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

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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 Bronson, Valhalla 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…

But really, what is it about those type of characters that interest you?

I have no interest in violence, but I do think that art is an act of violence.

I’ve actually heard you say that before and when I first heard that it really stuck with me, but do you mind elaborating on what exactly you mean?

Because art is basically penetration. That’s why in a sense art is a non-physical sexual encounter. When it penetrates you, it stays with you in a sense where it becomes apart of you. The whole element of penetration can be a very violent emotion, but I see it more as you’re violated rather than violent. Violence is like war to a destructive meaning and it’s there and has no other purpose. It’s the exact same mechanism as art, but where war and violence destroys, art inspires. The DNA is the same evolution.

So you’d say your protagonists aren’t violent characters?

It’s all very strange.

Your comment on violence being a sexual act actually makes a lot of sense, especially for Bronson. There’s one shot where he’s holding a gun like his, pardon my language, but like it’s his dick. Do you know what shot I’m referring to?

Oh, absolutely.

Was that the intention?

Yes. I tried everything I could to make that angle exactly like it had to be.

What about the theme of alienation?

Alienation, yes. Well, I don’t want to belong to anything. I don’t want to be a part of anything.

Do you mean that you don’t want to labeled or known for one specific genre?

Yeah. I don’t want to be controlled.

You want to be unexpected every time around?

Yes. It’s like how I don’t want to be around people.

And how about dark environments? Obviously the darker the world the greater the drama, but what’s your attraction to those places?

The greater the darkness the better the drama.

So we’ll never see you do, say, a musical because of that?

I would love to do a musical and will someday, hopefully. I want to make a romantic comedy. I went to Hollywood to make a movie here and that is like going from the dark side to the bright side, in a way (laughs).

[Laughs] Obviously doing a romantic comedy would be unexpected, but would you want to do something that plays into our idea of a romantic comedy or would you want to put a dark twist to it?

To me, the darkest film ever made and the film to me that’s the darkest picture in the human humanity’s soul is Pretty Woman.

You think?

Think about it, mate.

I guess there are some dark undertones, but why do you say that?

Because if you were to pull the champagne out of that movie it is so deranged. They were able to champagne it up and sell it to millions and millions of people as a fairy tale. It’s one of my favorite con stories of Hollywood.

Do you really think that was intentional?

I don’t know. I don’t even have so much darkness in me that I could even begin to think that evil.

Do you actually care when a film is done about intentions?

Always. I don’t watch my films after I finish them.

Why is that?

I don’t know. I guess, because I’m scared of watching them. It’s out of my control.

You’re just interested in leaving it to the audience once it’s done?

Yes, yes. That’s not to say I don’t have intentions when I make it, but sometimes or most of the time, I’m more interested in what people think. Why would anyone want to hear what I have to say?

With the Pusher films and Bronson, you stuck to the suburban world. What made you want to switch over to big landscapes to explore the whole idea of man versus nature?

I felt it was the most interesting thing to do. It’s like, the prison genre is a very limited genre. Usually, it’s just about getting out. For political films it’s about political themes and institutionalization. The idea was to turn it on its head.

Wouldn’t you say the man verse nature feel in Valhalla is similar to the way the suburban world affects Bronson?

I’d say that’s an interesting point, yeah. What was it like seeing it?

It was a surreal experience. I definitely want to see it again to get a firmer grasp of it. I saw it with one other person and they had the polar opposite reaction.

Right.

Do you see it as a polarizing film?

Of course. When you make something like this people seem to go in very different directions (laughs). What did the other guy think?

I think he really wanted something more like Bronson.

He wanted Bronson with horns. Which is fine and I fully respect that and understand that would probably be a great film, but I’ve already made that film.

Interview continues on the next page…

Was that what Valhalla Rising was initially going to be? You said you first saw it as an action movie.

Also, because Bronson became the way… I think because Valhalla Rising and Bronson were shot back-to-back they automatically influenced each other by being diverse. It was me seeking diversity. The one thing about Valhalla is that it’s the kind of movie that Bronson probably would’ve made if he ever made a movie.

For One Eye, where did the idea come from for making him a man with no history and someone you don’t quite understand?

3 a.m. in my bedroom when I was close to sleeping. It was at the stage where you can’t really sleep, because I can’t really ever remember my dreams. So it’s always that stage in-between. I suddenly came up with this idea that the film was going to be about a man with no past or present and that he could not speak. That’s really where the film began to take shape.

Do you see One Eye as Jesus?

That’s a big one right now (laughs). I don’t know if I see him as Jesus, but I think he becomes an interpretation of it.

He does rise again at the end of the film.

That he does.

The symbolic nature of One Eye sort of connects it to sci-fi films. I know you’ve said you consider this a sci-fi film as well, but a lot of science fiction films have a protagonist that symbolizes Jesus, like The Matrix. Do you see that as another connection for it being a sci-fi film?

