SCV Catches up with Film Auteur, Nicolas Winding Refn
Nicolas Winding Refn is a prolific and incredible auteur/filmmaker that I discovered a few years ago. Refn made his first film, Pusher, when he was 24 years old and his career snowballed from that point on. Over the past decade he has entered different “phases” of filmmaking, he claims. The first phase of Refn’s filmography would be the Pusher trilogy, Fear X (starring John Turturro), and Bleeder. Refn says that the “Phase 2″ of his work would start with Bronson, along with Valhalla Rising and his new film Drive.
Back in May of this year, Drive was in competition at the Cannes Film Festival where Refn won the award for Best Director. There is something cerebral about Refn’s films that immediately sticks out to viewers; whether it’s the stylized and vindictive photography or his selections of intimidating music.
Refn isn’t the only one in his family that works in the arts, coming from a family of artists. His father is credited as editor for several of Lars Von Trier‘s films. After a decade and a half of making films in Europe, Drive brings Refn to the states for his first truly American film. Drive is a thrilling flick about a Hollywood stunt driver that leads a second life when the sun goes down.
I got together with Refn a month ago in Downtown Chicago at his hotel and discussed his career as well as Drive, which was released in theaters Friday September 16th.
Pouya G. Asadi: I loved it, I thought it was perfect as far as Nicolas Winding Refn films go.
Nicolas Winding Refn: Why?
Pouya G. Asadi: Well I wasn’t aware how much freedom they were going to give you while you made your first Hollywood attempt. I was really happy with the photography as usual. Also, I’ve never been a fan of Ryan Gosling, but this film made me love him. I never really cared for him, of course my ex-girlfriends did, my sister, my mom…now I do because of your film Drive.
Nicolas Winding Refn: That’s good, you’ve joined the club now. [laughs]
Pouya G. Asadi: I wanted to comment on the advice you gave to the audience of the Drive screening the other night. You said ‘The number one rule for creating art is: Never feel comfortable.’ It’s advice that I’ve heard from a lot of my idols actually…
Nicolas Winding Refn: Who?
Pouya G. Asadi: Like Paul Thomas Anderson, or the musician/filmmaker Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, he always used to say it’s best to ‘throw a monkey wrench in your gears’ while making music or film.
Nicolas Winding Refn:Who else?
Pouya G. Asadi: When John Turturro brought his film Romance & Cigarettes to Chicago and came to the Music Box for a Q+A, I remember him saying the same thing when he was asked about how he approached filmmaking and being behind the camera for once. It’s truly advice that I love, that I can work with and agree with.
What I wanted to ask you was, besides your car phobia, what else made you uncomfortable during the filming of Drive?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Nothing. It was very straight-forward for me.
Pouya G. Asadi: In your films, I’ve noticed in past interviews how you mentioned filming in chronological order, was that the case for Drive?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Yeah, almost. My other films were shot 100% chronological, but with Drive it’s about 70% chronological, just with the logistics and the car chases and stuff like that. But they were shot in chronologically emotional order, so that you would always have a linear emotional story line with the characters. Which of course meant I could change and moderate and do other stuff with the footage.
Pouya G. Asadi: Would you consider Drive to be under the “Phase 2″ of your career?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Mmmmm, yeah. I think so. Hopefully by the time we start [the remake of] Logan’s Run I’ll be in Phase 3 [laughs].
Pouya G. Asadi: So your next film that you are about to start, Only God Forgives, will that also be Phase 2?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Yeah. That’s like the transition. That’s like my farewell to Phase 2, hopefully that will kick-start into Phase 3 [laughs].
Pouya G. Asadi: When I was doing my research on Drive, I read in interviews with yourself and Ryan, he mentioned one night he took you out driving in LA at night. He mentioned how he had put on the music real loud and looked over at you in the passenger seat and you were crying. Gosling mentioned that you had a moment when you realized this film Drive, would work. Do you always have that moment before you begin production on a film?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Yes. If I don’t have that moment then I can’t make the film. So it’s vital and you always sort of search for it, like almost from the heart. Where will it start from? [laughs] You always have to have that moment, and it comes in the strangest places, from the strangest moments.
Pouya G. Asadi: Can you share with me the moment you had before filming Valhalla Rising?
