It's sweltering in trash-choked New York City and Nicolas Winding Refn wants pie. Over the past 15 years — whether through visions of self-mutilation, human intestines shoved down garbage disposals, or a naked prison brawler covered in blood down to his flapping penis — few have done as much to inject our cultural diet with a dash of the ultraviolence as the prolific Danish director. In 2011, after years on the European arthouse fringes, the self-declared pornographer went Hollywood with Drive and elevated his fetishistic style by lining extremism with hot-pink pop music to create a sweet, sonorous nightmare. The instant we saw Ryan Gosling steal a kiss from Carey Mulligan and then stomp a goon's head into a rotted post-Halloween pumpkin, Refn's career went to a new and special place.
Now he's back with Only God Forgives. Refn has Gosling in tow again, with a logline that sounds tailor-made for a Drive follow-up: A man deep in the Bangkok underworld must avenge his brother's death by facing off against an unkillable, sword-wielding cop with a concept of swift justice lifted right out of the Old Testament. But this is not the movie you might think it is, or the one you might want it to be. It's dreamier, loopier, and more aggressively laconic than Drive. Gosling might say fewer than 30 words in the entire film. Impressively, it's more violent, too; when an Australian hard-ass's eyes are gouged with fruit skewers, you will cover yours. It's also, once again, unlike anything you've ever seen.
"After Drive, Nic had a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things. Big films," Gosling says. "And he opted to go to Thailand and make this. It's kind of like a drug: you'll either have a good trip or a bad trip." You might be bewildered by what you see. You might even get angry with Refn for not following through on his sumptuous mass appeal instincts. But as composer Cliff Martinez, who worked with Refn on both projects, says, "Nic made no compromises on Drive. And he did the same thing with Only God Forgives. Perhaps, in his mind, he thought it was equally commercial." If nothing else, you must at least thank Refn for coaxing Kristin Scott Thomas — short of the Royal Family, as definitive a symbol of fussy European propriety as we have today — into uttering the words "cum dumpster."
But for such an advocate of brutality in all forms, Refn — outfitted this afternoon in Prada sunglasses, a crisp white dress shirt, short pants, dark socks, and Jack Purcells — is a cheery fellow. We meet at the Bowery Hotel, and the first thing he says is, "Do you know a good place for pie?" I shrug, and we turn up Second Avenue to look for dessert.
Refn, who lives in Copenhagen with his wife and two young daughters, grew up in New York with his mother and stepfather from the ages of 8 to 17 — time spent, in large part, hoovering parentally forbidden Japanese cartoons and slasher flicks. As we walk, he points out landmarks. "Did you ever see Heat? Paul Morrissey? That was shot in the brownstone behind that building. And this used to be a cinema. I saw a double midnight feature here. Buckaroo Banzai."1 When I call these his formative years he corrects me, and it's unclear if the malapropism is intentional: "My primal years!"
Refn's mother, Vibeke, was a cinematographer. His father, Anders, was a film editor.2 His uncle owned a distribution company, which meant that a young Refn would attend Cannes employed as a film scout. But what set him on his path, he says, is seeing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre when he was 14. "That changed everything in my life." Raised in a household that worshipped high culture, Refn realized he wasn't actually terribly interested in good taste.
In 1994 at Cannes, Refn met Kevin Smith, saw (and loved) Clerks, and thought to himself, I could do that. Two years later, at the age of 26, he did. He was back in Denmark by then (his mother worried they'd had enough of New York; he wanted to stay), and had been accepted into the prestigious National Film School. But when he decided to go off and make his directorial debut instead, he became the first person in history — and, Refn brags, surely the last — to turn down the school. The result was Pusher,3 a muddled, ugly, desperate gangster flick made only more suffocating by Copenhagen's small-time crime scene.
It was a huge hit in Denmark and seen, along with Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, as a revitalization of the national cinema. In the U.S., though, it was DOA. "The distributor didn't even want to do a poster," Refn says. "I remember walking here, trying to hand out postcards with my wife to promote the movie. Basically, it played for like a weekend at Cinema Village. Which actually meant a lot to me, because that's where I saw Texas Chain Saw Massacre."
