Last week director Nicolas Winding Refn launched the free streaming service byNWR.com, a project he has been developing for the past two years. The site features rare, forgotten and in many cases never-really-known films from the fringes of film history. Throughout the year, he will release four volumes of content, each built around a specific theme that Refn and his team of archivists will piece together along with a guest editor.
For example, Vol. 1, “Exploitation Gems from the Southern USA,” is anchored by three 1960s low-budget independent genre films, like “The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds,” a gothic horror film shot in the Florida Everglades.
Refn’s passion for finding and restoring rare films is a little different than his cinephile-turned-auteur peers like a Del Toro, Tarantino or Scorsese. For starters, Refn often wasn’t familiar with the individual films or regional sub-genres when he started buying them. In the case of the backwoods potboiler “Shanty Tramp” Refn took the strong recommendation of guest editor writer/journalist Jimmy McDonough to purchase it. With “The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds,” Refn had put the films’s poster in his 2015 book (“The Act of Seeing”), but was told the film itself was considered to be lost. Then out-of-the-blue Haden Guest from Harvard called to say he had found a print.
“I just started one night buying a lot of films,” said Refn in an interview with IndieWire. “Some of it I hadn’t really heard of, but I found it very interesting and the ideas of what they were about was fascinating to me.”
In some cases, the mere existence of films made by directors outside of Hollywood appealed to Refn, who has always remained outside of that system himself.
“There’s the need of expression that outweighs so-called technical talent or the ability,” he said. “I find that very intriguing because at the end of the day, you know, creativity is a need to express.”
The desire to unearth those pockets of culture led Refn to build a team of archivists and allied organizations spread across the globe, united through late night Skype sessions, as they search for clues of lost works. Refn told IndieWire his criteria to buy often boils down to “if I can restore it, show it and add it to my collection, then I’m down.”
“Whether it’s good or bad is an unfortunate discussion that’s taking too much of our time,” said Refn, who readily admitted that much of the work he’s been doing the last few years with byNWR and his Amazon series “Too Old to Die Young” is in reaction to the detrimental way feature films are released, consumed and instantly evaluated. It’s a system he believes misses the incredible value of the type of films he’s releasing through byNWR.
“I love the complete anti-authority at the very core [of these films] – there’s a lot of punk rock attitude, which I find very inspiring and I think should be more cherished nowadays, especially when corporate America is monopolizing everything,” said Refn.
Refn’s origin story as a cinephile differs from his peers. He didn’t grow up being exposed to the work of great directors. He traces his formative viewing experience to when he moved to America in 1978 from Denmark and didn’t speak English. Once there, he found himself shifting from a world of one television station to many — and a world of new experiences therein.
“I could just turn channels, click-click-click, and I can see all these emotions clicking” said Refn. “I wanted to relive that because that was the biggest … I want to control this and I want to spend all day just going in between. That’s kind of like how the site is constructed at the end of day.”
Building off this inspiration, the byNWR site is designed to have a fun, browsable quality, so that the three films in each volume are simply jumping off points to click through essays, music, videos, photography and other cultural ephemera that guest editors and Refn have put together. These aren’t bonus features one might find on a Criterion DVD – although Refn, an obsessive collector is often buying an interesting filmmakers’ entire archive. Instead, they can take many forms: From Refn filming the women from Dale Berry’s 1967 “Hot Thrills and Warm Chills” performing music today, to an article based on David Frasier’s pen pal letters with serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
“At the end of the day, the site is not so much about the movies themselves but all the other opportunities that the film has created,” said Refn. “It was like a Rubik’s Cube in outer space, because it’s endless, and it will just keep on growing and growing.”
Refn was speaking on the phone as he drove to the Los Angeles set of his Amazon series “Too Old To Die.” He said he was exhausted, getting less than five hours a sleep for the better part of a year, but was also been invigorated by the move away from feature-length filmmaking. Refn doesn’t believe a distinction between TV and film still exists, but instead the series — like with byNWR — is about embracing the freedom of a digital “new dawn.”
“For me [choosing to do an episodic series] was more about [doing] something where there’s longevity, the length of it – I’m no longer bound by the norms of what the state of theatrical film is,” said Refn. ”I wasn’t interested in television, I was interested in what I can do with a canvas that is endless. It’s like traveling to outer space. There’s no meeting point. There’s no official end. It just continues creatively.”
That is not to say Refn didn’t submit scripts with episode breaks to Amazon prior to production, which he did, nor was he referring necessarily to a series that would continue multiple seasons into the future. For Refn that sense of being “endless” has more to do with the creative process that differed from the feature-film mindset of building toward a tidy third act conclusion.
“I mean you go to work every day and go, ‘What would I like to do today?’ And you have great people around to help you [with] what that is,” said Refn. “It’s a bit like doing an enormous painting. It’s a mural on the Empire State Building and you decide to paint the entire [thing], but along the way you decided to change a little bit. Suddenly, you need to change all the colors as you go along and images themselves, mutate.”
To accomplish this, the production of “Too Old To Die Young” has been shooting chronologically. Editor Matt Newman has been working since day one, carefully tracking the evolution of the narrative as he edits and working closely with Refn, who he is constantly talking to on set from what the director calls the “control center.”
The creative mindset Refn finds himself in with both the Amazon series and byNWR just underlines for the director why he desperately needed to take a break from feature filmmaking.
“It’s an absurd limitation that kind of dawned on me – I think that it’s more the narrative limitations that I got annoyed with, or the lack of opportunities, because the way the system of films is so detrimental of what it’s supposed to be, the length of it, how people are supposed to react to it, and what is success and what is not success,” said Refn. “That I find very, very destructive, which is also one of the reasons I wanted to try streaming because it was a form of distribution. It’s the new canvas.”
Refn said it’s likely he will eventually go back to making movies, but that he hasn’t clue how the last two years will have changed him or his process. It’s something he said he’ll figure out when gets to the other side of finishing the series, which will premiere in the Spring.