A Conversation with Nicolas Winding Refn

Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
A Conversation with Nicolas Winding Refn

Pusher. Bronson. Valhalla Rising. Nicolas Winding Refn.
The man himself, right after the break.
(Note by Ard Vijn: this humongous article was produced and written by our very own Paolo Gilli a.k.a. El Duderino.
Me, I never met Refn and I had nothing to do with this interview. My name is on top only because Paolo had an annoying technical mishap and couldn't get past our security, so I posted the article for him and that automatically makes the system put my name on top. So... it should read Paolo Gilli!)

Last year's Torino Film Festival did a complete retrospective of Refn's work. Since the man himself was in town, I got the chance to meet with him a couple of times. For one of those, Refn was so kind to invite me to breakfast at his hotel and let me torture him for over an hour. The interview is about 5 month old, because, like Johnny Rotten, I'm a lazy bastard.


TWITCH: I know that you're a big fan of Italian genre cinema. So, I thought we
could get the geeky question out of the way right at the beginning. Which directors, genres and movies you prefer the most and why?

NWR: I think, I like Italian horror movies the most because... I think just for their extremeness. I like Spaghetti westerns because of their surrealism. I like Italian crime movies because of the absurdity and I like Italian sci-fi movies for its imagination. So, I like all those genres very much. And even though a lot of them were copying American films, I think that a lot of the times they were better or more interesting, when you really look at the subtext. Not so much the craft of the making, but more the subtext. My favourite Italian genre movie is Violent City.

TWITCH: The one from Sergio Sollima?

NWR: Yeah, I have it on vhs, laserdisc, dvd and a 16 mm print. And I have two
danish posters, in different colors, and an American poster where it was called The Family. So I like a little bit of everything. I think of course some directors are better then others in their body of work, you know. There is of course Bava, who has now gotten very notified and very much resurrected. A lot of his stuff is very interesting. Dario Argento, of course. I have a great fondness for Demons. Not so much Demons 2, but the first Demons really made an impression on me. I like all the cannibal films. Cannibal Holocaust made a very big impression on me. There is a lot of Cannibal Holocaust in Pusher. It very much inspired some of the things in how I did the movies. I think in certain parts of his life Deodato did some, I mean Cannibal Holocaust and The House at the Edge of the Park, very psychologically damaged movies, but I find them very interesting. I love The Island of the Fishmen, I always had a great love for them.

TWITCH: The one directed by Sergio Martino? In Italian it's called L'isola degli
uomini pesci.

NWR: Oh, ok, I like that a lot. I even like the Hercules movies a lot.

TWITCH: The Luigi Cozzi flicks?

NWR: No, no, the peplum movies from the fifties.

TWITCH: And you had the chance to see them in Denmark?

NWR: They came out on vhs in the early days. So in the nineties I would prowl videoshops to look for old videocassettes. That's of course all gone now, because of Blockbuster. They kind of crushed every market. So, you have to go on alternative places and collectors... but the whole collectomania has kinda lost a little bit of its enthusiasm because of DVD, which makes everything just available. You can go online, everybody has put their vhs collection online. So there is no longer any kind of... do you know if somebody has a print or a copy of so and so.

TWITCH: So you had that phase, exchanging movies with other people, chasing after the movies ...

NRW: Oh yeah, but all that's gone now.

TWITCH: Right. Now, watching your movies, I think there is a lot seventies American cinema. Was that an influence on you too?

NWR: Oh, yeah, definitely. When I made the Pusher Trilogy I stole everything from Ruggiero Deodato, Gillo Pontecorvo, William Friedkin and I guess also a lot of Mean Streets.

TWITCH: Yeah, that's what I was gonna say. I think Pusher, especially the first
one, is like your Mean Streets. It has the same edge and grittiness and vital power to it. Even if your movies are in a way more nihilistic and pessimistic.


NWR: Yes, that's true.

TWITCH: But speaking of Scorsese. I think you did the same thing with the Pusher
. I mean, of course it is a genre movie, it has all the elements, but it is actually more like a way for you - at least that is my impression - to talk about your characters.

NWR: Oh yeah. The Pusher films are not about drugs or about crime in any way. They are about people in a criminal environment, which was very much what Mean Streets was about. I guess there is also a lot of Killing of a Chinese Bookie in it. It's all about the people, but you use a genre universe to set them in, because genre is just a very good way to work in a commercial medium.

