EXCLUSIVE: When he made the stylishly violent noir film Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn set himself and Ryan Gosling on a fast track to mainstream studio stardom. Trouble is, it’s a road neither seems to particularly like. They prefer to play in sandboxes filled with broken glass and sharp edges, the kind studios varnish as they seek the widest possible audience. Refn dropped the chance to launch a franchise with Denzel Washington in The Equalizer. He made Only God Forgives, a film with such over the top violence and dialogue that its eventual R rating shocked many of the distributors who crossed it off their acquisition lists as the pic premiered to boos at Cannes. Giving Gosling a Steve McQueen turn in Drive is in fact the anomaly; Refn didn’t pretty up his leading men when he directed Tom Hardy in Bronson, or Mads Mikkelsen in Valhalla Rising. What drives this disruptive Dane? The answer is right there in My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn, a 58-minute making-of docu that RADiUS premiered at Fantastic Fest. Shot by Refn’s wife Liv Corfixen, the film reveals the emotional and logistical roller coaster Refn rode to make that WTF film in Bangkok, including Corfixen’s own frustrations in how her husband’s decision to travel a defiant road has affected their family.
DEADLINE: What is it like being trailed by your camera-wielding wife?
REFN: Other things have been done about us, but there was always a filter because it was someone else filming. When it’s Liv, there is no filter; you can’t hide anything, you can’t pretend. You almost become too naked but it becomes much more perversely authentic.
DEADLINE: You put up a confident public front; yet this docu reveals extreme fears and anxieties as you made a genre film filled with excess. What’s that like for you to watch?
REFN: Everybody has those fears and anxieties and if they say they don’t, they’re lying. Making a movie is like lying to everybody for two years. You don’t really know what’s going to happen until it’s released. You have to tell everyone else who may have doubts that they shouldn’t worry; it’s going to be great. Deep inside yourself, you’re anxious, especially if you don’t want to repeat yourself. For me, the film was therapeutic because I could say all the things I might be afraid to say to anyone else.
DEADLINE: There’s a moment in Thailand during pre-production where you and Gosling make a public appearance for $40,000. You funnel that cash into the film. How did you sell your star?
REFN: [Laughs] We needed money and Ryan was up for it, so we thought, how can we prostitute ourselves? I didn’t have enough money in the budget to pay for the police we needed to be able to film the shoot-out scene in Chinatown. We had already spent all of our own money and I couldn’t get any more out of the financiers. So we sold ourselves! This opportunity came up but it had to be a package – me and Ryan, or no money. Thank God he saw a way to make it work.
DEADLINE: You shaped that script right up to production, all the while worrying about its commercial prospects and whether it was too divisive. Did those worries include fear financiers wouldn’t back you after seeing Only God Forgives?
REFN: It has always been like that, so, no. This was made for such a low budget that I’d already had the money guaranteed. Only God Forgives didn’t have any stars when I got it financed, so all these great actors stepping into roles was added value. Whether it was Drive, or Bronson or Valhalla Rising, the last four movies have been made in this constant evolution. The real measure of success is, does your film make money or not? That is how you’re able to make the next one. I was lucky that Only God Forgives made a lot of money, so on to the next one. You have to worry about these things because if you don’t you’ll lose out very fast. I make a certain type of movie and I like my creative and financial freedom. [Pause] We also want to live a life of rock stars.
DEADLINE: You’ve said you read the bad reviews first. Are you a masochist? How are they helpful?
REFN: I skim them a little bit. It doesn’t help, it’s purely sadomasochistic. They think I’m this, they don’t think I’m that. You get depressed and sad and angry, but then you look over and think, I’ve got a hot wife. My kids are beautiful. Hey, I’m wearing Prada. Let’s get a first-class ticket somewhere. Then you crawl back out of your misery.
DEADLINE: You’ve been attached to studio projects before that didn’t pan out. What is your relationship and your ambition involving studio film making?
REFN: I would love to work with studios, but there has to be give and take for both partners. I’ve had wonderful opportunities, but in the end, nothing has been as luxurious or sexy or satisfying as retaining your financial and creative control. In very late stages, I pulled out of movies, most recently The Equalizer. They’ve been great opportunities and people have been really respectful. Again, the trade-off hasn’t been there. I’m used to a dictatorial process that’s hard to give up.
DEADLINE: Why did you pull out of The Equalizer, which opens this weekend with a sequel already planned?
