At first glance, one might expect Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson to be another in an assembly line of violent British crime capers full of cockney thugs and punchy one-liners. But it’s far from that. Bronson is a stark and surreal adventure into the mind of someone who exists in his own reality. It is meticulously staged, colored, and costumed, and it’s scored with one of the eeriest and most effective soundtracks in a long time — full of new wave anthems, heavy dark electro scores, and opera music. Bronson is based on the life of the infamous British inmate Michael Peterson (played by an unrecognizable Tom Hardy), dubbed “Britain’s most violent prisoner,” who spent 35 of his 57 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. Refn’s film avoids typical biopic styling in favor of a picaresque character study on Peterson’s self-inflicted transformation into Charlie Bronson. Successfully merging popular genre-movies with theater traditions and performance art, Refn has created and unsettling portrait of self-mythologizing man.
As for Winding Refn, he first gained notoriety from his cult Pusher trilogy, an unflinching glimpse into Denmark’s criminal underworld. Growing up with artist parents, Refn spent his teenage years in New York City and briefly attended the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts; he was sucked into New York’s club scene (the influence of which is made apparent in Bronson’s soundtrack). Winding Refn is an impossible director to pin down, citing The Sopranos, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger as influences (his next film is the Viking epic Valhalla Rising). After speaking with the director, it’s he clear would rather divide audiences than merely satisfy them.
Why did you shoot Bronson in this surreal and episodic nature, considering it’s based on the life of a real person? I always wanted to make a Kenneth Anger movie, and I wanted to combine great theatrical tradition and British pop cinema of the 60s, which was very psychedelic, and at the same time, to make a movie about a man who creates his own mythology. It had to be surreal in order to pay off.
There are reoccurring scenes where Bronson’s in a suit and mime make-up, delivering monologues to an imagined and applauding audience. What was the idea behind this? Because Charlie Bronson has no face. Charlie Bronson is a faceless person because there is no end to Charlie Bronson. For me it was important to show a film about a person that can be interpreted but not understood. The film is divided up into three sections. The first act is Charlie being on stage, in control, wanting to be perceived in a specific way, to see his life the way he wants it to be. In act two, he’s released and we begin to see Charlie in an alternate universe and his difficulties relating to reality. Not because he’s insane but because he lives in another world. Act 3, when he goes back to prison, we see the movie through the audience’s perception of him: is he crazy or is he not crazy? We see the transformation finalize itself at the end of the movie.
When specifically is the transformation finally complete? In the final scene at the end of the film, when he mixes art and violence in the [prison] classroom. That is when the transformation has becomes complete. That’s why the in a way, the movie has a happy ending because in the end he fulfills everything that he set out to achieve.
Can you talk about Tom Hardy and his own transformation into the role of Charlie Bronson? Tom was a great guy to work with, and we had a very interesting work relationship because it was very much collaboration. I do that with any actor — we go on a journey together.
Physically, what did he have to do in order to realistically play an intimidating inmate? He’s into that whole physical training thing, so it was very easy for him to beef up.
One of the trailers describes your movie as A Clockwork Orange of the 21st century. What influence if any did A Clockwork Orange have on the making of Bronson? There was no direct influence other than the use of classical music, and then I guess the Alex character had similarities to Charlie Bronson. They’re both pop figures. But I really wanted to make a Kenneth Anger movie, so the whole movie is stolen from Kenneth Anger.
There is quite a lot of violence in the film … could you discuss how you approached that violence? The violence comes out of my own interpretation of art, that it’s there to penetrate you, to make you think.
The film seems to romanticize mental instability and the creative outsiders who lives by their own rules. I don’t know if it’s a romantic way, but it’s a way to survive. I didn’t want to make a social realistic film about imprisonment because you can’t.
Would you want the real Michael Peterson to see the movie? Is there any way for him to see the movie? I would love for him to see it, but he’s not allowed to because he is in confinement. But his mother came to the premiere, and she really liked it. She thought it was nice tribute.
Did you speak to her directly? Oh, yeah, she was a very nice lady. It was a very nice experience because everybody was so happy with it, even though it was so many other things than a biopic of Michael Peterson.
You also spoke directly to Michael Peterson over the phone in prison, is that right? It was only one time, and now because of the film’s success, all communication with him has been shut down from anybody. Nobody’s allowed to speak with him anymore. He would do anything to help the movie. He’s never seen it, but he thinks it’s the greatest film ever made.
Can you talk more about the conversation you had with him? I told him I wanted it to be two specific things. I wanted to know how he got back into prison after he was released for 69 days, and I wanted him to come up with some lines for the stage monologues.
Which lines specifically? “Prison was madness at its very best.”