TWITCH: So when you did Pusher, you thought I'm gonna make my first movie, it's
gonna be a Gangster movie or ...

NWR: No, I knew that right away.

TWITCH: So it was intended do be that kind of movie.

NWR: Yeah, completely. It's because, you know, if you can make your first movie
successful, you're allowed to do a couple of failures afterwards, until you wise up.

TWITCH: Let's talk briefly about Pusher 2 and Pusher 3. A thing that I noticed and I think it's maybe because of Fear X, even if they are pessimistic movies, the ending in Pusher 2, the last frame with the kid, and in Pusher 3, with the swimming pool, have something like a sparkle of hope.

NWR: What they have is a sense of life is not over, it will go on. That has simply to do with one thing in my life. When I made Pusher 2, I just got my first child and I saw life as something that has to go on, whether I liked it or not. So going from Pusher to Bleeder to Fear X was becoming just more and more nihilistic and self-destructive in every possible way and also commercially harder and harder to sell.

TWITCH: So not just artistically, but in your personal life too?

NWR: Art was meant to be a destructive medium for me. Art had to destroy and
deconstruct and self-combust at the end. I was very young and arrogant about it. I had no knowledge. So making Pusher 2 and Pusher 3, I had by then gotten a family and that has profoundly changed my life and also the way I make films. I make better films because of that.

TWITCH: Ok, here is actually a silly question, but it's something I was curious about. At the end of Pusher 3, the one guy who ends up in the freezer. What happens to that guy?

NWR: Well, a lot of the Pusher films are constructed in a way where characters suddenly disappear. That's because that's the way that world is. Suddenly they are gone and nobody never really knows what happened. Everybody talks about it, but nobody really knows. I wanted to add that sense of authenticity to the movie, so I don't make it a traditional kind of where everything is rounded off, and everybody has its closure. That's not interesting for me.

TWITCH: Let's talk about Bleeder. How exactly did you came up with that. Did you already have the screenplay?

NWR: I think that on Pusher I wasn't particularly happy with the movie afterwards, personally. Because I never thought I was gonna be making those kind of films, but at the same time I also didn't know if I was just lucky. A lot of people are lucky at the beginning and then it's about what is left. And I wanted to try different ways how to make films and to experiment with many different ways how to tell a story. Starting that journey of filmmaking lead to Fear X and trying many genres. There is a little bit of every kind of filmmaker in those two movies, you know. It was for me to see how do I make movies, can I make movies, do I know how to make a movie. So it was all just about what I like to try and do and not really think so much about the consequences.

TWITCH: You don't have any kind of film school experience or things like that?

NWR: No, I actually dropped out of film school.

TWITCH: All your movies have a kind of descent-into-hell like quality.

NWR: That's because I like the the sense of journey into the unknown, where the unexpected can happen at any time. I think that's one of the few last advantages you have from cinema that you don't get on television, that you get that sense of journey.

TWITCH: Even if Valhalla Rising has this kind of a positive ending with the boy maybe getting home, it's still a descent into hell for the One Eye character, the journey you were talking about.

NWR: Absolutely.

TWITCH: Let's talk about Fear X. What do you remember about that period?

NWR: It was a very difficult, a very self-destructive, dark and nihlistic part of my life. It was a film that I tried to get made for a long time and when I finally got the five weeks to make it, I was just tired of it. I was not happy with some of the casting which I was forced to do. I feel that it's a handicapped movie, but it being handicapped is also what makes it maybe interesting, looking back on it now.

TWITCH: I have to say I like the movie quite a bit, even with some its flaws. The finale is pretty cryptic. What's the idea behind that? Is it intended to be like make up your own mind ...

NWR: No, no, I mean basically the movie is about a man who travels into its own mind to find the killer, because that's ... see, it's about a man who thinks he wants to know why, but he actually wants to kill him, but he's never gonna find him, so he conjures up a possible enigma that could be the killer, but it turns out to be right. So its a movie that starts with one possibility and ends up with a million solutions. Usually films are the other way around.

TWITCH: Do you think that was a crucial turning point in your career?

NWR: Personally it is, I mean for myself it certainly is, you know. I went bankrupt after making it and I owed a lot of money, so that was definitely a crucial turning point, because I went back to do the Pusher Trilogy and became a better filmmaker and so forth and I did Bronson. But again, both Bronson and into Valhalla I almost wanted to revisit that kind of filmmaking that I tried with Fear X, but that I felt I didn't do good enough. So it's almost like I gotta get back home do this and then I do it again, you know. So, in that way, if historically you can definitely see a lot of parallels that run back and forth to that movie.

