Nicolas Winding Refn, age 44, has been a director for 20 years now. But he got his start in film distribution and festival work much earlier in life, thanks to a filmmaking family that took him from his native Denmark to New York City in early childhood. Refn skipped out on a formal film education to make the hard-edged, mesmerizing 1996 crime drama Pusher, and he’s been making features steadily since, including two more loosely chained Pusher movies, the chillingly intimate crime biopic Bronson, and the superb Drive and the strange Only God Forgives, both with Ryan Gosling in the lead roles. Recently, Refn finished shooting his upcoming film, The Neon Demon, and he’s been branching into vinyl and music curation with Milan Records. The Nicholas Winding Refn Presents series includes a remastered version of the hard-to-find Bronson soundtrack, the terrific Disasterpiece score for It Follows, and the soundtrack of Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, with more titles to be announced soon. Refn recently chatted with The Dissolve about the films that served as milestones in his life, and the soundtracks and cinematography that most left a mark on his work.
Nicolas Winding Refn: The first time I saw it was on television in Copenhagen, and I remember I cried when the ape died. We have something that’s similar to Halloween in Denmark—not as morbid, but you still can dress up and things like that. I think I had some makeup on, and I must have been no more than 5 years old. And I remember I cried so much watching it on television that all the makeup got very messed up. But it introduced a great world of the fantastique to me. My first exposure was very much fantasy filmmaking, and I guess that’s what I do.
The Dissolve: How much were you aware at that age of the filmmaking involved? Were you aware that, for instance, it was a stop-motion ape, not a real one?
Refn: Oh no, no, no. I had no knowledge of that, even though I grew up on film sets. My father was an editor, and my mother was a photographer. I’ve been running around sets my whole life. But at 5, it was a little too early to understand the differences. I was just captured by the magic and the power and what art is able to do. If it penetrates your mind, it can mess everything up. And it did when I was 5.
The Dissolve: Most of us in the 1970s didn’t have access to equipment that would let us re-watch films, but growing up in a filmmaker household, you might have. Was this a film you ever returned to, or was it just a one-shot impact?
Refn: It was a one-shot impact. I think the first movie I remember seeing in the cinema was Fat City, the John Huston movie. It was in Stockholm, because my father was in Sweden showing one of his movies, and for some reason, I was brought to a screening of Fat City. And I remember seeing the ending of Nashville, maybe a year before I watched King Kong. I think I watched Smurf movies as well in the cinemas. And I remember that Disney movie about a cat that could talk. Not the cartoon, but a live movie with a cat?
The Dissolve: Oh, maybe The Cat From Outer Space?
Refn: Yes, that one! I remember watching that in the cinemas as well. My uncle had a huge cinema.
The Dissolve: Were your parents interested in your film education from a young age? Did they sit you down and show you things?
Refn: No, no, no. I kind of learned that all by myself, which I think you have to anyway, because how else are you going to get away from your parents? My mother photographed Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis and so forth, so it was very difficult to rebel. When I moved to New York with my mother and stepfather—my stepfather was also a photographer. They were very hardcore Scandinavian socialists living in New York, and we really lived very well, which was kind of odd for socialists. My mother and stepfather had been been through the whole ’70s hippie revolution and the flower-power thing and so forth. So with parents like that… The only thing that would really piss my mother off was hardcore American capitalism and violent American movies. For me it was like, that could really create a debate. [Laughs.] So Ronald Reagan was God to me, as well as American horror films.
The Dissolve: Your choice for most influential movie at age 10 is pretty violent and capitalistic.
Refn: Mean Streets was pretty significant. It taught me music and film. I still remember to this day the scene where Robert De Niro steps into the club in slow motion and Martin Scorsese put on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” The cutting was just like, wow. I was like, “That is what music and images can do, and they don’t have to say anything. That is cinema.” That use of music in Mean Streets was very educational for me. And later, I watched Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising,” and I saw where it all came from.
The Dissolve: At that point, your family was actually living in New York. Did you associate the film with where you were living?
Refn: No no. Hey, I was a kid. I was living in Manhattan. I liked consuming elements. I’m from a generation of television. When I moved to America, I soon realized there was more than one channel. It was like heaven. I could control the flow of images. My mother and father and stepfather would still take me to the cinemas, but the idea of television and controlling it became very, very interesting. My own children are very much doing it through YouTube and digital media, and I find it very fascinating. My mother also forced me to see The 400 Blows. I was very reluctant, but I have to admit it made a huge impression on me, especially the ending. But I had very strict television rules, so I was not allowed to watch a lot.