No. I think what makes it sci-fi is that it’s a film where they travel into outer space, but not with mechanics. The reason why I wanted to make a science fiction film was the fact that I was making a movie in the eleven hundreds that didn’t have the technology of today. If you’re making a science fiction film nowadays you’re making a movie about technology and where technology can take you and what technology can do. To me, that’s too limited in the human mind. I was more like saying, if you were to lie at night and to look at the stars, the stars are scientific. There’s evidence to that. You may eventually build a spaceship, and we certainly have it now, in our fiction that we could travel to those places and that there’s maybe even people, aliens, or machines [there]. The machines of our own creation become our own masters in alternate digital universes where technology has taken over, you know? It all comes back to power, the battery, the power plug. If you look beyond the stars, it’s the black void. That, to me, is when it gets interesting.

So you’re not interested in making a science fiction film about technology?

No. I’ve always wanted to do that, but I just felt like I wanted to do one without [it]. So maybe the next time I do one I’ll do one with a lot of technology.

You said earlier how Bronson is slightly autobiographical, but do you see Valhalla Rising as a personal film as well?

I think everything that I do is a part of me, one way or another. Even the movie I’m doing now, Drive, is becoming a part of me. I can’t help it. That’s why I don’t consider myself a director.

You don’t consider yourself a director?

No…

Could you elaborate?

It’s more like that I try to tell stories with images.

What would you call yourself then?

I hate labelling myself. I hate things on me. In England they call me “Govna,” that I kind of like.

If this is too personal I understand, but how would you say you see yourself in Valhalla Rising and Bronson?

Well, Bronson is very much about my own life and it’s very much an autobiography, in that sense. It’s about how I suddenly went from one part of my life to another part of my life. Valhalla Rising, there’s a lot of my childhood and my aspirations for what I thought life was going to be like. But all those things are up for interpretation, because if I told them it wouldn’t be exciting to think about.

I brought up to you earlier how it is pretty hard to put one label on Valhalla Rising, but would it bother you if someone just said, “Oh, it’s a Viking movie.”?

I would say… well, essentially, a part of it is a Viking film. That’s pretty true.

I mean if they said that it’s solely a Viking movie.

I would say they haven’t seen the movie yet.

Have you talked to a lot of people who haven’t really been able to grasp it with one viewing?

Oh, yeah. The usual reaction is that people are very happy, some are very confused, and some are very, very aggressive. But I always say, “To hate you takes as much energy as it is to love you.”

How much do you care about what people say about the film, with whether they enjoy it or not?

It’s always very gratifying when people like your movies. It’s always a great pleasure and it certainly helps you to continue making movies. But at the end of the day, you know, there’s only so much you can do.

How would you say you deal with a negative reaction?

I would say, “God, if you could turn all that hatred into love we would be best friends.”

Do you consider Drive your action movie?

Well, it’s not really an action movie. It’s a love story that has action in it, hopefully. That sounds more interesting to me. I mean, what’s an action movie? Sometimes we tend to label things too quick and too fast nowadays so we can quickly write them off. That’s a shame, because sometimes we lose opportunities to indulge much more in it and to let it fulfil itself. So in a way Drive is much more of a love story with cars in it.

Do you think on Drive you’re going to be able to have the creative freedom you’ve had on your previous films?

Well, Drive is the first film I’m doing in Hollywood under the Hollywood rules game. Every other movie I’ve made I’ve had full creative control. I even produced most of them so I own some of them and lost some on them.

Are you nervous about working in that type of environment?

I can’t really say what it’s like until the movie is done. So if you ask me again in five months, I’d have a much better way of answering that. But now, it’s been very good so far. I’m enjoying it very much out here. I would never live in L.A., but I’m enjoying it right now.

Is it going to have what most people consider to be hard violence?

It’ll have its share. Come on, it’s me. You think I can just ignore that? (laughs)

(laughs) I understand. Obviously, you’ve tried to work in Hollywood before with The Dying Light and Jekyll. What happened with those projects?

Well, Jekyll was a scheduling problem, unfortunately. So I wish them all the luck. I met Keanu [Reeves], and he’s a great guy and they’ll one day make the movie. The Dying Light was just typical Hollywood and a sad story. I would’ve loved to make that movie and I would’ve loved to have killed Harrsion Ford in that film. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. But then it was a good thing, because Drive came along. I was on my way to Asia to do my own movie and I decided to push that a little bit to go do Drive. So I’m basically doing Drive simultaneously back-to-back with my own film, Only God Forgives, which is shooting in Bangkok. That is similar to how I did Valhalla Rising and Bronson simultaneously.

What’s that like for you to do that? To go so quickly from one film to another?

It’s like heaven. It’s work every day.

Well, I guess most directors would find that jarring jumping from one world to another so quickly.

It’s like playing Russian roulette: you get a second life.

Lastly, with most of your films you play around a lot with the color red, is that to tie into the violent nature of your films? Even though it’s not, like you said, the typical idea of violence?

I’m color-blind and red is one of the few colors I react to very strongly.

Mr. Refn, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

Well, no, thank you for liking the movie. Next time make sure to ask me if I enjoyed my Hollywood experience.

Valhalla Rising is now available on VOD.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.