There was undoubtedly no film that caused quite the same disproportionate signal-to-noise ratio last week as “Only God Forgives,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s return to Cannes after winning Best Director in 2011 for “Drive.” While to us the extremely polarized reaction felt more to do with the perils of unrealistic expectations (“Drive” was a left-field surprise to many in a way that “Only God Forgives” could simply never have been, given Refn’s different profile this time out), there was a difference of opinion among attending Playlisters about the film, though not one separated by such a wide gulf as elsewhere.
With the hubbub of delight/outrage still ringing in our ears, we got to take a few minutes to talk with Refn, the hero/villain of the hour, depending on which side you cleave to, this past weekend, and found the filmmaker on typically outspoken, occasionally loquacious, occasionally abrupt form as he talked about his reaction to the critical response and even dropped a few tantalizing morsels about what’s coming up next.
How do you feel the heightened expectations since “Drive,” especially here in Cannes, have affected the response to “Only God Forgives”?
I don’t think it has affected it. For me, the greatest pleasure is when you make something and everyone argues about it. Because you know it’s the only time that people are actually affected by what they see. So I’ve apparently made a film that people either love it or they hate it. So obviously I’ve reached into your deepest soul [in a move alarmingly reminiscent of a pivotal moment in the film, Refn here leans forward abruptly and points at your intrepid writer’s gut area] and planted something, or else you wouldn’t love it or hate it. And that’s going to stay with you for a very very long time… so that is all you can wish for.
The irony is that the people that are trying to fight it and criticize it, are criticizing it for the exact same thing they criticized “Drive” for! For some reason they just forgot that. So…history repeats itself and everybody forgets!
Is it the violence in the movie that has seemed to attract the most criticism?
It’s hard to say…sometimes people argue about the strangest things. They tend to spend a lot of time on [the violence] and then I think God, you spend so much time on an issue that the film actually has very little of, compared to even television, I must be really really good at what I do! So again, thank you very much.
A colleague has a read on the film in that it’s about an attempt to end the cycle of violence that is the legacy of this one particular family. Does that sound right to you?
It’s definitely very accurate — but it’s also about that. It’s very important it’s also about that.
And so what else would you consider it to be also?
Well, what do you think?
I suppose I concentrated more on the God and the Devil aspect…
That’s also true! No no, because the film is designed like that, like going to a museum and watching a painting, a Rembrandt, you’re going to see a thousand different elements within a single frame. Filmmaking is not about what we see it’s a very misconceived notion, it’s about what we don’t see.
Well, that’s an interesting idea because there’s a lot we don’t see and lot we don’t hear and lot that’s not explained in “Only God Forgives.”
Exactly. It’s the same thing. Storytelling is not about what we explain it’s about what we don’t explain. Sound is not about what we hear but about what we don’t hear. Because that’s the only way for you to interact with it, or else you become passive.
But how do you gauge the balance there, and give the audience just enough to work with?
I can only go off my own needs and wants. All my films represent my own needs and wants.
Which of your films does “Only God Forgives” feel most akin to?
“Valhalla Rising,” “Drive” and “Only God Forgives” are very similar in their structure and in their character…
You dedicate the film to Jodorowsky, who is all over this festival [his own film “Dance of Reality” showed here, as well as a documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune”]. Do you know his reaction?
Yes, he came to the red carpet [premiere] with me and he was very moved.
Moved by the dedication or the film?
I believe both — he was speechless.
The soundtrack to the film is such a huge and distinctive part, tell us about working with Cliff Martinez.
Well, here we had a lot more time to work together and I really enjoy his approach and his music and I’d like to see him very much a part of my future projects. [This time] I brought him in at script stage, also because I needed help with the [Thai karaoke songs that punctuate the narrative] and he knew a lot about that.
And as for upcoming projects, we’re very excited about “I Walk With The Dead” with Carey Mulligan?
Yes, that’s in the drawing boards, it’s looking very good.
And we’ve heard it variously described as a sexy thriller, a horror movie, an all-female film…
All of the above!
So a sexy thriller horror movie with an all female cast?
And Carey Mulligan is still attached?
[Refn nods mysteriously, but when we point out that he’s nodding, he obligingly says into our voice recorder] I’m nodding, I’m nodding.
Any idea when it might shoot?
I have to finish the script first.
We had heard there was already some funding in place…
[Deliberately coy] There are… movements of events.
There’s also been talk of you and Gosling doing a comedy together, with Albert Brooks being sought to script?
It’s also on the drawing board. We’ve tried to persuade [Brooks], we can’t get him to do it, we’ve gotta find somebody else. Until he finally agrees to do it.
And your “Barbarella” TV show?
Now I’m writing, hopefully it will shoot early next year?
And how about casting the lead?
I’m attracted to the thought of an unknown.
Have you decided on the aesthetic you’ll use?
Hmm [laughs] a lot of sex and violence. Fetishized sex and violence.
There’s also “Button Man” – is that still happening?
I’m supposed to read a script…
“Drive” writer James Sallis has written a sequel “Driven” for which the movie is said to be in the pipeline. Have you been approached about that at all?
No. It’s never gonna happen. The movie’s not gonna get made, because they don’t have the key elements.
The key elements being you and Gosling?
And Gosling wouldn’t think of doing it without you?
I haven’t even thought about that, I mean…
But if it were to go ahead, what would your advice be to the filmmakers?
Don’t do it! Don’t do it. Well, what would they do?
Our precious few minutes up, just before Refn leaves he does mention one other project in response to a question about whether he’d like to further explore Asian culture, by which he was evidently fascinated in “Only God Forgives.” “I’m doing a movie in Tokyo,” he said, but then went on to state that this was not “I Walk With The Dead,” which was for a time rumored to be shooting there. He denied he could let slip any further details, before teasing with “Tok-y-o. I’d love to do a yakuza movie…” Make of that what you will.
“Only God Forgives” has a July 19th release date in the U.S.