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Ask a dozen entertainment journalists what's the best way to get a good interview and they will give you a dozen different answers. But the single most important thing for me to remember is make sure you talk less than the person that you're interviewing. Typically they don't want your opinion about why a character did this or the filmmaker did that, and they almost never want to know what you thought of the movie as a whole, unless that reaction was 100 percent positive. So when I sat down to transcribe my interview with writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose latest film Valhalla Rising was released in Los Angeles this week, I was discouraged to discover that I seemed to spend at least as much time talking as listening.
Thankfully, we were able to have a long and in-depth discussion of his work and his career, starting with Valhalla but soon moving on to his upcoming projects and the process of developing each film in the context of his previous ones. Not unlike his latest film, Refn is a model of still confidence, measurement and thought that makes his point clearly and compellingly. And even if I occasionally offered more explanation or opinion than was necessary, I was pleased that the only reason our interaction wasn't a good interview was because it was in fact a great conversation.
Cinematical: When I watched Valhalla Rising last night and the thing that kind of immediately jumped out to me as I was watching it was the sort of religious undertones of the story. Just to get started, and not to throw down too big a gauntlet, but do you see this movie as sort of a nihilist movie? Do you see it as something that's deeply religious? How did you sort of conceive this story in the context of the religious themes that are at least vaguely explored in the movie?
Nicolas Winding Refn: I think this film is about faith, essentially, and that's what's beyond religion. I think that one of the things that One Eye does as a creation is that he brings people with religion to their understanding of what religion is to them. And then in the film, when they're climbing the mountain, which is very symbolic, I guess, the priest confesses to One Eye why he, why he wanted to go to Jerusalem in the first place. Because the way that it would work was that if you had sins, it would be absorbed if you died in battle. He had gone to Jerusalem because he was not there when his sons died in battle, so he would die with his sin and he thought that if he went there, that would be absorbed.
So, it goes beyond religion and it's about faith, essentially. There is part of the movie which is about religion, especially about the general and him wanting to use God as a reason to conquer, which is nothing new to this country. But it is apparent when you bring religion up, there is a sense of fanaticism. But it doesn't mean that it's in any way bad, but it's part of evolution when, you know, the film takes place in the 1100's, when Christianity was spreading through the north and paganism was, you know, through all the fringes of the earth. Because Christianity was order and they had never, you know, pagans were never missionaries, they never forced themselves on others in terms of religion. And when Christianity came, there came a kind of order, but the way they would, you know, covert was either through war or through buying, they would buy people, or they would fuse religions. You know, like Christianity, it teaches a soul is a warrior who died in battle to the Vikings, because it fused with what they had, you know? So, you know, in that sense, it became very important to the whole element of it.
Cinematical: How did you want to sort of invest the film with those themes? You have a very interesting dynamic that holds the film together which is this idea of not only people having faith, but then sort of questioning it. One Eye is sort of a blank slate, and then you have the pagans and the Christians. But throughout the film, these sort of events occur, like, for example, like them finding fresh water, and different things like that could support a non-religious interpretation of those events. Was that something that you wanted sort of just to exist in the storytelling? Or how did that sort of get integrated into the film?
Refn: Well, you can kind of say through the movie, One Eye travels in four steps. You know, he starts as a myth, when he's basically enslaved, [and] the only thing they know about him is that he doesn't belong to anybody for more than five years. And when he escapes from being an animal, you know, primal, he becomes a warrior. And then he becomes god, because everyone believes that what he does is of some godly belief. He [becomes] a substitute, you know, they make him a god, because he does things that for them live up to that interpretation, but for him, it could be just he found fresh water because they accidentally sail into a river from the ocean, which would be accurate. But for them, they were at a time which superstition was very high because Christianity and paganism were being embedded into each other. To jell with people that are one side, either religion, are highly superstitious. And then he becomes man at the end, One Eye, when he sacrifices himself. And of course, that draws parallels to a certain person in our history (laughs). But it's inevitable because he becomes man. You know, he starts off as a creature and he becomes man at the end.
