Wednesday 1 June 2011

Director Nicolas Winding Refn - Film: the grotesque medium

Danish film-maker Nicolas Winding Refn came to our attention when he was just 24 with his first feature PUSHER, in which he put the audience in the unusual position of spending 100 minutes hoping a Copenhagen drug dealer would save his skin.

Refn followed this with BLEEDER and then his first English language production, the psychological horror FEAR X, written in collaboration with cult novelist Hubert Selby Jr. While well received, financial problems with FEAR X led to the director declaring himself bankrupt. He then rejected the idea of making a PUSHER sequel, suggesting instead that he make two PUSHER sequels, each focusing on a different supporting character from the original film. Breaking the familiar pattern of the diminishing creative returns of sequels, PUSHER II and III are considered by many (Refn included) to be better than the original film. In 2011, he was awarded the Best Director prize at Cannes for his first Hollywood film DRIVE.

In 2008 Refn directed two features back to back. The second of these was VALHALLA RISING, a sci-fi film set in the Dark Ages, but first came the bold, brutal and theatrical BRONSON, about Charles Bronson, “Britain’s most violent prisoner”. At the time, Bronson had spent 34 years in prison, 30 of them in solitary confinement. Originally convicted for armed robbery, his attacks on prison guards and other prisoners, as well as his taking hostage of an art teacher, led to his sentence repeatedly being increased. However, the Koestler Trust, which honours arts by offenders, has awarded Bronson 11 times for his poetry and art.

The release of BRONSON sparked controversy. The National Chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association called the film “an absolute disgrace”, accusing it of glorifying Bronson, while Conservative MP David Davies criticised Bronson’s crimes being turned into a potentially money-making venture. Others have questioned whether the film should have received any public money through the National Lottery. Critics were divided: The Times’ Wendy Ide enthused that “it eschews the geezer-porn of incorrigible bad lads and glamorised violence [and is] considerably more intelligent and interesting than its subject”, while the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw found it “indulgent…unenlightening… and depressingly geared towards the geezer-porn market.”

Although a writer-director-producer of intense, dark films, Refn still believes that for all the violent films he’s seen (and he’s seen a lot), the most violent is SOPHIE’S CHOICE, and that BRONSON not only shares a lot with his own life but even that of Hans Christian Andersen. We met on the day BRONSON was released in the UK 

So how do you feel about some of the reactions this week? It’s been a bit–
A bit? It’s been insane. But I look at it this way: if everybody likes what you make, there’s something wrong. If everyone hates it, there’s something wrong. Everything I’ve done has always split people very much down the middle. A lot of people who haven’t seen the film have opinions about it, let alone the strong opinions of the people who have seen it. But controversy is very good publicity.

Do you always read the reviews of your films?
Very rarely. I read the ones that like me. The ones that don’t like me, what am I going to do?

Perhaps with the ones that don’t like your film, you might think, later on, that they had an interesting point to make, even if you disagree.
[He laughs]. Well, not really. It’s always nice when somebody likes your work. If somebody doesn’t, then that’s a shame. But I have a very strong belief that art is a very powerful medium. As powerful as an atom bomb, but instead art inspires us to think. And that’s why producing art is something that is still very much part of our lives. It’s very important to humanity.

At the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring there was a riot.
Yes, they were tearing the place up. The police had to come. That just goes to show that even though we’re controlled, civilised human beings, it doesn’t take a whole lot to freak everybody out. Some things need longer to be absorbed. Jonathan Ross in his review of BRONSON on Film 2009 said something very kind. He was very praising of the craftsmanship, but also said that he didn’t quite know how to feel about the film. My reaction to that is: “Well, thank you very much, Mr. Ross. That’s a very good reaction.”

Unlike your earlier films, BRONSON wasn’t a project that you initiated yourself. How did it come about?
The producer Rupert Preston, who has distributed all my films in the UK and with whom I have a very good working relationship, had the project and suggested I take a look. I’ve never lived in Britain and I’d no idea who this prisoner Charles Bronson was. The script didn’t get me very excited as the overall character approach was pretty generic. It tried to psychoanalyse Bronson, which I thought was very wrong and didn’t do him justice. In fact, it made him less interesting. I didn’t know how to work with it but it did linger in my mind.
Then a big change for me came when I read Charles Bronson’s autobiography. About prison he says: “Maybe I always wanted to be there”, which intrigued me – that it’s not like other prison movies about somebody trying to get out, but about staying in.
Then while I was preparing a big budget, Hollywood film that didn’t happen and was trying to get VALHALLA RISING off the ground, a time slot opened up to work on BRONSON. And by this point I really did want to make BRONSON. I rewrote the script [which is credited to Brock Norman Brock and Refn] right before we were set to shoot. And then as I always shoot chronologically, I was able to reshoot about 30 per cent as we went along, when Tom Hardy, who plays Bronson, and I came up with new ideas. It very much progressed as we were shooting.

