Interview: Twitch Talks To Nicolas Winding Refn

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
Twitch is proud to be presenting a very special retrospective at Toronto's Bell Lightbox starting this week. Entitled With Blood on His Hands: The Films of Nicolas Winding Refn and curated by our own Todd Brown, this is a showcase for the remarkable works from this startling auteur, from the first of his Pusher films right though to Only God Forgives.

This is the second time this year I've had the pleasure of a chat with Refn (the first is here, and well worth the read, and this time we spent even more time drilling down on just what it means to him to have this retrospective of his work, and how he sees his various films fitting together.


Mr. Refn, it's nice to speak to you.  Last time we spoke, you were in New York.  Where are you now?

I'm in wonderful Copenhagen, which is great to live in because it reminds you that everything else is an illusion.  

After all these years, and several films since, how do you now see the episodes of the PUSHER triology?

The original was my first movie, and I made it when I was very young. I had success when I was young, which is not always the healthiest.  I did I guess become a bit of a monster, but then luckily I stumbled and fell and almost drowned and was faced with two options: either pull yourself up again or stay down.  

Do you see BLEEDER as the cause of your drowning or FEAR X?  I know both were challenging in terms of box office expectations.  

It happened with Bleeder, but the real crash was Fear X. When that happened, it was like a bit of a, I felt like I could walk on water and then I started to walk on water and I drowned in the ocean.  So I could stay there or get up.  But to get I almost had to go back to where I started.  And that's when I went back and did Pusher 2 and 3.  

Do those films still do what you wanted to be doing at the stage in your career and how would you be doing them differently if at all?

No.  I've never done anything where I feel that I should have done that differently looking back.  I think that early on I accepted that you can never change your path, you can just accept its mutations.  I think that going back and making 2 and 3, they became better films. 

In a way, it took three movies to make one movie.  

As far as I'm concerned, Pusher 3 makes Pusher 1 better.  Seeing them as a series they work extraordinarily well.  I had the privilege of seeing them for the first time as a marathon when Steve Gravestock programmed them at TIFF several years ago. That was my introduction to your work, and to see them back to back to back, I saw the core of your art which has run through your other films.  As a filmmaker, how much do you put into that?  How conscious are you that you're creating the "Nicolas Winding Refn project", or is it really film-to-film. Is it just critics that try to lump all of these together?

[laughs] Oh boy! 

I think that you can say it's in two phases.  In the first phase, which concluded with the Pusher trilogy, I approached filmmaking in one way.  And when I started making Bronson and the movies that followed that, up until now, I made them in a different way.  In the first phase, I was tring to make films of what I thought great film should be.  In the second phase, which I've found more pleasurable, I decided to make movies based purely on what I would like to see.

So, instead of trying to adhere to a particular view of prescriptive film, you're simply making movies you want to see, and they will find their own audience?  

Exactly.  I became a pin-up magazine photographer and I very much enjoy that. Or then, I did in my past.

In terms of filmmakers that you were aspiring to be in the first part of your career, were there specific ones, or were you trying to be the next Kubrick, or were you trying to be the simply the one and only Refn? Do you think that a "Refn film" is something vastly different than what you started out understanding it to be?

When I was younger, I wanted to be the greatest filmmaker of all time. It couldn't happen fast enough.  It's probably the most unhealthy situation you can possibly be in, but then again, The Ramones wanted to be the greatest rock band in the world... 

Last time, we talked about the Sex Pistols in such a way.  My view of punk is this:  my favourite punk bands are the ones that failed at punk.  They tried to be gritty and ended up being too good, like the Police or the Clash. They tried to be punk bands, they tried to play badly, and instead they accidentally became incredible musicians.

Oh yeah, I agree with that.  I think it's a very interesting analysis. 

This whole Sex Pistol analysis came from [when] I was sitting in Cannes on a yacht that a millionaire had given to me with my family. It was midnight with Cliff Martinez and we were talking about extremely polarizing reactions at Cannes [for Only God Forgives], and Cliff was just laughing it up and he turned to me and said "look, if you want to be the Sex Pistols of cinema, it doesn't get any better than this!"

I was like, hey man, I gotta use that phrase.  

Claire Denis is also doing this retrospective at TIFF.  Both her film and your film played Cannes at about the same time. I definitely think there's space to enjoy both of your works of cinema, but I am getting shit on via Twitter for liking you and not liking her very much.  I bring that up because if you read what people say about her and the denigration that they occasionally lay against you, they're almost synonymous.  You're accused of being ponderous or portentous by some douchebag at Timeout, while he talks about the dreaminess or the blessed incoherence of Denis' cinema.  So, a narcisitic question - do any of this ramblings by me and my fellow critics affect what you do as an artist?  Do you categorize your cinema in any particular way, do you read these reviews and think this is is how I'm going to shape my next movie?