Cinematical: As a filmmaker, is it easier or more difficult to create a character where he is a blank slate, where he is primarily defined through the interpretation of his behavior by other characters? I know you've worked with Mads before, but, did you have to encourage him to resist the impulse to go, "I'm going to create a back story for him." Or was it easy to come in, to have this character from the outset, who had nothing sort of written on him except for obviously his physicality and then sort of imbue him with substance through the storytelling?
Refn: Well, it's a very good question because this film takes me and Mads' relationship to new heights. It's a good thing we know each other very well and we've worked together because it was very much about trust, in terms that when Mads realized that he had no voice, only one eye, and now he had past or present because he was more like a monolith that mirrors everyone else, to write that was kind of challenging because you're used to having the protagonist lead the story. But here, the protagonist's journey is the undercurrent of the film, but what draws the movie physically forward was the people around him. So just writing that was a real exercise of how do you substitute the main thrust of the film to something else and yet still sustain every scene around One Eye?
From an actor's point of view, I took everything away from him that he could ever use, so for him, it was a great search of how do you play this because, when you take a voice away from an actor, they use their body, of course, but with anything else, you can very quickly overact physically. But when you are no longer human, anything that was human behavior didn't work. So we had to go beyond human behavior and then that, I think, was of course, a very interesting kind of arena for me and him to be stuck in, especially in Scotland.
Cinematical: How did you sort of determine the structure of the film in the story and then how difficult or easy was it to sort of discover the rhythm of the storytelling? Because it's sort of non-verbal and it is directed by some of the supporting characters more so than what you would consider to be the leading man. For example, how easy was it to know, well, we need five or six scenes on the boat, and then to know exactly what pieces of information you needed for each one of them? And then how difficult was it to figure out how long you could go in terms of exploring that environment without sort of exasperating the audience?
Refn: Well, I think the challenge first lied in the fact that the whole movie was almost thought of us that, "God, wouldn't it be great to do one of those movies that you would show in the '70's at midnight?" You know, a drug film, not where you take drugs and watch the movie, but where the movie becomes the drug. And coming from Bronson, which was all about speed and ferocious behavior, to something that's completely the opposite was good because it forced me to do something completely different.
The way to describe it was that if you were to look at the stars at night and lie down, it's a very painful experience, it was almost agitation because you were just lying down and looking up at the sky. Sure, you relax for 10, 20 minutes, but then it starts to get very physical, annoying, tension almost. But if you go beyond that stage, almost into meditation and you concentrate what's beyond the stars, which, because stars are scientific, you can get to that, with a spacecraft, eventually, certainly you can do that even in the movies and in fiction. But what's interesting is the black void beyond it. And the only thing you can, the way you travel there is, is actually, even though it's outwards, you travel inwards. So it's about slowing your heart rate to the extent where it becomes about movement and the movie takes you and you can't take the movie. You can try to control that movie, which we're used to, because we're used to controlling our lives, but you'll be very disappointed. But if you are to let yourself go, it's certainly meant to be traveling into outer space.
In terms of rhythm, I shot the whole movie intentionally in slow motion. So originally the whole film was shot in slow motion, but when I put that together, it became too much, it became too apparent for the rhythm to be slow. So I speeded everything up again to the original pace, because I felt that I was making it too clean, too predictable. And then I watched Stalker, a couple weeks before I started shooting, and that certainly cemented how I wanted to make the movie.
Cinematical: You mention Stalker, but my colleague joked that if Bronson was your Kubrick movie, this was your Malick movie. Do you think consciously about integrating or interpolating your influences into your films, or do you tend to sort of try to keep your vision as a filmmaker pretty separate from the things that you either like or that people might assume would be an influence for a film?