TWITCH: So, after Fear X you did Pusher 2 and Pusher 3. At the time of the first one did you have already in mind to go back to that world?

NWR: No. I swore on my grave I would never go back and do something like that again.

TWITCH: So you didn't already have established back-stories for some of the characters?

NWR: No, I hated making them and I only did it for the money. But it turned out that I really liked them. But when I thought of making them I only made them for the money.

TWITCH: But again, there seems to be a real love for your characters, like you care for them a lot.

NWR: Yeah. I couldn't be cold enough to just to go out and make the same movie over and over again, like the Friday the 13th movies. Those are films that are reshaping the same idea again and again and I didn't wanna do that. I needed to do something interesting with it.

TWITCH: Well, seems like you reached your goal.

NWR: Did you see the remake of Friday the 13th?


NWR: It's one of the worst movies ever made.

TWITCH. Yeah, it was pretty horrible.

NWR: It was just beyond horrible. Why would anybody wanna make this movies? It was sad, I was just thinking poor people.

TWITCH: Nonetheless it did good at the box office.

NWR: It's branding. The Kids watch anything on friday evening, which is fine. The problem is when you make the film so stupid, it makes them very angry and they go like fuck that, I'm gonna go home play video games, which is surely more exciting.

TWITCH: Ok, let's talk about Bronson? How did you came up with? Did you know of him before the movie.


NWR: The idea was never mine. It was basically something that came to me from a distributor, that I work with in the UK, who distributes all my films. They have acquired the rights to make this movie and for many years people have tried to write and direct it, at various stages different people and I didn't really wanna make it, but I felt there was something interesting in it. So, when I came up with a way to make it, I had a few conditions and one of them was of course that I would need to revision and rewrite the film, because the script that was around was not very good. I mean it was ok, it just wasn't really good and it needed a much more alternative approach to making it.

TWITCH: Did you meet the guy?

NWR: No, I was never allowed to meet him, but I didn't really have an interest in meeting him, because I didn't wanna make a movie about Michael Peterson, which is his real name. I was interested in making a movie about the concept of transforming oneself from Michael Petersen to Charles Bronson. That I found very interesting.

TWITCH: Right. After seeing Bronson, everyone mentions Stanley Kubrick as being the most obvious inspiration for the style of that film. Do you think that remark is justified and how do you feel about that comparison?

NWR: Well, I mean Stanley Kubrick is a great filmmaker, so of course I'm certainly not offended by it. I mean, we all steal with our arms and legs, but strange is that there is actually very little Kubrick in it. Of course if you put violence with classical music, people think it's obvious that's Clockwork Orange, because Kubrick used it very well and you always look at it as a reference. There are similarities between my Bronson and the Alex character from Clockwork Orange. There is kind of anti-authoritarian popculture iconish quality, but I stole every single thing from Kenneth Anger. Bronson is a mixture of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) and Scorpio Rising (1964).

TWITCH: There is a lot of irony in Bronson. That came from you and not the real Bronson, right?

NWR: Oh no, Bronson is not a particularly funny person I was told. He is not a particularly interesting person either, because Bronson has never achieved anything of worth himself. But what he represents is interesting, that you can transform yourself into you own mythology. In a way, as I was making it, the film became more and more of a biography of my own career. So I was able to use Bronson as a catharsis of myself, of seeing what I used to be and now what I will become. That's why for me, personally, Valhalla Rising is the most interesting film, because it's the start of my new phase in filmmaking. I don't know what that means actually, I just know that I have profoundly changed since I made my first Pusher.

TWITCH: You wrote Valhalla Rising before you did Bronson, right?

NWR: Yes.

TWITCH: I think there is a continuity between the two movies, especially the characters Bronson and One Eye. You could say that one becomes art through violence, while the other becomes maybe sort of a God through violence.

NWR: One Eye is a character that I created as an enigma and he appears when there is a religious turmoil, when religion is fighting each other, which they seem to do all the time. And what he does is that he travels with people to their destiny and in that process he visualises man's journey from slave, which is primal, he becomes a warrior, which is functionable, and he ends up becoming a god because he has powers that are supernatural and that he is a man that does not pose answers, he poses questions. So he becomes someone that people follow. In the end he becomes man, he becomes human by emotions and that's the evolution of mankind. That's what One Eye represents. The idea of One Eye comes from that. I guess in the end I wanted to make a science fiction.

