This year has been a contentious one for Nicolas Winding Refn. Two years after his previous film, “Drive,” was a sensation at Cannes, and garnered him a director’s prize, his latest film, “Only God Forgives,” had a much rockier reception on the Croisette. This might be why the Danish director was especially thoughtful on the topic of resilience in the face of setbacks during his Masterclass at the Marrakech International Film Festival last week.
Just a few hours before he functioned as the onstage capstone of the festival’s tribute to Scandinavian cinema, accepting an award from Martin Scorsese while flanked by Mads Mikkelsen and Noomi Rapace and several dozen esteemed delegates from Northern Europe at the Palais des Congrés, he spoke at length with Positif critic N.T. Binh about his life and career. In typical Refn fashion, he was both cocky and self-deprecating, flip and sincere. And he left absolutely no sexual metaphors behind.
On how working in distribution started his directing career.
My first work in the film industry was in distribution. I was taken to Cannes for about 3 or 4 years working as a film scout for my uncle, learning what it means to sell and buy movies. So my introduction to actually making films was from a distribution point of view, and it was a great learning experience. You walk into a cinema and you see these buyers, and you can count the minutes before they get out of their seats and don’t want to buy the movie, or if they stay, how long they stay for. And you learn what market value actually means. And that’s the secret to staying alive in the film industry—knowing the value of your work. And how you can inflate it, or do the opposite.
The two films that I had significant input in distributing for my uncle were “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” and “Clerks” by Kevin Smith. When I went to the screening of “Clerks” at Cannes, I met Kevin, and I was around 23. He had this long speech about how he’d dropped out of film school to make this movie, then I saw the movie and I loved it, and my first reaction was: I could do that. That’s when I went home and decided to make my first movie.
On the arrogance of making a first film.
I think that I made the first film with the security of arrogance. When you make the first film, it becomes a strength, the not knowing. It’s almost a relief, thinking you know everything. Then you realize you don’t, but it’s too late. Here I just wanted to make a movie, and no matter what it was going to be my movie. I made mistakes, I did things that were probably wrong. But they were wrong for the right reasons.
On why he makes genre films.
You need to rebel against what’s around you. It’s part of your necessity as a young person. When “Pusher” became a success, I still had the illusion that it was not an important movie, that it was just a genre movie and what I needed was to make a personal film, an auteur film, whatever you want to call it. I burned my fingers on that process, but I learned in the end that genre movies are the birth of cinema. That if I just approach everything like a pinup magazine, making films about what arouses me, I don’t really have to worry about the results so much. And I started making better films. And I enjoyed the process a lot more.
On learning from failure.
What I learned from my failure is that it’s not creativity you should be afraid of, you should just be aware of what the value is. The film industry is very simple, like any market. If your films make money, it’s a lot easier to get money to make more films. If your films don’t lose money, you can still find people to give you money. But if you lose money, that’s a very dangerous, slippery slope to get into. The problem with “Fear X”—creatively I didn’t solve it as much as I should have. That’s my fault, pure and simple. Financially, the film was just too expensive for what it was worth. If the film had cost half a million dollars, nothing would have happened. But because it cost between $3-4 million, it was just way too expensive for the kind of film it was.
Also when I was making it I thought I was god’s gift to mankind. I felt I could walk on water. Which is what you do. You have to have that attitude. But when it became such a colossal failure, and because I invested my own money it, not only was the movie a failure, but I owed my bank $1 million. Now when you owe your bank $1 million, you’re pretty much ruined for life. At the same time, I was a has-been at 30 years old. I felt really sorry for myself. I was really pathetic.
In a way, failing was always something that had to happen to me. Because you need to learn you can’t walk on water. Then you can understand when it really works. And also early on I was making movies based on my own ego, my own vanity, the idea of what film would give to me, as a status. I wanted to be famous. But not just famous—I wanted to be a legend. Especially before I was 30. And if I died, even better. It was all about the ego. In a way, having that failure, I was able to relinquish myself, and to just make films based on what I would like to see. And not worry so much about what would be expected of me. We have this world of correct cinema and incorrect cinema, good or bad. Six months of a year we’re always made aware of good and bad movies, because in America they have this awards season, where it’s all about giving each other awards. And if you’re not part of the season, it usually means your movie’s not good. And that can drive you insane, being caught in this terrible world of egos and vanity.
