Nicolas Winding Refn: “If Everyone Likes It, You’ve Done Something Wrong”

By  · Published on October 1st, 2015

Photo by Gunther Campine

Nicolas Winding Refn doesn’t mind people hating his movies. In fact, he welcomes it.

The director found critical and financial success with Drive, but even that movie had its detractors. His followup, Only God Forgives, had more than its fare share of harsh critics. By this point, you kind of know if Refn’s movies are your thing or not, and having spoken with him many times for the site, it’s apparent he doesn’t plan on changing his style anytime soon to gain more fans ‐ and why should he?

Refn wasn’t at Fantastic Fest to promote his new movie, Neon Demon, which comes out next year, but to promote his coffee table book, “Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing.” It’s a massive collection of beautiful, bizarre movie posters, for movies 99.9% of humanity has never heard of. They’re all posters owned by Refn, who, admittedly, hasn’t seen many of the films either.

What started off as a discussion with the barefoot director regarding his book turned into an interview about his work, intentions and polarizing audiences. Here’s what he had to say:

Refn: Film School Rejects… I love that. I’m a film school dropout.

Why did you drop out?

Because I got money for my first movie, so I was just very, very lucky I was able to raise the money to make my first film. I actually never started film school. I dropped out about eight weeks before I was supposed to start, so I never even entered the campus. It was just pure luck.

Is filmmaking like that in general?

Of course it is. It’s like rolling dice.

Were you interested in movie posters early on in your career?

No. I mean, like everyone else, there was some I thought were great, but I was never a collector.

Did you know any of the posters featured in the book?

No, not at all. I don’t even know what 90% of these movies are. I just bought a collection from a friend of mine about five years ago, because he needed some money. Then a thousand posters arrived, and I didn’t know any of them. I just thought the posters would make for a really interesting coffee table book. I don’t know how the movies are…

Have you seen any of them?

We’re screening three movies from this book at the festival, and we showed the X-Rated Supermarket last night. No one knew what it was. It was a great experience, because everyone was asking, “What is this?”

Was the movie good?

[Pauses] Define good.

[Laughs] Did you enjoy yourself?

Oh, we had a riot. The whole audience was just rioting and laughing. It turned out to be a 61-minute porno movie.

Which other films have you seen from the book?

I have seen Night Tide and Queen of Blood. They’re in the book more because I was a friend of [director] Curtis Harrington’s before he passed away. I always really liked Night Tide. Curtis had a strange career; he was very bitter when he died about how things had turned out. He’s a forgotten filmmaker, in many ways, but I wanted to resurrect the awareness for Night Tide and Queen of Blood.

They’re unique films. I’ve seen 10 or 12 movies in the book. I would encourage people to see the movies. Feel free. It’s 300 new titles to go find.

Do you plan on seeing more of them?

I don’t have a lot of time with everything else going on in my life. If I fly I’ll watch a movie on an iPad, but I don’t know if you want to get caught on a plane watching X-Rated Supermarket.

[Laughs] If you see someone watching your films on an iPad, are you just happy they’re watching it?

Just glad someone likes what you’re doing. Watching films has evolved into watching films in multiple scenarios. I still think that the cinema is certainly the best way ‐ and that’s why people still continue to go to the cinema. I also enjoy a really good movie on an iPad or iPhone, if I’m in movement.

I imagine you watch a lot of movies that way.

It’s just a great experience of lying with your headphones on a bed somewhere and seeing something. It is very personal. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Have you see anything good lately?

I saw Peter Bogdonaivch’s directorial debut, Targets, and that was great. What else have I seen? I recently really enjoyed Gone Girl, but that was a year ago. I really haven’t seen a lot. I saw a lot of movies coming in from Europe…

[Laughs] That good, huh?

There’s no point in speaking negatively about a specific movie, because making a film is so hard. I do have to say, when things get too generic, I tend to zone out a lot.

Are there any specific movie posters that made an impression on you as a kid?

I still remember seeing a campaign for a cannibal movie in France, when I was, like, five or six. That’s been imprinted on my brain. I have no idea what it was. I’m sure it was one of those cannibal movies.

How involved are you in the creation of posters for your own films?

A lot. I think it’s important for a director to be involved in how your film is promoted. I have been very lucky to have good distributors who have been great at coming up with various visions for what I do. I encourage different distributors to make different kinds of posters. I enjoy that, personally. It’s a vanity thing.

The Only God Forgives poster is very striking.

That was [Radius-TWC co-presidents] Tom Quinn and Jason Janego. They came up with that dragonhead. Personally, that’s my favorite poster anyone has ever done one of my films. That just hit the nail on the head.

How important is marketing to you, to make sure the expectations are right?

Not really important, in that way. I like to be surprised when I go to the movies. I don’t have to know everything going in, and I prefer the opposite going in. Maybe I’m not in the majority, but what I think art can do is surprise people.

Is it rare for you to feel surprised?

I guess it is. You become more jaded growing up, having seen so much. There’s nothing better than being pleasantly surprised ‐ that’s still a “wow” experience. Actually, I liked It Follows. That was good.

That is a good one. It’s surprisingly divisive.

Hey man, I polarize. I can only say if you’ve polarized, you’ve done something right. If everyone likes it, you’ve done something wrong.

Even the people who hate Only God Forgives still talk about it.

Best thing ever.

How do you reflect back on your work?

Every movie is a part of me, but I don’t think back. I don’t romanticize my past. I don’t go, “Oh, I wish I could go back.” I just think, “That movie needed to be made like that.” It was a great joy making something that was so polarizing, and yet, everyone kept talking about it. That’s not always the hope, but it becomes more about your vanity.

There’s a lot of vanity in art. Being the subject of conversation can be very satisfying, because art is also about exhibitionism. You have to be an exhibitionist to create ‐ and not so much physically, but certainly mentally. By people bringing you in the conversation, there’s a personal satisfaction to that. There’s nothing better than people constantly talking about you.

You mentioned you’ve become more jaded as you get older. Does filmmaking play a part in that?

When you start to have experiences of “try this, try that,” it’s like, what’s next on the horizon? I remember when I made my first film, Pusher, I thought, “Oh my God, some festival in Ukraine wants to show my movie.” That was a manifestation of success. As you start to make more movies, your movies get distribution and you think, “Oh my God, some American company is releasing my movie in two theaters!”

That was the next level of success. Now it’s that your movie is being launched this weekend, so how much money is it going to make? That’s the next level of how you define if you’re successful, and it gets more stressful, because more and more things are at stake. That’s what jades you. What’s the next pure satisfaction?

Do you know what it might be?

I haven’t gotten there. [Pauses] I guess you create a family and get other things that are more important.

“Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing” is now available to pre-order.

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