Before we go any farther, a detour: Refn spots a high-end toy boutique and slinks in, eyes glazing over before we're even through the door. Pointing to shelf after shelf of limited-edition RoboCops and Captain Americas and R2-D2s, he says, clicking into a flat affect, "I have all of these." What's your favorite? "I used to have a lot of Star Wars. You know the, like, fetish uniforms? Peter Cushing? On the first Death Star? [Pause.] They're not here." Anything you're looking for in particular? "There's some Thunderbirds memorabilia which I'm searching for very specifically, which is the green ship, Thunderbird 2." He points to the biggest Godzilla in a row of giant Godzillas. "I actually just built that one and painted it silver." And on our way out he points to an android-looking thing: "I just bought this one. Got it directly shipped from Bangkok. You can take this off and see all the inside, and you have a display with lights on it. It's really cool."
In Refn's early movies, there's barely a hint of the stylistic wonder to come. Wanting to get "as far away" from crime as possible, he followed Pusher with Bleeder, a film purportedly about friends and lovers, and all the more disquieting for it. Halfway through, the movie takes a sharp turn into a bit of the old ultraviolence; it ends with the protagonist shooting himself in the palm in order to drip AIDS-infected blood into his enemy's open wounds. Refn dedicated it to his mother.
Then came Fear X, and what looked like a watershed moment. It was Refn's first English-language film, the logical next step for a talented young foreign director looking to blow. It was based on a script by Hubert Selby Jr., the author of Requiem for a Dream, and one of Refn's heroes. Starring John Turturro as a man obsessed with finding his wife's killer, it's a sharp, solid mystery. And it tanked. "That was a disaster," Refn says.
We've moved on, to a juice shop called Liquiteria.4 Refn has just purchased a pair of Berry Powerful smoothies, one for each of us. And while we wait, he hammers down on his biggest disappointment: "A failure. A complete and utter failure." Fear X was produced by Refn's Jang Go Star production company, so he was personally liable for its box office flop. Which means that, at the age of 32, after having been pegged as a wunderkind with a more-than-promising future, Refn found himself flamed out and a million dollars in debt.
"When you're bankrupt a million dollars, man, your life is over," Refn says. We've now retired, Berry Powerfuls in hand, to a stoop down the street. ("This is what you do in New York," Refn mutters as we sit.) "I felt humiliated, degraded, a has-been. It's like going to an NA meeting: 'Hi, I'm Nic Refn. I used to think I was somebody, but now I'm a failure.'" Then, quickly, he whipped up a plan: make two sequels to Pusher, back-to-back. Get financing, easy. Get your life back in order.
In Gambler, the Danish documentary made about this time, Refn is endearingly conflicted. He goes on a talk show and explains he's decided to return to Pusher because he's hit upon ideas too good to resist. At home, though, he looks into the documentary cameras and admits he's bluffing, and that he's petrified.
In one of the many ironies of Refn's career, for all the craven anti-art calculations, the sequels became the best work of his career. Scraping even further down with his gangster deglamorization, Refn found aching family tales: fuck-up sons, absentee fathers, vodka toasts, coked-up wedding receptions, and heaping plates of sarma. Pusher II (which features the subtitle With Blood on My Hands) is almost stolen by a charming real-life roughneck alternately known as Kurt, the Cunt, or Kurt the Cunt, 5 whom Refn found while researching the movie. Pusher III (subtitle: I'm the Angel of Death) ends in a laborious, mostly silent 20-minute sequence of human-carcass disposal. Apparently, a Danish InSinkErator can handle internal organs.6
I ask Refn if he considered other ways to recoup the money. "Would I leave the film industry?" he asks rhetorically. "I probably swore that then." And here he cribs from Bronson, his 2009 film starring Tom Hardy as the infamous British prison brawler Michael Peterson: "I can't sing. I can't dance. I can't work with clay. I'm color-blind, so I can't paint. I'm dyslexic, so I can't get a university degree. I didn't have a lot of opportunities. Where would I go? What would I do?"
