Nicolas Winding Refn interview for ONLY GOD FORGIVES

We talk to Nicolas about his new movie and his upcoming TV show, BARBARELLA

Earlier this year, Nicolas Winding Refn returned to the Cannes Film Festival with his latest film, ONLY GOD FORGIVES. caught up with the acclaimed director of DRIVE and VALHALLA RISING at the festival, and talked with him about his latest dark fairy tale, a mother and son story set in the neon lit city of Bangkok.

Initially, you wanted to make a movie about a man who wanted to fight god, can you tell us how this became ONLY GOD FORGIVES?
Nicolas Winding Refn: How long do I have? [laughs] I was able to go to France and obtain a two-picture deal. It was going to be two low budget movies. In order to sign the deal I had to come with two stories, and I quickly came up with a fight movie set in Thailand, because I thought that was going to be an easy sell! [laughs] and they bought it, and then I started writing the script and I am not really a fan of fight movies, but I was going through a very existential time; my wife was pregnant with our second daughter. It had been a very difficult period and I remember I was very angry and violent but I didn’t know how to channel it. I thought if there was someone who had the answers to life’s existential problems, it must be god, so I challenge you. Of course I couldn’t go back to my financier and say ‘that’s the movie’, I had to come up with a more linear story and I came up with this mother character who devours everything. It really became more of a mother and son story, but the key to unfold this mother and son story was the character who believes he’s god.

You put the film on hold to make DRIVE, did that affect ONLY GOD FORGIVES at all?
NWR: I was basically ready to go, I had cast the movie with another actor to play Julian, then I decided to go and do DRIVE instead. I went to Los Angeles and I put the film on hold until afterwards and that went very well, and of course me and Ryan [Gosling] became very close. I remember the day after the premiere of DRIVE in Cannes, this unknown actor dropped out of my movie to go and do THE HOBBIT. Then I was in LA right after and Ryan said ‘I’ll do it’ and I said ‘Great!’ [laughs] We pushed it a few months because he was finishing something and then we went to Thailand and there, I had the real experience where I found the film that I wanted to do in terms of making a film about mysticism and reality. It really came down to that.

In DRIVE, Ryan Gosling must have had about 50 lines all together; he hardly has 12 here and you left all the arias to Chang and Crystal, when was that decision made, and how?
NWR: Well, the idea of the Julian character was that he was a man who was on some kind of journey but he didn’t know what he was moving towards, so the idea that we talked a lot about – Ryan and I – was the concept of the sleepwalker, which is a very mythological creature that is destined to move but he doesn’t know where he is going, and he keeps on being taken in different directions. We realised that he is bound by chains to his mother’s womb; that’s his curse. In order for him to release that, he needs to go through certain levels of violence. Ryan was like ‘So what do I say?’ and I said ‘Well, maybe the language of silence is so much stronger and more interesting and it’s so much more poetic’. It helps us to make a film where we don’t ask ‘What are you?’ it’s more ‘What are you not?’. The idea was that it added some kind of off dimension where things all seemed real but yet there was some kind of unrealness.

Some of the language in the film is rather strong, where did it come from?
NWR: Every day we got a little bit braver, and we thought ‘What can we say? What’s worse?’. I remember asking Ryan ‘What’s the worst thing you can call a woman in America?’ and he said, ‘call her Cunt Dumpster’ [laughs]. Then we would sit around – we shared a big apartment, Ryan and I – and we would talk… One of the things about dialogue in these kind of films that have this sort of fairy tale language, is that dialogue can hurt the poetry of the film because it’s all about interpretation, whereas dialogue is very logical – most of the time – images and sound are very emotional. It’s finding the balance between that kind of language. We would sit and say ‘What would be interesting for a mother to humiliate her son with?’ and we started talking about our cocks. When two guys start talking about their cocks, it becomes very masculine, but when you suddenly have your mother talking about it, it becomes very unmasculine [laughs] and I was like ‘OK, that’s going to work!’.

