First discovered in 1996 with the Pusher trilogy, Nicolas Winding Refn has become famous for his highly visual feature films, peopled by characters imbued with a certain degree of violence. In 2011, the Danish filmmaker first stepped into the limelight at the Festival de Cannes when he picked up the Best Screenplay prize for Drive, his biggest success to date. Two years later, Only Gods Forgive, starring Ryan Gosling, was selected in Competition. An interview with a director with an unorthodox approach to the art of filmmaking.
Let's rewind a bit. What led you to become a director?
Nothing in particular. I wouldn't say I became a director through any kind of vocation. In fact it was cinema that found me. When I was 14 years old, I discovered The Chainsaw Massacre (1974) in New York. it was after watching that film that I realised not that I wanted to make films, but that I wanted myself one day to be able to convey the emotions the film had aroused in me.
You will soon be presenting a restored copy of the film to mark its 40th anniversary, at the Directors' Fortnight…
It's as if I've come full circle! And there's something very symbolic about doing it here at Cannes. It was the Festival de Cannes that helped bring my films to a wider audience. First of all, there was the success of Drive, which gave my career a huge step up. With Only Gods Forgive, I also hit the headlines, but this time by stirring up controversy. That was of course what I'd been hoping for. I find it thrilling to do things that make people either love or hate you. It's a bit like when the Sex Pistols screamed out their famous Fuck the UK" on stage!
Are you a film buff?
I try to watch many films as possible and go to the cinema to keep up to date, but it's not easy with my work and the kids. These two weeks will be a chance to put that right. I think I stopped being a film buff the day I began to make films.
What are the stages of your creative process?
I always start with an idea. It can come at any time and in any way. When I travel, I always take a few sheets of paper on which I scribble my ideas. I then spread them out on a table to see whether an angle emerges. If nothing appears clearly, I set them aside for a few days. Sometimes, looking back, everything makes sense. But my ideas are changing all the time.
Your work with light is so distinctive that your shots sometimes seem more like photography…
I love photography and cinema is a visual tool. My problem is that I'm colour-blind. I can only see strongly contrasting colours. That's probably why my films are the way they are, visually. I love talking to my camera and using it to tell stories, especially at this particular moment in my life. In the past I made more documentary films. That's when I learnt to love the camera. For me making films is like taking pin-up shots for a magazine.
What are your memories of your first steps in writing and shooting your first film?
I was 24 when I made Pusher. I had no idea what I was doing, and I made the film with all the arrogance of the ignorant. Today I'm much less arrogant about my work. When I made my first film, I had no idea about the mistakes to avoid. I never took lessons in filmmaking. So I threw myself into it using just my instinct. it was the arrogance of the beginner, or ignorance in other words, that really helped me make my first film. It ended up coming back to haunt me in later years when I was putting my other films together. You need to be capable of humility to realise that you need to work on your ego before you can start to make good films. In hindsight, I don't think it's difficult to maintain the freshness of your early works. All you have to do is to make sure you never take things too easy, and keep challenging yourself, testing your limits and taking care never to repeat yourself.
What do you think of Danish cinema and the new generation of filmmakers? Much has been said about the dark and violent side...
Danish cinema has been a huge hit, especially on television. It's going through a bounty era. But I don't think it's a reflection of Danish society. Danish filmmakers are increasingly inspired by American cinema. Having said that, let's not forget that Hamlet came from Denmark and that his philosophy of life was very dark indeed. So perhaps the Danish people carry that darkness inside them.
Is cinema a refuge for you?
Yes, it's even a sanctuary. I like to use it to hide reality. I'm not interested in authenticity. I'm interested in concealing it.
Is it still, as you like to say, free you from your fears and impulses?
Any form of art is an effective way to exorcise your own fears. Art can change the world unlike any other weapon because art inspires. Of course, art is also a form of entertainment, which is why we can't do without it.
Isn't it exhausting to approach the cinema in this way?
It means that you have to accept the highs and the lows. It's a constant process of yin and yang from which you pass from doubt to satisfaction. It's all a question of ego. It's always the ego expressing itself. I think the only way of being true and approaching your own truth is to exorcise your ego. Whatever act you commit, is always a reaction to something. It's like a child drawing for the first time. That for me is the essence of creativity. I'm not at all interested in perfection. What interests me is in perfection..
Reported by Benoit Pavan