Eno’s music is so important — to tell a different story.
iW: So how did you work with Eno on the score?
Refn: He read the script and he and his co-composer J. Peter Schwalm sent me CDs with various ideas of music.
iW: What made you write that letter to Eno, to ask him to do the music?
Refn: Because he works with sounds, and I didn’t want a score, I wanted sounds.
iW: So since we last talked Hubert Selby, Jr. has passed away? How does that affect your experience of your film?
Refn: It was really sad. I miss him every day. What is interesting is that Mr. Selby was such a good talker and he would have loved many of the questions that people would have asked about the movie, like this questions about man’s ability to kill; everyday we see on TV that we have no problem having killing hundreds of people in fiction, but when it comes to reality, it’s much different; it’s a theme that we were both very much obsessed with. It’s sad that he wasn’t able to experience it.