Director's Cut: Nicolas Winding Refn ('Only God Forgives')

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While Nicolas Winding Refn was editing his first film, 1996's crime drama "Pusher," his father Anders was cutting fellow Dane Lars Fon Trier's "Breaking The Waves," one possible prompt for their professed animosity: in public at least, the two tend to profanely insult each other. Though their films have little in common, in interviews they share a provocateur/prankster streak. Talking about his newest film "Only God Forgives," Refn's showily announced "I am a pornographer" about his draw towards super-violent imagery. When I showed up to interview him, Refn seemed possibly tired or simply uninterested in making similarly broad statements again.

Reportedly booed vociferously by the Cannes press corps and scathingly reviewed after its world premiere (read one Film.com critic's pan of the film here), the film has Ryan Gosling wandering Bangkok in a homicidal fever dream, caught in a web of violence initiated by his prostitute-killing brother and fearsome mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). The second critical wave has contained more qualified and all-out raves responding to Refn's red-saturated, uber-bloody hallucination of revenge and bad incestuous vibes. In a brief interview, he touched on the logistics of shooting in Thailand, the art of Muay Thai and his appreciation of "Saw" director James Wan.

Vadim Rizov: A lot of your characters seem to find violence funny. Do you think that when you push violence to an extreme it's funny?

Nicolas Winding Refn: Not consciously. I certainly don't find violence funny, even on-screen. I guess when I was younger I was more hardened, but now that I've gotten older and have children I've gotten much more conscious of the effect it has on a viewer. But I don't consider violence in any way amusing. Of course the most extreme it becomes, the more your instinct in order to process it is to either react with shock or laughter. That's the extreme case of a reaction. To me, it makes no difference how people react, one way or the other it's equally satisfying.

VR: Thailand has a government censorship board that's very restrictive about what their own filmmakers can shoot and show. To what extent were you aware of that when you started shooting in Thailand and did it affect your decisions of what to shoot?

NWR: No. There were certain things I knew you were not allowed to do, but those were elements I didn't have. Like, you can't in no way offend the king. Otherwise, besides that I didn't feel there was anything that we were doing that had any censorship issues. The death of the girl that Julian's brother commits at the beginning of the film, they were very worried that she be either 14 or 16, which is kind of absurd. So she has to be 16, not 14. And it was like, "OK, well, I can make that work." It was something I'd already been told through the Film Board [Thailand Film Office], because you have to be approved by them to shoot there.

VR: Before you started shooting, did you have a lot of interest in Muay Thai or martial arts films in general?

NWR: Not really. Of course, like everyone else, I like my share of fight movies and so forth. I'm not an expert in any way on who's who and what type of martial fight these people are experts at. If it's well done, I certainly enjoy it. I became very fascinated by Muay Thai when I was in Thailand. I found it a very interesting fight because in a way it's so primal and the endurance is amazing. It is probably designed as the hardest shield that Muay Thai fighters create. There is a westernized view of it, and there is a Muay Thai view of it, and I was very interested in the Muay Thai view of it.

What was interesting was that when they would show me fights from the rural areas, when there were no tourists and it was purely a Thai match, the length of the match was no more than a couple of minutes. It was all about that one impact that would settle the fight, and I found that very interesting. There was no showmanship in terms of the westernized arena of sports being masked, it was purely about how little, how fast, how efficient.

Were you editing the dailies on a daily basis at the beginning of your career, when you were shooting on film?

"Bronson" was shot on Super 16 and we were doing the edits no more than a day after. The digital revolution in terms of editing came in terms of digital editing facilities, and I never edited on film. I've always edited on digital. When I edited my first film, "Pusher," Avid was really becoming the way of editing. The digital revolution had started already, so I grew up on Steenbecks — my father is an editor — but I myself have only done it on a computer. I only know that language.

VR: When shooting a film like this or "Valhalla Rising," which is intended to disorient, do you try to disorient yourself?

NWR: No. What I do with Matt Newman who edits the films — he's probably my consistent collaborator from beginning to end when I edit a film, we've done four movies together now. What we try in the editing room is to put the film together in a thousand different ways, to see what will reveal itself, and it's not until we've exercised all options that we put the film into what it has to become.

My mother's a photographer, and my father's an editor. The image is something I was brought up with very early, and the positioning of images. That's in a way what my first introduction probably was, and being dyslexic, and coming to America at the age of eight, not speaking a word of English and being an alien in a stranger's land — images become your main source of communicating.

VR: When shooting in Hollywood in "Drive" or Bangkok in "Only God Forgives," do you have a kind of mental image of where you're shooting you're trying to convey?

NWR: "Drive" is very much that fantasy world of Hollywood, that Hollywood is this dream factory that creates illusions. Bangkok at night becomes very magical and superstitious. You use those inspirations to make the film.

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VR: Given your diverse soundtracks, do you spend a lot of time seeking out new music?

NWR: Not as much as I used to. A lot of it is people sending me a lot of experience opportunities. I'm not really a person that sits down and searches. I guess having two kids and a wife eliminates a lot of the time to have that possibility. It's really a lot of the time a combination of discovering things in odd ways. I am an avid music listener at all times, I've probably done every single phase of musical enjoyment from every genre. There was a music teacher in high school who said to me that the pleasure in music is finding beauty in all types of music.

VR: When shooting ads, do you try things you can use in your own work or just stick to client needs?

NWR: I really enjoy advertising. I've been very lucky to work with some great projects. I find it a lot of fun. There is, of course, a specific need from the client in terms of what they're looking for, but I've met with a lot of creative people through that process. It's not something I do very often, I've only done it a couple of times. I very much like working in fashion, I find that very inspiring.

VR: When your camera edges towards a darkened doorway and you're verging on horror movie jump scare territory, do you enjoy toying with audience expectations?

NWR: What's great about the language of heightened reality and stretching the reality of horror films is that it's purely based on visual aesthetics. That's a great medium to work within in terms of filming, it's all about emotional impact and you can bend and twist logic as much as you want. It goes deeper than just authenticity. It would be fun someday to do what I would call a teenage horror film. I like those kind of films, I find them very radiant.

VR: Do you mean an '80s teen horror film or a '90s teen horror film? Those can be very different.

NWR: I like all kinds of those kinds of films. Of course, the '80s were more my age of youth, when I was a teenager, but I've certainly seen great films of these types ever since that I find very inspiring. I really like that director who made the original "Saw," James Wan, I think he's a terrific filmmaker. I've seen a couple of his other films and I really enjoyed them.

"Only God Forgives" arrives in theaters and on VOD on Friday, July 19.