‘Art can be an act of violence’
Nicolas Winding Refn interviewed by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoon) over phone for The Sunday Guardian
Nothing about Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn is ordinary, or indeed, normal. He is a self-confessed ‘fetish filmmaker’ whose movies have raw, unflinching and ‘sexualized’ violence that often put Quentin Tarantino to shame. He has a penchant for the vile, whether it’s through the antics of his characters on screen, or through the reactions they elicit from reviewers across the globe. He’s revered by some with a staunch fandom, and loathed by some with an equal fervor. His films, from the cult classic Pusher trilogy, to the recent critical achievement, Drive, have not only catapulted him on to the world stage, but have also rewarded international stars Ryan Gosling (Drive), Tom Hardy (Bronson) and Mads Mikkelsen (Pusher II) with the career-making acclaim that’s helped them reach where they are today.
Counted, along with Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and Susanne Brier, as one of the greatest contemporary Danish directors, Refn is colour blind and dyslexic, and holds, amongst his many idiosyncrasies and inventive style, writing with index cards and shooting in chronological order. As his new film, Gosling-starrer Only God Forgives does the rounds of film festivals in India, in his first interview ever to an Indian publication, Refn is just as intriguing as any of his movies.
Your thoughts on Indian cinema haven’t ever been documented before.
Indian culture was a huge inspiration to me when I was shooting Only God Forgives in Bangkok. But the cinema culture of India is very interesting to me too, and also, I think, musically, India is a very interesting place. While Indian films haven’t directly inspired me, the whole world of colour, that flamboyant style, is inspiring. In terms of cinema, what I usually prefer to look at, and I’m not an expert at it, is to see some of the more fantasy oriented of Indian cinema. India’s fantastical films are not very inspired by European cinema, which of course, is very, very good. I mean, god! It’s fantastic! I like fantasy in the cinema of Europe too, but when I see the fantasy world of India, that’s when I really find it fascinating. Because I feel like I’ve been transported into a cultural time warp, in a way.
You’ve often spoken about your love for fantasy and the Grimm fairy tales, and there’s an undercurrent of the fantastical in all your films. Where did this stem from?
I come from a background of logic, you know. My family is Scandinavian, which is all based on logic of life and times. Religion is not part of our upbringing in any way. What changed my life radically was coming to New York when I was eight years old, and seeing new York. And for me, in 1978, it was really like coming to a fantasy world. So I think that because my life changed at a young age, I became very, very interested generally in fantasy. And when I say fantasy, I mean the language of fairy tales, myths, or fables or something that was removed from my original background, or upbringing.
And then, my mother was always very good at reading me the Brothers Grimm or, you know, obscure science fiction, when I was little. So I guess it also came a lot from my upbringing, thank god. But I do have very much of an interest in the esoteric, you know. When I started making movies, I tried to capture reality in film. I wanted to capture authenticity. But I also quickly realized that it was ludicrous, because there is no such thing, the capturing of authenticity. And I became much more interested in heightened reality, which in essence is fantasy, or fairytale, or whatever you want to call it. But something where it was removed enough from reality, so it wasn’t reality, yet at the same time, it was emotionally accessible, you know. And that is what I find much more fascinating to lose myself in.
You have admitted in the past too that your early career was about trying to make a great film, and now, you are only doing what you like to do. What, according to you, made for a great film?
Well, I guess, that’s the one thing I thought that I could try to capture, when I was young and naïve… what made for a great film? My favourite film is probably It’s A Wonderful Life. But then I also like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. So I realized you can’t capture greatness, you just have to make what you believe in, and hopefully, it works. So that’s why I say my life is in two stages – the first time I was trying to capture the ingredients, and I failed, miserably (chuckles). But, by failing miserably, I also realized that I should approach what I do in a radically different way, in order to really find a reason why I was doing it. I realize essentially all I was, was a fetish filmmaker, that throws everything like a pin up magazine.
