If you’re from England, you probably already know the name Charlie Bronson. No, not the famous actor of Death Wish but the criminal born Michael Gordon Peterson, who built his reputation in the British penal system by taking guards hostage then duking it out with all comers in brutal fights that helped him earn the lofty title of “Britain’s most famous criminal.”
Bronson (the movie) is the remarkable new film from Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish filmmaker behind The Pusher Trilogy, and it’s quite a departure in terms of being a much more visual and visceral experience even than his ultra-violent look at Copenhagen’s drug underground. Channeling the sensibilities of Stanley Kubrick circa A Clockwork Orange, Refn tells Bronson’s story in an unconventional way, mixing sudden shocking violence with gorgeous colorful visuals and majestic classical music. And The Pet Shop Boys. Yes, after seeing Bronson it’s doubtful you’ll ever be able to appreciate “It’s a Sin” in quite the same way.
And yet the driving force of Refn’s latest is 32-year-old actor Tom Hardy, best known as Praetor Shinzon from Star Trek: Nemesis, but also a mainstay of British crime films like Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake and Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla. None of those roles would seem like any sort of precursor for the boisterous performance he gives as Charlie Bronson, spending much of the movie naked and covered in various substances as he fights with prison guards, but also showing his flair for the theatrical and the arts, which is as important to him as starting fights with anyone who looks at him wrong.
It’s certainly one of the most unforgettable performances you’re likely to see this year – think Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood or Gangs of New York (Charlie even has the same distinctive moustache!) meets Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight and you get the idea of the sheer insanity displayed on screen in Hardy’s version of Charlie.
Earlier this year, ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Refn at the Sundance Film Festival where his new movie premiered, the combination of jetlag, partying and the dry air of Park City having left the filmmaker with a hoarse whisper of a voice, but we got through it, learning a few interesting things about where he was coming from when he decided to kick the biopic genre in the teeth. (We also briefly discussed Refn’s next movie Valhalla Rising, which has since premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.)
As a special treat to prepare you for that interview, ComingSoon.net also has an exclusive Red Band clip of Mr. Hardy as Bronson during one of his earliest paid fights, which you can watch below:
ComingSoon.net: We spoke a few years ago when “The Pusher Trilogy” was released, but this is a strange movie because you didn’t write the original script but got it from a producer…
Nicolas Refn: And then I rewrote it. It was not my original idea.
CS: Did he just think you’d be right for this after seeing “Pusher”?
Refn: Actually, the producer is called Rupert Preston and he’s one of the owners of Vertigo, who produced the film, but Rupert has released all my films in the UK, so we worked together for like 12 years. We’re very good friends. He said, “I have this script called Bronson and it’s about Britain’s most violent prisoner and I think it would be something you’d be interested in.” I said that I really didn’t want to do a movie about violent men, done that, but one of my favorite actors is Charles Bronson, so it was really just curiosity. It was a fairly generic biopic, it wasn’t really that interesting. Structurally, it was kind of energetic, but I was like, “Let’s wait and see what happens” because in this business, you always have to keep all your options open. Now I was working on “Valhalla Rising,” trying to get that off the ground because that was taking a long time.
CS: That was something you’d been working on for many years?
Refn: Yes, we just shot it, and we’re editing it now. At the same time, I was talking to someone about doing a movie in L.A. I really wanted to do a proper Hollywood movie. My wife and I were ready to go. My agent had gotten a script that they wanted to do something with me so I was developing it, and it was taking its time of course, and then “Valhalla” fell into place financially, and I had a start date that I couldn’t get out of because it is with Wild Bunch, so I said that I couldn’t go beyond a certain point because “Valhalla” is going to begin. This other movie didn’t materialize and I called and said, “I’ve been thinking so much about Bronson, so I think I really want to do it, but I can only do it right before ‘Valhalla’ so I have a very small time slot.” I went away and rewrote the script. What got me interested is that I read his biography and in the biography, it talks about how he always wanted to be in prison, so that’s kind of interesting actually. Rather than making a movie about trying to get out of prison or try to justify why you’re in prison, which was the original material, I said, “Why don’t we make a movie about a guy trying to stay in prison? And every time they wanted to release him, he did something crazy to stay in?”
CS: We do see that in real life though… convicts who’ve spent a lot of time in prison, because they get used to life inside and they can barely survive in the real world.
Refn: Yeah, the reason why they want to stay in prison has nothing to do with the sensational, but it’s because in prison, he was famous.
CS: You got this from his book?
Refn: No, out of his bio, and my interpretation, so that’s when I took artistic liberty and when I got those two things in place, I went away and rewrote the script, and then we started shooting.
