Art is an Act of Violence: Refn Talks ‘Bronson’ and Transformations

By  · Published on October 10th, 2009

After three weeks, I’m still trying to figure out Bronson. It’s moving, disjointed, non-traditional, and strangely satisfying. Plus, it has a guy fighting in the nude a lot. Copious amounts of nude fighting going on there.

And after speaking with the director, Nicolas Winding Refn, I’m still trying to figure him out. Here is a man lost in the ethereal skies of art who doesn’t do drugs because his wife won’t let him. Here’s a man who celebrates violence and wants to make a romantic comedy. Here is a man who is passionate about filmmaking, but is fine using it as an excuse to fund his toy collecting addiction.

If you figure him out during the course of the interview, please fill me in.

I’m still wrapping my head around your movie. Can you tell me a little bit about your inspiration for it?

I had no interest in making a traditional biopic. That didn’t interest me. And I had no interest in Michael Peterson, but I had an interest in the transformation process which I find very universal ‐ especially the alchemy from where you are to where you end up being an artist or whatever you end up doing. That transformation is what the movie is about.

I feel like asking you what the main draw beyond violence and notoriety is, but Charles Bronson wasn’t the main draw, was he?

No. It was nothing about him. It was basically purely my interest in the transformation. Here was a man who had gone to prison strangely for something so un-harmful, and in there had basically decided that this was going to be the rest of his life. Why would somebody do that? For me, I can only see the right thread was that this was his stage, to become famous. But it goes back to the transformation that I was interested in. How do you transform yourself into a myth? How do you orchestrate your own transformation? Which is what Charlie has been doing.

It’s the tragedy of the story. Because he basically has transformed himself into a man who’s forever going to live in the cage the size of a coffin. He achieves his goal, but the flipside is that his goal would have him confined in a cage for the rest of his life.

His body is trapped with his mythos running wild.

So, yeah, it’s a tragedy and it’s the opposite.

You’ve said before in interviews that criminals mirror our view of a normal society. How does a criminal as violent as Bronson mirror that image?

Well you just have to take the concept of the need for fame. We live in a fame-obsessed society ‐ especially the Western world. Thinking that fame, that fortune and fame, will bring us one step closer to this goal which is supposed to be a perfect life. Charlie suffered the same way. All his life he wanted to become famous, and he didn’t know what as, which is another thing that we see very much now. People don’t become famous because of skills but because of the concept of being famous.

That’s what Charlie wanted to do. He wanted to become famous not knowing where it would lead to. But just thinking that it would lead to something greater. His fame really comes out of his act of violence which is almost like going on a reality TV show and having someone act out their emotions, because art is an act of violence. It’s just a stream of emotions. That’s what art is, and you tap into it as an audience. So, the thing is that it’s almost like the reality TV concept. Here’s a man who wanted to be famous, he just didn’t know what as. It’s through that journey that he discovers that his art is himself. It’s the self installation.

So there’s a message of the danger of caging yourself in the search for fame, or are you unconcerned with a message?

No, I’m very concerned with a message. The flipside of the movie, the consequence of his action is that he’s locked in a cage for the rest of his life. I really do think that the media sometimes don’t really concentrate on the flipside of any achievement but just on the result. Unfortunately, the result is over in ten seconds, and then there’s the next day. The consequences of this very fame-obsessed society can be very sad. But at the same time, it can be very rewarding, so like Bronson ‐ it’s a flipside. It depends on how you look at it. It’s a more complex issue than right or wrong or good or bad. Do you know what I mean?

Definitely. I see all of that going on within the film. You play around, never get too explicit, and you let him tell the story. As a director, you’ve almost given over the storytelling completely to the character ‐ this fictional version of a real man. Is that how you saw it?

Well, I shoot my films in chronological order, so the movie very quickly began to dictate itself. In that way, the film takes on a life of its own. It’s like a monster. It’s like Frankenstein. That’s the thing about shooting in chronological order ‐ you’re able to travel into the unknown. And I write very specific scripts, but it’s the journey from the first page to the end page, the metaphysical journey where the movie’s really being created. On top of that, when you make a movie like that, you make five movies in one movie.

You make a movie when you conceive it, you make another movie during pre-production, then you make another movie in production, and another movie in editing, another movie in sound. It just constantly changes because it has been an on-journey process from the beginning. And therefore, it’s almost like your own ego is eliminated as a filmmaker because the film has been overpowering you. It’s almost like that scene in Frankenstein: It’s alive! It’s alive!

Did you feel a lot like that during the process?

I do on all my films, because that’s the way I shoot all my movies.

Like screaming out toward the lightning?

[Laughing] It’s alive!

You know, Tom Hardy just crushes it in this movie. His performance is amazing. Did you intend in the beginning to do that many long shots of his face or did that come after seeing him on camera?

