Nicolas Winding Refn: ‘I Approach Everything Like a Pin-Up Magazine’

Helmer's projects include “The Avenging Silence," "I Walk With The Dead" and the TV series "Barbarella."

Nicolas Winding Refn
Lester Cohen/WireImage

While in Marrakech to give a masterclass and participate in a tribute to Scandinavian cinema, Danish helmer Nicolas Winding Refn sat with journos to discuss his projects and philosophy on filmmaking. The director, who showed up wearing sunglasses, was in a chatty and playful mood, giving us a taste of his staple dark and provocative sense of humor. His last film, “Only God Forgives,” premiered in competition at Cannes.

Variety: There are many similarities between “Drive” and “Only God Forgives.” Why is that?

Refn: I guess it’s partly coincidence and partly to do with the fact that I approach everything like a pin-up magazine. I make movies about what arouses me. I don’t have an interest in the result in the end, because I enjoy the process of creativity more than the actual, finished product. It usually starts with a basic idea. Ryan and I took a drive in a car, and that’s how “Drive” came about. Pretty easy. He’s a great driver. Then, in “Only God Forgives,” I had this idea of someone looking at their hands. It’s a phallic symbol but also the ultimate symbol of male aggression. So sex and violence, that’s pretty funky. So you create a film around those things.

What are you working on?

I have my television show, which is “Barbarella,” that I’m working on. I get ideas in many different ways. I come home and I have to speak to my wife about how we do this, we have children, what’s the implication. Then she kind of decides how, when, where.

So what does your wife want you to do next?

Stay home.

Do you have any other projects lined up with Ryan Gosling?  

It’s going to be hard for him to play ‘Barbarella.’ We toyed with the idea, but it became too weird. But, absolutely, I’ll work with Ryan again. Ryan is really funny and we laugh a lot together so when we met a few weeks ago, we said, “We should make a comedy, with a lot of talking.”’ It’s very easy. I’m interested in what’s accessible.

What about “The Avenging Silence”?

That’s a film shooting in Tokyo. I’ve gone further with that as well. Then I’ll also have something with Carey Mulligan I’ve been talking about.

Is it “I Walk With the Dead”?

Possibly. Sometimes it’s interesting to have 1,000 possibilities because they’ll morph into something different. Movies are also about how you get the money to make them. So with “Valhalla Rising,” I knew Mads Mikkelsen and Vikings would enable me to make some money. But I can’t stand Vikings. I thought it could be interesting to work with Mads, making him mute, giving him one eye, and then make a science-fiction movie, without the science. But that was after they gave me the money.

So who will play the lead role in “Barbarella”?

I don’t know yet, but I’m working on it.

How is your project to direct the adaptation of “The Incal” (the graphic novel illustrated by Moebius and penned by Alejandro Jodorowsky) advancing?

There’s a big revival of Jodorowsky at the moment. (“The Incal”) is a great book to read. I read it with Jodorowsky and he explained it to me. I guess that’s the closest thing to seeing the movie.

Is it important for a movie to make a point?

I’m not a political filmmaker and I don’t have political agendas. I come from a family that grew up in the 60s and had strong political views. I was used to being told that French cinema was great and American imperialism was bad. I think art is more interesting if it inspires thought than a point. Thought evokes change, and change is individual. That’s what art can do. Art and weapons of mass destruction are equally powerful, but whereas weapons destroy, art inspires. It’s the invention of a digital medium that’s changed the world so rapidly as it is now, it’s more powerful than anything, that simple access we have.

Are you fascinated by violence?

I’m not, and I’m not a very violent man. I’ve never been in a fight and if I would I’d lose it very quickly. But I say art is an act of violence, because creativity is an act of violence, an outburst of emotions. It can come gently or aggressively, but it’s an act of penetration to the mind. I always say when art inspires, violence destroys, but essentially it’s the same explosion of emotions.

You made “Fear X” which made you lose all your money. Did that change your attitude?