The Dissolve: Did you identify at all with the child in The 400 Blows? You would have been close to his age.
Refn: I think, later on, I could see more similarities, mostly about living in a fantasy world.
The Dissolve: Do you associate any of your films’ love of the underworld and criminal violence with Mean Streets, the way you associate it with your use of music?
Refn: That was more about distribution. When I made my first film, Pusher, I had worked for my uncle for a couple of years, and I just knew what would sell. Growing up, I was fascinated by crime movies, and certainly ones set in New York, because that was my own upbringing. It was fantasy to me, but they were great fairy tales in mythological nature. And that’s what crime is. Shakespeare would write about royal families because they were the equivalent. If Shakespeare was still alive today, he would write The Wire, something like that. When I was younger, I was interested as a voyeur into that world, and I’m sure Mean Streets was a very important element in that.
Refn: I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre when I was 14, and decided whatever that movie did, I wanted to do. I think that movie showed me that film was an art form. That film was not about a three-act structure. Up until then, I had been exposed much more to conventional Hollywood filmmaking. And when I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it was like, “Film is not just mass entertainment. It’s actually an expression.” Tobe Hooper’s movie goes against all logic of filmmaking as you’re otherwise taught it. It has no point, it has no meaning other than just emotional impact. It was very pure for me. It also showed me that movies could be a soundtrack. It could be a John Cage concert. It could be a flow of images that in the right order has different meanings. I very much credit that movie with starting my career. I didn’t want to be a director. I didn’t want to be a writer. I didn’t want to be an actor. I wanted to be everything.
The Dissolve: How much of that response was wanting to re-create the film’s emotional impact, and how much was an intellectual, “I want to construct films that operate in this same unconventional way”?
Refn: It was more of an emotional impact than anything else, because I was so devastated. I was just shocked by that movie. My center had been blown out of my head. It was just like a drug. And I remember that my mother was very angry that I’d gone to see it.
The Dissolve: Do you remember how you got into an R-rated movie at 14?
Refn: Oh yeah, come on, it was New York. It was actually a double feature with The Hills Have Eyes [Laughs.] at something called Cinema Village, which is still around. I’ve actually had a few of my movies play there, so it was very circular.
The Dissolve: Did you sneak into a lot of movies at 14?
Refn: Oh no, no, not in New York. I was a tall, Scandinavian kid. Come on.
The Dissolve: So they just didn’t question you?
Refn: No, it was a time when there was much more freedom in the flow of entertainment. There wasn’t so much control as there is now, and an obsession about controlling.
The Dissolve: At that age, what was your entertainment like? Were you primarily interested in films? Were you running around New York by yourself?
Refn: I was a big club kid. I came from the era of Michael Alig and that whole crowd. I always had a interest in obscure entertainment or extreme entertainment, whether it was music or film or any other act of expression. The rawer it was, the more interesting it was to me.
The Dissolve: Do you date that back to this period and this film? Has it always been a part of you?
Refn: I guess it always has, but I think I’m very much a product of the New York early 1980s, when I started becoming a teenager, and could use all the uniqueness that city has to offer culturally, because it is a cultural mecca. Or it certainly was at that point, because there was so much diversity. A lot of that’s gone now, but when I was still there, I was able to get the last “famous” era of New York.
The Dissolve: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre soundtrack is so industrial—it’s all squalling, clanging soundscapes, when it isn’t about uncomfortable silences. Did that have an impact on you?
Refn: Oh, absolutely. Whenever I do a movie, I still have that soundtrack in my head. Because it was very, very obscure and very experimental. It was more a combination of sounds that affected me in a specific way. I couldn’t paint. I couldn’t dance. I couldn’t sing. I couldn’t really act, so I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to express myself. And film just found me. It’s a wonderful canvas that has many abilities. I guess early on, I realized that to make it, you have to become everything. It has to be essentially all about you, and that’s how I look at it.
The Dissolve: Speaking of obscure and extreme entertainment, that’s this film. I’m always a little astonished by how few people have seen this movie.
Refn: I love this film. I actually love the soundtrack a lot as well. And in a way, it’s probably the most accurate movie version of what it was like clubbing in New York at that period. Besides being a really wacky science-fiction movie, it’s a great, almost historical throwback to an era that’s certainly no longer there. It’s a bit like seeing some British film about Swinging London. It’s very unique, and it’s a shame [screenwriters Anne Carlisle and Nina V. Kerova] didn’t make any more films, because I love that film so much. It shows that perfection is really the true enemy of creativity, in my opinion. It’s a movie I think about a lot.