CS: As far as Tom, I’ve seen pictures of him, and he looks very different, and he’s a rather small guy.
Refn: He looks like Freddie Mercury of Queen.
CS: Hey, maybe that’s someone he can play next, since he also has a distinctive moustache. So how did you end up with the idea of having him play the role? Did he do an audition that blew you away? How did you know he could do this?
Refn: Before I was attached, he was involved. The script, various filmmakers had been trying to make it for years in England, and it had gone to various actors. Tom Hardy had been attached, but when I got involved, I had to clear my head of everything from the pastthat was one of the conditions – like getting rid of the writer and everything like that. We started from scratch. I met with Jason Statham and Guy Pearce about doing it, and that didn’t happen, thank God, even though I really liked (both of them) as actors. I really liked Jason Statham and I really want to do a movie with him. I think me and him could make a really good movie. I’ll find the acting. I’ll give him what’s actually inside of him, I’ll drag it out of him.
CS: It’s funny because Jason is almost to England what Mads is to Denmark.
Refn: You’re right. I’ve now done so many movies with Mads now, so I really connected with Jason and I was actually quite sad he couldn’t make it. I looked at every other young actor in England, but it just became so obvious that Tom was just the perfect choice, and that was kind of weird, because I hadn’t originally chosen him. For me, it was a weird situation, but my gut instinct was “Hang on, something tells me that he’s just the perfect choice.”
CS: Did he have a screen test or something on film you could see?
Refn: That didn’t really interest me, but the casting director who was doing “Bronson” was also doing “Valhalla Rising,” a guy called Des Hamilton. He said to me, “Look, I’m telling you. I know you didn’t find him originally but Tom Hardy is the guy. Other guys could do it, but Tom Hardy will give you everything you’re looking for,” and I knew what I was looking for, so I said, “Okay, let’s do it, let’s go with him,” and he turned out to be the perfect choice.
CS: It’s amazing that a casting director would be that adamant to stand up to the director of the film. You mentioned having taken some artistic license with Charlie’s story, but as far as some of the events that happened in prisonthe fights and hostage situations – how much of the facts did you want to retain?
Refn: Well, it’s fairly accurate what happened in his life, but of course, once you get out of prison, when he’s released for 69 days… everything is true. He met Allison and had an affair with her and all those things. I took a little more animosity of who the people were but that’s why I think my film is not a biopic of Michael Peterson. My film is a movie about a man named Michael Peterson transforming himself into Charlie Bronson, so my film is about fame and the need to be famous and the consequence of fame.
CS: I wanted to ask about the look of the movie, because it’s very different from the “Pusher” movies. It’s very cinematic and I can’t even describe it, but the colors and camera angles you used, it’s all very unconventional. Can you talk about how you came up with that look?
Refn: I stole everything from Kenneth Anger. He’s like a poetic poet, using film as his canvas, so that’s how I approached it. I did storyboarding each morning and I had Larry Smith to light it, which was a great gift. Larry is a brilliant cinematographer, and I just shot Tom’s body. It was all about how to shoot Tom’s body. ‘Cause he’s naked in 60 percent of the movie.
CS: Was that just a known thing that when the real Charlie Bronson started fighting, that’s something he did?
Refn: Smearing his body in jam or shoe polish and doing crazy stuff in prison, so a lot of that is actually true. He’s not a fighter, he’s an artist.
CS: You mentioned the “Eastern Promises” comparison at the Q ‘n’ A and of course, for everyone who saw Cronenberg’s movie, that was a scene that stuck out. Do you think they got that from Charlie Bronson?
Refn: I don’t know. Julian Spencer who choreographed the stunts told me that now after “Eastern Promises” and Charlie Bronson, he’s known as the nude stunt coordinator, that’s his specialty now.
CS: But he’s only done that with guys. Think how popular his work would be if he had naked women fighting.
Refn: That would be a different kind of movie. All British males, they’ve all heard of Charlie Bronson.
CS: I wonder if he brought some of that knowledge of Bronson to Cronenberg’s movie and if that influenced the sauna fight.
Refn: I don’t know even know that. Especially because no one outside of Britain knows who Charlie Bronson is. I didn’t know who he was, but he appeals to a certain kind of man, like hooligans and gangsters.
CS: I also wanted to ask about the music. I’m sure others have brought it up but having this brutal violence depicted so beautifully with this gorgeous classical music, might immediately remind one of Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” Was that an influence on you?