There are scenes of Bronson in dramatic white stage make-up addressing a theatre audience. What was your intention there?
That’s an example of something I didn’t come up with until the final weeks of the shoot. I felt I needed to use that stage performance for something more than just an explanatory device. When I first looked at the project, there was more of a traditional voice-over in the vein of GOODFELLAS, in which the central character tries to justify his life to the audience. Instead, I came up with the idea that if BRONSON were a play, it would be a one act monologue and by that I’d show that he was a man of many faces and that there’s no real Charles Bronson. BRONSON is not so much about Charles Bronson or even Michael Peterson, his real name, it’s more about the concept of becoming Charles Bronson.

You’ve said that BRONSON's an allegory of your own life. In what way?
When I was young, I wanted to be very famous. In the film Bronson does ultimately become a famous person, but he then realises it’s not that satisfying. It’s really when he opens himself up to artistic expression that he actually becomes a whole person and Charles Bronson is born. In fact, there are a lot of similarities with Hans Christian Andersen’s life. When Andersen was very young, he just wanted to become famous and he tried every kind of art form until he found what he was good at. Then he became a great artist and also very famous.

What contact did the film-makers have with Charles Bronson?
Tom Hardy had a lot of correspondence with Bronson, but I’ve never met him and have only spoken to him once. He was very nice and wrote some thoughts on prison for me. He came up with a line that I put in the movie: “Prison is madness at its very best”.

You’ve made violent films. Where do you stand on the debate that violent films can lead to violence in real life?
I don’t believe that film makes people violent. However, because film is such a grotesque medium and so wide in its appeal, it can show how violent people react. It shows you how to be violent. As a film-maker you have an obligation about what you do because a lot of people are going to see your work. Not that you have to censor yourself, but with great potential comes great responsibility.

But are there things that you wouldn’t depict in a film?
There’s not something that I don’t want to depict if it’s important for the story. But having children [Refn has a five-year-old daughter and another baby on the way] does make you think a little more about what they’re exposed to. I grew up watching a lot of violent films and horror films. But oddly enough the most violent thing I’ve ever seen is in SOPHIE’S CHOICE, where she has to choose which of her two children will be saved and which won’t be as she’s going off to a concentration camp.

You’ve said in interviews that you’re not glamorising violence and that your films are made with a strict moral code. How do you approaching shooting a violent scene?
Violence to me is very destructive and so every time I have violence in my films, there’s always a destructive consequence. Violence doesn’t work without emotion. It’s like pornography, which doesn’t work without eroticism. In my films, it’s not the punch, it’s the attitude to the punch that’s actually more violent. So it gives people images in their heads that they haven’t actually seen. Nowadays we see very violent, almost gratuitous executions of blood, but it can still be scarier to have somebody look at something with us knowing what they’re capable of. The minute we use tricks in films, we are subconsciously telling the audience that it’s a fictionalised world. But emotions aren’t fictionalised. So, it’s about getting the audience within that state of mind that they never let go of identifying the emotion that they’re seeing.

In FEAR X there’s no physical violence, although it’s still a violent film. It was a very difficult film to get made but I was very happy with it. However, it also shows the harsh world of commercial film-making, that physical violence or the act of violence itself does enhance ticket sales. I guess that’s a factor to live with.

Have you ever been involved in any physical violence yourself?
No, thank God! I wouldn’t know what to do. When I was younger, I had a lot of violence in me but I didn’t have the character to let it out in a physical way. Maybe I had too much of a good upbringing. Like Bronson, I was trying to fight for my stage. I still have a very dark side and I make the things that come natural to me.

Where does that darkness come from?
I don’t know. I have very fond memories of my youth, but for some reason a part of me has grown towards a very sinister urge and I was lucky to find film-making as my catharsis. And that’s why the movie BRONSON is so much about my own life. I took Charlie Bronson’s world and fitted myself into that.

And yet some critics still seem to be reviewing it as a conventional biopic.
They’re reviewing what they’d like to see or are used to seeing. But I’ve never been a big fan of biopics. It’s where documentaries have a stronger hold and I’d love to make documentaries. But if you want to make biopics, then you should take artistic licence. That’s why fiction is interesting.