Nicolas Winding Refn: I think it was when my first daughter was born, the midwife showed me the afterbirth. She held it up against the fluorescent light in the delivery room, and it was transparent and had all these veins. She said to me, ‘this is what we call the tree of life.’ I knew at that moment that science fiction could not outmatch mental fiction. That traveling in our minds is so much greater than traveling through technology. So I wanted to do a science fiction movie, about traveling to outer space, but through our mind, and not through technology.
Pouya G. Asadi: Since we are on the topic, do you mind sharing the moment you had for your newest film, Only God Forgives?
Nicolas Winding Refn: I think it was when I created a character where, one being a Thai lieutenant in Bangkok, who thinks he’s God. Searching for a religion to believe in, and the confrontation between who he is to himself and who he is to the people of Bangkok.
Pouya G. Asadi: Back to Drive, in the elevator scene when the two main characters have their first kiss, was the lighting and the surreal moment it creates meant to portray the fantasy element of the film?
Nicolas Winding Refn:Yes, because it is basically a point of no return for Driver’s [Gosling] psychology. He kisses her farewell, and at the same time says “Hello.” Because he knows now that the point of no return has been reached, he can no longer go back, and this journey must go on. Which is killing everybody.
Pouya G. Asadi: I noticed in Drive, that the main character of Driver is always moving forward. Whether it’s him driving in his car or walking with a shopping cart in the grocery store aisle. The photography portrays him always moving and never static. Yet towards the middle of the film there is a scene in the motel where he is slowly walking backwards behind a bathroom wall. Was this a portrayal for transformation in the character of Driver?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Yes, he is backtracking, for the first time. Now he’s going in a different direction. That’s an interesting analysis, I never thought of that, that’s kind of cool.
Pouya G. Asadi: While filming Drive, were there any scenes that you rehearsed at all?
Nicolas Winding Refn: No. I found the locations that I liked, the actors came out and figured out what they would like to do physically in terms of movement. What they would like to say and not say. When that’s completed then I shoot it how I see fit. The way that I’d like to see it.
Pouya G. Asadi: Did you enjoy your “Hollywood experience?”
Nicolas Winding Refn: Very much. First class. Wonderful. Top dog, all the way through.
Pouya G. Asadi: And you would do it again? Without repeating yourself?
Nicolas Winding Refn: No. I would do it maybe, very differently. Meaning if I do it again, I will do a very big studio movie. We’ll see. But I enjoy Hollywood. I think there are very smart people out there.
Pouya G. Asadi: In the past year or so, in all the festival circuits, with you flying around to each festival, were there any films that stuck out to you by your contemporaries?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Well there’s a movie that I hear that’s supposed to be terrific, the one called Kill List. Supposed to be a British film, that’s absolutely amazing. I hear it’s really really good. But I don’t watch so many movies anymore, you know, when you have kids. By the time they’re asleep by around 8:30-9PM, you’re so exhausted, so the idea of watching a movie and then waking up at 7AM…[laughs]
Pouya G. Asadi: Was there a message that you wanted to accomplish for Drive? Was it an outsider’s view of Hollywood?
Nicolas Winding Refn: I don’t really set out to make messages in my films. It’s easier for people to figure it out themselves, it’s more interesting. They can tell me the message that they got from them.
Pouya G. Asadi: Have you ever toyed with the idea of having your father edit one of your films? If not, any reason why?
Nicolas Winding Refn: No. Well I always show him my films always, most of the time in the very late stage so we can analyze all the cutting, but…
Pouya G. Asadi: I noticed you are on the credit as Producer for the new Pusher remake in London. Are they finished filming?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Yes. They filmed it, it’s done, we’re editing it now. Well I’m just helping out as producer you know, just supporting them any way I can, I have enough on my hands [laughs]
Pouya G. Asadi: Well I guess that’s it, Thank you Nicolas, maybe we’ll talk again next year.
Nicolas Winding Refn: Cool man, thank you so much. Thank you for liking the film.
The first photo used in this article is Nicolas Winding Refn shooting his film Bronson. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing. The second photo is from photographer Georges Biard and was shot September 2011. The last photo is from Ian Gavan/Getty Images.