“It would be boring if we all just made safe films.” So says Nicolas Winding Refn following the premiere of My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn, shot by Refn’s wife Liv Corfixen during production of Only God Forgives, largely during the couple’s time in Bangkok with glimpses back home in Denmark during post production and finally at the film’s premiere on the Croisette in Cannes. It’s a fascinating look at a filmmaker I’ve personally come to anticipate his every next feature, though I’m not afraid to admit Only God Forgives was a bit of a let down, as it seems it was for Refn… or was it?
The most fascinating aspect of this doc is to lay witness to Refn’s inner turmoil. From the beginning he’s stuck in his own head, looking at Only God Forgives knowing it won’t be as commercial as Drive and questioning how people will react. He’s worried about repeating himself, worried about being known as “the guy that made Drive” while saying, “Yes, but Lars [von Trier] isn’t ‘the guy that made Breaking the Waves‘.” Those around him have no response.
Yet, as Refn doubts himself, and the project, he powers through with passion offering up a fantastic dichotomy. On set he’s a master, he knows what he wants and he knows when something isn’t working. Yet, he returns back to the flat he, his wife and their two children are staying in and conflict arises. Corfixen asks what’s wrong, he seemed so happy on set, and he isn’t afraid to admit he has to appear that way on set, otherwise the cast and crew will also begin to doubt the project as he has.
His ups and downs exemplify his passion for the project, his want to better himself each time out, a goal that appears as artistically dangerous as it can be motivating. Words of wisdom from friend and fellow filmmaker Alejandro Jodoworsky set him at ease for mere moments and yet we see him once post production is completed and he asks his wife, “Do you think it’s childish?” The two go back and forth before a follow-up scene shows Corfixen asking, “Why are you in such a bad mood?” He responds, “I think it’s a bad film.”
I couldn’t help but watch and wonder how many directors go through this same process of self-doubt. I assume most of them do, but I wonder if it’s at all to this extent. “It didn’t really ‘click’,” he says. “I can’t change anything and then you see the final result. And it’s not what I hoped for. I wasted six months of our lives”
You take all this into consideration as Refn sits down for an interview with “Empire” magazine where he’s asked to answer questions such as the pressure he faces making his and star Ryan Gosling‘s follow up to Drive, and you begin to see how difficult it might be to ignore said pressure.
Corfixen’s intimate documentary presents the story with such compassion and caring for its subject and yet you can see where she struggles to be the one Refn can count on for strength and reassurance as she too is also searching for an identity and purpose. Not to mention taking care of the couple’s two young children all day long.
Refn pores over negative reviews of the film following its first screening in Cannes and he says, “That’s when you know you have made great cinema, when half love it and half hate it.” I’m not sure Refn believes that or not, but I keep coming back to that quote I referenced at the opening — “It would be boring if we all just made safe films” — I know he believes that and I hope he goes on believing it just as much as what Corfixen says after Refn tells her Jodoworsky loved Only God Forgives, “So it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks.”
I would probably only correct that quote in one sense, I would say, “It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks.” Refn is a unique voice in cinema and I would hate to see him feel the need to “top” himself, or concern himself with the idea people will only see him as “The Guy that Made Drive.” He’s the guy that made Drive and Bronson, not to mention the Pusher trilogy and Valhalla Rising. While you can tell these films come from the same headspace, they aren’t in any way the same films from one to the next.
No, I’m not saying I’m a fan of all of his work, I find the Pusher films decent and can’t really sit through Valhalla, but Drive and Bronson are damn near perfect and I’m growing increasingly more respectful of attempts from filmmakers such as Only God Forgives. These are films where the filmmakers behind them have tested themselves and the medium, therefore testing us to go along for the ride. I want to continue to hear quotes from Refn on set saying, “Make it dirty, unique, interesting, never-before-seen and violent.” Because once Refn starts making safe films we’ll know we’re in trouble.