In a return to English-language movies, Bronson was Refn sacking up and anteing up again. It was also the start of a new era, in a couple of ways. In the beginning, he believed in his own infallibility. "Early on, it's punk rock," Refn says. "You have to have that Johnny Ramone attitude. You have to not know any other scenario than, of course you're going to be a wild success." When Pusher hit big in Denmark, he remembers thinking, Yeah, that's the truth. The failure of Fear X stripped that away.
"I realized, 'You're making films for the wrong reasons, pal,'" he says. "You're making them for your own vanity. So it was essential: I freed myself from the most destructive weapon of creativity, which is your ego. And I said, well, if I'm not going to make films like that, then I'll make them like a pornographer."
He's not joking. With Bronson, he hit upon what he calls his "pinup magazine" approach: "I just make images that arouse me, and juxtapose story confrontations that I make up along the way. It's purely, simply eroticism." In 2009, that led to Valhalla Rising, an unceasing Viking vengeance workout. And then it led to Ryan Gosling.
It was the heartthrob who was attached to Drive first. Originally, when a production company optioned James Sallis's slim novel, they'd envisioned it as a possible competitor for the Fast & Furious franchise: a loud, swaggering thing. Gosling had enough sway to pick his director, though, and when Refn came onboard, Gosling says, "it became a lot more violent. Because that's who he is. He was watching Texas Chain Saw Massacre before he went to school every morning."
Drive gave Refn his biggest audience ever, and international name recognition. Projects came pouring in, and he flirted with a few: The Equalizer, a splashy shoot-'em-up with Denzel Washington; a Logan's Run remake. The upper echelon of Hollywood filmmaking, it appeared, was opening its arms to Refn. But you'll have to excuse him if he downplays that time. See, he'd already died once. The fact that he still gets to make movies at all seems to be enough to get him going in the morning.
Only God Forgives was conceived before Drive. An inversion of Valhalla Rising's Scottish Highlands, Refn wanted to head to the seedy pit of Bangkok and make a Western. "I set about writing the archetypical story of a sheriff versus a troublemaker," Refn says. "And they were gonna not shoot it out, but fight it out." Then the ground kept shifting under him.
Making the press rounds, Refn has repeatedly pointed to two developments. First was his wife Liv's difficult pregnancy with their second child. "That was a terrifying experience," he says. "You're in a constant stage of not knowing. It's out of your control. It's in God's hands." Infuriated with "whoever the creator is," Refn decided, "I wanted to express my pain through violence.7 I wanted to fight God." It became the defining theme of the movie: a man struggling with an untouchable force.
The other was the discovery of Refn's younger daughter's connection to the spirit world. After moving to Bangkok for preproduction, Refn and his wife would be woken up five or six times a night by their daughter, whom they found pointing to a corner in her room and screaming "No!"
"It was creepy, and it was driving us insane," Refn says. "But we knew there was something trying to access her." One night, frustrated and out of options, he called the Thai production manager. He told her, "We believe there's a ghost in the house. She said, 'OK, got it. I'll be right over.' And you think she's gonna call Ray Parker Jr. or something."
What she did show up with was a shaman, who inspected the apartment and declared that, indeed, there was a spirit present. It had latched onto the Refn family when they'd arrived at the airport, and while it wasn't dangerous, it was of course quite annoying as it was attempting to communicate with their young daughter. The next day, Liv went to consult with some monks on the matter. At the temple, one of them asked her if she wanted a Coca-Cola or a Pepsi to drink. "I thought the acceptance of the spiritual world and reality coexisting here, without any doubt, was fascinating," Refn says. "And I basically threw out 30 pages of the script." He didn't want to explain the mystery anymore. He'd let it speak for itself.
There were more earthly inspirations, too. Driving around at night through Bangkok's Chinatown neighborhood, Refn would see karaoke bars "full of men, sitting in silence, listening to fable songs: It's all first love, last love, revenge, killing, not killing. Coming home." In the movie, the cop-as-God character — played by little-known Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm, elegantly restrained in his movement — washes down the severing of limbs with serene, almost tender karaoke performances.8 They shot those scenes in gay bars, "really flamboyant places," Refn says. The unavoidable extremes of Thailand's sex trade were also an influence; at one point, we see a crew of girls for hire, huddled silently behind a glass display case.
