THE SWIMMER (1968) D: Frank Perry
ScreenAnarchy: So why The Swimmer?
Nicolas Winding Refn: I saw this completely by chance on Danish television a number of years ago. Since I was going to be in LA for a month, I figured it was such an LA movie. They don't make 'em like they used to. It's about swimming pools, and there is no other city in the world that has swimming pools the way LA does.
It's the kind of movie you see more and more in after multiple viewings. Do you ever think about what someone will see in your movie the second or third time they watch?
No, because then you get too calculated -- you get too mechanical. It becomes about your vanity. It becomes about your ego. The notion of you knowing how people will react or not react -- will they watch it again and again -- what will that mean to your legacy? I'm sure I started out making films with that kind of vanity because we all do.
We forget that art, like anything, is an act of expression. In order to figure out what works we need to figure out what doesn't -- which can be terrifying. A lot of times we try to bypass those choices by trying to find a formula of success -- because we all want to make something important.
BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966) D: Gillo Pontecorvo
ScreenAnarchy: When you were looking at your films and thinking you had to do something important, what were the films you were looking up to in hopes of rivaling?
NWR: The biggest influences for Pusher were The Battle of Algiers, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Mean Streets, The French Connection, and Cannibal Holocaust. Like those kind of cinema vérité, hard edged genre movies.
Was your thought process that you needed to put something out there to match that?
If you have success you almost feel entitled to be in that group immediately. But I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I wasn't doing it for the need of expression. I was doing it for the need of ego. I wanted to make important films. I wanted to be a legend before I was 30. Forget about being famous… that was easy.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) D: Ruggero Deodato
NWR: When I was on my third film, stumbling-- well failing miserably, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because it showed me that I shouldn't make films for my vanity because it will never be satisfying. I should make films like pornography. I should do what I like to see and not what I think great art will be.
Whenever I make a film, I make a big point to myself of erasing my memory of what it was like to make it, because the fear of repeating oneself is very easy, once the formula of success begins to take place.
SCORPIO RISING (1964) D: Kenneth Anger
NWR: When I completed the Pusher Trilogy, the formula had really started to work on how those films were made and they were very financially and critically successful.
The next film had to be an opera in a prison. It had to be something completely different. So I was watching a lot of Kenneth Anger and listening to the Pet Shop Boys. That was my main inspiration for Bronson.
STALKER (1979) D: Andrei Tarkovsky
NWR: After the opera in a prison, I thought, "I want to make a science-fiction film in the Scottish mountains."
Tarkovsky was probably my biggest influence on that one. What was it, Stalker -- the one where you walk into the zone? It's a film everyone had seen so I finally watched it and was like, "Wow! That's what I want to make." Not that movie -- but I want to make that experience.
ScreenAnarchy: How do you walk that line of seeing something you want to make but you don't want to duplicate?
Well you just make something different out of it. I'm in the film industry so, of course, I'm a cineaste. We all steal from generations before us -- and people who don't steal are lying. They just don't want to admit it. It's part of the process. It's like going home and hearing Chuck Berry and the next thing you know you have The Rolling Stones.
The idea of doing a science fiction about science wasn't interesting. Also, a genre movie about Vikings? I have zero interest in Vikings. But that was the challenge. How do I take something that I have no interest in whatsoever and make a film out of it?
MEAN STREETS (1973) D: Martin Scorsese
NWR: If I want to make a similar type of film, I try to watch as many films similar to that language to be inspired. It can be very inspiring just to be flooded with images and ideas. Almost like, "Oh my god, I'm making a movie for the first time," and I have to watch a lot of movies to see what it's like -- because I basically erased my memory of what I did before.
It's like painting a picture -- because I shoot my films in chronological order, every process is a new brush on canvas; from idea to script to casting to shooting to editing to grading to mixing... and then I never watch the film again. The only two times I've watched my film right after completing it was with Drive and Only God Forgives at Cannes because they force you to sit through them at the gala premiere.
The real inspiration for Valhalla Rising came from a story my mother read me from a pulpy science fiction novel when I was about five about a son and father who go to the moon and find a cave with a human coffin. But I can't remember what happened… Part of me wants to know, and part of me doesn't.
I'm a child of cinema and I've seen so many films growing up -- but every film can start from the weirdest situations. It can also be inspiring to hear a piece of music or see a photograph. It can suddenly get your head going. What if I made a movie about this? I usually have the beginning and the ending but I want to go on a journey to get there. But at no point do I want it to become a manual.
THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976) D: John Cassavetes
NWR: On Drive… I don't have a license. I know nothing about cars. I have zero interest in cars. But I came up with an idea to do a film about a man who drives around in cars at night listening to pop music because that's his emotional relief -- because that, I enjoy. That experience with Ryan was like, whatever that film is going to be, it has to capture that experience.
(Something happening on The Swimmer catches Refn's eye)
Wow, look at all this slow motion. It's hard to capture the surreal because it usually gets so practical. Look at how much time they took with this sequence.
