It’s telling, and maybe also a little paradoxical, that of the huge array of Nordic talent assembled onstage at the Scandinavian tribute last week at the Marrakech Film Festival, the honor itself was accepted (on the delegation’s behalf) by Nicolas Winding Refn. Telling, because it shows just how sky-high the director’s profile is, despite, or maybe because of, the mixed reaction to this year’s “Only God Forgives,” the follow-up to his Cannes-busting “Drive.” A little paradoxical, because it really feels that Refn can be less and less associated with the region of his birth these days: his last truly Danish film was 2005’s “Pusher 3” and his ongoing association with Ryan Gosling, along with his interest in non-European settings and cultures, makes him feel more international-with-maybe-an-independent-American-edge than anything else.
Still, we won’t complain as it gave us another chance to talk to the director, in a small group of press, and we found him in remarkably relaxed form. Here’s a summary of some of the highlights from that interview, in which Refn spoke not only about his more recent films, but also about “Valhalla Rising” and, candidly about his filmography’s bete noire “Fear X.” He was, as ever, less forthcoming about his putative future projects, to the point of coyness, but did let slip a couple of nuggets, in amongst our wider discussion of inspiration, filmmaking economics and Donatella Versace.
Refn consciously moved away from the realism of his early Danish breakthrough films.
I used to make films trying to capture authenticity, to the extent that when I began working, I would use real people playing themselves… But I realized very quickly that was ludicrous because it’s impossible, it always deflates itself. So I became interested in heightened reality, it gives you much more possibilities…
“Bronson” was when I decided to make films about heightened reality. A movie like “Drive” is very much fairy-tale inspired…After the “Pusher” trilogy I realized, I’d be repeating myself again and again. [With realism] you’re always bound by logic and this doesn’t interest me. Whereas fairy tales are interpretation and logic does not apply the same way.
Nor does he care for Vikings
Movies are also about how you get financing, with “Valhalla Rising” I knew that Mads Mikkelsen and Vikings would help me get financing. But I can’t stand Vikings I couldn’t care anything about that world, but I thought it would be interesting to work with Mads and make him mute and give him one eye–making a sci-fi movie without science. But that was after we got the financing.
The documentary on the making of “Only God Forgives” being made by Refn’s wife is nearing completion.
They’re finishing it now, but I stay out of it to avoid arguments. She goes and hangs out with Ryan [Gosling] and I stay out of the way.
And his wife also advises on his future projects, one of which may be a comedy (with “lots of talking,” Refn adds drily) with Gosling.
I get ideas in many different ways, and then I come home and discuss with my wife how will I do this? And she kinda decides how and where and why… Ryan is really funny so we say “let’s do a comedy!” It’s very easy in that sense. When I was in Tokyo I decided I wanted to make a movie in Tokyo, so I needed an idea for that. But then my wife said she would live in LA for a year if we had to, so we’ll do a comedy in LA… It’s more about what is accessible.
Despite his current project being the “Barbarella” TV show, he has never seen all of Roger Vadim’s “Barbarella”
I’ve only seen the opening, which is great! It’s one of those things I haven’t seen completely. I enjoy the concept and I like the comic books it was based on. The Vadim movie was very clever for its time but you can never do that again because the sexual revolution has come and gone. So I went back to the source material, a bit like “Logan’s Run” which was based on three books, so I had this idea of the world but I needed other people to help me build it, so that’s how [writers] Robert [Wade] and Neal [Purvis] came to be part of it… I came up with a broadstroke version but TV is a lot of hours of material so I couldn’t do it myself.
“Fear X” taught him a valuable lesson about the nature of budgets in the film industry
It taught me the lesson to remember the value of your own film, its market value. That film wasn’t… I lost everything, and that was a very valuable lesson, because we live in a world where we require money, but because of the digital revolution accessibility has all changed, so now you can do things for very little money, you can make a movie in your iPhone. But if you want to work on a certain project you still need financing, you can have as much creativity as you want but if you make a movie that costs $100m you have to make a certain type of movie that needs to make $400m. That means, you may not compromise on your artistic approach, but there is a general knowledge that there has to be a broad sense to these type of films, so there is a sense of self-censorship because now it’s like an investment.
But if you make a movie that costs $2.5m, what’s at stake is not so severe so you’re not bound by the same creative forces, I prefer the creative process and the freedom but it means I have to make films that aren’t so expensive. The more money the more responsibility you have to recoup the investment. The ABC of filmmaking is A: make great movies and make a lot of money which we all aspire to. B: make a great film that doesn’t lose money—you can sustain a whole career like that… Or you make a terrible film that makes a lot of money, but without the high of creativity. But you can sustain a whole career like that too. And in the end you can make a bad movie that loses money, but that you can only do once. And that’s the ABC of how to survive in the movie industry, that’s how you can figure out where you want to be, on that scale… [“Fear X”] a movie that did not work financially or creatively, it was a bad movie that was too expensive and lost a lot of money.
The inspiration for his minimalist stories is often a tiny moment.
Usually it just starts with an idea. Ryan and me, we took a drive in a car, and that’s how “Drive” came about. Very simple, he’s a great driver. Then “Only God Forgives” I had the idea of somebody looking at their hands, because in a way that was a phallic symbol and the ultimate male aggression of sex and violence in one movement. And then you create a story around those things.
Though Kristin Scott Thomas was instrumental in putting together her own look
I make inexpensive films, I was unsure if someone of her calibre would want to do something like this, but she was interested in it and we met. Kristin Scott Thomas is like my mother’s favorite actress, maybe every mother’s… British royalty. And in her previous movies, she has this gentle soul of a grandmother, but we met for dinner and I quickly realized she has no problem turning on the bitch switch, so I thought, “this will get interesting.”
So I liked her a lot and we discussed her playing this type of character, what would she need to do. Her reasoning was that she needed to transform, she needed to completely change her armor. So I said what, “Would you like to look like?” She returned a few days later with a picture of herself in a blonde wig, and I thought “Donatella Versace here we come,” so that’s how that design came to be.
While rumors have long swirled about a Tokyo-set “Valhalla Rising” sequel called “The Avenging Silence,” and an all-female horror with Carey Mulligan called “I Walk With The Dead” as being among the possibilities for his next big-screen outing, Refn is as non-committal on them as ever. But two entities that will be involved are production shingles Gaumont and Wild Bunch.
I have a two picture deal with Gaumont and Wild Bunch. “Only God Forgives” was the first of the deal and then we have a second movie which we are working on with them, and “Barbarella” is with Gaumont TV, so I’m fully infused with them.
Of course, we ask what that second project is to which he gives a Refn-esque reply.
The best part of a mystery is not knowing the answer.
“So it’s about a mystery?” we ask.
[laughs] I didn’t say that, but very well caught on.