TWITCH: There is a thing I wanted to ask you about the last scene of the movie. His blind eye is on the left for the whole movie and then in that last shot it's on his right one. What's the meaning of that?

NWR: That simply means that he will come again, rise again.

TWITCH: Like we said before talking about Pusher, after seeing the movie I had the impression that you couldn't care less about making a Viking movie.

NWR: I have no interest in Vikings, none whatsoever. I don't know anything about them.

TWITCH: No legends and fairy tales.

NWR: I love to hear about them, but I would never go and make a movie about them.

TWITCH: Some people maybe expected big battles.

NWR: Helmets with horns in it, a lot of talk about Thor and Odin in it. I couldn't relate to it. I felt it was so old fashioned.

TWITCH: Did other movies influence you for Valhalla?

NWR: Unfortunately no, which made it very difficult to make.

TWITCH: So you didn't think of any other movies?

NWR: No. I desperately tried, cause it's sometimes easier, but I didn't and it made me frustrated. I guess there is a lot from Escape from New York in the movie. There is lot of Tarkovsky in it, that Stalker kind of feeling. But no, I wish there was, it probably would have been an easier film for me to make.

TWITCH: You said you wrote Valhalla Rising before Bronson.

NWR: I wrote Valhalla and developed it for a long time.

TWITCH: Yeah, I remember reading about it like two years ago or even before that.

NWR: It had been in process for a long time.

TWITCH: So you had to do Bronson to make Valhalla?


NWR: Not really. I did Bronson basically... what happened was that after the Pusher Trilogy had been completed I had no money, because I had paid of my debt, but I had no money and now I had a family. So, I'd gone to England to do an episode of Miss Marple, as a director for hire and I'd gotten an offer from an American studio to go and make a movie and I was very up for it. So the family and I was gonna move to L.A. for about a year to do the movie. But of course I had Valhalla Rising. Anyway the American movie got delayed, delayed, delayed and then suddenly I got a start date for Valhalla Rising and I felt I had to do it with my own production. I own the movie. So the American film kind of felt apart and it taught me a very valuable lesson also. Bronson kinda came out of the side and I became interested in it, but I also needed some money to buy out my ex partners in Valhalla Rising so I could own it myself. And then I made them back to back.

TWITCH: Valhalla was shot in Scotland?

NWR: Yes and Bronson in Nottingham. It's not that far. It also taught me that in L.A. you wait a lot and I don't wanna wait. I will not be in a situation where I have to wait to make a movie. Then I'll go and make something else. Life is too short, you know.

TWITCH: But if there would be another offer from Hollywood ...

NWR: I'm up for that. I'm doing a movie right now in Los Angeles... hopefully. But at the same time I'm not gonna wait around. So I made a two picture deal with Gaumont and Wild Bunch and those a fairly easy to finance and fairly easy for me to write and I produce and direct them also or my company produces them. If something comes in between, fine, I can see if I can push them, but I will not wait.

TWITCH: Did you ever get the usual offer from Hollywood to remake Pusher?

NWR: Yeah, It kinda came out, but I wasn't really interested. They did an Indian remake.

TWITCH: Really? With singing?

NWR: Yeah and they're are doing a British remake now and I'm helping them to produce it, because some of my friends are doing it.

TWITCH: Ok, this is kind of an standard question, which you probably have been asked a lot, but what do you think about the different types of violence in movies. I mean, there is like the sort of cartoony over the top violence and then there is the realistic violence, where you can see every detail, and then there is violence just as a stylistic element. Do you prefer a certain kind of violence or do you use it depending on the movie you are shooting?

NWR: Every movie dictates its own... what is needed to make and then you can preference what you like to work with. Personally I think violence works not in the physical form, but the threat of violence is much more frightening. Violence works when it creates subliminal images of things people think they see rather then what they see.

TWITCH: So you have kind of a classical approach to violence, in the tradition of Hitchcock?

NWR: Oh yeah, completely! I think that there is a reason why that way of filmmaking still continues to survive every trend. I mean, you can of course catch in on the kind of films that are called torture porn or things like that, but ... hey man, you can go online and see people kill for real. That's torture porn, you know. You can never show real life and there is no point in trying it, I feel, because you will never achieve the same impact. You're job is to give people a sense of notion what it may be like. So it's very different.

