Nicolas Winding Refn on His Love for Vintage Movie Posters and His New Book (Q&A)

Nicholas Refn, Farewell Uncle Tom Poster Split - H 2015
Courtesy of Fons PR

Nicholas Refn, Farewell Uncle Tom Poster Split - H 2015

Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, director of Drive and Only God Forgives, is set to release his own personal collection of rare vintage American movie posters as a hardcover book due on Oct. 5. The book, titled Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing, features more than 300 pages of posters of classic exploitation-era films from cult favorites like Queen of Blood (see poster below) to more obscure finds like Goodbye Uncle Tom. The book is set to make its U.S. debut at Fantastic Fest from Sept. 24 to Oct. 1 in Austin, Texas, where the director will screen three of the book’s films and participate in a Q&A. 

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Refn about his upcoming book, what frequent collaborator Ryan Gosling’s reaction was to the collection and what the filmmaker misses artistically about the exploitation era.

How did you start collecting movie posters?

It’s not something that I’ve been doing for very long. It came because of a friend of mine, a writer called Jimmy McDonough. Basically one day, he asked me if I wanted to purchase his poster collection. And I said, “Yeah. Sure. Why not?” It was about 1,000 posters. And a couple of months later they arrived here in Copenhagen. And I was like, “Oh my goodness. What the hell am I going to do with all this paper?” And my wife was like, “What the f--k! What did you buy now? What did you bring into the house now?” As I was going through all the posters, they were all from the ‘60s and ‘70s because he had been one of the creators of a fanzine called Sleazoid Express in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, which was the first fanzine to write about Times Square. So he had collected all these posters from working on Times Square. There were all these sort of historical artifacts of an era that A: it’s gone, B: the people from that era are either dead or too old or senile and C: it’s an era that is extremely versatile in our pop culture. As I was going through them, I was like, “God, this is like a time capsule.” And then I decided that I was going to make the most expensive poster book anyone has ever produced with posters from films no one has ever heard of.

When was the point that you felt that your collection could be turned into a book?

When I was going through the boxes. I think we were editing Only God Forgives when they arrived in Copenhagen and I remembered because Ryan [Gosling] was in town visiting and he was photographing them because he loved the designs.

Are there any posters in the book that are your favorite or hold sentimental value for you?

There are two posters from the film director Curtis Harrington. Two different posters from his film Night Tide and one from Queen of Blood. I was friendly with Curtis Harrington before he died a year ago, and I very much liked him and he had a very strange and sad career. So it’s a great joy for me to include these posters in the book because I think he’s a very underrated filmmaker.

A lot of them my wife would not allow to hang on the wall. The only one she wants to come up in our house is Captive Wild Woman. I think because it’s a beautiful image of a woman and an ape is very camp culture. It’s the high-end version.

What interested you about the exploitation era?

I think the exploitation era is very much right now what is in the last 10-15 years really inspiring our pop culture. Extreme obscure cinema, strange cinema, violent cinema, weird cinema is really what has been the inspiration for a lot of filmmakers coming up from the late ‘70s into the ‘80s and ‘90s. If you look at just financially, genre movies are probably the only independent films that are working in the market really. I find it interesting that what was considered trash many years ago is actually becoming a key source of inspiration for a lot of filmmakers.

I think there are wonderful filmmakers making films like that that are not appreciated by the mainstream when they made them, but it turns out that they’re the ones that we remember. All the things that were considered morally wrong or artistically not “in good taste” are the ones that have become the most championed artifacts. I find that interesting.

How did you come up with the title Act of Seeing?

It’s a picture book. You’re going to see more and read less. The act of seeing is the act of an experience. That’s very individual. That’s art. Remember art is very individual. I leave that up to the viewer. Polarization is a beautiful thing.

What purpose do you feel a movie poster serves for a film?

Back then when these posters would hang in the cinemas it was usually their only way to advertise. These films would usually play a week or a day and they were gone. A lot of them were so crudely put together so they had to be explosive and imaginative to draw people in. But I do think that posters are a wonderful art form. In the last many years, it’s been very dull. And that’s why I think there’s a great culture underground that’s moving into the more mainstream level. People love to identify themselves with culture. Culture is a great way for people to find an identity outwards and inwards. So I think there’s a great pleasure in buying something that represents who you are and showing it. I think movie posters are a great way to do that a bit like vinyl albums.

How are posters from the exploitation era different from modern posters?

They’re different because they would only produce a dozen because the film would run over the weekend. So what they had to work with was so limited and a lot of times more imaginative. I think some of them are as beautiful as one of them looks like a Pascal painting. The Nest of the Cuckoo Bird looks like something Pascal could’ve done. And it’s a movie poster. I think nowadays, it’s generally very generic and not as personal. Whereas a lot of these paintings, although they’re trashy and obscure and weird and sleazy and frightening and beautiful, they’re very much a point of view, which that’s what’s makes them interesting.

Why do you think that style disappeared?

I think films nowadays don’t really have to rely on that at all because we’re used to producing on such a level, it doesn’t have the same value. Also the more people you try to cater to, the more mundane you have to make it. I’m not saying you have to make it bad. You just have to make it more so everyone can swallow it.

Where does your style fall?

I very much go for the point of view. That’s basically the one responsibility we have as artists  It’s to take the point of view.