Exclusive: Only God Forgives Director Nicolas Refn


Denmark has exported a lot of innovative and inventive filmmakers but few of them have made quite an impact here as Nicolas Winding Refn, mainly due to the degree and level of violence in his movies from his Danish “Pusher” crime trilogy to his portrait of career convict Bronson (starring Tom Hardy) and most recently, Drive, which got his work a lot more attention in the States due to its festival acclaim and the fact it starred Ryan Gosling.

Refn’s new movie Only God Forgives brings him and Gosling to Bangkok, Thailand where Gosling plays Julian, a former kickboxer and current drugdealer whose older brother is murdered out of revenge for a crime he commits. Before Julian can get his own vengeance, his mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, shows up in Thailand ready to settle the score. It turns out that a lot of the deaths surrounding the initial crime have been perpetrated by a local police lieutenant who has taken matters into his own hands in dealing with the city’s crime and prostitution.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Refn earlier this week to discuss the film and his future plans, and as always, it was an interesting interview where we didn’t always know exactly what he was talking about, although we did try to set-up a challenge between Refn and his similarly controversial filmmaking countrymate Lars von Trier.

ComingSoon.net: A few years ago when we spoke about “Valhalla Rising,” I believe you were heading to Bangkok right after that to start scouting and I guess maybe start writing. Is that the case?
Nicolas Refn:
That’s true. Oh yeah, yeah, I remember we talked about it and I was on my way to make “Only God Forgives” because I had got the money to go make the movie. What happened then was that while I was doing preproduction, I was offered “The Dying of the Light,” it was Paul Schrader’s script and it was terrific. I worked on that, but then that didn’t happen, so then as I was departing Los Angeles, the opportunity of doing something with Ryan that led to “Drive” came up. He called me out of the blue, so I gotta do “Drive” knowing that I’d do “Only God Forgives” right after. It was a bit in the same way that I made “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising” because they were done literally back to back.

CS: I remember, yeah.
So with “Drive” and then “God Forgives,” it would be the same kind of scenario.

CS: Had you already been thinking of Ryan to star in “Only God Forgives” before “Drive” came up?
No, what happened was that when we met the last time, after “Valhalla Rising,” I was casting in Thailand and in England. While I was doing “Drive,” I had basically cast the movie and I had another actor to be the protagonist, but I was literally switching airplanes to go to Asia and what happened was after Cannes where “Drive” premiered, it came to July and I was in L.A. promoting the domestic release of “Drive” knowing that in September I would be in Bangkok, but then the actor dropped out of the movie, which is a horrifying experience when your protagonist drops out. I of course was like, “What the hell do I do?” I was with Ryan, and in a way, the experience we had on “Drive” had been terrific, so he just said “I’ll do it” then that was that. I remember I called the other actor’s agent and I said, “Thank you very much for dropping out.”

CS: You’ve always had really interesting “protagonists” and I want to put that word in air quotes, from Bronson to One Eye to Julian and even the driver from “Drive.” They are the best people around a lot of bad people, but they’re also flawed and doing bad things themselves. I’m curious about your interest in that running theme for the characters in your movies.
Yeah, for sure. I think that probably what I’ve come to realize is the resemblance between One-Eye, Driver and the Thai police lieutenant is they’re very similar in certain ways. Then I remembered that actually the first character I thought of was this policeman in Bangkok who believes he is God. And with that, I came up with this mother and son story, which essentially became what the film “Only God Forgives” was just going to be about. But the confrontation between the mother and the son was going to come through this God-like figure. The idea of Julian then became a man who’s chained to the womb of his mother. It’s like his mother has put a spell on him and is therefore in complete control. She devours him in a way, so like he’s a sleepwalker. Then what would the world look like if a man was chained to his mother like in the womb? How would that be portrayed? The act of violence obviously changes and disobedience becomes very dominating. But I knew that the protagonist Julian was going to have the image that would define the whole and set the movie off, and that was this image of a hand, a clenched fist, because the film was thought of as a classic Western, two guys who are not going shoot it out but who are going to fight it out, the sheriff and the troublemaker.

CS: You kind of answered one of my questions. I was going to ask you about the motivations for the police officer. He’s obviously upholding the law, but he’s definitely going above and beyond, so that image of a vigilante police officer with a sword was one of the initial ideas or sees for the movie?
Yeah, it was the idea of what if God walked the Earth? But it’s not God from the New Testament, but it’s God from the Old Testament where God says you not only have to see yourself, but you have to know yourself. That’s a very instinctual world that can happen with cause and effect. The Julian character kicks off the whole movie with this image that’s kind of like my first idea after I had the overall construction of the genre and was going to have to be about this fight film—with the clenched fist, because that on one level is the signature of male violence but at the same time it’s the signature image of female sexuality. The combination of sex and violence is very dominating, it’s a primal instinct. If you were to open your palm, it becomes submission in the ultimate and purest form. If you look at how a lot of people pray with religion, a lot of it is about the open palm. They’re submitting to God, a higher being, through the opening of the palm. So the idea that the movie would start with a man who clenches his fists in a way that’s a definition of sex and violence within that, the whole movie then is about the opening of and submitting to essentially a higher form.

