At 25, writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn burst onto the international film scene with Pusher. The riveting, violent crime drama didn’t just make Refn’s name, but also managed to make the Danish film industry hip and cool before Dogme 95 came along with a list of rules that Refn would never follow. He continued to be a cult favourite on the film festival circuit through titles like Bleeder, Fear X, Valhalla Rising, as well as two Pusher sequels that put his name on the map as one of Europe’s leading practitioners of subtitled art house ultraviolence. Then in the 2000s, Refn had a second career burst by moving first to England to make the sick dark comedy Bronson (which launched Tom Hardy’s career) and then moving to Hollywood to turn Ryan Gosling and Albert Books into unexpected psychopaths in Drive.

A notorious eccentric with undeniable talent, Refn returns to screens this week with Only God Forgives. Dipping back into his arty roots following the populist hits Drive and Bronson, Refn’s latest film sends Gosling to Thailand for a dark night of the soul involving psychotic karaoke-loving crime lords, a sleazy evil mother (played by an almost unrecognizable Kristin Scott Thomas), and existential angst. TORO got a chance to chat with Refn about his latest film, sleazy Thai karaoke, his unconventional approach to filmmaking, and his almost romantic career-spanning collaboration with Mads Mikkelson. Predictably, his answers were as consistently odd as they were entertaining or insightful.

What was your initial interest in Only God Forgives?

I had an idea for some time to do a movie in Thailand. I’d had it in mind for a couple of years now. I was actually planning on doing it before Drive. It was set to go and then I decided to go do Drive first. It was a bit like Valhalla Rising and Bronson where I ended up doing them back to back unexpectedly.

So was this movie how you initially met Ryan Gosling?

No, no. He approached me to do a movie that became Drive. That’s how we met. I had another actor for Only God Forgives, but that didn’t work out and Ryan stepped in after.

I’ve never seen karaoke presented in such a terrifying manner as you do in this movie. Where did that come from?

In Thailand, they take karaoke very seriously. I had seen these very bizarre scenarios over there with all different kinds of karaoke clubs. It kind of ended up abstract in the end. I decided I had to put it in the film because I became so fascinated by these all-night underground karaoke bars in Chinatown. People would sit there singing these Chinese folk songs all night.

Was there a seedy element in the actual clubs or was that just something you brought out for the movie?

No, that’s just how they look. [Laughs]

I was surprised and tickled to see that the movie was dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky (director of the midnight movie legend El Topo). I know you are a big fan of his, but why did you choose to dedicate it to him?

I’ve always liked his movies a lot and we ended up becoming friends. I go to his house and have tarot card readings. I find that very inspiring. I didn’t show the film to him or anything, he saw it at Cannes at the premiere. It was more about our friendship.

What made you think of Kristin Scott Thomas for the role as the evil mother? She was fantastic, but it took me a few scenes just to recognize her.

Well, I needed somebody that had that intimidation combined with sexuality. So I sent the script to her just to see what happened. She wanted to meet, so we talked about it. I told her it would be very interesting if we could make it work and she said, “Yeah, sure. I can turn on the bitch switch.” [Laughs] And off we went to the races.

Did she bring her look to the movie?

Well, she wanted to base her performance on a very specific type of movie. She wanted to transform herself. So she sent me her a picture of herself with long blonde hair and said, “What I about something like this?” I was like, “Versace here we come!”

Did you worry at all about making film that was a little more esoteric and abstract after the mainstream success Drive or was that part of the appeal?

I don’t think like that. It’s too calculated. I’m like a pin-up magazine. I just shoot what turns me on.

Since you’ve been circling Hollywood projects lately, do you think that you could work within that system without sacrificing control?

Right now, I’m just happy making the films that I like to make and enjoying my creativity. But one day I would like to make a real Hollywood movie, sure.

I miss you and Mads Mikkelsen as an actor/director a team. I talked to him last year and he said he was a little jealous that Ryan Gosling is your new boyfriend. I hope you haven’t broken up with him.

No, no, no. You can never break up with your first love. It’s your first love. You always go back. We’ve talked about doing something in Japan.

Really? Like what?

Well, you know, (adopts a whimsical tone) Japan is an interesting landscape. [Laughs].

Do you enjoy seeing him slip into huge Hollywood movies and American television?

Oh yeah, that’s always fun. But, sometimes you need to slap some sense into him. So it’s good for us to do a film once in a while. He can slap some sense into me as well.

I was really intrigued to hear recently that you’re thinking of doing a horror movie. I know you don’t like to get into too many details about upcoming projects, but what style of horror movie do you think you would be interested in?

Ooooh. That’s for me to know and you to find out or else there’s no fun in the mystery.

Fair enough, I had to try.

[Laughs] Well, good effort.

One other thing I was curious to ask you about is the fact then when this movie premiered at Cannes you once again had to defend using violence in films to your critics. Does that ever get frustrating?

I don’t think of it like that. You must be careful not to get too conscious of what you do as an artist.  When you do, it becomes calculation and that limits everything. When people ask, “Why this? Why that?” I only say certain things that are there for a reason. Other things are a way for me to just express. I’ve always said that art is an act of violence because art can violate you. I don’t mean that as a bad thing. That violation can express thought in your head and inspire ideas.

So since you’re so intuitive, do you start films with concrete ideas or is it more just a feeling or texture that gets you going?

No, I start very specific with a script that has a start, middle, and end. But I always shoot everything in chronological order. That way it can constantly evolve. I can constantly change the story if I want to. I never really know what I’ll end up with. I don’t have an agenda.

How do you feel about the new distribution model for independent film that Only God Forgives is a part of? A new world where films open simultaneously in theatres and on VOD?

I think it’s great. It’s the future of all cinema. Things have changed so much in the last 30 years because the accessibility has changed. Cinema and television have become one and it allows the audience to decide how and when they want to see anything. It’s different than the start of cinema where everything was projected in a coliseum as a one-way experience. Because of the digital revolution, everything has warped and I find that very exciting. Especially at the level in which this film is being pushed very aggressively. I think it just shows that the future is very bright for the process of making images. Film has become the concept of selling images and it’s no longer limited to any single avenue.


Related >> TORO reviews Only God Forgives


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