Thai By Night: Nicolas Winding Refn and Cliff Martinez on ‘Only God Forgives’

By  · Published on July 17th, 2013

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, is a gorgeously photographed series of fascinating contradictions. Ryan Gosling is very much his character from Drive, but he’s also wildly different. There’s also an antagonist who simultaneously represents both god and the devil, and in terms of mainstream appeal, Drive is a Marvel film compared to Only God Forgives. Yet the latter features Refn’s most diabolical super villain in Kristin Scott Thomas.


So it seemed natural that my interview with Refn and composer Cliff Martinez took place in a trendy bar in downtown Austin that began life as a seedy brothel. Ornate floral wallpaper looked down on overstuffed booths, adding a kind of Victorian flourish to a space that saw three decades worth of illegal happy endings. It seemed appropriate, and it also wasn’t surprising when more contradictions came pouring out.

Can you talk a little bit about transforming Bangkok into a nightmare fantasy world?

Refn: Bangkok during the day and Bangkok at night are two different worlds. Wouldn’t you say, Cliff? Cliff has spent a lot of time there.

Martinez: It’s kind of like New Orleans, which feels like Disney World by day, and then when the sun goes down it’s a very adult playground

Refn: There are 12 million people in Bangkok. It’s not even like New York where people do actually sleep a little bit. The city goes on 24 hours a day. So there’s a whole other world at night. I spent three months there before we started shooting, and that’s when I decided to shoot everything at night. First of all because of the heat, which was so difficult to deal with. But also during the day, the city is so loud and there’s so much movement. At night it almost became a ghost town, and yet so much stuff was still going on. It became a world that was almost psychedelic.

But you’d been to the city before that, right? Was that dichotomy of Bangkok the major catalyst for the project itself?

Refn: Sure. The whole idea started many years ago. I had started to go to Bangkok for vacation with the family because you get a good value there. I really liked the city. The way it works is that usually you go there and then you go to the islands for the beaches. Then we would always make sure we would spend a few days in Bangkok, and I said, “I want to come back and make a movie here because I really like it.” That was basically how it began, just my wanting to spend time there.

Musically, Only God Forgives is a completely different beast from Drive. We don’t have as much of a soundtrack to speak of, so the burden would seem to fall even heavier upon your shoulders to provide the appropriate pulse.

Martinez: Ironically, the musical journey began like Drive, with the songs. It may not sound that way after the fact. The first thing I did was, well there were five karaoke songs that needed to be created right away, because we had to shoot those. My initial inspiration was that I thought the location was a very important character, and I thought that should be an important element to the score. So I had it in my head that I would do a very Thai pop influenced underscore.

Like many things, I had these goals and objectives that got diverted by other things. The first big diversion was that Nicolas began to cut the film. When you first see the picture is where the rubber meets the road. Nicolas had cut the film to the 1951 score to The Day the Earth Stood Still; my favorite film score of all time next to Fistful of Dollars. I was all over that, thinking, “maybe I can put the two together.” I’ve always thought that if you steal from one person, that’s plagiarism, but if you steal from two people, you’ve created something original.

It becomes homage.

Martinez: So Bernard Herrmann meets Thai pop music, that’s where I wanted to go. I don’t think I really got there, but I failed to do so in an interesting way. In a nutshell, that’s where I was headed, but you never fly from Point A to Point B in straight line. You take all these little detours.

When you were writing the script, did you always envision it as another collaboration with Ryan Gosling?

Refn: Not at all. It was a surprise. I was originally going to make this movie a couple of years ago, before Drive. The film is part of a two-picture deal I have with two French companies. While preparing Only God Forgives, I decided to go to L.A. to see what it would be like making a film in Hollywood. I was going to do a film called Dying in the Light with Harrison Ford, a film that never happened.

I was very annoyed with myself for having gone there and experiencing the reality of Hollywood, where things don’t materialize as fast as you want them to…or not at all. So when Drive came about, I was like, “God damn it, I’m not leaving Hollywood without having done a movie.”