The Dissolve: It has a very raw feel. It was one of the earliest films I saw that felt like could have been made among friends who somehow got hold of a camera, as opposed to being any sort of studio production.
Refn: Yeah, and I always gravitate toward the expression of one individual. I find it more interesting than a board-meeting movie. Even though it might not be as classy or as perfect, it’s just so much more interesting. It’s like watching children draw. It’s so much purer in its essence. And it’s much more debatable whether it’s good or bad. This film resonates a lot longer in my opinion. With Liquid Sky, they got together and didn’t make a yapping movie. They made a science-fiction movie about sex. I mean, how great is that?
The Dissolve: Do you think of this movie as actively trying to capture an era or a particular scene?
Refn: I find it a very accurate film of a period in New York. It’s very similar to another movie I saw many years later. I always say if you want to know what it’s like to be creating, you should watch The Driller Killer, which was Abel Ferrara’s first real feature. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking, and it’s probably the most truthful picture about what it’s like creating.
The Dissolve: Where were you when you saw this? This was after you graduated high school.
Refn: It had a lot of midnight showings, as well as it was on tape.
The Dissolve: Between seeing Liquid Sky and Clerks, you started your filmmaking career, shooting Pusher at age 24. How did that develop?
Refn: I had been working for my uncle in distribution each year for Cannes, and my job was to find films outside the various competitions to suggest to him to distribute. And I went to see Clerks, and I met Kevin Smith at the screening, and he talked about having dropped out of film school to make his movie. And then I saw his movie, and my reaction was, “I can do that.” And I went home. My mother was going to give me $70,000. My stepfather had a 16mm camera. My uncle had a theater. I knew that crime pictures sold. And this was in a year where genre films were not in vogue. Yapping Sundance American independent films were in, post French modernism. People were just making movies where everyone was just walking around talking. I wanted to make a straight-on genre movie. Prior to that, I’d gone to acting school in New York because John Cassavetes had gone to the same acting school. When I was 18, I saw Cassavetes’ The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie. I remember thinking, “That’s the kind of acting I want to be able to do. How do I get that?” So I went to the same acting school, and realized it sucked, and got kicked out. Then I saw Clerks, and thought, “If he can do it, I can do it.”
The Dissolve: You were accepted at The National Film School Of Denmark, but chose not to go. Was it because you had seen Clerks?
Refn: Yeah. I saw Clerks in May. I went home, started saying, “I’m going to do this movie now.” My mom was going to help me. Everyone was helping me set up. And everyone kept saying, “You got to go to film school, you’ll learn how to make movies and connect into the world of entertainment.” The year before, I’d applied to [Britain’s] National Film And Television School and didn’t get in. I applied again, and didn’t get in then, either. And then I applied to the Danish Film School and got in the following year, and didn’t go because I was making a film.
I was able to get some money for Pusher from the government. I applied for a grant for $800,000, and they actually gave it to me, which will never happen again, because I had no track record. But it was a time when Danish film was not very popular, certainly not internationally. And there was not a lot of interest in what was going on in Danish cinema. For some reason, my application just got approved, and then suddenly, I had this money. I was supposed to go to film school two months later, and my mother was very concerned about what I should do. Should I make a movie or go to film school? My father said to me, “You don’t know how to make a movie. Of course, you should go to film school.” But my stepfather, who has been very important in my life, said, “Listen, just do it. What’s the worst thing that can happen?” And so I did it.
The Dissolve: Was there anything stylistically or aesthetically inspiring about Clerks? Or was it just that it was so lo-fi and handmade and yet so successful?
Refn: Yeah, it wasn’t so much the aesthetics, because mine are very different from Kevin Smith’s. It was just, “He did it.” And he did it his way, on such raw ability, with such a primal approach. Quentin [Tarantino] had just done Reservoir Dogs and [Robert] Rodriguez had just done El Mariachi, and they were leading independent film. I think the same year I saw Clerks, I saw Bad Lieutenant. And I was like, “That’s it. I know what I have to do now.”
The Dissolve: It certainly paid off. The response to Pusher seemed so strong so quickly.