REFN: Many reasons. Liv wasn’t ready to move to Boston, right after Bangkok. That was a big factor. Denzel Washington is a great actor and the studio was very supportive. I just suddenly felt I wasn’t the right guy and wanted to do something else instead.
REFN: Timing, family – it was going to be difficult to work out. Sometimes you realize maybe this is not what you’re meant to do and it’s better to let someone else go through the process of making it. Life is short. Have a good time, all the time is my philosophy.
DEADLINE: After Drive you seemed poised to become a studio director, but instead did the extremely violent art film Only God Forgives. How resistant are you to following the Hollywood destiny that others have predicted for you?
REFN: Am I? I certainly met a lot of nice people. But there’s a certain perception within certain people of this independent vs. studio battle, and it’s just not. It’s, where would you like to make your movie and how would you like to make it? There are pros and cons. I mean, all the studios passed on financing Drive, and they passed on distributing it. So I’ve never worked in the Hollywood studio industry, yet. I would love to but there’s never been a reason. I’m sure one day it will be a great marriage between myself and Hollywood, but it would have to be the right thing. Who knows when that’s going to come? Hopefully it will come soon but if it doesn’t, I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing.
DEADLINE: We see you and Liv consulting with Alejandro Jodorowsky who reads your tarot cards and tells you not to sacrifice your creative path in exchange for success. How do these rituals factor into your choices? Do you still get readings?
REFN: I still get them. I had one last month for my new movie. It went well, and oddly we’ve been talking about the same question, Alejandro Jodorowsky and I, for a number of readings now. The same answer keeps coming up. I realized maybe I’ve been on the wrong path and needed to change my direction. I like the uncertainty that the tarot gives, where everything is intuitive but you don’t really know where it’s going. When you are in doubt, you ask something that gives you options. But you kind of know the answer going in; you knew it all along. It’s not about the product; the product is worthless in terms of yourself. The process is what makes it interesting, but that process is only fun if the most essential things in your life are in balance. I can’t tell you the number of people I meet who, behind the curtain, are miserable because of personal situations. I always thought I didn’t want to end up like that. I couldn’t handle it.
DEADLINE: So a $100 million Nicolas Refn movie could still be in the tarot cards?
REFN: Sure, why not? But again – what’s the swap? You can have all the creativity and freedom, but if you make a movie at that level from a pure business perspective you have to create something that has to earn five times that. When you think that way, it’s like you’re in a marketing meeting. You’re basically saying by doing this, you can create that demographic, tie in those elements to appeal to it. You are the CEO as well. I would love to try that but it has to be for the right movie.
DEADLINE: Was your decision on The Equalizer partly based on concern you would not be able to retain control working with a studio?
REFN: Of course. It’s a different machinery, a different approach. It’s a great feeling to make something the way you want to make it. That’s not as important to everyone, but I just really seem to enjoy it. If you don’t have that, it’s got to really be worth not having it. These were intelligent people and there were opportunities to make it work and problems that would have made it difficult. It’s like playing chess and you have to make the right moves.
DEADLINE: How worried do your agents get when you bail on launching a studio franchise, and make edgier indie films?
REFN: I don’t care. I have very good representation and I explained to them why, after a while, I felt I was the wrong guy, just as I explained that to the studio. Everybody was very respectful and understanding. Let’s find something else to do. It’s only a movie, it’s not the end of the world.
DEADLINE: In the docu, you worry about being typecast as “the guy who made Drive.” Are you still concerned with how the media and industry see you as an artist, or how commercial your films are?
REFN: I just want to do something very different than what I did last time. Maybe it could be fun to do a teenage horror movie, see where that takes you. But you have to be realistic. You have to know what you’re going up against and how the market is going to react so you can prepare. Sure, a movie like Only God Forgives is not going to be as commercial as others; knowing there is a huge fan base for it makes you want to cater to that from the get-go. A lot of distribution nowadays is about branding. You can’t just release a movie, expecting things to happen. You always make movies you want to see but you have to make sure others also want to see them, so you can continue making them. There’s a bigger audience for challenging material than anybody expected. The question has become, how do you distribute?
DEADLINE: How does a visualist feel about people watching your films on a phone or VOD?
