By the middle of last week, everyone was talking about Lars von Trier. Then another Danish filmmaker came to town and stole some of his thunder: Nicholas Winding Refn, in competition with the ultra-violent Ryan Gosling vehicle “Drive,” premiered his crowdpleasing action pastiche on Thursday and received a 10-minute standing ovation in the Palais.
Already set for U.S. distribution through FilmDistrict, “Drive” has the obvious makings of a commercial hit, with Gosling playing a no-nonsense hero out to protect a family from L.A. gangsters. While Gosling sat on the beach nearby, a noticeably relaxed Refn spoke to indieWIRE about his experiences with this project, which is his first shot in America. He also addressed the controversy surrounding fellow Dane von Trier and discussed his next project.
Compared to your “Pusher” trilogy, your last three films — “Bronson,” “Valhalla Rising” and now “Drive” — feel like a trilogy. They have several common themes and stylistic choices. Was this intentional?
Yes. They all have one theme in common: They’re all about transformation. It’s a normal evolution of what interests me. The “Pusher” trilogy was specifically about authenticity, but that was those films and filmmaking is a cinematic language, so you should open up to the possibilities of what it can deliver.
“Drive” was scheduled at the end of the festival, which is often a bad sign for competition films at Cannes. But people were applauding throughout your movie, even during the press screenings.
Wow. I was so stressed about just making my deadline. I just went on instinct. I finished the movie four weeks ago.
Are you happy with the way it turned out?
Very happy. Hey, look: I got to make a film in Hollywood the way I wanted to make it. That’s very rare.
Why do you think you got away with it?
I think it was the circumstances between Ryan and myself that lent it momentum.
So Ryan expressed interest in working with you from the outset?
Yeah. It’s very similar to the way “Bullitt” was made when Steve McQueen wanted Peter Yates to direct it, or when Lee Marvin wanted John Boorman for “Point Blank.”
What made you think you think you would have the freedom to make this movie on your own terms?
Well, you shouldn’t think of it as having enough freedom. It’s more like, “What are my obstacles, and how can I utilize them to help me make something different from the last time?
And what were your obstacles?
I didn’t have any specific obstacles, but I was working in Hollywood, which I know can be a very dangerous place to be, and I was determined to make it work.
It does stand apart from what we’re used to seeing in this genre. As far as I know, there’s no skull crushing in “The Fast and the Furious” franchise.
Unfortunately, yes. Hollywood is Hollywood. It’ll never change, although it does go through its own transformations. I think that there’s this obsessiveness with making money, which has gotten out of proportion. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. We are an industry that needs money to survive, but I think that there needs to be cheaper movies — not aesthetically, but financially — and maybe people should make a few more different kinds of movies. Oddly, this year, the real successes were ones that were made at reasonable prices, like “Black Swan” or “True Grit.”
Would you like to make movies on that scale?
Sure, but I’m not going to live in America.
Do you like working in Denmark?
I don’t really make films in Denmark. “Bronson” was shot in Rottingham, “Valhalla Rising” was made in Glasgow and “Drive” was made in Hollywood. I’m making the next one in Bangkok. But Denmark is good when you have a family. The schools are good and the climate is healthy. Once you have that, you have to prioritize.
In indieWIRE’s interview with Lars von Trier, when told that you expressed disdain for his infamous Nazi comments, he said, “I’ve known him since he was a kid! Fuck him.” Are you guys still going to be able to get along?
Of course we’ll along. But the thing about Lars is that he’s getting old and his comedy routine is a bit tiresome.
Have you two spoken since the events of the past few days?
No. He spoke with my mother [von Trier’s editor, Anders Refn].
Are you very close?
Well, we’re not close, but…(long pause). In a way, Lars is very provincial.
What do you mean by that?
He’s just a farm boy caught in the big game.
He said he would never do a press conference again. How do you feel about the sort of global attention that Cannes invites?
It’s an important game to play, but you know what? I believe that at my age, making a movie, and making it good, that’s all that counts. Everything else is the flavor of the hour.
Because of the nature of your films, you have a niche appeal with genre fans, rather than wider audiences.
I think it’s time to wake up and see that the future of cinema is being distinguished, unless you make these giant tentpoles, but that’s a completely different way of making films. It’s like making — with all due respect — a gigantic commercial. But that can also be very satisfying.
But not for you?
Well, I would love to try one. It could be a great challenge. Ryan and I have decided to partner up and remake “Logan’s Run” for Warner Bros.
What’s next for you?
I’m moving to Bangkok in August to make my next film. Kristen Scott Thomas and Luke Evans are attached; it’s called “Only God Forgives.” It has some violence… and then a lot of violence.
I think I can describe all of your movies that way.
If Shakespeare was alive today he would write about crime, not the royal family.