You say the film is existential and mystical, can you elaborate on this?
NWR: In the original script there was a lot of logic and explaining these so-called mystical happenings and explaining magic and spirituality. In the Western World we are very much bound by facts and acceptance, and if we don’t have a fact it is hard for us to understand it and accept it. The more that I spent time in Asia the more I had to accept that there is a parallel universe with ours that’s accepted but on a very personal level, individually. There isn’t even a bible, there is no definition of it; it’s just the way you live. Mysticism is the definition of the journey; it’s what’s inside. We all know the centre of the universe is the womb of the mother, but at the same time, it’s also the most mystical place that we will ever enter, but we can never explain it. Whenever there was a sense of definition or logic, it always stopped the whole ability of the film to carry on in its own alternate between heaven and hell.

Can you talk about the violence in the film and why you feel it is justified?
NWR: Art is an act of violence. Art is about penetration, art is about speaking to our subconscious and our needs at different levels. It’s a hard question to answer because I don’t really think about what I do very much. I approach things very much like a pornographer; it’s about what arouses me. Certain things turn me on more than other stuff, and I can’t suppress that need and that’s how it usually ends up like that. I don’t consider myself a very violent man; I would die if someone even looked at me evil, but I have truly a fetish for violent emotions and violent images and I can’t explain where it comes from. I do believe that through art it’s a way to exorcise certain things from you, and for the viewer it’s the reverse. You must not forget that human beings, when we were created, were very violent; our body parts are created for violence, mostly based on instinctual needs to survive, but over years our physicality no longer needs violence, but we still have an urge when we are born – because that itself can be an act of violence – so we have more of a mental need, a spiritual need, that we exercise or we watch and exercise out of perceiving and so forth.

Space and movement seem to be very important in your films, can you talk about this?
NWR: Movement is, of course, one of the main things for an actor, just like what they wear. Ryan is very aware of what he wears and how he moves. On DRIVE we had one idea of how Ryan had to move physically, and on this film it was another kind of approach, but its all very character surrounded. If you are a sleepwalker, you move you move but you have no speed in you, it’s just a sense of movement, it’s like liquid. Liquid, of course, represents subconscious and subconscious is open to interpretation. That’s why its hard to define and spirituality versus non-spirituality or logic or nihilism or whatever, because people will read whatever they want into your images because there is a need for everyone – including myself – to understand what I am seeing, or try to understand it, to engage and to be part of it. it needs to penetrate you, or you want to penetrate it. Movement, in that world, is vital. When you have very little dialogue, you use other things to describe your character, we are so used to the spoken word and information given, because we are used to speed of information. Once you take away the sound, everything else becomes heightened and movement is one of the essential same things. And space, well I like large, I like dark. I believe the act of seeing is not so much in front, but also what’s behind and the depth of space can be endless.

There has been lots of discussion about the rise in quality of TV lately, would you consider working in this medium?
NWR: I am a TV junkie, and I have been ever since I was little. I love televsions, I love the size of them, I love to touch them, I love to watch them, I love the remote control, I love the power of the remote control. I love everything about television. Television shows have, to me, over the last 10 years levelled in a way that creatively, they are sometimes much more satisfying than anything around you. There are shows that I can obsessively watch for hours because of the need for information. I think the way that things are moving, because of the financing of films, television has almost become where a lot of people seek creativity in terms of challenges nowadays. It’s opened up a whole new arena, and of course the whole streaming element and television structure and storytelling has evolved. In a way, you can make 13 hour movies nowadays, you just cut them up. Episodic television is almost part of the past; people accept abilities and views in different ways. I always wanted to do television, and it’s an interesting market. I wanted to do a show and got the opportunity to do a show; I was offered BARBARELLA and I said ‘OK, but I don’t want to do it as a movie, I want to do it as a TV show’. That will be my first [foray] into creating television, creating BARBARELLA.

ONLY GOD FORGIVES is released in Irish cinemas on August 2nd

Words: Brogen Hayes