Cannes: 'Only God Forgives' Director Nicolas Winding Refn on Making 'Films Like a Pornographer' (Q&A)

Nicolas Winding Refn - Sundance Portrait - 2009
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The auteur, whose film is playing in competition, has a candid conversation with THR, revealing that his daughter sees ghosts and he considers Ryan Gosling his twin.

Two years after Nicolas Winding Refn’s triumph in Cannes with Drive, which won him the festival’s best director honors, the Danish filmmaker returns to competition with Only God Forgives. The Bangkok-set crime drama again teams Refn with his Drive star Ryan Gosling, who plays an American living in Thailand who is forced to avenge his brother’s murder. Refn, 42, spoke to THR about his protracted struggle to make the film, dealing with Thai ghosts and his fetish for onscreen?violence.

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The Hollywood Reporter: You originally planned to make this film before Drive with Luke Evans playing the lead. How did the project change when Evans dropped out and Ryan Gosling came aboard?

Nicolas Winding Refn: What happened was right after making Valhalla Rising, I signed a two-picture deal with [French production/sales companies] Wild Bunch and Gaumont. I went off to Bangkok to prep what was originally conceived as a fight movie. Then I got sidetracked a bit; I was set up to direct The Dying of the Light from a script by Paul Schrader with Harrison Ford. It would have been great, but, well, it’s Hollywood. It fell apart and by then I had spent so much time trying to make a movie in L.A., I thought I’d have to get something off the ground. And that was Drive. But even as I was doing Drive, I was continuing to work on the script for Only God Forgives and as I did, the film started to change. It started out as a normal fight movie, but because I was doing other stuff and becoming interested in other things it developed more into the idea of creating your own world -- of a sort of dream world next to reality. Which is a bit like what Drive is. That led to us shooting the whole film at night, to create this sort of dream feel. It changed the approach. There’s also a strong spiritual component to the film, surprising for a crime movie.

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Some of that came from things that happened when we were in Bangkok. My youngest daughter, she has a gift, she can see spirits and ghosts. We were staying in our first apartment in Bangkok. She couldn’t sleep. Every night she would wake -- she was only 2 -- and point to the same corner and just scream NO!  Four to five times a night. When you have a daughter with a gift like this, you accept it. But if I was in L.A. and just called reception and said there’s a ghost in my room, they’d lock me up. But I called our Thai production manager and a half hour later he arrived with a shaman. That kind of experience, of the spiritual world living so close to the real world, being so accepted, really cemented the sensibility of how the movie had to be.
THR: Why did you take the very unusual approach of shooting the film in chronological order?

Winding Refn: I shoot all my films in chronological order -- I’m not interested in what it is, I’m more interested in what it’s not and to find out what it’s not I have to go on this journey of making the movie from start to finish. The only time I had to compromise a bit on this was with Drive, because it wasn’t financially possible. I had to shoot the action together at the end. But Only God Forgives is very much about the journey. You know, I make films like a pornographer. I shoot what arouses me. What is it about violence that arouses you? Graphic violence is a constant throughout your movies. I don’t really know. I don’t know so much if it is violence per se. But I believe art itself is an act of violence -- there is a very violent element to the act of performance. It’s like sex and penetration, pushing yourself out there onto an audience. The acts of violence that I continue to project, I don’t quite understand them. Maybe it is like anything in art that it’s a lot about desperation. It’s like giving birth -- always dangerous and always mysterious.

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THR: And always bloody.

Winding Refn: Yes! Having [two] children has transformed my life -- their births were the most amazing things I have ever experienced. But I think maybe my films have become more violent since then.

THR: This is your second film with Ryan Gosling. What do you see in him as an actor?

Winding Refn: We are very similar. We say we must have been twins separated at birth. Of course, then there’s the question of who is the good and who is the bad twin. But as an actor he is fearless -- he is willing to go anywhere if it works for the character. He is incredibly talented in terms of craft. He can say a thousand words without saying anything. When you have such a cinema powerhouse, why wouldn’t you want to use it?

THR: What is it like to be coming back to Cannes two years after winning best director here for Drive?

Winding Refn: I learned very early on -- the hard way -- never to take anything for granted in this business. When they selected the new film for competition I was very happy. Of course, it speaks to your vanity, to your ego. We are talking about Cannes. It’s one of the few places in the world where film is really celebrated as an art form. Then there is also the very strong signal it sends to the market. So I’m thrilled to be back. Cannes isn’t just fun, it’s a lot of fun. It’s f--ing great. But I hope this film surprises people. One thing to remember is when everyone thinks you are going to go right, make sure you go straight, backwards or left. Remember that the greatest pleasure in sex is the mystery. And it’s the same with?art.