Refn: I would say that we all steal, and the ones who say they don't are lying, because that's what you do. Everyone stole. Seriously, it's part of evolution, the video arts form is to take something that's there and create the next thing that's your own. I would say that there's much more Tarkovsky than there is intently than Terrence Malick. But it all depends what people want to read into it. Sometimes people read into something because it has to remind you of something else in order for them to relate to it. And you can read and see parallels to anything if you look at something. Sometimes it's more difficult to look at it individually, by itself. But at the same time, Valhalla Rising is very much a movie that's a fusion of what I grew up with. Anything that I grew up with, watching, from Snake Plissken in Escape From New York to Tarkovsky to spaghetti westerns that I've always liked. It was the same thing.
Cinematical: Audiences are obviously going to draw their own conclusions about your work. But do you want them to understand the movie the way that you intended, or are you more liberal about allowing viewers their interpretation of it?
Refn: I am totally more interested in what other people think than what I think. It is more exciting to me, other people's opinions than to preach my own. I don't make political movies, or at least I don't set out to make political films. I don't have an agenda that I want to get across. There may be some, you know, philosophical arenas that I think are interesting to talk about, but I am more interested in what you think than what I think.
Cinematical: I understand that you were working on this to some extent, even before you did Bronson. But it seems like given how successful that film was at sort of penetrating the American market and really getting some critical notice, that this will seem like an even sharper contrast to those people who were fans of that film. But do you feel like this serves as a suitable companion piece in the sense that the combination maybe of these two sort of articulates the directions that you want to go in your career?
Refn: I think that I don't like to be boxed and I don't like to be controlled. So after I'd done the Pusher trilogy, which was my first major awareness in this country, everybody thought that that's what [my ambition] was. And when I did Bronson, everybody said, "Well, okay, that's what it is." And so, when you go into Valhalla it was a natural evolution, just personally going from one film to the other - it was easy to be so diverse - and then the obvious element would be to go and do a film in Hollywood. So if people think they're getting one thing, I will always try to give them something else. And it comes maybe from a fear of repeating myself, or a fear of doing the obvious. Not that that's particularly bad, but I'm more interested in the game sometimes.
This is very much a film that I made because that's how I thought it should be, and I will make another movie and that will be different from that. And then I will hopefully make another one that will be even more different from that. Whether that's good or bad, I don't think about it like that. I think more that being able to do what I would like to do, is probably the most pleasurable part of it.
Cinematical: Well, then would it be fair to say that you think more creatively than strategically in terms of where your career can go in terms of what opportunities that you have? Or do you have to consider that to some extent, or that no matter what your creativity is telling you to do, something might not be the best decision at this point in your career?
Refn: I think the only thing that strategically continues in the back of my mind, which is a valuable lesson that I learned on Fear X, the first movie produced in this country that I made, was don't ever make a movie that's too expensive for it to make its money back. And that's basically how I look upon it. I've been lucky enough to do the films I want to make, I've always just made sure that they were made with a budget range, which meant everybody walked away happy. And of course, whatever I do, I keep that in the back of my head, because money is power and the ones who don't think that, will very quickly learn that it is.
Cinematical: Well, what sort of, you know, creative energy did working on something, going from Bronson to Valhalla Rising, what sort of momentum does that give you when you move on to do something like Only God Forgives, which seems to have elements of both of those movies, but obviously is going in a different sort of direction thematically.
Refn: Well, it's what I call, it's my fantasy movies. It's the movie that I write, produce, and direct, and control as almost, it's what I need to make in order to go out and have affairs with Hollywood. You know, it's what I can always return to and the pleasure is still pure because it's an outpour of everything that's inside of me without having to think strategically always.
So I will always walk in Europe and out of Europe, but I'm also enjoying it right now in Los Angeles. I mean, talk to me in five months and I'll maybe tell you something completely different. I hope I don't! I hope I don't. But, you never know in this industry. And, you know, even though I'm here and enjoying it, I'm also looking forward going to Bangkok. But having that very happy situation maybe also elevates what I make out here, because when you're not dependent on something, you sometimes tend to do more bolder choices. Do you know what I mean?
