Nicolas Winding Refn is back in theaters (and on VOD) this Friday with "Only God Forgives," his second film to star his "Drive" muse and good buddy Ryan Gosling as another largely silent and morally corrupt protagonist in a film as equally violent as its wildly popular predecessor. Set in Bangkok, the Cannes entry stars Gosling as Julian, a boxing club owner who is sucked back into his family’s sordid criminal history when
his brother is murdered and his tough-as-nails mother (Kristin Scott
Thomas) calls upon him to avenge the death.
I sat down with Gosling in New York to discuss re-teaming with Refn, how his directorial debut "How to Catch a Monster" (which was recently acquired by Warner Bros.) is shaping up, and the challenge of playing such an opaque character.
You weren’t by Nicolas’ side at Cannes for the film’s big reveal. Was that tough?
It’s like the worst feeling, because you work on something as intimately as we did on this and to not be able to be there with it is an awful feeling. But also I was directing a film at the time, so it was like "Sophie’s Choice," you know? Because you’d have to leave halfway through the shoot in the middle of a shoot week to go to Cannes. It was like a "Sophie’s Choice" situation.
How is your film coming along?
It’s coming along…
From the sounds of it, your debut seems to tackle with existential themes like "Only God Forgives" and shares a dark bent. Were you inspired to write it based off of your work with Nicolas?
I guess I’m in the process of figuring out what it tackles. But yeah, absolutely working with Nic was a huge influence. He’s very helpful in the process of it coming together and in terms of advice and support. But I think that Nic makes movies that are very personal films. I think this is such a great example, because after "Drive," he could have done almost anything he wanted. He was offered very big things, but instead he chose to make this film that he’d been planning on making for years, a much smaller film that was more guaranteed to divide people. But he put his head down and made the movie and made it the way he wanted to make it. And there was never a lot of discussion while making the film about what other people would think, it’s mostly just about what he thinks. And I think if you’re going to put this much of your time and yourself into something, now it seems crazy to do it any other way, whereas when I first started working with Nic it felt crazy to do it the way he was doing it, because it’s not the common way of approaching a film. Most people approach films for the audience.
At the Cannes press conference, Nicolas spoke of how the film was born out of an existential crisis he was having with himself at the time, and that the film is essentially about a man at war with god. Did he relay all of this to you before you read the script?
It was really about working with Nic and that we had just had this great experience on "Drive," and he was going off to do this thing that seemed pretty hard considering what he was up against. I just felt a certain brotherhood or something where I couldn’t see letting him do it alone. It seemed like an experience that I wanted to have too.
You wanted to hold his hand along the way?
Yeah [laughs]. I wanted to be part of that experience because it’s not often that people make films that are so personal, even though I didn’t always understand the film or what we were doing. I admire him enough as a filmmaker to help him realize it. It’s interesting to be close enough to watch somebody who is making something for such personal reasons. His description is different, it’s more fetishistic. I don’t like to acknowledge that or think of it in that way since I’m so involved in it.
In speaking to the press about this film, Nicolas has admitted to having a fetish for violent images. Do you share that in any way?
It’s not as much a part of the fabric of my creativity as it is for Nic. I mean, he was watching "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" when he was a kid before school, so it’s just a part of him. I was highly influenced by violence. When I was a kid I saw "Rambo First Blood" and the next day I took knives to school and threw them at everybody. So I was definitely influenced by violent films before "Drive." For me it’s been a completely new way of working. It’s a new kind of film language that I’m not really adept at.
You said you weren’t exactly sure of the kind of film you were making while on set. What kind of questions did you have for Nicolas given the fact that your character is so silent for most of the film, even more so than in "Drive"?
Nic shoots his films chronologically, so he’s deciding the film he wants to make as he goes on. And in that case, it’s like — in "Drive" I was the driver, but in this film I’m more like the vehicle being driven.
I think ultimately by Nic, but I think the audience is the driver in a sense, and that my character is more like an avatar, a vehicle in which to experience this world and the characters in it. And so I didn’t approach it like a regular film where you would think about the character’s back-story or character quirks or traits. It was much more about getting out of the way of the character and just allowing myself to be the vehicle.
Could you do that for anybody else but Nicolas? It sounds like you had to put so much trust in Nicolas, because you’re playing, as you said, an avatar.
Yeah, but I’m friends with Nic. I know his intentions when he makes a film, and I also want to have that kind of a relationship because I’ve been doing this for twenty years, you know? At a certain point you have to put your trust in somebody if you want to have a different kind of experience other than trying to sort of hijack someone else’s vision in order to realize your own. That’s the worst case. Sometimes you have the same vision, but in this case this is a person who wanted to make something that was nonverbal, very much a mood piece that was very personal for him. We couldn’t talk really in literal terms about it and it was something that was a challenge for me to put myself aside and just allow myself to be an organic vehicle.
Especially when so many actors surrounding you weren’t — especially Kristin Scott Thomas, for example, in the film.
Yeah, but you know, I’ve had those roles and so this is part of it. Part of it is getting — I’m sorry to be using so many lame driving references — getting in the passenger seat and letting somebody else be the focus. I’ve had those roles and this was a chance for me to step aside from that.