Refn has always shot his movies chronologically. Early on, it was out of DIY necessity. Later, it became a system. He powwows with his actors every day, working out what should happen next. Once they're consulted, he explains, they have to commit fully. It's a form of submission.
It's also liberating. For all his heightened reality, Refn swears that all of his movies are actually about himself. In spite of its manifold in-the-buff face-smashing, Bronson — with Peterson's invention of a prison-house alter ego mimicking Refn's own primal urge to create — was "essentially a biography of my own life." Drive was about his love for his wife. From these baseline concepts he lets his actors create. Considering the ways in which we bow down to the concept of dictatorial auteurship, this is a novel approach for a writer-director.9
And what's notable within that context is that, despite their well-documented soul connection,10 it wasn't Gosling but British actor Luke Evans who was originally cast in Only God Forgives. When Evans dropped out (to, uh, do The Hobbit), Gosling happily hopped onboard, and the two began making it up as they went along. Originally, the character was a Muay Thai expert with lightning-fast killer fists. In the final product, he can't land a punch. And, in the process, Ryan Gosling's perfect face gets pummeled into mangled goop.
With Kristin Scott Thomas's character, Refn envisioned a maniacal matriarch. For inspiration, he showed her Cocaine Cowboys, a documentary about Miami's out-of-control '80s drug trade and the queenpin Griselda Blanco, and she ran with it. "I'd done a photo shoot where I was dressed up as a kind of Donatella Versace, and I was amazed by people's reaction to me," Scott Thomas explains. "Men, in particular, became incredibly aggressive. It seemed a really good way to get into character — to have this war paint, this armor. She's dressed for battle."
The ending hadn't been decided before the actors arrived on set, and at one point a decision had to be made as to how Gosling would react after stumbling upon a certain character's dead body. "Nic said, 'What do you wanna do? You wanna cry? You wanna laugh?' And as a kind of joke I said, 'Well, maybe I could cut [the body] open and look at the wound.' And he said, 'Cool. We'll do that.' He called the effects guy. We got a pig stomach from the butcher.'"
As for that instantly infamous "cum dumpster" line? "We must have done 14 takes. There were some words that I just couldn't [easily] say," she recalls. "Because I'm a nice, well-brought-up girl."
Our smoothies kicked, we survive near murder by a whizzing cab and head to Other Music on East 4th Street. Refn's talking up his TV adaptation of Barbarella, which, of all the bait dangled in front of him after Drive, seems like the smaller route. I wonder if it was difficult to resist the urge to go bigger.
"Of course there were opportunities that I really wanted to do," Refn says. "But in the end creative freedom outweighs any amount of money they throw at you." One day, he promises, when it feels right, he'll do it: He'll make "that one big giant Hollywood extravaganza." But for now it's all too sweet for him to muck about with. Over and over, he talks about making movies like a sexual experience; once the process is done, he says, he's climaxed. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke. This is it for him: "The joy of creating is like the ultimate drug, and there's no side effects, and you get so addicted to it, and the pleasure is so enormous. And if I can go through my life with that high as much as possible …"
For now, then, is there joy in following up Drive with Only God Forgives, and totally subverting everyone's expectations?
Refn was looking for a Rocket From the Tombs album, but he has skipped over to Lou Reed. He rifles through the CDs, then pulls out Transformer, the one with "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Satellite of Love" and all those classic pop songs. Then he yanks out Metal Machine Music, Reed's infamous atonal guitar freakout. He points: "First this, then this. There is a great satisfaction from going from Transformer to Metal Machine."
We head back to the hotel, having given up on pie. It's too hot for that anyway. As we wind down, I ask him one last annoying question: Do you care about your reputation? Your legacy? "I used to have the goal of wanting to become a myth," Refn answers. "Celebrity is easy. Mythology, that takes a little more effort. You need to have those thoughts when you're young. But that's all about the ego. That's bad. You know what? When you die, at one point, and if there is a heaven, and Saint Peter is standing outside when you wanna get in, he's really gonna ask you one question." Refn pauses for a while, allowing the drama to build. "And bear in mind you might be the greatest artist, the greatest politician, the most beautiful person. All these things we aspire to become. Saint Peter will only ask you one thing: 'Were you good with your kids?"'