Cinematical: You mean you feel empowered to take more risks?
Refn: Yeah. Because, you know, we're always afraid in this industry, what if you can't get your next movie made? So I've always made films with the notion, well, if this is going to be my last movie, at least I was able to make it the way I wanted to. Up to this date, I've been able to survive like that, but I've also, you know, said, you need to find a formula that makes you do that possibility. And so the desire to come here and do films is satisfying, but it also helps because I have what I have as well. I have something that I'm doing right after that I'm looking forward to. But it goes, also gives me the energy to want to make the best possible movie I can out here.
Cinematical: Well, how far along are you on Only God Forgives? Do you have a cast secured at this point or are you still in sort of the conceptualization stage?
Refn: Only God Forgives is written and it started, early pre-production about five weeks ago in Bangkok and now I'm in Los Angeles preparing Drive with Ryan Gosling that starts shooting September 20th and I will basically doing Drive and Only God Forgives back to back like I did Bronson and Valhalla Rising. And I like that. I guess the best way for me to describe that process is like having sex with two girls at the same time. It's double the fun but double the work. But you can only be fun, it's just more fun than you can possibly have.
Cinematical: One of the things about Bronson that is so amazing is that Tom Hardy had been around for more than ten years working, but it was the way that he was directed and the opportunity he had in that movie that expanded his opportunities as an actor. Have you found that helping him indirectly availed you of these, of different opportunities? Or that there is maybe pressure for you now to do for someone what you did for Tom in that movie?
Refn: I think a lot of people, you know, especially out here in Los Angeles, have a tendency to look at something and then ask you to do the same - which is understandable. Actually, the only thing that's the case with Ryan Gosling is he's certainly a very capable person with his own abilities. But I'm sure that there is a [sense that] when you see something that other people like, you want to be part of what they do next. I think that is a natural evolution. If [someone were to say, "Do for me what you did for Tom Hardy," I would say, "I can't do that, because you're not Tom Hardy. I can do something else for you, but that means you have to put your trust in me." And essentially that's really what it comes down to. And, you know, people that are willing to do that are, of course, people that are very capable of what they do, and understand the potential of what it comes down to.
You know, I've discovered a lot of people like the results, what they see, but they don't necessarily like how you get there. And that usually is what drives people who come up to me and say, "I want you to do my next film, I really want to work with you," and when I line up the conditions of "Okay, well, this is how we should do it," that's when you really get to see people crouch in fear. And then when we get the agents and managers involved, it gets really, really, revealing about are they sincere.
Cinematical: When I talked to you for Bronson, you talked about working on the Jekyll and Hyde movie and I know in past interviews you had discussions about wanting to do stuff like Wonder Woman. Is there a danger in talking about projects that you want to do before they reach some level of confirmation? Or does that sort of put a certain kind of energy out in the universe, or however you want to describe it, that gives you further impetus for them to come to fruition?
Refn: I think it can depend on who you are and then what you do and what you want to do with it. Certainly to Wonder Woman came out of someone just asking me what I would like to do, or there was something I really wanted to do and being very nice, well brought up Scandinavian, I answered, and it got on tape or something and six seconds later it was all over the internet. And you can't stop that and you shouldn't try to. I mean, if I don't get to make the movie, I'll make something else that has the same basic idea why I wanted to make Wonder Woman. But it would be great to make it, I certainly feel that I could make it very well. But it was more about just doing it and not really so much about what's going to happen. And if it does great, if it doesn't, you know, I've got a lot of stuff on my, slate to get downloaded.
Cinematical: Well, I really appreciate getting the chance to talk to you. Thank you so much for your time.
Refn: Well, I'll talk to you next one. Don't forget to ask me in five months what I thought it was like working in Hollywood.