Few films at Cannes this year were more anticipated than Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to "Drive," the ultra-violent pic that netted him the Best Director award at the festival in 2011. Acquired by RADiUS-TWC prior to the festival, "Only God Forgives" (out this Friday in theaters and on VOD) had two things going for it that made "Drive" such a blistering success -- a score courtesy of the ever surprising and reliable Cliff Martinez and Ryan Gosling in lead duty -- in addition to a cast-against-type Kristin Scott Thomas and a colorful Bangkok setting. And yet despite all these enticing ingredients, the film didn't go over so well with the critics upon its first screening at Cannes, garnering audible boos and a mild spatter of applause. Indiewire's Eric Kohn, a fan of "Drive," went so far as to say in his review, "Refn stages each scene with the self-serious bleakness of a Robert Bresson picture, but applies such a cheap, one-note premise that his air quote approach to art house aesthetics reeks of student film indulgence.."
[Editor's Note: This interview originally ran during the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.]
The day following the screening, Indiewire sat down with Refn on the rooftop of a hotel overlooking La Croisette to discuss the divisive reaction to the film, the power of silence in his work, and what led him to casting Thomas as a foul-mouthed mother to Gosling's mostly silent protagonist.
You were last here with "Drive," which won you a Best Director award. How's this experience going compared to the last?
I think here on "Drive," we still had to sell some territories. Here, everything has been pre-sold. Now it's just everyday business. Schedule, release dates, what to do, what not to do, a lot of work around publicity. The first time was more glamorous, 'cause we came in at the end or about. Here there's just been a lot of general work because the film is being released in so many territories at the same time. It's just going to the office.
What kind of pressure did you feel returning to Cannes with your follow-up to the film that really put you on the map?
Well, pressure is not something that you put on yourself. Knowing that, in a way, "Valhalla Rising, "Drive" are very similar movies, it was more like in a way an end of a trilogy for me; which was very essential because there's other films that I'm going to go on and do. But I was extremely happy to come back and shoot it off here.
But the minute that you have already made deals with distribution, a lot of the pressure is already taken off you because the film was already sold. The distributors have already seen the movie. Here it's only about vanity and that's your own vanity.
About that vanity -- how have you been dealing with some of the negative feedback following yesterday's first press screening of the film?
I only like it when people love it or hate it. They did that with "Drive," and now people just forgot they hated it. So it's kind of ironic. What's happening now is what happened last time. So for me, I'm like, "Oh, they'll come around."
Did you expect that reaction coming into the festival?
You can't expect something like that because if you do, you're not being respectful to what you do -- you're being calculating. The joy comes in sensing that people cherish, love it, praise and others hate it and want to destroy it. You know deep inside that you have reached in very, very deep and you have pulled yourself out, like Ryan sticking his hand inside his womb [you'll understand when you see the film...]. It can never leave them. I will never disappear from their conscience. Personally, as an artist (that's a terrible thing to say) to a spectator, that's what you want. Because then you know you can plant seeds. You can inspire.
Do you follow what your fans have to say on the web?
Well I read Indiewire. The thing that's interesting in the digital revolution is that beyond your classic journalists or film critics, there's a whole world of people that are interested or fascinated by film. Those people didn't used to have a voice. The way that people describe, argue and debate is very fascinating because it shows that art has been taken back by the people. It's no longer individuals who set the standards or set the taste. It's been completely democratized. I find that really fascinating.
Like "Valhalla Rising" and "Drive," "Only God Forgives"' protagonist is largely silent. Can you speak to that?
Silence is cinema! We are so used to sounds; we're always talked at. Silence is very rare for us for a long duration of time. It makes people very uncomfortable. But what it does, it also forces us to perceive on a much deeper level because we can no longer just be told things. Silence is like gold. In terms of cinema from a story perspective, silence forces the audience to engage more, because if they're not being told what to think, then they have to put in the subliminal elements. I love that personally and I think it's an obligation we have, because then the audience and the film interact. You're not just passive, you penetrate each other.
Ryan Gosling is so good at keeping mum while remaining interesting, but you didn't cast him initially in this film. Why's that?
Because I wanted to make this film before "Drive," but then I ended up making "Drive" and cast it during that period. "Only God Forgives" had a budget of only 3 million -- then it turned into 4 -- so it's a very minimal budget movie. When I was doing "Drive" I didn't know what was going to happen. So I cast it out of England with Kristin Scott Thomas and this other actor. But then this other actor decided to drop out two weeks after "Drive" premiered here. And at that time Ryan and I had kind of hit it off, and so it was just a natural, "What are you doing in six months?" He certainly was instrumental in making it what it became.
You talked about working with Kristin at the press conference, but no one asked why you cast her. How did you come to think of her in the role?
I didn't think. I was initially looking for an unknown in the role and then I heard she was interested through the grapevine. I was like, that would be so cool if she would like to meet up. So I went to Paris to meet and her and very quickly realized she had no problems in turning on the bitch switch. She actually needed to do this bitch switch. So it was very easy. But she said, "In order for me to do this, I need to transform." And I said, "You're preaching to the choir baby." She sent me some pictures of herself in long blonde hair and that was pretty groovy. Donatella Versace, here we come.