On Wednesday, July 16th, I met Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn at the Bowery Hotel in New York, NY to discuss his latest, already-notorious (booed at Cannes) film, Only God Forgives, which stars Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm. I’d watched the film a week before at an unusually packed press screening. The couple next to me laughed their way through it. I fell asleep for an indeterminate amount of time, but I think got the gist. Our interview was supposed to be 20 minutes. It was cut to 15. Refn spent the first 3.5 on the phone with his wife. That’s chill, whatever. Here’s 11 minutes. I’m bold, he’s normal text:
This film is empty in a kind of a way that makes the viewer have to project things onto it to make sense of it. Would you agree?
What do you mean empty?
I mean there’s a lot of space: a lot of silence and flat color, a lot of room for the viewer to fill in and make connections, to try and create some meaning out of what they’re watching.
Well why does that make it empty?
But space doesn’t mean that it’s empty.
No, we’re arguing over semantics here; different definitions of empty.
No, I’m actually interested in what you’re mining. Because it’s interesting—how we experience entertainment. We have such a clear definition nowadays when it comes to the DNA and structure of cinema. If a film does not live up to that expectation then we come with other definitions to substitute the lack, to fill in our own blanks. That’s what I’m interested in.
In interview, Nicolas Winding Refn is a lot like the movies that he makes: self-conscious, stylish, cocksure and cagey. Cinephilic. Sexist. Either inhuman or superhuman; is that a semantic distinction?
Refn is best known in North America for Drive (2011). His Pusher trilogy (1996-2005), the first of which launched his career at the tender age of 26, was both lauded and loaded. I prefer Bleeder (1999). Ryan Gosling loved Bronson (2008); that’s how the two got together. Refn’s latest feature, Only God Forgives, stars Ryan Gosling as… I’m not exactly sure. He just looked like Ryan Gosling to me, like the photos on the blogs without the smart captions. Gosling has few lines in the film. A dead stare. Tailored suits.
So let’s talk about Ryan Gosling. I’ve met him once. He’s quite a charmer. Did you see Derek Cianfrance’s films?
I’ve seen Blue Valentine, which I thought was very, very good.
Did you see the latest [A Place Beyond the Pines]?
My wife did. She said it was very good.
It’s interesting. Ryan Gosling seems to have become this vehicle… in working with directors that he admires multiple times [Cianfrance twice and Refn twice], he’s like a vehicle for others’ interests. You know, Derek Cianfrance and him look a lot alike; they joke about it. In his films, Gosling’s like this vehicle for some of vision of a sentimental, bad boy trying to be good. What kind of vehicle is Gosling for you?
What do you think?
Well he’s very mute on screen. He almost seems like a prop, to be honest. Or a cut-out.
Like a pin-up magazine. Yeah.
I read that you and Gosling get along because you’re both “momma’s boys who worship women as goddesses.” Is that quote accurate?
What other reasons do you get along?
We hang out, you know. I think we’re both very… I think we’re similar in many ways.
In that you’re momma’s boys who worship women as goddesses?
That’s a good start.
I thought Kristin Scott Thomas was your best female character to date.
She’s pretty impressive.
Kristin Scott Thomas’s atypically-cast performance as Crystal, Gosling’s mother from Milan Fashion Week Hell, is, as many reviewers have suggested, the best reason to go see Only God Forgives.
To know what Only God Forgives is about, watch the trailer. That will give you as much of an indication as watching the film itself. Thailand. Red lighting. Green lighting. Prostitutes. Electra complexes. Boxing. Swords. Justice. “What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in blood” (Andrew Anthony, The Guardian).
What do you feel when you watch violence like the kind of violence that you put in your films?
I never watch it.
Really? You just make it?
No, I don’t — I can’t watch that stuff. I used to watch a lot of extreme films when I was younger. But now having a family, I’ve become very conservative about what’s acceptable and what should and should not be…
You recently stated that this film is kind of like pornography for you, that you were making pornography. Could you elaborate on that?
Well, when people ask me why I made it, it’s so hard for me to answer that. Sometimes it’s better to describe it as a metaphor, so I say: if I were a pornographer, I would be making movies about what arouses me.
And violence arouses you?
No, but I think that the act of violence can be very arousing.
For me, pornography sometimes satiates desire and sometimes it only aggravates it, makes me more desirable. I don’t know. I’m not a very violent person, so when I watch violence on screen, I find myself very numb. If it’s like porn, do you think people will watch it and be satiated or incited?
But I mean what you say is probably true.
Your press packet statement says that you, “always set out to make movies about women but you end up making movies about violent men.” Was this supposed to be a movie about women?
Well, I don’t know. I mean, I think there’s something very feminine about violence that I find interesting.
Because if from a male perspective it quenches thirst, which is a symbol of male masculinity and male aggression, it’s also an extended phallic symbol of sexuality. The idea of sex and violence in one gesture is something I find really interesting.
Sure and it’s swordplay. It’s all very penetrating, the violence that you’re using.
Well, you can go on and on…
Why do you think that you fail at making movies about women?
I don’t say that I fail. I said I set out but I end up, which is very different. I guess it just mutates.
During our short, lunchtime interview, Nicolas Winding Refn was served four hard boiled eggs with toast on two plates. He cracked and peeled all four before starting to eat one. They were boiled so hard, the chalky cooked yolk burst through the white. I dressed nicely for the occasion, more feminine than usual. Makeup. Jewelry. A tight bodice dress. Why? I think because I’d read somewhere that Refn initially wasn’t interested in meeting Carey Mulligan (who he eventually cast as his maiden in distress in Drive) because she was “fat.” I figured if I looked attractive, he might take me more seriously.
Do you play video games?
I’m very fascinated by video games. I don’t really play them but I’m really fascinated by them. I sometimes play Mario Brothers with my kids on the Wii.
I ask because Only God Forgives reminded me of video games I played when I was a kid, like Mortal Combat and Metal Gear Solid. You’ve got these subsequent violent episodes, with a big boss level at the end, and then there’s this kind-of-clunky exposition in between, these very straight-faced dialogues like in the old Metal Gear Solids where the faces wouldn’t move but they would say this very flowery language.
Wow, so it brought you back to your childhood. Pleasure’s all mine.
Are you interested in the ways that viewers will interpret your film?
I’m very interested in how people look at all my films so…
Have you been reading different people’s responses? They’re varied and very interesting.
Well, I like to see when people are diverse, when they either really love it or really hate it. People criticize that there’s lack of—there’s too much space. So we can define that is being empty in a way. But what does empty essentially mean? Empty is not bottomless. So what is the definition of empty? It sort of becomes a very vast meaning. We could discuss your interpretation of empty and my interpretation of empty and that’s what I find interesting: that people argue over the same essence, which is a definition, but from different points of views.
My p.o.v.: I’m indifferent.