Line in the sand!

Refn: Then the phone call came and Drive was it. I did Drive knowing I was doing Only God Forgives right after. Both movies were cast at the same time, and there were different actors lined up for each film. When my original lead for Only God Forgives dropped out, this unknown British actor, then I suddenly had no star for a movie set to begin three months later. By then Drive had come out and Ryan and I really enjoyed our working relationship, so it became a way to do another film with him.

And he’s great once again. You also worked with Kristin Scott Thomas for Only God Forgives who by the way has my vote for best villain of the year. Did any of her amazing, poison-laced dialogue end up cut out to appease censors?

Refn: That character is designed like an insect, and of course you have the whole Lady Macbeth part of it as well. There’s also the mother side, and the sexuality of being a mother. But when it came to some of the wording, because English is my second language, I asked Ryan, “what would be the worst thing you would call a woman in America?” He came up with a list of suggestions of what she could say that would be most offensive.

Martinez: You could have asked me.

Refn: Oh you knew as well?

Martinez: What an interesting question to be asked.

During one scene in the film, as Ryan is walking through hallways, there were these heavy, ominous French horn tones that reminded me of driving up to The Overlook Hotel. Was The Shining at all an influence for you as you constructed the score?

Martinez: I think if anything ever entered my brain in terms of a reference, it might have been a whiff of David Lynch. But actually The Shining never occurred to me. Nicolas and I have affection for ambient textural music that exists in a gray area between music and sound design. So that was part of our musical vocabulary in Drive.

Refn has talked in the past of his love for synthesizers, and both the Drive and Only God Forgives scores utilize them well.

Martinez: I had an aversion to them for many years. I worked on a lot of low budget independent films and never had the money to hire live musicians. Everything was done out of the box, so to speak, with computers. Steven Soderbergh had a strong aversion to anything that sounded synthetic or synthesized.

And you’ve worked on several of Soderbergh’s films.

Martinez: So I grew up trying to emulate organic sounds and instruments through computer technology; using samplers rather than synthesizers. Then along came Drive. Unlike Only God Forgives, Drive was almost a finished film. All the songs were bought and paid for; they were in place. When I saw that pink font and heard the Kavinsky song, that was a very strong statement of style musically.

Normally the songs and the underscore go their separate stylistic ways. When I heard that I knew I had to acknowledge that musical style in the underscore. I tried to find a way to complement that style. Fortunately, retro synthesizers are all the rage in musical software technology so I kind of embraced it. Previously, that had not been a sound that was in my toolbox, but I fell in love with it on Drive.

So working on these two movies has turned you around on synthesizers.

Martinez: Well with Only God Forgives, I tried to actually emulate the sound of an orchestra for the most part. For me an orchestra is something you use when you want to convey a big scale, and this was a movie about big things; god for instance. Because of the god element, we decided we wanted to have the music be as grand as possible.

I was thinking specifically about the first big fight scene with the dragon mural in the background.

Martinez: Oh yeah! That’s very synthetic, I had forgotten about that. That is super synthesized. I burned a lot of calories during that scene. That was the apex of the film in many ways.

Refn: It’s also long; it’s like seven minutes.

Martinez: It’s one of the longest scenes. The music is center stage, except for the sound of people getting hit in the face. The music was very important. I think I did five or six complete discrete versions of that scene trying to nail it. It’s one of my favorite sequences in the film.

If I may indulge my own genre film nerdiness for a moment, can you give us a status update on the Maniac Cop remake? When I heard you had the rights to it, I went out of my mind with joy.

Refn: It’s a partnership between myself and the original director William Lustig, who is a very good friend of mine. Yeah, we own the rights to relaunch or reboot or rethink or redo the new version. So right now we’re just working on the script to get that into shape. We haven’t hired a director yet, but we’ll shoot some time in the near future.

So you won’t necessarily be directing it?

I don’t think I’m the right person to do that, but producing it is what I’m concentrating on for that film. Both Bill and I are very eager to get started.

Only God Forgives is in theaters July 19th.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.