CS: I’ve never actually read one of your screenplays, but your movies are very visual and a lot about the locations and environments. I assume you went to Bangkok before writing this, but can you talk about how descriptive you get about the visuals while writing?
Yeah, I work on index cards, very practical, so I write down things I would like to see, you know, what would arouse me? What would interest me? Then, I send those index cards to an assistant who then types them out without the spelling mistakes. (laugh) Then, I continue that process until I have enough seeds that I can see this story within them. Then, I try and go on from there and build it up into a finished screenplay that I then use as a blueprint to make the movie because, as you know, shooting in chronological order makes it a very organic process, a bit like painting an image. It becomes not so much a brochure or a manual, but it becomes more specific beats that emotionally I’m interested to see where it comes from. Then, based on the fact that I find more pleasure in the act of creating than the actual act of seeing. So when my films are done, I never watch them again.

CS: Yeah, I heard about that.
I have had to do it twice because at Cannes, they require you to sit through it, but also because I have no interest. It doesn’t excite me. It’s just now what it is. It’s like you can say I climaxed and I just want to now indulge in something else.

CS: It makes sense to me as a writer. When I write something, once it’s posted, I rarely read it again, so I totally understand that.
It’s a way out of your system. The act of the process is what it’s all about. The product is a mechanical device that’s there for audiences to now travel with, whether they wish to or not.

CS: Going back to the visuals, you put a lot of iconic shots in the movie, things we’ve seen in other movies like the band of light over the eyes. Can you talk about how you’re influenced by other movies and how you wanted to make these your own visual ideas, which were things that people were familiar with, people who enjoy genre movies, it’s very familiar with them?
I think it’s natural that you’re part of an evolution, where you are inspired by what you experience at a certain age that travels with you. You can also be inspired by things that happened to you at different times, at different places, but imprints on your brain. So it’s not that I have a specific agenda, it just becomes, what would I like to see? Specifically about the scene with the flashing of the eyes which is part of the process of taking his senses away. He starts with the sight and then your hearing, because those are two basic elements in terms of how we adjust to the world. Then he was going to cut out his tongue and his sense of taste, which is less dominating than his sight and hearing. That’s part of why he lives things that are so primal, and by eliminating that God, he potentially takes away the humanity.

CS: I guess you filmed this movie a while ago if you shot it right after “Drive,” so have you started developing your next movie? Will that be the Miami sex thriller with Carey Mulligan?
I’d kind of got really into this TV show that I’m going to do, it’s called “Barbarella,” so I’m spending a lot of time working on that. Of course, I have other films that I would like to make. I thought it would be fun to do a horror film now to see what that would be like.

CS: A straight horror film?
Yeah, that could be interesting, but in this industry, you want to be making plans, but my plans constantly changes from day to day. I’m actually releasing this book. I have a poster collection, I’m a collector of films I’ve never heard of–it’s like a thousand posters and I’ve decided that now in this specific state I would produce a book of movies that most people had never heard of. It’s things like that, those are the things that stick out. That takes a lot of my time, so there are many things in life that I realize that I would like to do, most likely I will never be able to do, but I’m going to die trying.

CS: You’re not going to pull a Steven Soderbergh and turn your back on filmmaking to do other things, are you?
I don’t want to. I doubt it. I very much doubt it.

CS: Violence is the other underlying central theme of your movies, so do you ever see yourself doing a movie with no violence?
I would love to do one with no violence, love it. I just don’t know what it’s going to be yet. Maybe somebody has to give me a specific assignment. That’s why I like doing… I’ve been doing a few ads, commercials, I’ve been shooting stuff. What’s really great about that is that they give you an assignment and then a lot of creative freedom and you kind of involve yourself. I’ve really begun to like that a lot. I don’t do a lot, but I’ve had some fun experiences, so there are other avenues, but I would love to do a feature film. I’d like to do an Albanian family kind of movie.

CS: There you go. You know, Lars von Trier did “The Five Obstructions?” Maybe for yours, you’d have to do a movie with no violence whatsoever.
Right, I will do a “The Five Obstructions” with him, where he can not degrade women. That would be a fun exercise.

CS: I wish he’d do more of those. They’re such a great exercise and I feel like every filmmaker needs to do that with each other, to kind of set rules to take them out of their comfort zone.
That’s exactly what I do, is that every time I make a movie I try truly to erase all memory of what worked on it, so the insecurity of how it’s going to work out, you have to play to your strengths, so the act of not repeating yourself becomes a big part of the deconstruction. We live in a society where we all want to be secure, and security is becoming more and more of the norm. The fear of uncertainty is much more resonant in our everyday lives, where art, that’s actually what inspires the most. I always say it’s more interesting asking not what it is, but ask what it’s not.

CS: Now for a while you were talking about doing a Wonder Woman movie or “Logan’s Run.” Do you ever perceive yourself doing a big studio movie at this point or was that something you were interested in years ago, but not so much interested in now?
I would love to do a huge $100 million studio film one day. I just have to make sure that the tradeoff is worth it, but yeah, I’m very much looking forward to that opportunity but when it presents itself, I’d have to know which one would be the right version.

CS: That’s the tradeoff because the more money you get to make your movie, it’s easier to make the movie, but it’s also harder on a creative level, I’m sure.
It’s just the basics of if you make more expensive films, then you need to make a certain kind of film. I like the freedom of not being bound by that, for now. But who knows? Maybe sometimes it’ll be good for me to be slapped around a little.

Only God Forgives opens everywhere on Friday, July 19.

(Photo source: Lia Toby/WENN.com)