Marrakech Fest: Nicolas Winding Refn on His First Big Failure and Ignoring Hollywood's Obsession with Awards Season

Nicolas Winding Refn
Nicolas Winding Refn
 Florian Seefried/Getty Images

MARRAKECH -- Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who came to Morocco as part of the Scandinavian delegation honored at the International Film Festival here, delivered a master class in which he delved into the personal side of his filmmaking career. The Only God Forgives director told the audience about the root of his obsession with violent films, how he had to realize that he didn’t “walk on water” and about his bond with Ryan Gosling.

“I grew up in New York so I’m not very Scandinavian. I have a Danish passport but I’m a New Yorker by heart now,” said the director, who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 8 years old. “Growing up in New York my mother and stepfather still believed in Scandinavian upbringing, in socialism, left-wing ideals and that French new wave cinema was God, which to me was like the antichrist. One thing that really made her angry was American violent movies. To her that was imperialism at its worst. So of course that was what I desired and fell in love with.”

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“I come from the age where 'cinema' was not really my thing. I’m not really old enough to have experienced it in the same way,” he said. Refn cited video stores and America’s many cable channels as his primary visual influence when he moved to the U.S. from Denmark.

“When I was 8 years old in Copenhagen there was one television station and it showed 5 hours of programming on a daily basis. What changed my life was coming to America and seeing American television and suddenly realizing there were channels and channels of movies and television shows. And I could control it with a remote when and how I wanted to see it. That was my introduction to storytelling with pictures really."

He cited music and sound as another artistic tool that helps him craft his vision. “I use music -- because I don’t do drugs anymore -- to enhance emotion. So whenever I make a movie I try to think what it would be as a piece of music,” he said. He told the audience that for 2008's Bronson, he thought of it as a Pet Shop Boys song, and thus he listened to the '80s pop band repeatedly during filming, driving the cast and crew insane, and he cited the silence of the Scottish Highlands as the “music” of Valhalla Rising.

Drive, his first Hollywood studio film that won him best director honors at Cannes, was envisioned as Kraftwerk and other early electronic music. But it was REO Speedwagon that brought Refn and Gosling together, after a first meeting that he’s often compared to a “bad blind date.”

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Refn regaled the audience with the story of his first encounter with his soon-to-be star and muse in which a cold medicine-induced high resulted in him bursting into tears while singing "I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore." He'd bummed a ride from Gosling in order to avoid cab fare just after his Paul Schrader and Harrison Ford project The Dying of the Light had fallen apart.

“That really created a mystical bond between us, and we were able to give birth to this car child in making the film Drive,” he said, of the first movie the duo made together.

Despite growing up in the U.S, Refn made his first films in his native Denmark, and he addressed making his disastrous American debut, 2003’s Inside Job, and how it changed his filmmaking.

“It was a massive disaster, both financially and creatively. It’s all my fault, and I take full responsibility for it. But when I was making it, I thought I was God’s gift to mankind and I thought I could walk on water,” he said. After it tanked, he was approached for a sequel to his Danish hit Pusher. “My first reaction was hell no,” but with the prospect of being a "hasbeen" at 30 and $1 million in debt after putting up his own money for the doomed movie, he took on the Pusher project and turned it into a trilogy. Though initially angry he had to revisit a story he had already told, he enjoyed the process, improved as a storyteller and learned a bit of humility, he explained.

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“Failing was something that had to happen to me, because you need to learn that you can’t walk on water,” he said. That realization melted over into his next film, Bronson, where he recognized his former self in the character that is desperate for attention.

“I decided to make it as a biography of my own life. That’s why the movie starts with him saying, ‘My name is Charles Bronson and all my life I wanted to be famous,’ because that’s what I wanted when I started making films. And not just famous, I wanted to be a legend, and if I died, even better! It was all about the ego,” he said.

He told the audience that he then decided to make films he wanted to see rather than what he thought was expected of him to be recognized by Hollywood.

He continued: “Six months of the year we are always made aware of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ movies, because in America they have this thing called 'awards season' where it’s all about giving each other awards. If you’re not part of the season you are out and it means your film wasn’t good. And that can drive you insane.”

Asked what has been his biggest challenge as a filmmaker, he discounted some of his most humiliating professional situations and focused on the personal. “Those things are just obstacles,” he said.

"The hardest situation I have been faced with, that I am constantly faced with, is the struggle between the profession I have and having a family. Those two things are at constant war with each other, and I don’t have an answer except therapy with your wife."

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