Obsession, Submission, and ‘Only God Forgives’: A Conversation With Nicolas Winding Refn

It’s the hottest day of the summer and Nicolas Winding Refn is sitting outside in a button down shirt peeling hard-boiled eggs. When I meet the acclaimed Danish director at the Bowery Hotel, he’s eating his lunch and taking interviews in the shade, not daring to remove his sunglasses and as always, keeps it cool. This is the second time we’ve met, having previously done an interview back in 2010 for Valhalla Rising—but things were different then. Not only was I quite young and on one of my first in-person interviews with a favorite director and shaking in all-too vibrant dress, but this was before the cult of Drive and the first taste of major Refn appreciation in Hollywood. 

Known for his violent, color-drenched films that serve up his fetishistic urges on a platter, Refn’s oeuvre is as stimulating and arousing as it is coldly removed from the reality of everyday life. No matter the subject, his characters exist in a world of his own creating, a heightened place where the inextricable link between death and sex is always present and gesture speaks far louder than words. His films are aggressive and carnal yet rather than giving us a stark look at that sense of grit, he slowly inches us towards that internal fire, shining a light onto the beauty in the brutal. 
 
With Drive, his ferocious pop fairytale, we saw a softer side to Refn—albeit still dangerous. There was a sense of romance and tenderness we hadn’t seen before in films like Bronson, Valhalla Rising, or the Pusher films. And in the process of creating that film and exposing himself to the Hollywood fantasy, he found his American leading man Ryan Gosling, whose near-silent protagonist drove us through a bloody kinetic love story with a bite. Now having re-teamed once again for Refn’s latest feature Only God Forgives, the two prove their symbiotic ability to transcend the work of the past and punch forward into the beyond.
 
Set in the neon-lit back alleys and seedier parts of Bangkok, Only God Forgives is Refn’s penetrating and evocative take on the Western. It’s a film so dark—both aesthetically and tonally—that when I first arrived to see the film fifteen minutes late, I found myself sitting in the isles because there wasn’t a shred of light emanating from the screen with which to find a seat. The revenge story about the connection between mother and sons, the struggle for morality, and the fear of submission plays out like a psychotropic nightmare, aided by a brilliantly visceral score from Cliff Martinez.
 
Starring Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Vithaya Pansringarm, Only God Forgives is a shot to the arm of pure id Refn. He employs the close-fisted anxious aggression of his pre-Drive days while taking his visual cues from a post-Drive world, completely blanketing us in the violent underbelly of Bangkok and putting a sword to our throat. Although the film is riddled with silence and languidly glides through darkened moments, Refn manages to hold us captive with his always-present sense of ecstatic desire. He plays on the dichotomy of what’s in and out of frame as well as what we do and not know is stirring in the characters’ psyche. It’s a film that warrants multiple viewings, but only because there’s a real pleasure in the experience of disappearing into his neon dreams and bloody obsessions, and as he says: that’s where the fun is.
 
Yesterday, I chatted with Refn about the importance of creative acts over result, the necessity of self-indulgence, and the polarizing nature of his work.
 
I interviewed you back for Valhalla Rising. That was one of my first in-person interviews, so it was a little weird.
Oh, cool. Well, now we get to reunite.
 
Back then you said you were going to make a Western in Bangkok once you made a movie with Ryan Gosling in Hollywood–so I guess that all worked out. 
[Chuckles]
 
You must have had some idea of what this would be back then but did your concept of the film evolve a lot from the and through meeting Ryan and collaborating with him on story and character?
Yeah, of course. Everything always mutates into something else. I very much always encourage that process and I very much like it. I don’t want to know what it is until it’s over.
 
You said that Drive was a film about how much you love your wife. And seeing this, is this your ode to your mother?
Well, you can certainly read anything into it—but no, it’s not my confrontation with my mother. It’s an interesting dramatic vehicle for male, masculine dangerous characters to confront their mothers much more than it is for them to confront their fathers. 
 
You don’t see that often in such a violent and bizarrely sexual way. I heard Scorsese say something once about all his films were about his father protecting his brother. But what was your initial spark for the film? Did it come from an image?
I had an idea of a clenched fist symbolizing the classic fight movie symbol—the clenched fist representing male aggression. At the same time, it’s an obvious phallic symbol, so the act of sex and violence in one movement is interesting. But if you were to open your fist and show the palm, it’s an act of submission. I thought there was a movie in that.
 