It made me aware of a very important rule, which is that your film should be worth the market value. That film wasn’t, so I lost everything. That was a very valuable lesson. We all live in a world where we need money, but because of the digital revolution, accessibility has also changed.

You can do things for no money now, or as little as possible, basically. You can do a movie on your iPhone. But if you make a movie that cost $100 million, you have to make a certain type of movie that makes $400 million. You might not compromise your artistic approach, but there’s got to be a general knowledge that there has to be a very broad sense to this kind of film. So there’s a sense of self-censorship in that process. It’s like an investment.

I like the creative process more than anything else and I like that freedom, but that means I have to do films that aren’t expensive, because the more money you have, the more responsibility you have for recouping your investment for your investors. If you don’t do that, your life will be very short.

There’s the ABC of filmmaking, which is simple. A) We all want to make movies and make a lot of money. Then B) if you make a great film that doesn’t lose money, you can sustain a career like that. There’s always distributors and financiers who do it for the artfork. And C) You can make movies that lose money, and that’s a speeding train that’s eventually gonna stop. In the end you can make a really bad movie that makes a lot of money, but there’s never the aesthetic high of a creative outburst. But you can stay a whole career like that, and then you can make a bad movie that loses money, and you can only do that once.

How important is it for you to make films that aren’t grounded in reality?

Well, I used to try to capture authenticity and reality. To the extent that when I started working out, I used real people playing themselves, real drugs. I did anything to capture reality. But I realized very quickly that it’s ludicrous, because you can never capture reality. So I became interested in heightened reality. That gives you more possibilities. I decided to start doing films of heightened reality since “Bronson.” “Drive” is very fairy-tale inspired. I realized I’d be repeating myself again and again. You’re always bound by logic, and I don’t really have an interested in logic, but reality has logic you have to abound by. Fairytales are interpretation, logic doesn’t apply the same way. “Barbarella” is all make-believe, made-up, world-creating.

“Only God Forgives” doesn’t answer most of the questions posed, “Drive” does. Why?

“Drive” doesn’t ask as many questions, so there’s not a lot to answer. It’s a different kind of film. But it takes place within it’s own universe.

How did you think of Kristin Scott Thomas for the part of Crystal in “Only God Forgives”? And what made her want to go with it?

I make inexpensive films, so I didn’t think a known actress like her would like to do something like this. But she was interested in meeting. She’s like my mother’s favorite actress. She’s every mother’s favorite actress. She’s almost British royalty, and you have this illusion that she has the gentle soul of your grandmother… but we met for dinner and you quickly realize she has no problem turning on the bitch switch. I really liked her a lot, and talked about what she’d need to do if she were to play this kind of character.

Her reason was “I need to transform, completely change my armor of what I’m used to.” So I said “What’d you like to look like?” and she said “Let me think about it.” A great way of working with a performer is inspiring thoughts within them and seeing where it takes them. I like that process. She came back days later with a picture of herself in a blonde wig, like Donatella Versace. So that’s how the look came.

L.A. played a big role in “Drive” and so did Bangkok in “Only God Forgives.” How do you choose where you want to shoot?

I like going to places that aren’t my comfort zone. I don’t even drive a car, for me to go to LA is ludicrous because I can’t get around. But it makes you look at things from a different perspective. I don’t know anything about fighting or fight movies but I like the idea of going to Bangkok to make a samurai movie which is so far removed from anything I know. Vikings I couldn’t care less, but placing myself in a mountain in the middle of Scotland is interesting.

How would you rate your experience working with Wild Bunch and Gaumont on “Only God Forgives”?

Very good. So much that I have a two-picture deal with Gaumont and Wild Bunch. “Only God Forgives” was the first one. Then “Barbarella” is with Gaumont International Television. The second project is a movie we’re working on.

So what is that second project?

Remember, the best part of a mystery is not knowing the answer.

So will it be a mystery?

I’d say it’s very well-caught on.