Refn: Well, the classical music, in the beginning, I was like, “Well I don’t want to do another fight scene where you play rock ‘n’ roll.” I’ve done that too much, and also the fight scenes were not just fight scenes, they were a character description of Charlie Bronson, so it was very important. There was not just fighting but it was the way that Charlie saw himself, so I sat with the editor and I had him put on a lot of classical music to emphasize that Charlie saw his life as an opera, bigger than life, so the classical music heightened the beauty of how Charlie sees his fights. Charlie doesn’t see fighting as ugly, he sees it as poetry. Using classical music enhanced that emotion ’cause filmmaking is an artform, and it enhances emotion, like music enhances rhythm and enhances emotions. Classical music enhances our emotions. It uses images of beauty.
CS: Then you counterpoint that with the likes of New Order and Pet Shop Boys.
Refn: Originally, I wanted to play a lot of disco. The way that I work is that as soon as I come up with an idea, first thing I do before I write a script or anything, I try to find a piece of music that would represent the movie, so for example, on “Pusher 2,” I would just everyday for many months making the movie, I would listen to Iron Maiden or ’80s heavy metal like Judas Priest. On “Pusher 3,” I would listen to a lot of Neil Diamond. When I did “Fear X,” Eno was an obvious choice, and then later on, he composed the music as well. On “Bronson,” while I was rewriting it and shooting it, during going to the set in the morning, I would listen to Pet Shop Boys constantly. I was driving everybody insane by just playing Pet Shop Boys really loud, but it added a sense of a new approach, so it made the film very feminine. The movie “Bronson” is a very feminine movie. He was very masculine, but it’s extremely feminine. It’s made almost like designing a doll, so all the disco music and the homo-eroticism, you can’t make a prison movie and not touch upon sexuality, but Charlie is a heterosexual man, but he has chosen to live in prison where you don’t get heterosexual sex. Now why would you choose God’s greatest pleasure, why would you consciously decide, “I don’t want to f*ck women.” So for me to describe that I would make every character around him have a homosexual flamboyantness to them, not sexually aggressive, but campy to show that Charlie’s completely indifferent to sexuality. He has decided that sex is not as important as what he has chosen in life.
CS: He’s probably asexual, which is not something we really see much in movies, but it is out there.
Refn: So by listening to the Pet Shop Boys and Gloria Gaynor, I approached it very feminine, rather than masculine.
CS: I’m not sure how many women would like this movie though. I don’t know if you noticed but there were very few in the audience at the premiere.
Refn: A lot of women actually get high on it because Charlie is such a little child in a way.
CS: The scene where you had the patients at the asylum dancing to “It’s a Sin,” was that an idea you had very early on?
Refn: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
CS: Obviously, Charlie hasn’t seen the movie and you probably don’t know if he’ll ever have a chance to see the movie. If he ever had that chance, would you want to be anywhere near him afterward?
Refn: I think he’s going to love it, because it’s all about him. And I don’t judge him, and that’s very important.
CS: Would you want to meet him or talk to him or have any interaction whatsoever?
Refn: Sure! “What’s up, mate?”
CS: What’s the general principle behind “Valhalla Rising”? You’re working with Mads Mikkelson again.
Refn: It’s about the Vikings discovering America. It’s set in the 1100s.
CS: Is that going to be a very different movie from this in terms of people not being able to connect the two?
Refn: I shot the two movies and edited back-to-back, and “Bronson” to “Valhalla” is very different. “Valhalla Rising” is a science fiction movie.
CS: It’s funny cause there haven’t been that many Viking movies…
Refn: There’s a lot. It’s a cursed genre. See, I don’t like Vikings. I have no interest in them, but I think it’s very important that when you make a movie, you never try to repeat yourself. You’re always trying something different. You may not succeed, but what is good art anyway? The chief enemy of creativity is safety. If you do the same movies over and over… you’re just repeating yourself. My biggest fear is to repeat myself, so I always choose subjects or things that are so different from what I’ve done before but of course, I make films the way I make films. I can’t take that away from me, so I try to choose subject matters that are very diverse.
CS: You said you didn’t like Viking stories, so is that one of the reasons you decided to do one?
Refn: How do you make something you have no interest in?
CS: Some of the best movies have come out of that. At one point, was someone going to try to do an American version of “Pusher”?
Refn: I was talking to Fox about doing it as a TV series, but I don’t know what happened to it, but I’m probably doing two more in that kind of genre, all in English, set in Puerto Rico and Bangkok. I think this year, the Bollywood remake of “Pusher” is premiering.
CS: Having said that you don’t like repeating yourself, you did go back to “Pusher” to do the two more movies, which I remember you didn’t like doing.
Refn: I know, but it opened up a lot of possibilities.
CS: So you think an FX series wouldn’t happen then?
Refn: I think it should. I’ll come over and set it up, structure it and direct the pilot.
Bronson opens in New York on Friday, October 9, and then in L.A. on October 16.