Growing up, what was it about the movies that made you want to make a great film?
You must understand, that in the early 70s, when I was born in Copanhagen, there was only one television station. And that one television station would show [content of] maybe 4 hours of 5 hours a day, you know. So something may be for children in the afternoon for an hour or in the evening, and then once a while, maybe something in the morning. But it was very, very, very, very limited. This is before VHS, of course, or whatever they had back then. And I was too young to run to the cinema unless somebody took me. So what really changed my life was the access to American television. I suddenly realized that through television, I had the ability and the power to switch channels and see many different kinds of films that were on TV. And of course, I went to the movies when I became older, and constantly, during my teenage years, or as much as I could.
But it was really television that radically changed my life, because television became accessibility… a bit like how the internet has become a way for us to see mass entertainment because of online streaming. Suddenly, we now have full control of how we wanna see it, when we wanna see it, and what we wanna see. And that’s what I experienced, coming to see television when I was 8 years old in America. And as I said, I liked all kinds of films. Of course, being young, you are more interested in, what are called, entertainment for 8 year olds, but I always liked the cinema of the occult, the cinema of horror, the cinema of fantasy. Anything that was subliminal, I always found interesting.
So is there a reason you make films today? Is it to explore something about yourself or to explore something or somebody intangible?
Very much. I think there’s a reason I make every film. And I think the reason comes purely out of myself, you know. I’m not a political filmmaker, I don’t have a political message that I want to get across. Or a social oriented message, for that matter. That has no interest in me. I like the act of creativity, I like the act of expression, and I think that essentially art with a singular vision is what really can change the world. Every film of mine is an extension of my alter ego. Especially my last three, Valhalla Rising, Drive and Only God Forgives. Although Bronson was autobiographical in a more direct way, in the sense that I took somebody else’s life and made my own autobiography. And I did that because Charlie Bronson is an artificial character. He’s a made up persona by Michael Peterson. So in a way, I was taking a constructed reality to base it on my own autobiography. Because you know, the first half of Bronson is about a man who aspires to be world famous, not knowing why. Which is very much how I started out.
But, like Bronson, I was very nihilistic in everything I had to do. I was destroying everything around me. I felt art had to annihilate everything, a bit like Bronson. You realize violence is a way to become famous, but of course, it had its limits, because his stage is a prison. And it’s not until his art teacher explains to him that his art can be his act of violence, and for me, that’s when I realized that I should no longer try to capture great filmmaking and, that I was becoming nihilistic about everything. I should actually just enjoy the act of creativity, and not think about the results. And that’s what Bronson did, you know. Of course the consequence is that Bronson’s stage was a prison, because that was the flip side of him achieving everything he always wanted. Whereas, I, thank God, have a wife and children (laughs) who I go home to. But that’s very much an autobiography.
So what do you want the audiences to take back from your movies? Is there a take away you have in mind?
No, except polarization. You can love it or hate it, as long as it has penetrated your mind and implanted a thought, which is a very, very personal and individual experience. I don’t have a personal agenda that I want to get across. I believe art is upto people’s own interpretation. That’s when it becomes interesting. It inspires people to think, but they have to look at it from their own perspective. All I can do is to release it, all I can ask them is to absorb it, and do with it as they wish.
Art is like weapons of mass destruction; it has the same power, you know. War and weapons of mass destruction can change history. So can art. The difference between the two is where war destroys, art inspires. Art inspires thoughts, but it has to come from a singular vision in order to speak to an audience.
That begs the question about your responsibility as an artist. Your movies have often been accused of glorifying violence in your movies. Do you ever worry if that’s the takeaway for the audience?
I think anybody who has the ability to create has the responsibility. But I do think that there’s a big difference between people feeling and seeing something violent or glorified, and being violated. I think a way to react to your responsibility is by always making sure that there is a consequence to the violence. Violence in my movies always brings destruction with it. It is never based on humour or a cartoon. But people can be violated by the images, because they feel that it penetrated their mind, in a way that it is absorbed, and they have no shield against it, and then it becomes, of course, much more of an experience.
