Interview: Nicolas Winding Refn on Violent Men, Valhalla and Pretty Woman

Nicolas Winding Refn Valhalla Rising

To say Nicolas Winding Refn is interesting would be a major understatement. Refn oozes with ambiguity, blending poignancy and a sense of wackiness. I’d be lying if I said I could take in everything he was saying, but like his films, the more you think about what he’s trying to get across the more you understand. Refn is unlike any other director out there in terms of the films he makes and the way he describes them.

Refn is currently out promoting his latest and best film yet, Valhalla Rising. It’s a change of pace from his previous cult hit Bronson, but that’s what he’s interested in. Refn never wants to repeat himself and he even said he’d go as far as making a romantic comedy to a musical to remain unpredictable. While Refn and I mostly talked about his genre bending Viking film, we did dive into the diversity of his films, the reoccurring themes of his work, and Refn even discussed why Pretty Woman (yes, the Julia Roberts prostitute romance romp) is the darkest film he’s ever seen. So yes, Refn had plenty of interesting things to say.

Note: Apologies for the slight choppy nature of this interview. My recorder faded in and out quite a bit so not all of the interview is here.

Valhalla Rising really is a collage of different genres from a western, to a samurai film, to even an action film, but how exactly would you describe it?

Valhalla Rising is a fusion of my upbringing, basically. Everything I grew up loving and wanted to make a film of. There’s the samurai, there’s the western, there’s the spaghetti western, there’s a sci-fi movie, a drug movie, there’s Snake Plissken, there’s Trakovsky, Herzog, Kubrick, and Malick. It’s just one big fusion of everything I grew up on.

You’ve said before how films take on a life of their own. How does Valhalla Rising differ from how you originally envisioned it?

I think that the ambitions, thematically, the film grew so much from what I originally thought. I originally thought I was going to make a full-on action movie the way I did the Pusher movies: all handheld, gritty, and in-your-face Viking stuff. As it progressed, it really was what I wanted to make. I thought I wanted to make that, but thank god I didn’t.

Does that happen when you’re writing the script or throughout the whole process?

No. It happens from my original idea to script to when we start shooting. Everything has an influence. Also, because I shoot in chronological order, it’s sort of a normal evolution.

That must be a pretty big benefit.

Yeah. It’s like Bronson became an autobiography of my own life because of that. So automatically it’s a different kind of approach to things. That’s also why after Valhalla Rising I felt, “Well, probably now it’s time to do a film in Hollywood and to do something so completely different than that movie.”

With Valhalla Rising, you also said you really wanted to trust your instincts instead of working in conventional terms. Is that your first time doing that, or have you done that as well on your past films?

I think I do that all the time, but it’s just something I say every time (laughs).

[Laughs] Could you say why you find that more beneficial over, say, always sticking with a plan?

It’s a preference, really. Certain people like to plan out everything in advance, and I guess I was more into that when I was younger. For me, I’m more interested in the process of that process than anything else. I like to take things as they come. In a way, through that, you learn or you figure out…I would say why you’re not doing it differently. So whatever turns out to be the way you do it in the end is the right way. I always thought, “I don’t know what I want, but that I just know what I don’t want.”

Like BronsonValhalla Rising really has a heightened reality where it becomes very surreal. Why does that interest you more than say straight realism now?

Well, I’d say the Pusher trilogy was all about being real and, to the extent, where I was casting real gangsters almost playing themselves. That worked very well for those kind of films and certainly for that. Just like how they were shot all handheld blah, blah, blah. The reason is I’ve always wanted to try different kinds of languages and it just speaks to me more. Also, I just like to do different kinds of films.

And what about men of violence? 

Yeah, I know. That’s what my mother always says…

Interview continues on the next page…

All you really need to know about Jack is his favorite movies are: The Last Detail, Rumble Fish, Sunset Boulevard, The Truman Show, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Verdict, Closer, Shadow of a Doubt, The Long Goodbye, Spider-Man 2, Jaws, Adaptation, Get Carter, The Last Days of Disco, Carnal Knowledge, Almost Famous, Ed Wood, Ace in the Hole, Barton Fink, and L.A. Confidential.

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