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Nicolas Winding Refn Opens Up About His Failures: 'I've come to realize I'm probably not the world's greatest filmmaker'

By Eric Hynes | Indiewire December 13, 2013 at 4:08PM

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 TK. 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-depricating, flip and sincere. And he left absolutely no sexual metaphors behind.
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PHOTO Nicolas Winding Refn Says He's Listening To Thai Country & Western Music For 'Only God Forgives'

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.

In terms of photography, I don't storyboard.

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.

READ MORE: 'Only God Forgives' Director Nicolas Winding Refn at Cannes: 'I have a fetish for violent images' (No Kidding)

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.

I've come to realize I'm probably not the world's greatest filmmaker.

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.

This article is related to: Nicolas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives, Drive, Marrakech Film Festival, Festivals, Masterclass, Filmmaker Toolkit: Student Filmmakers, Filmmaker Toolkit: Festivals





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