How do you feel about Charles Bronson’s chances of parole?
I’m not from this country and didn’t make the film for a political agenda, so I have difficulty answering that. But I do think that it would be very interesting one day to sit down and have a cup of tea with him.

Are there any film-makers who particularly influenced you on BRONSON?
I really wanted to make a Kenneth Anger movie. I showed some of the crew his films when we were preparing BRONSON. You could do a great screening of BRONSON alongside Anger’s INAUGURATION OF THE PLEASURE DOME and SCORPIO RISING. When I was younger and perhaps because I come from a very cultured family, I thought that I’d grow up to make art house films. My father’s a film editor and my mother’s a photographer. My parents divorced when I was eight and my mother and I moved to New York. My stepfather is also a photographer. My uncle had the biggest art house cinema in Copenhagen and my grandfather on my father’s side was a very highly regarded designer in Scandinavian theatre. So growing up, make believe was something that was very attractive to me. But for some reason my film-making drifted more towards a genre-orientated world. But I’m still fascinated by some art house films and Kenneth Anger made a very big impression on me because I saw with his work that film could be so poetic and non narrative. I’d always wanted to do something like Kenneth Anger but couldn’t find a feature film story to put it in. Then I had this idea to take BRONSON in the direction of a prison movie about staying in prison, fighting the system that way, and visualised in a very Kenneth Anger-esque universe.

A few months ago I saw Ken and told him that on BRONSON I stole everything I could from his movies. He can be quite a drama queen and I expected some kind of curse. He looked at me for a very long time and said: “Delighted.”
With film everybody steals and is influenced by other film-makers. Otherwise we’d still be doing cave paintings. Anybody who claims they don’t steal is pretty much lying.

So how did this high culture kid end up watching exploitation films in Times Square cinemas?
Although my mother and stepfather were very politically aware Scandinavian socialists and I had this high culture background, we’d also go to see the Eighties blockbusters. But as soon as I was old enough to get the bus home from school, I’d stop in Times Square and go and see a movie. And in those days Times Square was known for showing horror movies and B movies. I was already interested in the macabre and the extreme in film-making. And perhaps because of my high culture background I was instead attracted to pop culture. Artistically I very much consider myself a product of New York.

You’re learning disabled.
I’m dyslexic. I didn’t learn to read until I was 13. My schooling had always been very traumatic. I basically hated everything about the schools that I went to. I was embarrassed about having to go to schools for pupils who were dyslexic or learning disabled in other ways. I think that’s why film-making and TV became an obsessive medium for me because I certainly didn’t like the world I had to spend nine til four in. And being unable to read until late on, images become very much a way of understanding the world. But you have to turn your weaknesses into your strengths. My dyslexia helped me exercise my memory. I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t read well that I would remember complete texts off by heart and recite them as if I was reading them. And I could remember every film I’d seen, every scene and every detail in them.

You’re also colour blind.
When I was about 24, I was buying a pair of shoes with my wife. She kept going back and forth between two pairs and finally I was like: “What the fuck? They’re both black.” And she said: “No, they’re not. Oh, my God, you’re colour blind.” I can’t really see mute colours, so I only want very diverse colours in my work. But I’m very happy with that.

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is your favourite film. There’s a link between what that film meant to you and how you depict Bronson.
I was 14 when I saw THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE in New York as part of a double feature with THE HILLS HAVE EYES. Watching it I realised that film was an art form, equal to painting or a piece of music. It was John Cage or Matisse or Dali. In BRONSON I had to rethink the ending so I looked at my own life and thought: “If I was on stage, what would I want? Well, music.” Music enhances feelings and from feelings comes art. So that’s what Charlie does: he paints a picture. He becomes what he’s always wanted to be.

BRONSON has a small budget…
The budget was £600,000 and we shot it in six weeks. But we were very lucky. One big contribution was getting Larry Smith (EYES WIDE SHUT) as cinematographer. I certainly couldn’t afford him at his usual rate, but he did it. The bond company were very down on us so I suggested we shoot the whole movie in one location. And we found this creepy old Hammer Horror kind of estate in Nottingham and filmed 90 per cent of the movie there. They had underground ballrooms and tunnels. It meant that we then presented the prison as a kind of metaphor.

You said you shoot your films in chronological order. Exactly chronological?
Exactly chronological. I know that’s not the standard way of making a film, but I like to be in a situation where I don’t have any options other than to go with what I believe in. It’s like exercising my instinct, rather than the mathematical equation that film-making can become. I can mould the film and change it as it unfolds, like a painting.
And I write with that in mind and use very few locations. For the actors shooting chronologically is terrific because it gives them the theatrical freedom. And for me and the crew it’s great because everybody gets emotionally involved with what they’re doing.

