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Interview: Nicolas Winding Refn on ‘Only God Forgives’

Director of 2011’s critically acclaimed Drive is back with cohort Ryan Gosling for his latest, divisive and controversial film Only God Forgives. The two films had opposite reactions at Cannes with the former receiving a standing ovation for 10 minutes while the other was booed and labelled pseudo-intellectual, pretentious and everything in between. One thing that Refn undoubtedly does is handle criticism well, welcoming it because he loves the reaction. Below in a very special interview we ask him about his latest, his greatest and what’s next on the cards for the controversial ultra violent director.

You approach your work like pin-ups as you’ve said before. What inspired you to make Only God Forgives and what motivated you to make it?

It’s a combination of many things really. It’s not always one thing, it can be an accumulation of ideas or thoughts that sometimes suddenly make sense if you put them in the right order.  I was actually making Only God Forgives before Drive so I was already set to go but I just decided to do it afterwards instead.

Your past three films now have been particularly dialogue sparse. Your anti-heroes in all three are men of few words and One-Eye is a man of none. How do you control the silence in your films to say what you want it to? Is it down to the performances, the music, the camerawork?

Once you remove dialogue it becomes very much about devices to tell the story like the camera, music, sound, lighting. A lot of technical elements start to creep in and act as storytellers. It’s a fun medium to try and evolve in.

How do you write those moments and get the actor to understand what you’re trying to portray?

You talk about it, you know? Like anything else. Instead of having dialogue, you talk about other ways to express it. A lot of the time it tends to be physical movements.

960295_544972728886132_1997115978_nIt helps that you have Ryan Gosling as well who is someone you can always watch, who’s always interesting in his performances.

Yes, he’s great. [laughs]  He has this amazing ability to have no dialogue whatsoever yet say a thousand words. That’s is by far the best type of canvas to work with.

In fact, all of your leads are anti-heroes in a way. Do you think it’s more of a challenge to get an audience involved with an anti-hero or is it just what draws you at the time?

No, I think anti-heroes are what people like to watch; people who are morally ambiguous, people who have good and evil inside them. Who’s more interesting to watch, Han Solo or Luke Skywalker?

They’re usually associated with vengeance. What do you find so intriguing about it?

It’s a primal instinct of mankind. It’s almost what makes us human beings – that we have these thoughts of vengeance which is an emotional reaction.

I know you get asked about violence in every single interview but I hope this is a little different: how do you decorate your violence to be picturesque?

Well basically by just shooting it the way I want it to look. [laughs] At the end of the day it’s like painting a picture.

There are some brilliant little things that happen in Only God Forgives like the little kick to the back of the leg Julian does. Do you realise when you’re writing stuff like that moment that it’s portraying your character to be effortlessly cool? 

No, I don’t think like that. I just think what would I like to see up there on the screen and that’s how I approach it.

Personally I loved Only God Forgives; it’s resonated with me, I’ve continually thought about it trying to decipher its personal meaning to me. It’s had, let’s just say a lukewarm reception, I’ve noticed that you are OK with that and don’t mind what people think. How do you separate the criticism from the feeling of personal attacks when some people are so vitriolic?

Whether people love it or hate it it’s always interesting because then there’s plenty that everyone is talking about.

Is that what you want from your films, people talking about them?

Not as an agenda but as a part of it. Diversity is not a bad thing. Polarisation is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s usually how we define the success of art.

Do you think that when people look back on it, it’ll be less polarising? It seems that the most polarising films at a certain point end up becoming cult classics. Do you have that feeling?

Well it’s certainly interesting to see because the film is doing very good business and that’s how people define success. So something must be working.

My personal interpretation of this is that Ryan Gosling who feels like he’s a god himself but wants to fight another god which would be Lieutenant Chang right there. I know art is open to interpretation but is there an idea of its meaning for you?

It sounds about true. [laughs]

Oh good! So that’s what you were trying to come across?

Well everything is possible. [laughs]

Drive is one of my favourite films of all time. What do you think is the key to its success, personally? What do you see, when you watch it back, that works so well in your work?

I don’t know. I don’t think like that. If you do then you become too calculated. If you become too calculated then you lose a sense of purity.

You’ve made films all around the world now. Any other countries you’d love to direct in?

After filming in Bangkok I think something set in Japan could certaintly be interesting.

There are a lot of projects linked to you on IMDb. Is there any truth in them since IMDb can be sometimes unreliable to say the least. There’s I Walk with the Dead, The Dying of the Light, Barberella, Untitled Nicolas Winding Refn Project (Comedy), Untitled Maniac Cop Prequel, Untitled Heist Project and Button Man: The Killing Game. Any truth to any of these?

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. [laughs] But for right now I’m concentrating on Barberella. I was supposed to be doing Logan’s Run with Ryan Gosling as our third film in a row but that fell through as I decided to go with the Barberella project instead.

You’ve had supernatural experiences while you were out in Thailand which required you to move. Your two year old daughter can see ghosts and she would wake up constantly pointing at the walls in your haunted apartment. Now what I think would be interesting is you doing a scary horror supernatural flick or something similar. Do you ever think of turning your real life experiences into a film?

I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. I mean, with Only God Forgives I certainly tried to create this relationship where the son’s need to confront his mother manifested itself in the form of a third person who is half supernatural force half real person. This in itself was related to my own personal experiences with my daughter’s ability to see ghosts. It was a struggle but it involved me dealing with, and accepting, the fact that we live in two different levels of reality…

Only God Forgives hits screens on the 2nd of August.

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Ashley Norris

The author Ashley Norris

[Associate Editor] Ashley is a 22 year-old film-lover, film writer, film student. He spent sleepless nights watching films making him love all things film and hoping for a career in the field in any of its many forms. Currently a critic, screenwriter and director. In his head. Follow @ashleyrhys on Twitter for more.