While he’s certainly been very busy working on his upcoming film “The Neon Demon,” Nicolas Winding Refn still found time in his schedule to attend a special screening of “Bronson” last Wednesday at The Cinefamily in Los Angeles. The occasion? The release of the “Bronson” soundtrack on vinyl via Milan Records. Refn stopped by, signed some LPs, then a Q&A was held after the film was over.
The director was typically candid during the Q&A, which brought about many interesting tidbits regarding the making of “Bronson” as well as Refn’s inspirations for the soundtrack. What’s especially interesting about the “Bronson” soundtrack is its eclecticism. The film contains a seemingly disparate mix of both ‘80s electronic pop and classical music. Thankfully, Refn gave us some great insight, revealing that he’d tried to get the Pet Shop Boys to compose original music for “Bronson.”
The Q&A wasn’t just about the music. You can read some of the highlights below, where Refn talks about casting Tom Hardy, his one awkward phone conversation with Charles Bronson, and why a certain popular film festival rejected his movie. For more, check out our extensive chat with Refn about his Milan Records deal.
How “Bronson” Is Really About The Director, Not Charlie Bronson
Nicolas Winding Refn: “Bronson” was essentially about realizing that art is an act of violence, but the Bronson character in my movie is like a difficult child who can’t adapt to normality. Every time he gets angry, he gets overly reactive and just wants to smash everything. He was taught by his art teacher that instead of smashing things up, you can draw birds. That was basically what was interesting to me.
“… all my life I really wanted to be famous,” and that’s the opening line in the movie. So I could identify with that sense of need that Bronson wanted so badly. But what was interesting to me was that I was very destructive when I was younger, until I realized I didn’t have to destroy everything if I could create something. And that essentially is what happened to Charles Bronson.
In the beginning, I just wanted to be famous. I didn’t know how to get to it because I couldn’t act and I couldn’t sing. On top of that I was dyslexic —I couldn’t even become a writer. So, film became what I chose, or it chose me. But it was all about my ego and vanity until I crashed and burned, like Bronson does. And through my life, I finally got a girlfriend and a child and I shaped up. I started making films for much different reasons. And ‘Bronson’ was the first film like that and it just became a fetishized sense of: well, I’ll just make films about what turns me on. And I accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to be the greatest filmmaker ever, but with the kind of films I make, I was gonna be the best at [what I do].
I only talked to Charlie [Bronson] on the phone once, because I really wasn’t interested in Charlie Bronson. He’s really not worth making a movie about. [laughs] But I like the concept of Charlie Bronson and I’m very egotistical in that everything I make has to be about me at the end. [laughs] Well, it’s true. So I took his life and decided to make it about my own life.
The Music In “Bronson”
Well, I was a big club kid in New York, and so music was a lot about that. I’ve always really liked music ever since I grew up and I loved all kinds of music. I can’t play an instrument and I can’t sing, but I realized that music affects me very deeply, so I used it in my work. [In] “Bronson”, I was trying to figure out “if this was music, what would it be?” And I came to the conclusion that it was the Pet Shop Boys. So for many months, I would play the Pet Shop Boys 24 hours a day, driving everyone else insane. And of course, there’s a lot of homoeroticism in “Bronson,” but there’s a sense of campiness that comes very much from the Pet Shop Boys music. And things change —“Drive” was [influenced by] Kraftwerk. So I was listening to a lot of Kraftwerk which is very non-sexual.
I did meet with the Pet Shop Boys and tried to persuade them to score the movie. They were very lovely, but Neil [Tennant] said, “you can’t afford us, baby.” [laughs] It’s true, and it probably would’ve been a bad idea if they did. So I started using a lot of classical music because that helped the operatic nature of the film. And just by chance Mat Newman, who edits all my movies, had said “listen, I just found this on the internet, it will remind you of when you were young.” And it was a lot of reminiscing with Glass Candy, they had that early ‘80s electronic feel during the time when I was growing up.
How Stanley Kubrick And Kenneth Anger Influenced “Bronson”
I always loved Kenneth Anger’s work, especially his earlier elements and leading up to “Scorpio Rising,” which is kind of his greatest, and that was the first time where pop music was used for certain images. It was the first kind of music video because it was the first commercial advertisement with symbolic images combined with music. There’s a lot of that with everything I do. And there was a time when Stanley Kubrick was very influential and I’d seen his movies and saw the rawness. I actually hired the same cinematographer who did “Eyes Wide Shut,” Larry Smith.
Has Bronson Seen The Film?
He’s never seen the movie because he was in prison at the time, and is still in prison, and is never allowed to see it. But he proclaimed it the greatest film ever made. [laughs]
Bronson in England is very much like a cult figure of the underworld, where a lot of geezers use him as a symbol of Britain keeping the man down. And it’s pretty stupid. [And] those guys like girls. And my “Bronson” is one big gay opera because Bronson basically declined a sex life. That was the one curiosity about him that I made up as much as was reasonable. He basically wanted to be incarcerated. So he clearly gave up his sex life in order to become his alter ego. And in order to show that, everything around him was sexualized —either gay or straight— to show that it didn’t penetrate his memory. But I was kind of wondering how they’d feel about this, so I sat in this cinema in London with all these geezers and gangsters all around me, and I’m thinking, “they’re gonna castrate me” or something. But they didn’t get it.
