8 Filmmaking Tips From Guillermo Del Toro and Nicholas Winding Refn

By  · Published on July 23rd, 2011

In one of the best panels in recent memory, Guillermo del Toro and Nicholas Winding Refn chose to combine their allotted time in Hall H (for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Drive respectively). What resulted was a rare conversation from two unique filmmakers who transcended the normal marketing mechanism of Comic-Con to deliver some insight and information about their processes.

There were many different facets to it, and they talked about their movies some of course, but ultimately it became a master class in making films. So here’s a little bit of free film school from two visionaries.

Casting is King

After working with Tom Hardy, Ryan Gosling, Carrie Mulligan, Ron Perlman, and Mads Mikkelsen, it’s no surprise that Refn views who he places in the roles (and who he’ll put through the wringer) as paramount to the process. “Casting is the most crucial thing, and it’s always a headache. It’s like playing Russian Roulette…once the casting is in place, it’s like sex,” the director said.

It’s unclear what he meant by comparing it to sex (maybe that even if the process is bad, it’s still ultimately good), but his filmmaking tip here is like crystal: “Directing is really easy. It’s just inspiring everyone else to give their best, and then you put your name on it.”

Sounds simple enough.

Wide Angle Lenses Give Everything Depth

There are certain filmmakers (like Jon Favreau) who talk about using anamorphic to make everything look more expensive, and Refn joins a sister chorus of hailing the power of the wide angle lens to provide much-needed depth. He contrasted tracking and still shots – saying that we admire the former but the latter imprints on us. Refn also went on to say that during those memorable still shots, what’s going on in the background and how its presented can be just as if not more important than the figure in the foreground (which is why wide angle lenses are the way to go).

Use the Location as a Character

Especially in situations where money is tight (and where you can somehow get to a compelling location), using what’s already there can be a powerful way to make money go the distance. Del Toro praised Refn for choosing locations that would echo the main themes of his films. In Valhalla Rising, the brutal landscape became an enemy to everyone. In Bronson, the prison became a stage. In Drive, Los Angeles serves as a car-friendly paradise of pavement and back alleyways for backdoor dealings. Both directors seemed to agree that choosing your location to serve the story first and foremost could yield solid results.

Fight the Power

You may or may not be at a level where you’re dealing with studios or with powers that be trying to make demands, but Refn evoked the advice that the legendary Alejandro Jodorowsky gave him: “Just smile and nod.” When they try to give you notes that don’t work, smile and nod. Apparently it works wonders.

Del Toro added to the sentiment, saying “If they touch you in a way you don’t like, you say ‘no.’”

Don’t Be Afraid of Poverty

But don’t we need those financial backers to make things happen? Of course. Del Toro joked about trying to get money for projects that people keep asking him about. “I look under the table…in the buckets…it’s not there.” He then went on to praise Film District (which is releasing both films) for their “huge ball sacks.” It takes courage to release films with something to say, and most aren’t willing to risk it, but there’s a flip side to not having a large entity to pay the bills.

“Sometimes owing money is great energy for going out and getting something done,” Refn offered.

Try Doing What You Hate

“I hate vikings,” Refn said when talking about the way he crafted Valhalla Rising. He hated vikings, so why not do them in a science fiction setting? Why not take something that’s tired and inject a little life into it? Plus, taking on a genre or cliche or concept you don’t like can be a great challenge and a good way to see it with fresher eyes.

Aspire to Imperfection

When asked about what drew him to horror, Del Toro spoke about his love for monsters. He didn’t want to make movies where serial killers attacked people with carrot peelers; he wanted to build nightmares and set them loose. Presumably, he wanted to set them loose on a society that focuses far too much on the unattainable goal of perfection – teaching people that they’re supposed to look perfect, smile all the time and act above reproach. His response to that? “Monsters are a living, breathing ‘Fuck You.’ Imperfection is something we can all aspire to.”

It directly relates to the “ugly” things he creates for the screen, but it’s a nice reminder about the creative process itself.

Never Be Safe

“The chief enemy of creativity is safety…creativity is the most capitalistic think tank because it has no rules,” Refn said in talking about his underlying philosophy for filmmaking. Safe is boring. If you aren’t afraid of the process, if it feels too warm and fuzzy, what’s the point in doing it?

Del Toro didn’t have anything directly to add, but considering his earlier comment about big ball sacks and his emphatic nodding while Refn spoke, it seems like a fair assumption that he wholeheartedly agrees.

What Have We Learned?

Creativity isn’t cuddly. All of these tips seem to revolve around similar themes, but they provide an intimate look into the minds of two brilliant filmmakers.

As it turns out, flu medication can do the same thing. It’s not a tip, but Refn did relay a story that makes it clear that sometimes being high can lead to a collaboration.

According to the director, Drive was borne of a single meeting between him and Ryan Gosling where the actor invited Refn to his restaurant in Los Angeles to talk about creating something together. Refn had the flu, and medicated to the point where his head was swimming. This made the meeting less than smooth. It was more or less a disaster.

As he stared off at an angle away from Gosling, he made no sense in what he was saying, and when the meeting was over, he asked Gosling for a ride back home since he doesn’t drive. Gosling said, “You can’t get a cab?” but the idea of getting one and trying to get all the way back across town was horrendous. Eventually, Gosling conceded to taking the strange, European man who made Bronson back across town. In telling the story, Refn said it was “like a blind date where you knew no one was getting fucked.”

The entire car ride was awkward and silent, so Gosling turned on the radio. REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” was playing, making the entire blind date metaphor come painfully into focus.

Refn started weeping. Then he started singing along.

At this point, Gosling was most likely terrified and wanted nothing more than to get this crying mess of a man out of his vehicle, but Refn suddenly snapped into focus and started yelling “I got it! I got it!” over the blaring music.

“You’ve got what?” Gosling asked.

“Drive is about a guy who drives around at night listening to pop music as his emotional release.”

“We’re doing it.”

And that’s how collaborations are created. That awkward evening turned out to be the start of a beautiful friendship that has lasted and will last through a handful of film projects.

Go figure.

Now go out, get dangerous and make movies.

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