ScreenAnarchy: Specifically doing something like long slow motion, is that something you could take as a piece of the puzzle for the challenge of say, an Asian art fighting film?
Oh Yeah. Also you can even say that in Only God Forgives, there is no slow motion. It's designed to be very silent and almost still. It's a bit like forcing your heart beat to drop, or forcing yourself to look at an image for 90 minutes.
(Back to The Swimmer)
This movie is less interesting when they talk -- because that is what makes it so much of its time.
SIXTEEN CANDLES (1984) D: John Hughes
NWR: One movie that made a huge impression on me when I was younger was Sixteen Candles by John Hughes. With Drive, I wanted to make my version of Sixteen Candles. The fantasy of love; the teenage view of love as this uncomplicated pleasure. And of course Drive is very much about transformation -- so it's actually very similar to Bronson.
Since I don't watch my films for a very long time, when I do go back, I sometimes see them and say, "Oh, that's what they're about." I saw Bronson some months ago. It was on Netflix and I was like, "God, I haven't seen that movie since I signed off on the grading." I remember thinking it was a lot like Drive – because it's all about transformation. Throughout the course of the film, the protagonist transforms into what he is supposed to be.
I enjoyed watching it a lot. It's a very funny film. He's very good in it, Tom Hardy. I wish he would do more stuff like that.
PRETTY WOMAN (1990) D: Garry Marshall
NWR: There are films I admire because they're able to trick an audience. In the end, there is only one example of a movie that tricked everyone without anyone being aware. It's pretty obvious… Pretty Woman.
If you think about it, it's the ultimate degrading, dark, sinister, terrifying, woman-hating, man-worshipping film ever made -- but Garry Marshall is able to mutate it into the amount of cream that it became a modern Cinderella story that is as effective as the original Walt Disney version. What an incredible trick to do. I paid to watch that movie three times in the cinema. I remember thinking, whoever did this must be a genius. I've probably tried my whole life to see if I can do the same trick. On one level, extreme financial success. On another level, complete creative chaos, because it goes against everything that is good taste -- and you know my films...
I would say the chief enemy of creativity is good taste. I've always been an admirer of Pretty Woman. The most odd scenario is when you point it out, most people go, "oh yeah..." But they still love it. It's a perfect movie.
THE KILLER (1989) D: John Woo
NWR: I remember seeing The Killer on VHS during the whole John Woo craze. I love John Woo and all the Hong Kong filmmakers. I also like a lot of the South Korean filmmakers. I like The Host, A Bittersweet Life, and Old Boy. I also like a lot of Japanese filmmakers. But unfortunately I don't have the amount of knowledge that other people have. I haven't seen enough of them. I've seen very little of Thai cinema.
I like Bangkok a lot. I thought it was a really interesting city -- especially at night because it became almost magical in a superstitious way. It has a very futuristic feel to it; very modern. At the same time it felt like we were going into a time warp with ancient beliefs equally treated as reality.
THE HOST (2006) D: Bong Joon-ho
NWR: I remember one thing that really inspired Only God Forgives happened in Bangkok after my family and I had moved there. My youngest daughter, who is two, has the ability to see ghosts. She has some kind of sense. In our first apartment in this high rise we lived in, she would wake up countless nights and just point at this wall and say "No!"
So I called our Thai production manager and said, "Listen, there is a ghost at our house." I remember when I was saying that thinking if this was somewhere in the West and I were to do this, people would be like, "What the fuck?!" But the production manager said, "Got it. I understand. I’ll be right over." And she came over with a shaman who basically walked into the room and came out saying, "There has been a spirit who has clinged on to you from the airport and has followed you to this apartment. It's not dangerous but it's clearly annoying your daughter." And my wife the next day, who very much believes in all of these elements, had to go to the temple and do some things. But it didn't change until we moved. And then it never happened again.
I realized that the acceptance of the spiritual world -- of the magical world; the superstitious world -- and reality coexisting in complete harmony of the mind meant that I took every single piece of dialog that tried to explain the supernatural part of Only God Forgives out. I basically eliminated pages of dialog; threw them out the window. Because I said, I can't make a movie like a westerner in Thailand. I can make a movie like a Thai in Thailand.
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) D: Alexander Mackendrick
NWR: It's interesting how dark this movie (The Swimmer) becomes. Some of these actors back then like Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin -- they were not afraid of doing movies where they were perceived as morally ambiguous. They weren't afraid of making films that showed them in less attractive scenarios. Now people are so preoccupied about the acceptance -- and never being at odds with people's understanding of good and bad. Only a few actors are willing to do that. And of course one of them is my pal Ryan. He's fearless in that sense.
But think of Burt Lancaster. Take Sweet Smell of Success: Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster play some of the vilest, evil characters -- and they were superstars. Now-a-days, a lot of the big movie stars -- it's like campaigning for office. It would great to do a remake of The Swimmer with Denzel Washington. He could pull it off. He would be great in it.