The idea was that he was a man who lived in a world he couldn’t relate to, so he created his own world, which is very much what happens when you create and you sometimes isolate yourself. And Bronson was looking for his stage to become what he thought what he was meant to be, the ultimate cage fighter. And he realized that it’d only destroy him. But he was always a person who couldn’t function in a normal world —and that was one of his curses.
Sending “Bronson” To The Toronto Film Festival
I remember when I finished the film, I sent it to the Toronto Film Festival because they had shown my “Pusher” trilogy, and I got a letter back from the festival director saying this is the worst movie he’s ever seen. [laughs]
Casting Tom Hardy, Almost Casting Jason Statham
I’m a big fan of Jason, and have seen a lot of his movies. I really tried to get Jason, but he loved our meeting and then got the script and was like “yeah man, I don’t know what to tell you.” And it was a shame because at that time, getting Jason Statham in a movie like this was gonna make you a millionaire, but it didn’t turn out that way which was probably the right thing to do. And when it got to Guy Pearce, who also turned me down, I knew I was never gonna get anyone with value. And I only had like $900,000 to make the movie, so it was not like I could pay anyone. I had met Tom Hardy earlier that year because he was like an up-and-coming actor. I don’t drink alcohol and he was an ex-alcoholic, and we met at a wine bar in London which is the worst place you could meet in. And I don’t think we very much liked each other, so that was that. I looked around and then at the end when I couldn’t find anyone, the casting director said, “You should really meet with Tom again, I’m telling you he is it.” I was very stupid and arrogant and reluctant, but in the end, there were no real choices that I had that I was happy with. So we met again in a much more just “me and him” situation, and right away I saw my guy. So he got the part, and I must say I think he’s absolutely amazing in the movie.
Tom Hardy is a fantastic stage actor and a lot of it was about his stage performance. He’s a wonderful comedian. He’s very much a chameleon. He had oddly been obsessive about Charlie Bronson and knew him and was studying him because they were trying to make the movie earlier on with someone else and he was gonna play Bronson back then. But when I decided to make it, I wanted Jason Statham. So I had a different take on it [and that’s] what you end up seeing. But to do that, we needed someone like Tom to pull it off. And that’s what he does and he’s probably one of the greatest living actors nowadays.
Tom is a fearless actor. And he’s the kind of actor that if he trusts you, he’ll give you his heart and you can run with that. But you must make sure he feels secure —like any good actor, they need to feel that you have their back. And he’s willing to take off his clothes and put himself in black shoe polish. That takes a lot to do that and he did, because he’s a very, very unique talent.
Refn On Working In Hollywood
I haven’t really tried it yet. I’ve only worked on “Logan’s Run,” which was a great experience, but it’s just about what you want to do in the end; I like my freedom. Again, I’m very egotistical. I can only relate to things that revolve around me. I don’t do “we.” I only do “I.” So if you go into those machines, you just have to know that. So far, there’s nothing that we could agree on. I still want to have that process. I may end up loving it. It’s a trade off, and you just have to figure out when you want to trade off and what it’s actually going to give. Freedom and creativity is a luxury. You just don’t earn it —you have to take it or else it’s going to be taken away from you. And I always want just to take it and not get rid of it. I haven’t come to that opportunity yet, but hopefully there’s certainly some things that I would love to try to get. I tried to get to do “Dr. Who” for TV and they turned me down. So you don’t know if you can get it, so you say “Fuck it, I’ll do my own.”
On The Use Of Silence In His Films
Silence is the greatest music in the world. Silence is the greatest impact. Silence is a very provoking sound because most people feel very uncomfortable with silence. And therefore it’s a great tool, especially when you’re around other people. A lot of the last films I’ve done have generally dealt with silence throughout the whole film, and I just love the language of silence.
Favorite Pop Music Cue And Thoughts On Classical Music
To me, the greatest besides “Scorpio Rising” is in “Mean Streets”, when DeNiro walks in and they play “Jumping Jack Flash.” I remember I was 9 years old and saw it in a cinema and was like, “wow, this is film, man.”
Classical music gives you a huge canvas, and it’s easy to work with as it evokes emotions that are very raw and pure. But if I have to listen to another version of “The Four Seasons,” I’m gonna throw up.
Why he wanted to to release the “Robocop” soundtrack
It’s not just the music, but it’s the movie and the music. The movie’s a great example of a European maniac [Paul Verhoeven] coming to Hollywood and doing everything that’s bad, but taking the machine of Hollywood and making one of the most extreme, entertaining films. One of the most iconic films of that era. And it’s everything from political satire to straight up exploitation movie, but a high end version. And then it has a great classic, American soundtrack. So it’s a combination of many things, but mostly it’s about the visuals and the music. When you hear that soundtrack by itself, it really evokes things inside of oneself.
You can buy the “Bronson” soundtrack on vinyl through Milan’s website right now.