With this particular critic you're referring to, he has a right to his particular opinion. But I think that real success is kind of odd.  In all other art forms besides very popular ones like music and cinema, polarization is usually viewed upon as the success that you can achieve, the people loving you or hating you [is the goal].  With film as an art form, why isn't that the level of success?

I strongly believe that people, and there are people who despise me with such a passion, that they are willing to spend hours or time on the computer or newspapers or even on television saying how much they hate me and spending time trying definitions of what they think of me, all I can say is, well, in a way, you must love me so much because how else can you hate me? 

When people then love your movies with such a passion that they are willing to spend time and go to any argument to defend my movies, it's like hating it because it's that passion. 

When you have something that people either love or hate at that level when it goes beyond film theory or intellectualism, it just goes to primal instincts, that's when you know you have penetrated the mind of an audience, and not just penetrated, you have actually climaxed inside their brain and you will forever and ever and always stay there. 

That particular audience will never forget it, whether you love it or hate it, it's irrelevant, even if it's a good movie or a bad movie, it's irrelevant because it goes beyond that.  

So what do you love and what do you hate?

I love anything that presents . . .  good taste, I will definitely define that as the chief enemy of creativity. Anything that's politically correct is a chief enemy of creativity and anything that is safe is a chief enemy of creativity.

As a very personal filmmaker, is it simply not in you, not in the plan for you to make what we would consider a straight up Hollwood film?  Is that something that has not only no interest to you but is abhorrent to you?  

I would love to try to make what you would define as a conventional Hollywood movie.  It would have to be expensive.  If you need to marry Faust, do it at the highest level.  But I haven't found a movie yet or I haven't been offered a movie yet that was worth trading my creative freedom.  Hopefully it will happen, I would love to try it, it would probably be a lot of fun to do it.  But nothing has happened yet, so it may or may not happen.

What would surprise us about something you love and what would surprise us about something that may be considered a classic by some and you simply do not respond to?

Well, I would rather turn that on its head.  One of my favourite films of all time is Pretty Woman.  

And you respond to it as a comedy or as a bastion of misogyny?  

I just love it.  It's the greatest trick ever played on a modern audience.  Gary Marshall is a genius.  

I know that you have a project at the Tokyo film market that is slightly under the radar, is that tied to the VALHALLA RISING sequel and I'm just wondering if you could give us a bit more detail of what you have upcoming?

I suddenly woke up one morning with the notion that I'd like to make an action movie and it has to be set in Tokyo.  And then I think I said a sequel to Valhalla Rising to someone in Texas and that quickly caught on.  But it's true, I would love to make a movie there, but I'm not sure of the title.  

The Avenging Silence is still the title?

Huh, The Avenging Silence.... [said without conviction...]

What is a Refn action movie?  DRIVE has a lot of action, but some people were surprised, they were expecting the FAST AND THE FURIOUS. My favourite thing about that screening was the person who tried to sue because the trailer game her the suggestion it was an accessible action movie.  What is for you the definitive action movie?

I don't know.  I haven't done it yet.  But once I know, I'll tell you.  

I wasn't sure if PRETTY WOMAN for you is an action movie?  

Pretty Woman is the ultimate romantic comedy.  

And are we going to get a sequel of PRETTY WOMAN from you at some time?

Oh God, you don't touch the Holy Grail.  

for the person who is coming at it, do you suggest that they attack it chronologically, or should somebody look at your films in a very specific order and what order would that be?

See, now, everything has a start, middle and end.  But you don't have to watch it in that order normally.  

Do you have a recommended way into your work?

Well, maybe it's best to start with Bronson because it was a biography of my own life.

So Bronson for you is autobiographical?

Very much.

Are you suggesting the "key to Refn's cinema" is to see Bronson as autobiography and everything else as a reaction to the character that you explore in Bronson?

Bronson is about a man who realizes art is an act of violence.  

I know you shot a film in Winnipeg, can we expect to see you back in Canada shooting another film?

More than you expect because I very much like Vancouver as a city and I also like Toronto.  I generally like Canada a lot.  It all depends on where it's going to work out with the family.  In my house, the wife calls the shots.  

And is that why your films are what they are?

She basically starts with where we can go and not go.  So when I said to her I want to make a movie in Japan, she said, that's not going to happen for a while because I don't want to live in Asia after Bangkok.  

All the best from your fans here in Toronto.  For those who love too much and those who hate too much, they call all just fuck off and we'll enjoy your movies, OK? 

[laughs] Right! Thank you.

Around the Internet:
  • arturo

    I loved Only God Forgives, even though it split the critics and audience down the middle. I would like to see Kristin Scott Thomas get at least an oscar nomination for her brave performance in that film, and also an nomination for Larry Smith for his amazing cinematography..

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