REFN: It depends on what kind of movie you make. We had great success with Only God Forgives on multiple platforms in the U.S. Young people will decide how they see it, when they want to see it. Don’t try to fight it. Embrace it. That’s a wonderful opportunity. We’re at the most exciting time since the invention of the wheel, in terms of creativity because distribution and accessibility have changed everything. A camera is still a camera whether it’s digital or not; there’s still sound; an actor is an actor. Ninety-nine percent of what you do is going to be seen on a smart phone – I know this is the greatest thing ever made because it allows people to choose, watching what you do on this format or go into a theater and see it on a screen. That means more people than ever will see what I do, which is personally satisfying in terms of vanity. But you have to be able to adapt, to accept things in different order and length than we’re used to. We are in a very, very exciting time.
DEADLINE: How does multiplatform distribution factor into that?
REFN: If you take any specialized film, the limit of theatrical exposure and the weeks you can play is so minimal. But iTunes and other platforms have revolutionized everything. We should all be thankful. It’s a creative factor. From the moment I think of the idea, I know this has to work on all platforms. Technology enhances creativity. Digital distribution only opens up opportunities, it doesn’t close them. How you make money on it, that’s another discussion. RADiUS is being very smart about it. Tom Quinn and Jason Janego built Magnolia up, paved the way for a lot of independent distributors. They’re building relationships with directors who will want to work with them again.
DEADLINE: Besides the docu, you brought to Fantastic Fest a “lost film” called The Astrologer, as part of the AGFA efforts to restore lost or forgotten films. Where do you stand in the digital vs. film debate?
REFN: Digital is so much better. I shoot on digital, always. Drive, Only God Forgives…Bronson was the last film I shot on film, on Super 16mm. It’s not a substitute, it’s just another canvas – and a canvas that has allowed more creativity than anything else in the world. I only see that as a positive. The Astrologer is a unique piece of cinema. Talk about an auteur. When I was younger I would watch more weird movies, but that curator crown belongs to Quentin, who really fights the fight, for a good cause.
DEADLINE: There’s a moment in Liv’s documentary where you worry that Only God Forgives is not a commercial film. How does that anxiety affect your career choices?
REFN: I would say it like this: The only way to stay alive in this industry is if your movie doesn’t lose money. If your movies don’t lose money, there will always be some patron of the arts willing to invest in your movie. So far I’ve been fortunate that all of my movies had profitable lives. Perception is more about vanity, ego; I know I’ve just got to make what I want to make. The only agenda is I have to make sure that it makes money. I always worry; I was worried if Only God Forgives was going to make money or not. I was worried if Drive was going to make money or not – Drive was much more expensive than Only God Forgives, so I was very concerned about that bigger gamble. I can’t let that inhibit me. I may scream and shout and be terrified and panic about it, but I can’t let that stop me. It’s almost therapeutic; if you say it out loud and it leaves your body, you exorcise your demons and you can go back to your instinctual way of making films.
DEADLINE: You described your next project as a teen horror movie, which sounds like a more marketable hook.
REFN: That was a few days ago. I can’t tell you what’s changed – I have to make it! I shoot all my films in chronological order so it’s a constant mutation into what the end result is going to be.
DEADLINE: Do you consider that to be one of your art films, or more of a commercial film?
REFN: I think that’s a very old fashioned way of looking at it. The digital revolution has changed all perspective of what is what. Nothing is secure, nothing is sacred. It could be art house, down house, left house, green house, mainstream, upscale, downscale, it’s irrelevant. All these kinds of definitions we try to define our work in but if you make a good movie at a budget level where it can recoup itself, it could be anything. Mainstream is becoming non-stream. They’re terms the industry uses to define punctuations. What I find much more interesting is the diversity – there are almost 6 billion people on Earth and what has changed everything is the digital revolution. You can make something, post it somewhere, and it can be seen by 10 million people. It’s all just chaos.
DEADLINE: You mention Tarantino, who with Christopher Nolan and a few other giants, saved film stock from extinction. To him, showing a digital film in a theater is the equivalent of watching TV in public. Make an argument for why digital is a good film making canvas.
REFN: Cost-wise, it’s a very effective way for young people to start making movies. You can make your movie on an iPhone. It’s wonderful seeing how my own children use technology to enhance creativity. For me it’s a wonderful canvas. Sure, I love grain in film. I love celluloid. But I also like creativity. I like crayons, I like pencils, I like paint. It’s all relative. Technology is more inclusive. A hundred years ago when film was invented, it was an elitist club. Very few people got to make it, very few people controlled it and very few people owned it. A hundred years later, storytelling through images is everyone’s domain. It’s ultimate capitalism. There are no rules, and no barriers and no Hays code. Where does this go in another hundred years? I don’t know but I would love to see it.