As far as protocol goes, the interviewer usually asks the interviewee the questions. More than that, when interviewing film directors I usually give my reaction before I’m asked for it. The unwritten rule is that if the movie is utterly dire then it’s probably best to avoid mentioning that, concentrating instead on the technicalities until enough of a rapport exists so that you can ask why it’s so bad. If it’s good, then it’s easy.
When it comes to Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn, though, the rules are moot. And that’s as true for his filmmaking as for his interview technique.
After approximately ten seconds of small talk about where he’s been (LA and Texas, “it’s nice to be back in a civilised society”) and jet lag (“I don’t really get it”), he can’t wait any longer: “So what was your first reaction to the film?” he blurts out.
I start to stutter. It’s not because I’ve nothing positive to say about Only God Forgives, but more that it is such an unremittingly weird film that to sum up my reaction succinctly is a tall order.
Refn’s second film with Ryan Gosling, his follow-up to the now cult classic Drive, is a mesmerising, compelling, nightmarish cinematic experience. It’s dark, violent and very strange. Set in the underworld of Bangkok, it is the story of Julian (Gosling) a fight club owner with intimacy issues not unrelated to his utterly terrifying mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is head of the family drug-dealing business. It tips its hat to samurai slasher movies and is sprinkled with the unsettling themes that one might expect from David Lynch. It’s not easy to offer a quick opinion because watching it is such a fundamentally unnerving experience, but “gripping and odd” is what I plump for. I’m not sure whether Refn is impressed. But that’s probably moot too because, of course, Refn has his own inimitable way of describing his films: “Drive is like doing really good cocaine. Only God Forgives is like doing really hardcore acid,” he says. Right then.
Refn’s creative process is unique. He writes ideas and images on index cards. He might know the kind of movie that he wants to make, but this process helps him to identify the story he wants to tell. Since English is his second language and he’s dyslexic (he only learned to read when he was 13, immersing himself in movies before then), an assistant then types them up. He doesn’t storyboard. When it comes to shooting his films, after a period of rehearsal in which he spends “a lot of time talking to the actors about what they’re not doing rather than what they’re doing”, he does so chronologically.
“It’s not about the result, it’s about the process,” he says. “The result itself will be revealed. When I’m working, I’m more interested in what I’m not making than what I am making, because then every day it reveals something about itself that to me is a mystery. Every day it’s fresh and new. Every day it’s pure. And this is a really horrible pretentious thing to say, but it makes everything flow. It’s like a stream of emotions that goes through you and wherever it ends it’s the right ending. Like Sherlock Holmes would say, when all other possibilities have been eliminated whatever is left is the right thing.”
Refn’s language is hyperbolic, but the fact is that he is a filmmaker with a keen sense of himself as an artist, with the conviction of his aesthetic sensibility and a clear idea of the body of work he’s creating. It makes for interesting films which split opinion. When Only God Forgives was shown at Cannes, the reaction was violent.
“I’ll say,” quips Refn, sounding pleased with himself. And it’s true that this kind of reaction is nothing new. From the early days of rebelling against his art house cinematographer mother by revelling in horror movies to his first gritty drama, Pusher, set in the Copenhagen drug scene, Refn has set out to provoke strong reactions. He reminds me that Drive wasn’t universally adored when it came out, even though it is revered now.
“I’m used to it by now,” he says. “In a way it’s how I define the criteria of success, because if you don’t divide so aggressively how else can you make an impact? If people hate you with such a passion and the next person loves you with such a passion for the same thing then you know you’ve done something right. You’ve evoked an emotional response. It’s not about being good or bad, which is irrelevant, it’s what destruction have you brought to the soul of the audience?”
The destruction Only God Forgives brought was enough for people to call for Refn to be prevented from ever making another film. It got worse, he explains: “When people start telling me that they’ve been raped and molested by the film, then I go ‘That’s interesting’.
“People said I was molesting the audience, taking advantage of their sensibilities. It was described as the massive disappointment of the festival because how could I destroy something like this; destroy Ryan Gosling, take Kristin Scott Thomas, the queen of British cinema, and decompose her into a devil? And on and on and on.”
For Refn, the more hysterical the response, the more he knows that he’s done exactly what he set out to achieve.
“After Drive I knew that I needed to make something against all expectations but also something that was my own deconstruction of myself,” he says. “When Lou Reed made Transformer, which is one of the great rock albums, his next album was a double LP of distortions from a guitar. The artistic need to go in the opposite direction is vital so that you don’t just repeat yourself. When you get the formula that works right on a large level, it’s very easy to go back to that. The chief enemy of creativity is being safe and having very good taste.”
There is certainly nothing safe about the performances that Refn elicits from his cast. The shooting script of Drive was 81 pages long; for Only God Forgives it was, he says, “probably 70 pages double-spaced just to fill it out – to make sure that the investors didn’t think they were getting a TV movie”. Gosling barely speaks. “Wanna fight?” is almost it for his dialogue, yet his presence fills the screen, fills the movie. Refn has spoken about his “telekinetic” relationship with the Canadian actor and how important a leading man is for a director. He’s typically candid about his appreciation of Gosling. “He’s an amazing talent,” he says. “He had to do what silent movie stars did – convey emotions without talking. It’s very cinematic. It’s like pure cinema really.”
Scott Thomas, too, is a revelation, taking a wrecking ball to everything she’s done before and giving the best performance of the film in the process. It was Refn’s casting director who suggested the woman Refn refers to as “KST” for the part, but it wasn’t until the director had dinner with Scott Thomas in Paris that he was convinced.
“I realised that she has no problems turning on the bitch switch,” he says. “Apparently that was very easy for her.”
What she showed you at dinner?
“I got hints,” he says, “very specific hints. And I liked that. She agreed to do it but with the notion that she really needed to transform herself, and then she sent me this picture of herself with long blonde hair and a message saying this is what I need to transform myself into. And I was like, Donatella Versace here we come.”
Refn’s next project is a version of Barbarella for TV. After that, he says, who knows? But it’s clear he knows exactly where he wants to turn his attention next.
“I think I want to do a horror movie,” he says. “That could be fun. Then I guess I have to do a romantic comedy. I just don’t have the idea yet. But I have to make that once in my life.” n
Only God Forgives is in cinemas on 2 August