Your films all have a very primal, carnal feeling to them that’s very sexual but you never see that explicitly. It’s much more about what’s repressed like the clenched fist. Is that deliberate?
Not maybe so consciously, but maybe more of this is what I would like to see and less trying to understand it.
 
I really loved Bronson and this felt much more in the tone of that, a very primal aggression, which that departed a little with Drive because that was more of a fairytale. But in terms of aesthetics this felt like pushing forward into the visceral.
Whenever I make a film I almost make a point out of erasing all memory of it so that the next one I do bears as little resemblance. Of course if you use the same actor it’s reminiscent, but the challenge is to do something different. But for me, the act of creativity is more exciting than the actual product. I don’t really care about the end, I care about getting to the end.
 
Do you enjoy that collaborative process of working with an actor and molding them into someone different with each new role?
Yeah, especially when it works and then we challenge each other.
 
You’re certainly not one for exposition. Do you aim from that to evoke what’s really at the core of the story you’re trying to tell?
I like silence because it forces other ingredients to really come into the foreground—sound, music, gesture, compositions, camera angles, lighting, structure. We’re so used to the spoken word as a way to find story. 
 
And spoken word wasn’t really the most necessary in this film.
In this one I was interested in what was not being seen.
 
There’s something very haunting about what’s not shown and then when you do reveal thing, they’re extremely clear and graphic—like the scene where Mai’s masturbating, if felt like a trick to show these strong images and then hide so much around it.
It creates a  mystery between the two extremes that forces the viewer to connect the dots if they’re willing to go with it. If they’re not, they’ll just be very, very frustrated and they’ll be searching and searching—but that can also be a great experience. Remember, art is about the act of creativity.
 
I love Cliff Martinez’s music and your films are great at amalgamating image and sound together to create something that evokes something more than words could. How did you work with him to make this score because it adds so much to the film and submerges you so much deeper into their world.
Well, especially when you have silence, music becomes such a dominating force. It’s not only there to fill in the gaps, it’s an acting partner in the storytelling. You have a lot more discussions with your composer about what you want to evoke because it now becomes a key part. That means your relationship also becomes more intimate because the composer becomes much more a part of the storytelling. 
 
When this played at Cannes and going forth, the reactions have certainly been divisive. Do you enjoy that as a filmmaker, because if something’s not divisive than people are apathetic about it and what’s the point of making something that people are apathetic about?
Of course there’s a great pleasure in the act of polarization. You know you’ve touched people very deep if people can love or hate you for the same reason. But it’s never comfortable when people hate you, yet at the same time, you have to understand and respect the psyche and how it works. But I like the creativity of polarization because it means opposite ends, that’s almost what the films are: extremes.
 
I always seek to have a very physical reaction to a film—whether it’s good or bad, I want to feel something and if it can do that, than I usually have an appreciation for it. But that transcends to all art.
And that’s what it can do. It’s almost like you know how it can just evoke you into having a good time. To have a good time, there are so many other options, why would you choose this over something else? Being violated, either in a good way or a bad way, it leaves a very strong aftermath.
 
You talk about being a fetish filmmaker and seem more interested in expressing those desires very strongly rather than dissecting them. Would say that’s your main drive is, to put those obsessions on screen?
Oh yeah. Sure, sure. That’s what the fun is. It’s not about the result but about the process.
 
You shoot all of your films in chronological order. What do you find that enhances?
I don’t know any other way so it’s hard for me to sit down with a list, but I do believe that it helps to create a certain uncertainty and expectation and complete, utter self-indulgent element in seeing it unfold. And art is a very self-indulgent medium and is meant to be self-indulgent—how else can you create? I always take self-indulgence as a way of understanding your obsessiveness in what you do.
 
Where did the idea for Kristin Scott Thomas’ character emerge from?
The idea that the protagonist or antagonist was going to be his mother already evokes a lot of opportunity dramatically. The fact that she was like a insect that devours everything was almost like a movie about a man who’s chained to his mother’s womb. 
 
When you’re working on a film, do you find it better to isolate yourself from the creative world or to indulge in it?
The older I’ve gotten I just enjoy myself. The pleasure for me not the result, it’s the act of creativity and whatever that means. That’s where the fun is. 
 
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