What’s your approach to writing?
I’m not a very good writer in terms of the literary work. I write on index cards and I don’t particularly have a story planned, but I have a scene in mind, like a painter. For example, a guy walks into a restaurant and orders a special on the menu. I’d like to see that. Then I’d like to see somebody touch this and then they’re somewhere else. I just write very crudely “Guy looks at…”. And when I have X amount of cards I put them all on the floor and I begin to ask myself: is there some kind of structure here? Is there a theme? And I begin to add them together. It’s like a puzzle and eventually the puzzle will be done. Then I start writing the dialogue.

Do you feel you’re a particularly Danish film-maker?
No, because I dropped out of the Danish film school. So it can be quite lonely in that way because you don’t have anybody who you came through with. But then I had a wonderful moment in LA in January where I was invited to dinner with some American, British and Australian film-makers. Suddenly I felt very much at home, because everybody came from a different aspect of directing but they all had the same problems: searching for money, trying to keep your vision on the screen and being very ambitious.

Do you regard your films as a collective body of work?
I try not to think about my work very much. I do have a very controlling need but that comes more from my fear of not being able to give it my best. And if that were not the case I’d only want myself to blame. For me it’s very important that you make diverse films. I’ve had my ups and downs financially and critically, but I’ve always been happy with my films and have been able to sustain a release. You always make sure that you have distribution in the major territories.

Making FEAR X you had to declare yourself bankrupt. Aren’t we always advised not to invest our own money in the show?
Fortunately, I still like making films more than making money. With FEAR X I was very ambitious. I was in my late 20s and I wanted to make an international movie and I wanted to make it now. We were able to put the money together, but unfortunately the people around me didn’t have everything in place and when the financing collapsed during postproduction we couldn’t sustain that kind of a loss. So I went bankrupt. It was very weird as I was travelling around promoting FEAR X, a film that was actually almost a $1 million in debt. But it was very good because I’d achieved what I wanted to and I was able to get it distributed.
And bankruptcy did something good to me because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I realised that maybe I was on the wrong film-making path and should be careful of not going in the art house direction, which can be so difficult to finance.
And when I then made PUSHER II and PUSHER III I was a much better film-maker: I’d made three films, so I knew know how to make one movie, which is Bergman’s philosophy and he’s very right. I’d made three very diverse movies (PUSHER, BLEEDER, FEAR X), I’d really pushed the extremes in trying so many different ways of telling a story, and so going back into PUSHER II and III I felt very relaxed.

But at first you hated the concept of a PUSHER sequel.
I didn’t want to go back. I wasn’t that happy with the first PUSHER, even though it brought me great attention and made me be able to make more movies. But when I went back to PUSHER II and III I made them the way I should have made the original. It was a great way to complete the circle for me. I’ve been the happiest bankrupt person because bankruptcy brought me back to making PUSHER II and PUSHER III, which reinjected my career with adrenaline.
And then when I had to drop out of the Hollywood film because VALHALLA RISING had a start date, I was very disappointed. But God had a plan: I got to make these two films, BRONSON and VALHALLA RISING, which I’m very happy with and I didn’t have to answer to anybody.

Have you ever thought you may never make another film?
With each film I think: “This is going to be my last movie.” Because I need to give it everything I’ve got. That’s the only thing they can’t take away from me. They can’t say, I didn’t put my heart into it. But once I’m done with a film I don’t watch it. I have a huge archive where everything’s put in nice, neat folders and stored away in waterproof plastic bags, but I don’t have any of my films around my house. It’s important that when you work, you work, and when you don’t work, you do something that’s not about you. My hobby is collecting toys. Each year when we go to Asia on vacation, I can’t wait to get to Bangkok where there’s a toyshop with all the Asian robots and comic books with figures attached to them.

You started young. What advice did you get?
When I was 24 and had just made PUSHER, I had dinner with Elia Kazan. I asked him what advice he would give a young film-maker. He said: “My advice to you is: do it your way.”

You say you’re slowly exorcising your dark side. What kind of movie would you most like to make?
My greatest wish is to do a romantic comedy like PRETTY WOMAN.

Yes. I wish somebody would bring out the other side of me that loves Walt Disney and can react cheerfully to something that’s good. But unfortunately I haven’t developed that side enough yet.

A shorter version of this interview appeared in the March 2009 issue of movieScope Magazine.

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