Talking violence and bad language with Mr Controversial
- 31 July 2013
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Controversial Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn talks about his latest film Only God Forgives, a crime thriller set in Bangkok that has, like much of his work, divided opinion.
"His jetlag is kicking in," explains a cheerful PR man. "But he's been on good form so you should get some good stuff from him."
Just what a journalist wants to hear 15 minutes before an interview with Nicolas Winding Refn, the enfant terrible of European arthouse cinema whose latest film, Only God Forgives, sees him team up for the second time with Hollywood golden boy Ryan Gosling.
The film, a neon-splashed, hyper-violent noir set in Bangkok, sees Gosling's gangster Julian tasked by his drug kingpin mother to exact bloody revenge on the men who killed his older brother.
Refn introduced a screening of the film the night before our interview by suggesting that where Drive, his previous film with Gosling, had been "high-grade cocaine, then this film is the opposite, like really bad acid".
Fast forward 12 hours. "Hi," says the visibly weary director. "Do you mind if I walk about a bit?"
"Not at all," I answer. "Can you expand on the drugs simile you used to explain the film last night?"
"Why? Was it not true?"
Hmm, this could get difficult.
"It was a way," says Refn, "to describe..." (eight second pause) "...a film that had a certain anticipation."
This could be a long 20 minutes. Refn is now sprawled on one of the hotel's comfortable-looking couches, his dark sunglasses shielding what I suspect are half-closed eyes.
"And does that anticipation help or hinder you as a storyteller?" I inquire.
Another long pause. "People can be pleasantly surprised or they can be disappointed, but that love and hate is what art is all about," he eventually says.
Another pause, this time I hope for dramatic effect. "There's a great satisfaction of being able to cause that stir emotionally within you," he finally adds.
'Good and bad art'
Art, it transpires, is a subject Refn is happy to talk about - at length.
His answers are largely prompted by an enquiry on the mixed reaction Only God Forgives received when it was screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
"We live in a society where we define our art as good or bad, and in a way art needs to be beyond that," says Refn. "Whether it's good or bad it's almost irrelevant.
"It's like saying, 'I had good or bad Chinese food last night.' It's easy to understand that, but how can you define art that way?"
The level of violence in Only God Forgives has earned it an R rating in the US and an 18 certificate in the UK.
For Refn, it is an artistic thumb of the nose to Hollywood suits at a time when film-makers are commonly asked to cut violence from films to reach a bigger audience.
"I make my films very cheap," he sighs. "And that's really how you retain your control, with your budget.
"The cheaper you make the films, the less of a challenge it is and the less people want to involve themselves.
"If you're making a hundred million dollar movie, you have to make half a billion dollars for your investors to be happy.
"A film like Drive" - another crime thriller in which Gosling played a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver - "only needs to make two million dollars, and everyone has made back their money."
Stylistically, Only God Forgives owes much to the work of Martin Scorsese, Sir Ridley Scott and in particular John Carpenter, most famous for directing films like Halloween and Escape from New York.
"Those are the films I grew up with," says Refn. "Especially Escape from New York - that kind of futuristic world that's in the near future, an almost alternative reality, a fantasy reality.
"I think Escape from New York was the first VHS video I ever owned," continues the director, now in a full-blown tribute to Carpenter's dystopian vision of the Big Apple as a high-security prison.
"God, I loved that movie. It's perfect cinema, a perfect soundtrack. That pulse-y beat."
Audiences familiar with Drive will know that Gosling is not an actor whom Refn overburdens with dialogue.
Compared with the taciturn Julian in Only God Forgives, though, Gosling's unnamed driver in that 2011 film was positively brimming with enthusiastic chatter.
"Being able to convey all these emotions without having to talk is a fantastic gift," Refn says of his tight-lipped star.
From British actress Kristin Scott Thomas, meanwhile, Refn has drawn one of this year's most startling performances by casting her as Julian's platinum blonde, foul-mouthed mother Crystal.
"It came very natural to her, let me put it like that," smiles Refn. "She had no problem turning on the bitch switch.
"Ryan was very helpful with that because I'm not well-versed in American foul language. So I asked for his help."
'Like the Sex Pistols'
The film's brutal violence has divided audiences thus far and saw it met with booing and applause in equal measures when it screened at Cannes.
"What was great about Cannes, it became like the Sex Pistols," says Refn. "People were either outraged beyond belief or they praised it beyond the second coming.
"That's when you know you have penetrated the deepest souls of humanity."
When I point out that first screening at Cannes was similar to the Pistols' Free Trade Hall gig in 1976, in that everyone has since claimed that they were there to witness it, he chuckles.
"Yes, they can all refer to that reaction that it 'split' critics or had 'diverse' reactions."
Violence runs like a red seam through many of the director's films, which include the Denmark-set Pusher series and a biopic of Britain's most notorious prison inmate, Charles Bronson.
Yet Refn insists that Only God Forgives, even with its limb-chopping, eye-gouging and head-bashing, is not particularly violent.
"I used to enjoy violent movies when I was younger and didn't have any children," he says.
"Since having children I became very aware of the effect, but I don't consider my films to be very violent - not compared to what you see on television."
So is creating violent images something of a catharsis for a former horror junkie whose kids have curtailed his viewing habits?
"Unfortunately, I don't have any problems with coming up with violent images," he explains. "It comes very natural to me.
"I used to seek out any extreme cinema that I could get my hands on. It used to be something that I took great pride in."
Refn is currently working on an adaptation of the erotic comic book Barbarella, adapted by director Roger Vadim for a 1968 film starring his then-wife Jane Fonda.
Looking ahead, does he envisage his relationship with Gosling extending to a third film?
"If we're going to do another one then it will have to be a comedy," he says. "With a lot of talking. A completely new arena for us."
Only God Forgives is out in the UK on 2 August.