Refn: When I made the movie, I couldn’t hire a crew in Denmark, because nobody believed I could pull it off. I had to reach to Sweden for crews. No one on the feature had done a movie before. I always say I made the movie with the arrogance of not knowing I couldn’t make it. Anything was possible. I’d seen The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, but also The Battle Of Algiers. I wanted to capture that insanity of reality. I’d seen Cannibal Holocaust, which was very, very hard-edged.
I think my stepfather had shown me the documentary One Year In A Life Of Crime, which was one of the first films documenting a whole period on video, following these themes in Brooklyn documentary. I very much remember the ending of that documentary. You follow this guy who ends up being a drug dealer, and you see him in his house doing drugs while his wife is cooking food for the baby. He turns to the camera and says, “Don’t end up like me,” and laughs. And I was like, “If I’m going to make a crime film, I have to make it not about crime, but about people in a criminal environment.” I’m not a crime groupie, but I like people in desperate situations. Pusher was very much about people in a desperate environment.
When it was finished, it didn’t get a very good critical response in Denmark. A whole generation of young people found it, so it became successful box-office-wise, but I couldn’t sell it anywhere else in the world. No festivals wanted the movie. Again, it was at a time of a certain kind of independent film, which was mostly just people walking around, talking about semi-philosophical things. Genre films were considered B-movies, and not something of the arts. All festivals turned it down. I never expected something to happen, but then it got picked up by a British distributor who basically put it into the cinemas, and it very quickly found a young audience again. And from then on, it became very successful, and was able to be shown around the world. But I’ve always realized from then on that my audience consists of young people. And that was a learning experience, and a very meaningful experience, Pusher.
The Dissolve: Speaking of films about people walking around talking philosophy…
Refn: I was making Valhalla Rising. I sold it as a Viking movie, but I had no interest in Vikings. I tend to make films with subjects I’m not particularly interested in, because that challenges me to look at the subject in a different way. I like that concept of putting cards on the table that automatically make you go right even though you want to turn left, because everything will look different. What I really wanted was to make a science-fiction movie, about science. And the concept of the Vikings crossing the Atlantic to America, that was essentially like traveling to outer space, or another planet. It takes place at a time of religious turmoil because Christianity was about to really spread through the rest of the European continents, and with that came order, the way we know it nowadays. I’d never really seen a Tarkovsky movie, and I saw Stalker, and I was like, “Wow, that’s science fiction.”
The Dissolve: Criterion has a short video where you’re in the company release closet, picking things off the shelf and talking about them. And you see Stalker, and say, “I’ve stolen many things from him. We all have.” What in particular have you drawn from Tarkovsky?
Refn: Stillness, and that ability to tell stories between heaven and hell. Maybe subconsciously, more than anything else really. If certain things touch us, they stay with us for the rest of our lives.
The Dissolve: He’s another director with a unique relationship with sound, and with ambient noise as a soundtrack. Is that part of the appeal with Stalker?
Refn: Oh, yes. I had never seen a science-fiction film like that, because nine times out of 10, science fiction deals with technology, or the level of technology. It was a bit similar to Liquid Sky to me. Science fiction was a metaphor for something deeper.
The Dissolve: You’ve talked about how you never re-watch your own films after you’ve cut them, unless you have to sit in at festival screenings. When you have a film like this that requires study to understand, do you enjoy re-watching other people’s films?
Refn: I don’t much anymore. I guess I download them in my mind. When I was younger, I was more interested in studying it. But after you start making your own movies, it just becomes a sense of inspiration. It’s interesting, though. I’ve only seen the movie once, and I still remember it very, very well.
The Dissolve: Going from Pusher to Valhalla Rising skips over a lot of your career. As you were making the Pusher sequels and Bronson, were you learning the craft from books, from other people, just from experimenting?
Refn: From doing it. Learning by doing.
The Dissolve: What do you make of Stalker’s religious content? The whole movie seems like a big religious metaphor.
Refn: Well, one of the interesting things about it is that it’s science fiction about the inner journey, where you have nothing if you don’t have faith. I’m not a religious man, but I’m sure I’m a man of faith. That’s what I found interesting in that movie.