No, I mean actually that was done very intentionally. I shot the movie for under a million dollars, so I didn’t have a lot of money to make the movie. Because I didn’t do it like street-style, like I did the Pusher trilogy. I did it more operatic. I decided to do less set up but more of the same takes. So I would shoot very specific, but I would do it longer and do more of the same things to get it right. It’s the struggle you have when you make low budget movies ‐ where do you place your time? Where do you get most out of your buck?

The one thing about Bronson when compared to my other films ‐ and even Valhalla Rising which I did right after ‐ was that it was the first movie I ever shot where I basically re-shot 30% of the movie while I was shooting it. Because I kept on going back and changing it. You know when you write and then re-write you have all those colors for the scripts so that people know the next pages?


I went through the colors twice in five weeks. Just because it kept on evolving in my mind and changing and becoming more of everything than it originally was going to be. And that’s the other good thing about chronologically shooting. That you’re able to mold it much more. I always found it very strange. Filmmaking is a creative medium just like any other art form. You spend years writing it, years getting the money, and when you shoot it you have to do a marathon which is like the opposite of any other artistic movement, because it’s all about channeling emotions ‐ like a painting.

A good way to describe it is when I worked with Brian Eno ‐ Brian Eno did the music for one of my movies ‐ and he would describe it as painting a film with music. I thought that was a great way to describe it. Movies are like paintings, but how can you mathematically equate a painting when you haven’t even done it yet? I also prefer to shoot in chronological order because it allows me to travel with the movie.

What helps you see the empty space and create something?

I would say that if I was in the 70s or if I was more bold, I would do drugs, but I can’t because my wife won’t let me. And therefore I use music. Every movie I do, I use music. The music gives me images, and those images become the movie. I usually have the images before I have the story, but when I have enough images I create the story around it.

What are some musicians that you listen to?

It’s not so much what specifically. What I try to do is to conceive the movie as a piece of music. What would it be then? The Pusher trilogy is very different. Like, Pusher was very much like gritty, very late punk, early glam in the 80s. And Johnny Thunder and the Heartbreakers. Part Two is like Iron Maiden, and Part Three is Neil Diamond. Bronson is very much The Pet Shop Boys. I wrote it with The Pet Shop Boys music constantly playing, and would drive everyone insane. When I put it together, I felt like the music didn’t add anything ‐ it’s just an undercurrent. So I thought, well the one thing that Charlie sees his life is, is an opera. So I came up with the concept of putting classical music in to make it more operatic.

The music that happens in between scenes actually reminded me a lot of The Pet Shop Boys. Electronic. Minimal sound. Are you looking more into doing more with criminals or villains?

Well, I would love to do a romantic comedy.


Yeah, with one of those Hollywood actresses. Like My Best Friend’s Wedding or Pretty Woman or something like that.

This from the guy who made Bronson?

Those are the kinds of movies I watch with my wife, and we enjoy them a lot. I love My Best Friend’s Wedding. I guess I’m always attracted to the dark side of characters, but that’s because it’s the DNA of drama. The more darkness, the better the drama. That’s what I do. I indulge in larger-than-life drama. You do that in darkness.

Are there any specific projects you’re doing next?

There’s a few options. Some movies in Hollywood. Then there’s my own next movie that I’ll write, direct and produce called Only God Forgives that I want to make in Asia as a Western. Shooting in Bangkok.

I’ve read rumors about you directing Jekyll with Keanu Reeves.

I’m attached to that.

Is it happening?

That is a Hollywood question and a Hollywood answer. It’s all up in the air. The puzzles having to be put together. That’s why I always have my own productions on the side because I don’t want to stop making films. I don’t want to wait. I’m not a machine that waits. So I can go off and make one of my own. Also, because I collect toys.


I’m an avid toy collector, and Asia has the best toys, so I thought if I could spend four months in Bangkok shooting a movie ‐ ah! ‐ just think of the toys I could get my hands on.

So you use your day job as a filmmaker to fuel your hobby as a toy collector?

Yes, and I also like to eat well. That’s another thing that Asia has. Plus, it’s always nice to go on vacations with my wife and my children. So it’s a win-win.

Is there anything that scares you about getting into the Hollywood system? A lot of international directors get lost in the mix there and don’t have the same creative freedoms.

I think it’s kind of exciting because it’s like a new frontier. How’s that going to turn out? I’m not really afraid of it, because I can always go back and do my own stuff. You should walk into Hollywood knowing what Hollywood wants. Instead of fighting it you should try to embrace it. And see what you can get out of it. And great films are still made within the system. We should not forget that.

So it’s more like what you come in with and what your expectations are. If you go to Hollywood and expect to make biographies the rest of your life, well, then you’re gonna have an issue. If you go into Hollywood thinking, this is like $100 million commercial knowing that, at the end, the clients are going to say what they want.

My job is to trick ‘em.

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