There’s so much more violence in other films or television than in mine, so, sometimes people get confused. They think they see more than what’s actually there. It’s the power of subliminal images, because art works as a two-way experience. Art has to plant a thought, a seed in the mind of spectator, then the spectator continues to build their own visions with it. So it becomes a two-way experience, a flow, and not just a passive viewing of entertainment, which brings nothing because there’s no thinking in it. It doesn’t inspire thoughts, or reaction, should we say.
It’s also to do with the way you design violence in your films. What are you trying to express when you design a beautiful-looking violent seen?
That’s because art can be an act of violence. Why should it not be a seductive sexual experience? The violence of art is much more shocking the more you sexualize it. That goes back to the initial instinct of art. It’s an act of sex and violence. The more you purify that, the more, the more a penetration it becomes. That’s why I always say, art is a combination of sex and violence. It’s just an endless ability how to create the equation, you know.
I’m surprised you don’t factor love into this equation. Your films are essentially about people striving for love, than either sex or violence.
Of course, because love is what makes it all interesting. Sex and violence are the ingredients. You see, in order to get to love, it has to start from somewhere else. You have to fall in love, you know. I am strong believer that the core, in terms of our interests in storytelling, lies in love. If you have love for your characters, the audience falls in love with your characters when you tell a story, whether it’s a story, or a book or a television show or a painting. There has to be an expression of love, because I believe, like you say, that’s essentially what people want to strive for.
What about romance? Is that important to you too?
I wouldn’t call romance a pure emotion because I think romance means thought. Romanticism is great, and it’s great to make films about romanticism, but, in terms of drama, the initial ingredient of drama, is combination of the two core emotions within us as human beings, which is lust and violence, or sex and violence, or aggression and desire, whatever you want to call it. But those are very, very primal emotional instincts that have nothing to do with logic, they are purely based on instinctual needs, you know. And that’s what drama is based on. Then of course, we can alter it and create stories around it, that can end up being romantic. But romance is a process, you know. You can make something romantic, but it has to be based, primarily, on the, the idea of desire and lust.
I’m very interested in knowing about your writing process. Your interest in primal emotions translates to your writing as well. You use index cards to write, isn’t it?
Well that’s more because realized I wasn’t a very good writer (chuckles). if I approach the movie based more on what would I like to see, then I could create a story after knowing what I would like it to be visually. Like I said, it’s a bit like shooting a pin up magazine. You pose the women in a certain precision. You photograph them in a certain position that you desire. You normally don’t really know what it all means until you start having a series of images. And then you suddenly realize there could possibly be a story in this.
Is your pin-up magazine approach why you shoot chronologically too? You are one of the only directors in the world who does that.
Yes, I always write chronologically, so I shoot it that way. I basically did it because I read that John Cassevetes had done it in his film, so I thought, ‘Well, if he did it, maybe I should try it!’ And yes, it became a way for me to submit myself to the creative process. Doing everything chronologically, like painting a picture, helps your work constantly evolves. I’m not interested in the results anymore, I’m interested in the process. The results are of no interest when it’s over.
Of course, you have to be smart about it. You may have to produce yourself, and that makes it easier, because of the production cost issues. You just have to know your limitations here, but also what it brings in terms of the positive impact. For example, it’s great for the actors. You have to write with the mindset of shooting in chronological order. You can’t just do it. You have to build it into the project from the beginning that you are developing.
Do you think you’ll every attempt anything conventional before you’re done? Do everything the way everyone normally does, just to see how it turns out?
(Laughs) I hope so. (Laughs again) But I don’t know. Because normality is only interesting if you twist it.
Note: An edited version of this interview first appeared as The Sunday Guardian cover story on June 28, 2014
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.