There’s always the fear of failure. But I’ve come to realize that there’s my own personal failure and there’s the financial failure. And I just have to separate them. I’ve tried a combination—I know what both feels like, personally. It always stays with you. But it’s never something that should stop you. It’s just good to know. It’s a bit like having safe sex.
On why he shoots in sequence.
My mother had given me a biography of John Cassavetes, because I really loved “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.” The idea in the book was that he shoots in sequence, in chronological order. Not really knowing what that meant, other than that it was a great way of working with actors, I applied that [to “Pusher”], and it’s something I’ve done in every single film since. I enjoy that process of the constant insecurity of creativity. The idea of submitting yourself to the process. You know where you want to get to, but it’s about the journey there. It gives you opportunities to alter things in the script, because every day it evolves. You have to be very secure in your beliefs to be open to what happens. You also have to involve the actors in the process. What I do every morning is ask the actors what they would like to do today. To again remind them that we’re submitting ourselves to the creative process, that we are under a higher purpose. And that this is where it’s going to get interesting. And when it’s over, whatever decisions are the right decisions. Sherlock Holmes has a saying that whenever all of our options have been tried, whatever is left is right. And I like that. It’s a bit like having sex. You don’t really know what it’s like until you climax, but you like the process a lot more.
On his romance with Ryan Gosling.
We are very good at becoming one person, Ryan and I, in terms of how we move forward with what we do. We’re very similar in many ways, very good at exchanging ideas even without saying it. It’s been an extremely passionate relationship.
On conceiving of, collaborating on, and constructing films.
For me it’s all about structure. It always starts with structure, and nothing is written until the structure is in place. I write down scenes on index cards and then I start placing them on a wall, or I have them in my bag. So when I get the idea of what I would like to see, without even understanding, I write it down and then when I have enough ideas I can see a pattern within them, and then I elaborate. If I don’t write the film myself, I’ll write the first part and then bring in another writer to give me what I need, to fight me or slap me around. Creativity is good when there’s a struggle. Because you can quickly fall into a pattern of safety, familiarity, of repeating yourself, if you don’t have people that shake you up and force you to see things from a different perspective.
In terms of photography, I don’t storyboard. I basically arrive on set and I work out the blocking with the actors, which is crucial for their performances. And then I figure out how to shoot it afterwards. And I approach it like any pinup magazine—what arouses me without showing too much.
I love editing. Matt Newman, who is probably my most frequent collaborator, I continue to bring with me on everything that I do. And he’s the only guy who I talk to about what I want to do in the most primal times. We cut the movie into incoherent stages, and then we try to figure out what it’s not. Then we slowly unravel it again, and then we realize what can be done with what we have. You can cut many different versions of a movie, and it will become many different films. I like the process of constantly digging into the subconscious of why you did things that you didn’t really understand when you did it, but actually turns out to have different meanings if you allow it to grow. I spend a long time in the editing process.
On turning weaknesses into strengths.
I think that art is very much about using your weaknesses and turning them into your strength. Nothing is perfection. The chief enemy of creativity is perfection. The high lies in when you feel that against all odds it has worked. No money can outweigh that. Nothing can take that away from you. It’s a high that you can chase and chase and chase.
On the difficulties of balancing work and life.
I think the hardest situation that I’ve been faced with, that I’m constantly faced with, is the struggle between the profession I have and having a family. Those two things are at constant war with each other. And I don’t have an answer, except for therapy—group, you know, with-your-wife therapy. That to me has the most difficult process. I’ve tried everything else, in terms of filmmaking. I’ve had every single thing happen to me, both good and bad. Those things I don’t consider obstacles, that’s just part of the process. Family and work—that’s when it gets tricky.
On whether or not he’s a master.
Well, I don’t know if I’m a Jedi Knight, and I don’t know if I’m a master. And I’ve come to realize I’m probably not the world’s greatest filmmaker. But what I do know is that the kind of films I make, I’m the best at.