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Interview: Writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn On “Only God Forgives”

Interview: Writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn On “Only God Forgives”

Interview: Writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn On “Only God Forgives”
July 19
16:58 2013

Preston Barta // Film Critic

Only God Forgives” | 90 min. | Rated R | Director: | Stars: , , , and

NT Daily recently had the chance to catch up with writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive,” 2011) about his new film with Ryan Gosling titled “Only God Forgives.” We talked about the origin of the story, inspiring music and his advice for aspiring filmmakers at the University of North Texas.

Each scene in “Only God Forgives” feels like its own living and breathing thing. It seems that you put a lot of thought into how it’s going to look and make audiences feel. As a writer, was there a particular scene that you thought up of and started with when flushing out the idea for this movie, or did you have the whole concept in your head to begin with, and you just went from there and wrote individual scenes?

Nicolas Winding Refn: No, this definitely emerged over time from different perspectives. You can say that the most dominating factor in creating this film was this idea that— well, you know, because this movie had an origin of a fight movie— two guys are going to fight it out and not shoot it out like a classic western. The first image or idea I had was of a clenched fist, which is a very masculine image. It’s certainly the most dominant image in a fight movie. It’s also sexual. But if you open your fist, it’s pure submission. It gives you the sense of impotency and castration.”

All your movies have great soundtracks and terrific scores, and every track feels like it fits perfectly in the scene. Did you listen to a lot of music when writing and directing this film?

Refn: “I listen to a lot of music. People will often give me suggestions of what to listen to. In terms of ‘Only God Forgives,’ I started listening to a lot of Thai esan music, or Thai country and western, which I was unfamiliar with. Originally, Cliff Martinez, our film composer, brought this to my attention. So I started listening to it, and mixed it into my storytelling.”

At the “Drive” Q&A in Dallas, TX, you talked about how your relationship with Ryan formed and what kicked off the idea of where to take “Drive,” which was him driving you home and blasting REO Speedwagon. Do you have a story anything like that with the origin of “Only God Forgives” story?

Refn: “Well, of course. Originally, this film had another cast. The original actor pulled out, and suddenly I had a movie but no protagonist. Then I thought, whatever actor I look upon to do this movie would look at the protagonist completely different because the character is so much about an internal journey. So every actor would bring something different to portray. But Ryan and I agreed on the vision and decided to do it again.”

I saw in an interview with Ryan earlier this year that he learned Muay Tai, and trained for about four months or so before production began. But right before production, you all decided to change the idea of Julian being this tough fighter. Instead, he just gets beat to a pulp. Whose idea was it to make this switch?

Refn: “For a long time, even before making ‘Drive,’ there was this scenario that Julian would lose. And then, I made him win, I made him lose, win, lose – but I always intended to make him lose. But we also toyed with the idea of what would happen if he won. One of the great things about shooting it in chronological order is we were free to take it in any direction that we wanted. We didn’t really make a final decision until we started shooting because we wanted to see what the movie would morph itself into.”

Nicholas Winding Refn directing Ryan Gosling on the set of "Only God Forgives." Photo courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

Nicolas Winding Refn directing Ryan Gosling on the set of “Only God Forgives.” Photo courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

I would say this is one of those films that could be compared to “Taxi Driver” or “The Shining,” based on its ambience. It’s one those meditative films that takes time to digest because there is more than just what is presented on the screen. Are there any other films today that you can think of that kind of strike a similar chord as this?

Refn: “Well, certainly this type of language is less used. There are a few filmmakers that I can think of that use it. There’s David Lynch. There’s Alejandro Jodorowsky, who I dedicated my film to. He has a new movie called ‘The Dance of Reality,’ which has a similar vibe.”

One of the aspects that I like about the film, as well as “Drive,” is the fairytale-like feel that you give your films, especially with the environment that you shoot your films in. Bangkok feels and looks way different at night than during the day. The same could be said of Los Angeles in “Drive.” It’s very mystical and dreamlike, as if it were a character itself. Was this one of your goals when doing both films?

Refn: “I like that language of fairytale because it’s a wonderful, creative world to indulge yourself in, and I look at art as being a self-indulge medium. It’s what it’s all about— indulging one’s own aesthetics, sensibilities and fetish. It’s a bottomless pit. But in the world of authenticity, you’re always bound by the rules of logic, which may be right, but it’s not always the most fun to explore.”

What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers at the University of North Texas?

Refn: “My advice would what Elia Kazan told me once in Stockholm. I had just done my first movie and we were eating ice cream. I said, ‘Mr. Kazan, what advice would you give to a young filmmaker?’ And he said something to me that had a very cryptic meaning. He said, “my advice to you is to do it your way.’ When he first told me that it meant one thing, like I could do whatever I want. I was the king of the world. But now that I am older, it means something completely different to me. It means make the films you want to make, but be prepared that your career is going to have its ups-and-downs.”

If you teach a class at UNT, what would you teach?

Refn: “I would teach the aesthetic of what arouses you sexually.”

“Only God Forgives” is playing in limited released today.

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