Refn: I think I first saw this movie when I was 12 or something, but only because I was in my uncle’s cinema, waiting to see another film. So I just saw the beginning of it, where the two boys are looking for weapons and they find a rifle. And then 20 years later, or something like that, in my early to mid-20s, I caught it accidentally on Swedish television. I thought, “Oh my God, I forgot about this,” but I never saw the finished film. And then at 35, I watched the finished film, I was absolutely horrified. This film should be shown to anyone who wants to go to war. It takes out any glamor. It’s such a relentless movie. I was able to talk to some people who knew the director a little bit, and I saw some of his earlier films as well. But Come And See is such an achievement cinematically that it’s like The Battle of Algiers. It’s like one of its kind.
The Dissolve: What most strikes you about the filmmaking?
Refn: Everything! It’s just so bold and so relentless. On a technical level, it’s superb, and on a sound level, it’s absolutely disturbing. It has probably one of the greatest structural twists I’ve ever seen, and one of the greatest moral questions. The ending is so unique, the way he portrays it, that to this day and age, I use it as an example of great storytelling. The movie goes beyond being a movie, but by touching on morale more than anything else.
The Dissolve: You talked earlier about being drawn to extreme stories—
Refn: This is certainly the most extreme you will ever see.
The Dissolve: Is that the center of the appeal, or is it more the aesthetics?
Refn: Well, it’s a combination, but I like extremes of everything because extremity touches your outer limits, whether it’s sex or violence or love or hatred. In between is political correctness, and who wants to be that? That’s like asking someone if they want to be normal.
The Dissolve: With your own films, are you trying to meet that standard of extremity, of pushing people’s boundaries?
Refn: Well, when I was younger, I was probably more arrogant for vanity’s sake, though now I get that when you have a family, there are other things in life. But also, I started making films as a Danish filmmaker. I just make films based on what I want to see.
Refn: That is a bonafide masterpiece in my opinion. It’s such a unique film.
The Dissolve: What do you make of the herky-jerky editing?
Refn: Russ Meyer was a very unique filmmaker, especially in the early days of his career, editorially and visually. They’re very much like pin-up magazines, because they’re like page-by-page turning. They’re quick, they’re fast, they’re chaotic. Especially, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is a combination of so many various kinds of films, it’s almost intoxicating. The edit goes to such extremes. And at the same time, it’s like a coming-of-age movie. Its a rising-star movie. It’s a melodrama. It’s a drama. It’s a horror film. It’s a comedy. It’s a farce. It’s social satire. It’s political. It’s like you’re thrown around constantly, and you’re never able to land on your feet until the movie’s over. And it has a crashing soundtrack.
The Dissolve: His use of color is really intense, in a way that reminds me of your work on Only God Forgives. In many of the films you’ve cited here, the cinematography is unusual to the point of being experimental.
Refn: Well, he was more of a composition guy. When he made his other films, he was always working at a very low budget. He was a still photographer, so he had very wonderful taste and a lot of technical knowledge. But he approached everything as pure fetish. There’s only so much you can take of it. But I certainly have had great times watching his films, and still do whenever I get my chance. They’re hard to find now, because unfortunately, his estate has gone into decay, and nobody can save them. But especially movies like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! or Lorna have great soundtracks, great sense of music. His films weren’t very much about narrative storytelling. They were more about the flow of emotions that he was obviously very fond of—or obsessed with.
The Dissolve: He had some specific, obvious obsessions in other ways, too. I think another reason it’s harder to find these films is that exploitation films have fallen out of style. With porn readily available all over, it feels like there’s less interest in this kind of comparatively coy sexual exploitation in cinema. And it’s generally less favored in America than violence-based exploitation.
Refn: Absolutely. Americans are still very puritanical. There’s a big difference between sexuality and pornography. Russ Meyer made erotic cinema; he didn’t make pornography. His cinema was very sexy, and in the end, it got a little bit too much of the same thing, because he would never succumb to pornography. He always kept his style, but then his style became his enemy. Like everything, you always have to challenge yourself to make different kinds of films. But he was still obsessed with one thing. That’s a good lesson to learn. I do think sexualized violence is what he really dealt with, but he made it very erotic. He always made women the strong sex. It was always women who had the upper hand.
The Dissolve: How is this film particularly relevant to your work now?
Refn: I just finished shooting The Neon Demon, and it only has woman protagonists. The standing joke is that it’s another Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. We would joke a lot about how part two is going to be Beyond The Neon Demon. By the way, Valley Of The Dolls is another great movie. Very much my kind of movie.
The Dissolve: Myers’ movie is sort of satirizing the original film, and sort of stealing it. What would you think if somebody made a film like that about one of your movies, a sort of fake sequel/ exploitation satire?
Refn: I would say, “Thank you very much!”