I sit in a small armchair in a sparse but comfortable London hotel. Opposite me is Danish director, Nicolas Winding Refn. The Bronson, Drive and Only God Forgives helmer only flew into London from LA the previous night, and apparently “woke up at three am”.
Surprisingly, he fires the first question. “When did you see the film?”, I tell him, “What was your first reaction?”
It’s not really usual for an interviewee to ask a journalist for their thoughts on a movie at the start of a conversation. It tends to skew the rest of the interview. I try to be as neutral in my responses as possible explaining, “for the first moment, I wasn’t sure what I was getting, but then as it went on, it becomes much more like Valhallah Rising, and I knew where I was”, before moving swiftly along.
“There’s something that’s been nagging me. Since I first saw Bronson: Fists. Hands. Why the motif?” Refn has clearly been asked this repeatedly. His response is swift, “It’s an extension of the male sexuality”. I press further, making reference to its use in Only God Forgives, “Which reaches its logical conclusion then, in the sex den?” Refn elaborates, “It’s about a man whose chained to the womb of his mother, and to free himself, he has to re-enter his mother, the womb, where God exists, because that’s the creation of life. To have his hands amputated. At the same time, [it’s] a metaphor for castration.”
It’s at this point that I notice Refn is now reclining on the couch. It’s seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do, for a man suffering jet lag, who has just sat through six hours of press interviews, but it gives our conversation the feel of a psychoanalysis session.
“I’m curious how the cast responded to that when they read the script. How everyone responded to that, coming off the back of Drive, this hugely successful, commercial project?”
“Don’t forget, Drive was not a very expensive film. The crossover was more surprising than anything else.”
“Is that then why you gave up the Logan’s Run adaptation, because you’re more comfortable in the independent market?”
“I think it’s about, when you realise that you actually have it pretty good, and that creative freedom outweighs any kind of money they can offer you. It’s still more important.“
Like his films, it seems even Refn’s thoughts are filled with moments of silent reflection. Long gaps between his sentences. I wait for him to elaborate further, but he remains quiet, so I push. “Are there things, though, that a lack of finance means that you can’t do at the moment, but it would be nice to do, or are you beyond that now?”
“There are certain things. If I want to make a $100m sci-fi movie, that I need to work on. If I want to make a $6-7m horror film, that’s much easier for me.”
“What would a $100m, Nicholas Winding Refn sci-fi be like?“
“I don’t know, I haven’t made it yet.”
I push again. He briefly brings up The Incal, the adaptation of the Alejandro Jodorowsky comic he’s recently been hired to direct, before moving on “right now I’m spending a lot of time on Barbarella, which is going to be my television show.”
“Are you enjoying playing around with the notion of television and the continuing story?”
“I like the idea that you can now make television that is like a 13 hour movie. Places like Netflix have been a real game changer in the understanding of what television is.”
We move back to Refn’s use of metaphor, “The “violence as fucking” thing. Has it reached its logical extent with Only God Forgives?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never thought of it.”
“Where could you take it? The hand literally becomes the penis with the penetration of the woman.”
“Where do you go from there?” Refn asks, reflectively. “Maybe the complete opposite direction.”
“Maybe a romantic comedy. I guess that’s why I’m really into doing my Barbarella show, because that would be such a departure for me.”
“You’ve worked with leading men thus far, but presumably Barbarella is going to require a female?”
“Unless I call it BOBarella. Which I don’t think is going to be very cool, so I’m back with Barbarella. That’s what excites me. I have to cast a young girl. Or a young woman.”
Refn seems to have become something of a starmaker. His eye for talent, has meant that he worked with Tom Hardy, Mads Mikelsen and Ryan Gosling just as their careers took off. I bring this up, and ask if it’s going to mean he’ll have his pick of young actresses for the role.
“Yeah, I’ve been fortunate to work with Mads, Tom and Ryan at quite central evolutions of their careers. Also creatively, I’ve had great experiences with those partnerships. I’d probably like to cast an unknown woman as Barbarella, because she’s such an enigmatic character that she needs someone with no baggage.”
Once again, our conversation moves along. This time to the way his style seems to change to reflect the cinematic culture of the country in which each film is set.
“I never thought of it like that.” He reveals, “I guess it’s conscious, but I’ve never been really aware of it. I try to adapt to the settings of the stories that I’m watching. When you’re a foreigner in a foreign land – a stranger in a strange land – you will look at what is considered a cliché automatically in a different light, just because of the nature of where you come from.
“Yes there are certain kitchen sink moments in Bronson, true, very much true. That was part of the style, combining that with a very operatic nature. Then Drive, of course, there’s a lot of what you might call 80s neon movies, particularly Michael Mann’s movies. And in Only God Forgives, the nature of it, set in Thailand, and using a Thai superstition and so forth, it becomes very Asian in its DNA.”
As the interview draws to a close, I ask him one final question: how does he think the people who were brought to his work by Drive will respond to Only God Forgives?
“Well, there was a woman in Texas last Tuesday, who said to me after a screening, “how do you feel when people see this movie and say, ‘what the fuck?’”, and I said, “the pleasure’s all mine”.”
Only God Forgives is out in cinemas today.