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Exclusive: Nicolas Winding Refn Discusses Movie Poster Evolution and Premieres NSFW Vintage Ads

Exclusive: Nicolas Winding Refn Discusses Movie Poster Evolution and Premieres NSFW Vintage Ads

READ MORE: Watch: How Does Nicolas Winding Refn’s Colorblindness Shape His Films?

Say what you will about the films of Nicolas Winding Refn, but it’s impossible to deny their fervent visual bravado. The Danish writer-director has emerged as one of cinema’s boldest visual storytellers since breaking onto the scene with “Pusher” (1996) and becoming a household name for American cinephiles with “Bronson” (2008) and “Drive” (2011). Even more divisive efforts like “Only God Forgives” (2013) have showcased his zealous eye for aesthetics, cementing Refn as a prominent visual auteur.

While the director continues to put the finishing touches on his latest project, “The Neon Demon,” he’s taking a minor break from moviemaking to embark on an international book tour for his new collection of never-before-seen movie posters, entitled “Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing.” Featuring vintage poster art from more than 300 exploitation films, the collection is something of a time capsule to an era of movie marketing that was provocative and avant-garde.

With “Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing” making its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest in an exhibit at the Mondo Gallery (running September 25-27), Indiewire spoke with Refn over the phone to talk about the “intoxicating” and “imaginative” world of movie posters. Read our conversation with the filmmaker and check out two exclusive poster premieres from the book below.

A book devoted to vintage movie posters is hardly a surprise coming from such a visual filmmaker. When exactly did your love of movie posters start?

I have always gravitated towards movie posters. I think it’s because when I was young there were so many one sheets promoting images for films that I was never allowed to see. I had very strict rules growing up. I remember I was in France and saw this poster for some kind of horror-cannibal-zombie movie, and I was no more than five years old but it just burned in my mind. From the image alone I knew that whatever that movie was it must be dangerous and interesting. I always loved posters just like I love scores and soundtracks — it’s just something around cinema that is more about your imagination, more about what you’re going to be seeing rather than what it is you’re actually seeing. I find that very intoxicating. 

Were you always an avid collector?

I never really collected like heavy. At one point I thought it was fun, but I never collected until a friend of mine — a writer who had worked on Times Square in the 1970s and 1980s named Jimmy McDonough, who was one of the creators of something called Sleazoid Express, which was the first Times Square-oriented fanzine by him and Bill Landis — came to me and said, “Hey, I’m going to get rid of all these posters, do you want to buy them?” and I was like, “Sure, why not.” But little did I know that eight weeks later a box of thousands of posters would arrive. I had no idea what I was going to do with them.

As I was going through them — which took some time — I began to see this time machine. It’s like being in “Doctor Who” and going back fifty years in time into cinematic history to an era that is very much about romanticism and to an era that I was certainly too young to ever appreciate or be aware of. I wasn’t even born then. I had no idea what these movies were either. I had basically never seen any of them. That’s when I decided I wanted to do a poster book — the most expensive poster book ever produced [laughs] — and it would be consisting of film posters of films no one has ever heard of, and that ultimately became the project. 

As someone who loves vintage poster art, are you happy with the way posters are designed today?

I’m really happy there’s been this kind of push back from a lot of really great artists and designers from places like Mondo and all the interesting things people are doing online in regards to creating original art based on films they love. Seeing how popular those have become makes me so happy, because it really is an art form above anything else. A lot of the posters we see nowadays have become so generically uninteresting that I would never hang them on the wall. 

Cinema is a way for a lot of young people to seek identity, like any kind of art. A film poster — like the score — is an extension of that expression. It was boring for a long time, but I think a lot of things are happening now that are very, very interesting. It’s a good time for movie posters I think, just as it is for film, the more you sort of move away from the mainstream. You just need to be looking in the right places to find the good stuff. 

What do you find is most lacking from today’s studio posters?

Any kind of artistic expression. Most posters for the bigger films are about selling a product, like selling a Gillette razor. Everyone is so photoshopped that they all look so inhuman. They are very one note, there’s no mystery. Everything is spelled out or just focused on people you will be able to identify from another movie you might have liked.

What’s interesting about a lot of the posters in the book is that they show imagination. These distributors that were making these posters didn’t have anything but a poster to promote a film, so it had to work and it had to work very, very well. Now there are so many other platforms to sell a movie on and there’s so many ways to promote content that you can spread yourself more.

There’s also so much money spent on these films that you can’t be offensive anymore. Back then it was like, “Hey, man, I have $2, make the most extreme poster possible.” And so they did — they made posters about kiss me, kill me, fuck me — all in big letters.

In your opinion, what is different about posters as they travel internationally?

Most American films in Europe are just the generic studio representation of the kind of poster everyone uses. I personally encourage the distributors I work with to create their own art and own expression because I personally get a kick out of it. It’s also interesting to see how other people sort of envision your film and interpret it. Poland has a great tradition of making very expressionistic posters, for instance, they do this very avant-garde thing. The great Italian posters are so lavishly drawn and provocative. The big French sheets are always so elegant. 

Do you have a hand in turning your films into posters? Whatever anyone thinks about “Only God Forgives,” that neon teaser poster perfectly captures the essence of the film.

Honestly, full credit must be given to Tom Quinn and Jason Janego who ran RADiUS, who are some of the real mavericks of distribution in America. That was really what they presented to me and I just loved it so much because it was just so bold. It felt the mood of the movie. I always ask myself, “Would I hang that on my wall?” If the answer is “yes,” I will always approve. 

You’re bringing the book to America by showing it exclusively at Fantastic Fest. Why that festival in particular? 

I think it’s such a great place. Fantastic Fest is like going to the Ramones concert when they first came out. Fantastic Fest is like the CBGB of cinema. This is where it’s happening. This is where the underground and the politically incorrect things are going on. The challenge is preserving that as it becomes so popular and protecting it and protecting the spirit. The whole festival and what Tim League is doing as a distributor — he keeps it alive. He reinvents cinema and the enjoyment of watching a movie. I love that kind of ensthusaim and devotion to the art.

The other thing about Fantastic Fest, too, is that it’s just a great fucking town to be in. Especially coming from Denmark — you go to Austin, Texas and it puts you way out of your comfort zone, but I love that. I love every minute of it. We’ll be going all over the world — London at the BFI first, then Austin and then Spain and France — so it’s taking an interesting route, like taking a tour with a band.

As you travel, what do you find to be specific to American moviegoers? 

What’s great about the American audience is that there’s a very strong sense of curiosity and a very strong acceptance of what it is and not what it is supposed to be. It’s very refreshing. It’s in the American gene of being open. It’s part of the legacy of America — being interested in things. I always say I’m a product of the American Dream in that way.

What’s the single most effective movie poster you’ve ever seen?

The most incredible movie poster is in the book, and I’m not just saying that to promote it [laughs]. It’s called “The Nest of the Cuckoo Bird,” and it’s because in some sense the film is lost, which inherently creates a sense of mystery, but also because it looks like a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting but it’s a poster for some strange exploitation movie. I love that one.

READ MORE: First Images Of Elle Fanning In Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘The Neon Demon’

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