TIFF 09: Nicolas Winding Refn Talks VALHALLA RISING

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
[We had the chance to speak with Denmark's Nicolas Winding Refn nearly a year ago about his pair of 2009 films - Bronson and Valhalla Rising - and with Valhalla now premiering at TIFF we thought it was a good time to pull that part of the conversation forward once again. Enjoy!] In the second part of my two-part interview with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn - you'll find the first part, revolving around his upcoming feature Bronson here - we move away from talk of British criminals and on to his long-gestating Viking film Valhalla Rising, which stars Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) as a mute warrior. You'll find the complete conversation below the break. TB: On to Valhalla. First of all, what language did you shoot Valhalla Rising in? I know a lot of the cast is Scottish. NWR: It was shot in Scottish English. They speak a very strange version of the Queen's English. But the truth is that out of a hundred page script maybe about twenty percent is dialogue. So it's not the most talkative movie and Mads is mute in it, which was a big challenge for him. TB: Tell me about working with Mads Mikkelsen. He's somebody you've worked with a lot and he's somebody who was virtually nobody in terms of film when you made the first Pusher with him. NWR: Yeah, he was straight out of acting school, actually, in Copenhagen. Mads, in a strange way ... I guess you're always looking for an actor to build a relationship with, somebody that kind of mirrors you in one way or another. And that just happened to be Mads. We've done four films together now and we'll probably do a fifth one in about a year and a half. I don't know what it is, in that sense, because we don't socialize outside of the films. We don't see each other socially. We don't speak on the phone, we don't show up at each others' birthdays. But for some reason when we work it's just like we've known each other all our lives. I don't know quite how to explain it, I just think he plays me really, really well. TB: It seemed early on like Kim [Bodnia] was going to be the guy that you paired with. He was the recognizable guy with your early films. NWR: Yeah. It just gradually went to Mads, in some way. Kim struggled with his own demons and that did affect his career, you know. And for some reason me and Mads just gravitated towards each other because of that. TB: When you cast Jamie Sives for Valhalla ... first of all, I was really, really happy to see him show up in a film again because it's been way too long. NWR: He's a great actor. TB: He's fantastic. Did the fact that he and Mads had worked together before factor into that some? NWR: What's strange is that I actually met Jamie when I was casting Bronson. We looked at him not to play Charles Bronson but one of the other major characters in the movie. Bronson just didn't work out with him but I kept him in mind and when we went on to do Valhalla, because I basically had to hire the same casting director to do Valhalla and Bronson so that I could cast the two movies at the same time, we just naturally went towards Jamie. Who I think is just a fucking brilliant actor. He looks like a movie star. I'm quite amazed that nobody's picked up on him so far ... He's very photogenic, which is important, and he's just a really good actor. TB: He's incredible in Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself. NWR: Yeah. And he's a very pleasant guy, which is not always the case. And that's the thing with Mads, too, he's such a nice guy. And there's no bullshit with Mads. TB: Now, doing Valhalla ... you've always been a really, really urban director and I think this is the first thing you've ever done that has significant outdoor shooting. It's a period piece. Your lead character is mute. Was that part of the attraction to you? Were you looking to do something different? NWR: I think I always try to do things differently, one way or another. I think it's always important to do something different each time. You can work in the same genre or the same setting but you should always try to expand the horizon in terms of what you're trying to do. And I think that with Valhalla - coming straight off the two Pusher sequels, then to Bronson, then to Valhalla - it was rewarding to make something so completely different in style. You're right. My urban environments, or my fascination with urban environments, comes from my upbringing in New York where the city of New York is very much like a character in every movie that's shot in New York. And with this I basically tried to say, "Okay, what if I take the same approach that I have to concrete and I swap the concrete with trees. Approach it the same way." So I didn't build anything. I didn't build sets, we just shot it in the mountains. So, of course, that meant that I wanted to go to the most remote areas that there are in Scotland, the most difficult places to get to. I got a bit more than I bargained for, but that was kind of the challenge. To take the approach to one environment and swap it to another. It may not always be the right thing to do but I do think it's important to always try to expand what you're doing. Art is good when it goes against any current and I always feel like, "Why do something if you already know the point?" TB: I've seen a quote from you saying that Valhalla Rising is like a prehistoric Pusher movie. Where are we going to find the points of commonality? What are the things that make this one of your films in the same way that Pusher is one of your films? NWR: That is a very, very good question. Originally I sold it as that, that I was going to use that sort of approach. But then once I got to the first day of shooting - it was a nine week shoot, we had no money but that forces you to think creatively - I had found a mountain that took three hours to get to the top of. It was minus ten. It was freezing, freezing, freezing. I was standing up there thinking, "What the fuck have I got myself into?" And that's when I said "This is not Pusher. I may have sold it as that, but this is something else." It became a combination of a lot of things: the mythological heroes that I grew up fascinated with, having a family that was very much into the fine arts and cinema, growing up with American television and badly dubbed samurai movies and spaghetti westerns. Escape From New York was the biggest thing in my life when I was younger. It suddenly gravitated towards that. And because I shoot my films in chronological order they're able to take on a life of their own and that's what happened on Valhalla. It began to dictate its own approach to things, how it wanted to be told. And visually, you honestly can't just shoot the way you would in an urban environment when you're out in the middle of nowhere in the mountains because it just screams for something else. I always believe that if it feels right, go for it, and that just became the approach. TB: The two Pusher sequels are obviously your two parenthood movies. With Bronson and Valhalla being shot so close together is something can say that links them together in terms of theme? Or is it too soon to say? NWR: Yeah, the main thing when I was doing the Pusher sequels - other than the financial problems - was that I had become a parent. I had become a father. The first sequel is about a man having to realize that he has become a father and the second sequel is about a man who is a father, has accepted this, and has realized his whole life is about his daughter. TB: Is there any kind of common link between Valhalla and Bronson or are you still too close to them to say? NWR: I don't know yet. I think once I watch the films back to back I'll be more able to say, "Oh, look at that thing!", or "That was the same", and things like that but not quite yet.
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