LWLies catches up with the Danish director to chat about his divisive new film, Only God Forgives.
The last time LWLies sat down with Nicolas Winding Refn, he’d just picked up the Best Director prize in Cannes after Drive whipped festivalgoers into a turbo-charged frenzy. Back then Hollywood beckoned. But the maverick Dane blew a hot plume of exhaust smoke in the industry’s face and sped off in a different direction. Two years on, Refn returned to the Côte d’Azur with his much-hyped follow-up, Only God Forgives. The response was, to phrase it favourably, divisive. As LWLies found out, however, that’s exactly how Refn planned it.
LWLies: Only God Forgives seems to be polarising people. What’s your reaction to the reaction?
Refn: To tell you the truth I’m really, really happy. Love and hate is the same emotion, just flipped. Whatever people’s reactions have been, I know I fucked the audience and that’s all I ever really set out to do.
How do you know they like to be fucked?
Whether they like it or not isn’t my concern. It’s a great pleasure when people either love what you make or they really hate it. In a strange way the ones who love it love it for that reason and the ones that hate it hate it for that reason. It’s like having sex. But sex can be ‘yes, yes, more, harder!’ or ‘no, stop, stop, I can’t take it anymore!’ And that’s great because it’s interaction with you and the person or people you’re experiencing it with. Experiencing art is like fucking.
Were you ever worried about living up to people’s expectations after Drive?
You can’t think like that because then you start to get paranoid and you start to doubt your own instincts, and if you do that it’s over. It’s disrespectful to the audience. You have to stand proud and stand tall and say ‘this is what I do’ and the audience decides how they want to take it. When Drive came out there was as much negativity towards it at the same time as there was positive reaction. For some strange reason all that negativity evaporated over time. All the things that people are criticising this film for are the exact same things people criticised Drive for. The things people said they loved about Drive are the exact same things people are saying they love Only God Forgives for.
Why do you think that is?
It has to do with the fact that Valhalla Rising, Drive and Only God Forgives are very similar movies — they’re similarly told, similarly structured, some of the characters are similar. The reaction has been similar with all three films; the only difference is that the audience has become larger.
So what would be the worst reaction for you, indifference?
Well indifferent means like, you might as well watch paint dry. And as a vanity thing, that’s a terrible feeling because you’ve spent all this time and you end up with something that’s like watching paint dry. That’s why it comes back to me enjoying fucking the audience and enjoying letting them fuck me back.
So how do you avoid indifference?
Everything I do starts with an image. It’s to do with me being dyslexic, because some people will start with a written word but I don’t have that ability because I’m not very good with the written word. But I’m able to start with an image because I accept myself as a pornographer. There’s an image that arouses me, that excites me, and then along the way other images and ideas follow and then I can start to see a thread that runs through them creating a story. With Only God Forgives the first image I had was of a man looking at his hands and very slowly balling them into fists. I didn’t know what it meant but I thought it was pretty groovy.
Ryan Gosling wasn’t your first choice for the role, how did he eventually become involved?
Well originally another actor had been cast to play the lead around the time I was making Drive. A few weeks later the actor dropped out for The Hobbit and I was like, ‘What?! I’m supposed to start, you can’t do that to me!’ Yes he could and he did. So anyway, I was in LA in a place called The 101, which is a joint that me and Ryan go to a lot. It wasn’t a case of him asking, it was more like, ‘What are the dates?’
You’ve spoken about an existential angst or anxiety that you had before making this film. Can you elaborate on that?
There are reasons why certain images come to you. It can be because of joy, anger, excitement, sadness, fear, frustration. Once you have that emotion you have to have an outlet for it. You can take pills for it, you can sleep it away, fuck it away, you can fight it away. But you have to have it released from you. Every minute we walk around we’re releasing emotions and at that time I was trying to find a release for some tough emotions. So eventually the image of a man fighting God came to me.
Are you a man of faith?
I’m Scandinavian so the State is my god.
Do you see similarities between the two lead characters in Drive and Only God Forgives?
I wanted to take the Driver character and flip it on its head. The character in Drive is powerful and strong and sexy and heroic.
How easily do you forgive?
It depends what I have to forgive for.