Regular IndieWire readers know that prolific actor-director James Franco is a regular contributor. So when we had the opportunity to interview Nicolas Winding Refn for the Blu-ray and DVD release of “The Neon Demon” (September 27), we thought Franco was the right man for the job. Franco and Refn previously collaborated on a Gucci advertisement last year, but the following interview finds the pair journeying back to Refn’s early days and working their way toward the present.
JAMES FRANCO: Your parents were filmmakers. Tell me a little bit about that — growing up and how you started. I also heard that you took your wife on a first date to see “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” So what I really want to know is how you started making films out of that kind of upbringing.
NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Well, how did it all start? I guess it started with television. I moved to New York when I was eight years old, in 1978. I grew up in Manhattan. I couldn’t speak any English and I had dyslexia, so it took me many years before I could read. But what was amazing to me was that — besides the tall buildings, there was television. The idea of having multiple channels that could show many different things. It was like a kaleidoscope of images.
I became very obsessed with the idea of a screen, especially one that I could control. I could control the visuals by turning the channels. My mother and stepfather were documentary filmmakers, and of course had a very healthy Scandinavian mentality. When it came to cinema, my mother was very obsessed with the French New Wave. That was her generation. She also had photographs of Miles Davis and all those people. So how do you rebel? The two things that my mother really detested were American violent entertainment and Ronald Reagan. So guess what I loved growing up?
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JF: So you were watching a lot of these ‘70s and 80’s slasher films?
NWR: I was anything that was on TV or video at that time. When I was 12 or 13, I started going to the cinema myself. Then when I was 14, I saw “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” at a place called the Cinema Village. I was too young to experience 42nd Street, which you’re making a show about. [Franco stars in David Simon’s upcoming “The Deuce,” about New York’s porn industry in the ’70s.] Seeing “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” — up until then, I was used to the French New Wave, which was like the antichrist of good taste, or regular studio entertainment.
But seeing “Chainsaw” was the first time that I saw liberation. That film could be an art-form equivalent to a painting or experimental music. It had no conventional way of telling its story. It was like flicking channels of emotion. It had no sexuality. It was beyond human extinct. It frightened me. I remember my mother being very upset about it. I remember thinking that I never wanted to be a filmmaker, but whatever that movie does, I want to do. I guess that’s where it all began for me.
JF: It sounds like what you’re saying is that you didn’t want to create slasher horror films, it was just the feeling or affect that the movie had.
NWR: Yeah. I think that’s right. You know the same feeling being a filmmaker yourself. At least for me, as I say in “Bronson,” I didn’t have a lot of options artistically speaking. I couldn’t dance. I couldn’t sing. I couldn’t play an instrument. I couldn’t act. I couldn’t work with clay. I couldn’t paint because I’m colorblind. So thank god film found me and I could use that. The screen became my canvas.
JF: So after watching that film and realizing what you had to do, what did you start doing? Did you start making short films before you made “Pusher?”
NWR: Well, I spent most of my teenage years clubbing in New York. That was probably my number-one goal and activity. I hated my school. I started making short films in my late teens when we had moved back to Copenhagen. I moved back there when I was 17. Then when I was 19, I went back to New York and went to acting school for a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I hated that. I got kicked out for a year. Then went home to Copenhagen and made “Pusher,” as you said. I made it first as a short film. I then was able to get funding and make it as a feature when I was 23.
Franco: You went to the Academy to act. Did you think you’d be an actor?
NWR: I wanted to be famous. I guess I thought acting would make me famous. My mother had given me a book about John Cassavetes and it talked about him having attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, so I thought I’d go there. I applied a few placed and got into American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I was very good at comedy, that’s at least what the teacher told me, at least what the report card says. But I guess I wasn’t very good because obviously I got kicked out.
JF: Would you do scenes from plays or movies or improvise?
NWR: It’s a regular acting school. You would study the history, then do scenes with a partner. They would give you tickets to go see plays in the evening. I did that once in a while and saw a few good ones. It was just standard acting school. I was very dedicated — I took all the classes, even some extra ones. I took voice and singing lessons outside of acting school. But, you know, like Hans Christian Andersen, it wasn’t meant to be. Something higher was waiting for me. So it was just a part of the journey.