6 Filmmaking Tips From Nicolas Winding Refn

By  · Published on July 17th, 2013

While doing press for Valhalla Rising, Danish American filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn announced that the film marked a new stage in his career. After the manic, Brechtian anti-biopic Bronson; the sprawling Pusher trilogy that’s more Gaspar Noe than Gaspar Noe; and the little-seen Fear X, Refn began a series of films about quiet, enigmatic supermen. He continued this focus with Drive, his commercial breakthrough, and has now followed it up with Only God Forgives, which sees a VOD and limited theatrical release this Friday.

While Bronson and the first Pusher film were justifiably celebrated, it’s this current stage of his career that has, for many, defined what “a Nicolas Winding Refn film” means: atmospheric, ultra-violent, deliberately paced, heavy on style. Refn is one of the strangest young auteurs working today, in terms of both his esoteric films and his occasionally bizarre interviews. And his career is only going to get more interesting: his vast slate of possible subsequent projects that include a Logan’s Run remake, a Wonder Woman movie, an adaptation of the comic Button Man, a prequel to the 80s midnight flick Maniac Cop, and an erotic horror film titled I Walk With the Dead.

So while he’s on the up and up, here’s some free advice (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man responsible for Mads Mikkelsen’s one eye, Tom Hardy’s curly mustache, and “The Gosling Stare.”

Find Your Film Through its Pieces

“I don’t know if there are any filmmakers here, but this is how you survive in the film industry. Go to a distributor, and say, ‘Mads Mikkelsen, Viking, action, violence.’ And they’ll says, ‘Sure, we’ll pay for that.’ Then you get the money. And then you go to a really remote area where nobody wants to film.

Then you say, ‘Okay: what would I like to do today?’…And I put everything on index cards because I’m not a very good writer. But I’m a fetishist, so I sometimes have to do it myself. Because it’s sometimes hard to explain to other people about high heels, or women’s legs without being embarrassed. So the idea of putting everything on cue cards is so that you can constantly see everything unfolding.”

This quote came from a recent screening/Q&A of Refn’s 2010 film Valhalla Rising at Brooklyn’s Videology Theater, in which the filmmaker explained his method of “organic screenwriting,” where he assembles his films together not as a narrative whole, but as individual, associated images that he eventually juxtaposes together.

Refn credits this process, in part, to his dyslexia, but it goes a long way to explaining his atmospheric, episodic, sometimes fragmentary approach to his films, contributing to an aura in which anything can happen, and the road to whatever happens is visually stunning.

Get Excited…Like, Really Excited

“Art is an act of violence. My approach is somewhat pornographic – it’s what excites me that counts. I can’t censor this need.”

“I don’t consider myself a very violent man…but I have surely a fetish for violent emotions and images and I just can’t explain where it comes from. But I do believe it’s a way to exorcise various things. Let’s not forget that humans were created very violent: our body parts are created for violence, it is our instinctual need to survive. But over the years we no longer need violence but we still have an urge from when we are born – which itself can be an act of violence.”

Refn has released some of the most elaborately violent films in recent memory. His films glorify, sensationalize, and aestheticize violence (while also making no uncertain terms of its repercussions). Usually that’s the mark of an irresponsible approach to media violence, but Refn pursues violence with a sense of artistry and finesse that’s more entrancing than it is perhaps immediately justifiable (a friend of mine once referred to Refn’s work as “high trash,” which I read as praise; another term could be “artsploitation”).

During the Cannes press conference for Only God Forgives in May, Refn gave this explanation for the personal, cathartic appeal to representing violence onscreen: it both excites him and exorcises a base need. Films can be a productive place for exploring and sating our obsessions, our most Freudian proclivities.

Listen to Brian Eno and Cry

Kill Your Masters and Do All the Things

“I grew up in a cinema family. My parents were brought up on the French New Wave. That was God to them, but to me it was the antichrist, and how better to rebel against your parents than by watching something your mother is going to hate, which were American horror movies. When I saw Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I realized: I don’t want to be a director, I don’t want to be a writer, I don’t want to be a producer, I don’t want to be a photographer, I don’t want to be an editor, I don’t want to be a sound man. I want to be all of them at once. And that film proved that you can do it because that movie is not a normal movie.”

That Texas Chain Saw was Refn’s induction into cinephilia and the possibility of becoming a filmmaker should come as a surprise to nobody familiar with his work. But the context the he elaborated in a 2012 Scott Foundas interview is important: he deliberately distanced himself from the European arthouse cinephilia of his parents and saw cinematic mastery in the “lowest” of genres: horror.

And it was in horror, not the auteurist tendencies of the Western European filmmakers, that he saw the potential for a comprehensive, startling notion of cinematic vision. Each generation might elevate a new set of beloved filmmakers, but each successive generation has the responsibility to tear that down in order for cinema to be exciting, risky, unsafe. And being friends with Alejandro Jodorowsky doesn’t hurt.

Allow Your Films to Unfold Chronologically

After hearing that American indie pioneer John Cassavetes shot some of his films chronologically, Refn decided to take a similar approach. Here’s what he had to say:

“And after I did it on my first movie, I felt, ‘How can you do a movie any other way?’ It’s like a painting – you paint the movie as you go along, and I like the uncertainty of not knowing exactly how it’s going to turn out.”

Let Your Actors Create the Character (and Watch Kenneth Anger’s Movies)

In this 2011 interview, Refn explains how Drive’s iconic scorpion jacket came into being, complete: first with his own idea, then with giving the actor permission to find clothes that make the character, and thirdly with a shared revelation between actor and director while viewing a film. This is far from a dictatorial approach to filmmaking; instead, Refn soaks in the potential contributions of various voices until he finds what’s right.

Refn explained his work with actors further in the aforementioned interview with Foundas: “But I try to draw the actor in – to force them in, in some cases, because a lot of actors don’t want to discuss things or go in deep; they just want to come and do the work, play their part and walk away. But for me, it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to get absorbed and dirty, and a way to do that is to ask the actor what they would like to do. It also forces them to be more truthful.”

What We’ve Learned

Nicolas Winding Refn works from the gut. For someone who has become a staple at Cannes, his approach to filmmaking is hardly heady. He’s far more interested in emotion, in exploring what affects him, in doing what feels and looks right beyond intellectual or logical explanation.

Whether crying on set to Brian Eno or digging into what excites him pornographically or shooting his films chronologically after assembling it through a series of isolated images, Refn’s approach is one that sees affect as the end game – he wants us to feel what he feels, to see what he sees, to obsess over what drives him.

For somebody so immersed in style, that’s an admirably honest method of filmmaking.

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