TWITCH: I think that with the last two movies your style has changed a lot. Do you prefer to be considered a director with a unique style, that everybody can identify immediately, or a director who can adapt his style depending on the movie he is shooting? Again I'm thinking of the old guys, like Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller or Robert Aldrich.

NWR: Oh yeah, like Nicholas Ray. I don't wanna be controlled and I definitely don't wanna repeat myself. I will always try different approaches.

TWITCH: What about the music in your movies?

NWR: Music is very important, but that also has a lot to do with that I don't do drugs and I use music as a way to come up with ideas.

TWITCH: So you're listening to a lot of music when you're preparing the movies.

NWR: Yes, a lot, a lot! Even when I shoot it. It's almost like I approach every film like if it was a piece of music.

TWITCH: Did you ever play on set the score already done for the movie? Like to create a mood.

NWR: Almost, yeah. Sometimes. On Valhalla Rising I did. On Valhalla Rising I played a lot Einstürzende Neubauten and on Bronson I played Pet Shop Boys constantly. It was driving everyone insane. Music is very vital.

TWITCH: Did Pusher ever had a soundtrack release? I love the track that plays at the beginning of all three movies, when you introduce the characters.

NWR: Actually the first one did. I don't know why. It wasn't particularly good, but back then there was still business for that. Nowadays everything is just download.

TWITCH: A quick word about your actors. Mads Mikkelsen.

NWR: With Mads Mikkelsen I have a strange connection. I mean we have done four movies together and we will probably do a lot more, but we never socialize, we never see each other. Only work. If we don't work we don't talk.

TWITCH: But he is like your De Niro?

NWR: Oh yes, very much, but it's like a strange relationship that we have. Maybe that's why we keep on working together. We argue a lot on the movies.

TWITCH: And Tom Hardy?

NWR: Tom Hardy was just new to me, but I enjoyed working with him. He is a very very good actor.

TWITCH: Did you know right from the start that he would give that great of a performance?

NWR: I knew he had it in him. Whether I could it get out or not, that was the question when we started working on it. But, you know, he definitely deserves all the success he's getting. Eventually we will do again a movie together, but it will probably take a long time, because he has things that he wants to do and has to do. He'll do the next Mad Max movie, Fury Road. I think he's a terrific choice. I certainly can't think of any other person to play that part. Maybe one day we will go back and do something again. We talked a little bit about doing a movie about Aleistar Crowley.

TWITCH: That sounds pretty awesome! We talked about your influences from genre cinema and seventies movies. I know that directors normally don't like to talk much about their contemporaries, bu what movies did you enjoy lately?

NWR: Look, I don't watch as many movies as I used to do, because I have two children, so that covers a lot. I watch a lot of television, a lot of cartoons. I just think they're absolutely brilliant. I mean I saw Up, with my daughter in Bangkong a couple of weeks ago and I just thought it was magnificent, very moving. My wife and I always try to see Michael Mann movies, but we didn't see Public Enemies. We tried to see David Lynch. I like Lukas Moodysson, a Swedish director, he did Fucking Åmål. I like the french director who made The Beat that My Heart Skipped, that was a very good French film. I think that There Will Be Blood had some great things in it. There are so many movies I like.

TWITCH: What about European genre movies? I mean in the last ten years a lot of good stuff has come out of France, Spain and the UK.

NWR: Yeah, Spain. I like that guy who did The Orphanage and I like Guillermo Del Toro. I think he is a very good filmmaker. There was a British movie a couple of years ago, London to Brighton, that was very good. A lot of good stuff is coming out.

TWITCH: Ok, last question. What are your next projects and are you gonna do another gangster movie?

NWR: Well, the next movie I hope to do is called The Dying of the Light, which is a Paul Schrader original script, that I'm working on together with Michael Tolkin. I really wanna make that starting next year. And at the end of next year I'm doing my first film in my deal with Wild Bunch and Gaumont, called Only God Forgives, which is sort of a contemporary western. I'm gonna shoot that next fall in Bangkok.

TWITCH: I can't wait to see that. Well, thank you very much for the interview.

NWR: Thank you and say hello to Todd.


So, that's it folks! Apparently Vincent Cassel is up for the lead in Only God Forgives, which is now set to be shot this summer. It also seems that The Dying of the Light has been pushed back since Refn has signed on for Drive (the promo posters were already upon during the last Cannes Film Festival), based on James Sallis' novel of the same name (it's the former Neil Marshall-Hugh Jackman project) and starring Ryan Gosling.

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