“It’s a very autobiographical film,” director Nicolas Winding Refn has previously said of “Bronson,” his 2008 comedy-drama that launched Tom Hardy’s career to new levels and solidified Refn as an international cinematic force, and he reiterates that point when I first meet him on the back patio of LA institution Cinefamily. “I made the film at a certain time of my life where we [Refn and wife Liv Corfixen] had our first child,” Refn explains. “I had crashed financially, and creatively I went through a lot of soul searching. It was very important that I was able to do that at a young age so I could carry it on my shoulders.”
After three further films and an intimate documentary made by Corfixen (“My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn”), audiences can understand Refn’s approach of “art as an act of violence” with the benefit of hindsight. He’s showing “Bronson” at Cinefamily for a specific reason —the film’s soundtrack is being re-released on vinyl and CD through Refn’s new soundtrack label with Milan Records (other selections include “Oldboy,” “It Follows” and “Robocop”).
Energized by tracks from Pet Shop Boys and New Order and a number of orchestral pieces, the film remains one of Refn’s best, anchored by Hardy’s incredible physical performance as Michael Peterson aka “Charles Bronson,” Britain’s most notorious prisoner. For the occasion, I talked with Refn about his future plans for the label, his feelings on wrapping his latest production “Neon Demon,” and the morbid inspiration for one of that film’s soundtrack cuts.
What makes a great soundtrack?
For me, a great soundtrack is music composed so that when you listen to it, it doesn’t always remind you of the movie you’ve seen, but the movie within yourself. We all have inner movies in which we are inspired by emotions, and music enhances those emotions. So soundtracks that are meant to accommodate visuals are a wonderful way to create your own movie inside yourself.
What compelled you to pick the soundtracks that you’ve released on your label thus far —do they reflect your all-time favorite soundtracks, or is that a separate list?
The label started because I’d always wanted my own label, and JC [Chamboredon] from Milan Records said that we should try to do something. I explained that I’m a big soundtrack collector —I still go to second-hand places to discover them— and so we decided to do a presentation label. But there was the question of whether it would work.
I very much like the movie “Oldboy,” and JC agreed with me for that pick because he was already talking with [the soundtrack’s rights holders]. Then I’d seen “It Follows” and loved it. So we wanted to pair a classic film with a contemporary, and see how it functioned. Those two ended up doing very well, and so it was like “great, there’s a foundation —let’s do ‘Robocop.’ ”
That was the one in the back pocket?
Well, “Robocop” is one of the great examples of a European filmmaker being brought to Hollywood and using the Hollywood machinery to just make a movie that is so insanely great. And then after that we’re going to do “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” and then another surprise for Christmas that we’re working on now.
So the contemporary one hasn’t been nailed down quite yet?
Well, it’s a matter of getting time to see films. When you have kids, you don’t see a lot anymore. It’s more like when people say “hey, you should watch this” that I sit down to watch a film.
What was the first soundtrack you remember owning?
The first soundtrack I remember owning and that really meant something to me was when I was eight years old, and my mother had “Once Upon A Time In The West,” which I hadn’t seen. She had the original edition, where the cover was a picture from the movie with Henry Fonda looking at Charles Bronson as a young man standing on the shoulders of his brother. I still have that soundtrack on vinyl; I found another version that I bought recently just to have it —it’s probably the original Italian release. I would play that over and over again, and I realized the power of music because it gave me images without seeing the movie. It’s the greatest soundtrack, in my opinion. Even more than the Trilogy, because that has great pulpy elements to it, whereas “Once Upon A Time In The West” has this elaborate storytelling, because the movie’s humongous.
Same with “1900” that he did with Bertolucci.
Morricone’s just the king. There are great composers, but he represents a certain kind of epiphany. And Riz Ortolani was another one of my favorites —he was a wonderful composer of pop music. I gravitate toward a lot of the Italians, because a lot of them came out of pop music in Italy, a very sappy, fluffy, ’60s pop.
Is it just a coincidence that aside from “Drive,” you haven’t used much music from those composers?
Yeah, the one time I knew exactly I was going to use an Italian song, even in script stage, was “Oh My Love” in “Drive,” which was Ortolani’s song from “Goodbye Uncle Tom.” But otherwise I tend to like electronic music, and especially so working with Cliff [Martinez] on “Neon Demon.”
Congratulations on wrapping “Neon Demon” recently. From Corfixen’s documentary last year, there was a portrait of you following production on “Only God Forgives” and experiencing such anxiety. How does it feel with this one?
It’s always like that —same with all the other movies. You finish shooting and you’re like, “okay, what is this now?” Because when I do it in chronological order, I approach it like a painting; every day is a freefall because I just change, and then that creates a rolling effect. And then that rolling effect becomes bigger and bigger, and you suddenly have to change everything. But I like that sense of creativity, because it’s more about movement.
It’s scary because you have a timeframe to fix it in, whereas if you do it like a painting, you can just go back and forth. So that pressure can be enormous, but it’s exciting at the same time because the idea of failure and success is always around you. It can be exhilarating, but also tiresome and terrifying. It makes you alive —everything is touchable, everything is movement. It’s raw.
What new aspect are you unsure of at the moment?
It’s not so much “unsure,” but more like I’m interested in what it’s going to become.
Even soundtrack-wise you were talking previously about Suicide, Cocteau Twins —are you going to use those artist’s music?
They are certainly something that I would musically use a lot, as well as Giorgio Moroder. That late-’70s music, before disco became too fluffy, had a very raw sound to it, and certainly some of the punk bands like 999 and the New York Dolls, because they were a very glam-oriented band coming out of New York. Johnny Thunders‘ solo career too.
What was the last cue that made you sit up and think “oh there’s something here”?
[thinks] Well, I saw a man die. It was here in Los Angeles, and that gave me the idea to use “Homicide” by 999.
Where was that?
[Legendary LA restaurant] Musso and Frank.
Inside or outside?
Outside. He got stabbed.
I had a similar experience not too long ago, like two months ago.
This was about two months ago.
And then the atmosphere afterwards is so charged —
It became a crime scene.
Right, and you can’t leave for hours. You’re stuck.
Right. It’s so surreal, because I’d never been in that situation before. But I was like, “Hm, I wonder what I should listen to while I wait for this crime scene to clear up? Oh yeah, ‘Homicide’ ”
Were you on set?
We were shooting.
Inside Musso’s? How are you using Musso’s?
For a scene.
For a scene?
The “Bronson” double-LP vinyl and CD soundtrack will be released on June 9th. Go to milanrecords.com for more information on current and future releases.