Nicolas Winding Refn is a consummate film nerd, but he also admits he’s no walking film encyclopedia. “I guess it’s an assumption maybe. I haven’t seen every movie ever made, and I can’t quote every movie ever made. I leave that up to other people that are more obsessive about it.” Ever the media-friendly filmmaker, Refn interviews these days are a frequent occurrence. This time out, he’s promoting a new book he edited (written by Alan Jones), “Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act Of Seeing” (available for pre-order now). It’s a collection of more than 300 posters, curated by Refn, of exploitation rarities, mostly from the ’60s and ’70s, all featured in a heavy, gorgeously-rendered hardcover tome. Or as he gleefully admits, “a very expensive book, but about trash.”
Refn arrives in Austin today as part of a touring roadshow for the book, and to screen prints of three films featured in it pages as part of Fantastic Fest. “It was very important when it was done to give a good release,” he mentioned in our phone chat. “We worked on the book for almost four years, so it’s like, I guess I’ll hit the road again. It’s like being in a band.” The book is a closing of an era for Refn, he says. “I was never old enough to experience the real time square or those kinds of movies in cinemas because I’m from the VHS era, so making this book is like my fantasized notion of what it was like walking pass all these cinemas promising to show your innermost desires.”
Though he admits, “most these films probably never lived up to all they promise, the book represents that cinema is about the illusion. It’s about what we believe we’re going to see. Great cinema is about what you don’t see. I wanted to do a poster book that’s all about seeing, imaging what all these films will show you. The question is always more satisfying than the answer. That’s why I wanted to do it as a book.”
He’s currently in post-production on his latest film, “The Neon Demon,” starring Elle Fanning, Keanu Reeves, and Christina Hendricks, and the logline states it’s about an aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles, where her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has. “It’s like anything I’ve done, it’s a masterpiece [laughs],” he told me, playing coy. When I inquired about ‘Demon’ potentially being the closest thing he’s made to a traditional horror movie, he cut me off. “Don’t believe everything you read. Traditional… come on man. My films are like Christmas, you can’t wait to open it,” he elaborated. “And one thing’s for sure, what you expect I’m not going to give you. That’s what makes life so much more fun. When you watch the film, then we’ll talk again. I’ll give you all the ins and outs. You have it here on record.” The film is set to open in 2016.
Below, we have a bit more from Refn about “The Neon Demon,” plus other highlights from our half-hour conversation with the filmmaker.
Why there are (almost) no sex scenes in his films
A lot of the posters [featured in the book] are pre-porn, you may see parts of… or pieces of something but never the whole thing. That’s much more sexy I think. I like that mystique that it represents. I’ve never really done a sex scene in a film… I guess I’ve done one in “Pusher 2” where [Mads Mikkelsen’s character] can’t get an erection, I thought that was really funny. In most movies you see people doing a lot of drugs and having great sex, but apparently that’s not how it works. I thought it would be kind of interesting to see what happens if you can’t get an erection in a sex scene. That’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to a sex scene. Mads really gave everything for that scene [laughs].
I tend to think that sex is not particularly interesting in any kind of visual format because for heaven’s sake we all do it — well, hopefully we all do it — so there’s really not a lot to fantasize about. Whereas violence is much more interesting because, thank God, we don’t do it so it’s much more fetishized and subconscious in a way. But then, maybe in the near future I wanna do a porn movie in 8K or whatever. You never know, it’s hard for me to predict anything. I think the most erotic thing I’ve ever seen is probably Russ Meyer’s early black and white films.
Exploitation movies vs. “tasteful” cinema
What’s interesting today is that a lot of modern filmmakers, including myself, are very much inspired by the more extreme cinema that exploitation is part of. Why can’t certain films of an exploitative nature be equally as artistic as the fuckin’ French New Wave? Or some Bergman? For a younger generation, John Woo’s “The Killer” — I remember seeing that in the late ’80s on video — and I felt a little bit like this is probably what my parents felt like when they watched “Breathless.” To me [“The Killer”] was art. I remember telling my mother, this is it! She was quite impressed by the visuals. But it’s a generation gap I think. There’s very preconceived notions among certain people of what is considered good taste. And what is not art and what is art. That’s the enemy of creativity.
For example, I consider a movie like “Night Tide” an incredible art movie. It’s a perfect arthouse film from the early ’60s, one of the great examples of the new wave of American cinema. I put it up there next to “Targets” by Peter Bogdanovich and that crowd [of filmmakers]. Some people called it exploitation, which I never understood that. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to me is like the art movie of all art movies. It’s more art than Bergman ever made. But yet it’s considered an exploitation movie. I never understand how these definitions come about and how they’re defined. But I’m not an expert.
The “consensus” on some of his perceived failures
With “Only God Forgives,” what’s great about that movie is it just freaked so many people out. It made it the Sex Pistols of cinema. In a way it’s my most accomplished work, I feel. It’s very pure. And the mainstream wasn’t ready for it. But that’s what’s so great about rock n’ roll. You come out strong and you punch first and then you wait.
“Bleeder” was very successful, but it’s not a secret that “Fear X” wasn’t as successful [laughs]. To know success, you gotta try failure. You have to balance the business with being an artist. I’ve chosen a world where the medium is expensive. The movies tell a valuable lesson. As long as your movies don’t lose money, you’ll always be able to make them. As soon as the business doesn’t make sense, it just gets harder and harder. Having tried failure once, but many years ago now, I can now say it was good. If I hadn’t failed with “Fear X” I wouldn’t have done “Bronson,” “Valhalla Rising,” “Drive,” “Only God Forgives,” or the film I’m doing right now, “Neon Demon.” Everything happens for a reason I was just lucky to experience failure at a young age. Because it probably gets harder to take the punches of failure as you get older, because it’s painful.
Giving attention to more obscure filmmakers he admires
I find it sad when people just fade into obscurity and I feel they have something to say. Andy Milligan [some of his work features in the book], for instance, was by no means a great filmmaker, but he made films that we’re extremely personal and I always find that so much more interesting. Whether the film is good or bad is kinda irrelevant to me. It’s like asking someone, how was your Chinese dinner. I’m more interested in does it resonate, does it have an impact. That’s what art can do. It can inflict emotions within you. The power of it. For me, Andy was living in complete obscurity, something weird like releasing his films in some bootleg format. He was ridiculed. When I discovered an extremely good biography about him, a very sad one, I was almost obsessive. I have to protect this guy’s legacy. So I bought up all his negatives. It’s how this book project was started actually.
The challenge of making interesting films even as he gets older
It’s hard to always challenge yourself, coming up with new ways to make your life difficult so when you make something it becomes more interesting. If your life becomes more and more comfortable then you have a family, children and other priorities come up. And all those things infiltrate your mind. It doesn’t mean you can’t make interesting films until you die. It just becomes harder and harder and then you have to find other ways to challenge yourself.
The whole idea of a perfect film is just ridiculous because it doesn’t exist. I mean, the perfect girlfriend would be really fucking boring [laughs]. I think that imperfection is what makes it interesting because it’s about personality. Making it personal and imperfect, not trying to make it perfect or not trying to make it like everything else. Not playing by the rules. That’s what keeps it alive. It’s why kids still wear Ramones t-shirts. They weren’t the greatest musicians but they had something within them that was so much more about just playing an instrument. There was a meaning.