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Only Nic Forgives: Gilchrist Talks Style And The Future With Refn
By Todd Gilchrist
Only God Forgives is the story of an American expatriate turned drug dealer, played by Ryan Gosling, who finds himself in a tug-of-war between his domineering mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and the God-like detective that she blames for other son’s death. But in the hands of writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose previous film Drive doubled as a car-chase movie and a dreamlike, ultraviolent portrait of romantic heroism, the crime-and-punishment saga becomes a landscape of twisted sexuality and psychological corruption. Whether or not it catches on with the same commercial fervor as Drive fans remains to be seen, but given the highly-anticipated follow-up’s often obtuse visual style and its sparse, cryptic spurts of dialogue, the film seems likely to divide audiences–which, love or hate, seems to suit Refn just fine.
We sat down with Refn at the recent Los Angeles press day for Only God Forgives to get a snapshot of the budding auteur’s creative process. In addition to talking about his ongoing collaboration with fellow on-the-riser Ryan Gosling, he reveals the intuitive process by which he combines personal experiences, psychological themes and conventional stories to create something entirely unique—and often provocative—but always interesting.
You’ve often discussed the relationships between sex and cinema–both of which are integral components of this movie. Did Only God Forgives prompt that ongoing conversation, or was this the result of it?
You can kind of say that the movie is very much a catharsis of the last three films I’ve made. And there is a sexual-ness to it in the sense that in each movie, I’ve tried to peel away anything that would stand in the way of what I would say is the pureness of an experience. So the broad analogy is more to say that I would like to make a film that feels like acid, where all conventions that we’re used to in terms of storytelling is not existent—and what you’re left with is not about good or bad, which is irrelevant. It’s about how does it touch you, and however it touches you is great. It’s like the Sex Pistols of cinema, as I’ve said—that love and hate is the closest emotion to each other, and you can only polarize with an experience because either people dig it, or they don’t, but they can’t deny the experience.
How did you conceive the story for this? And how quickly did you land upon the sexual symbolism with the main character’s fists that you return to often?
The first image, the whole concept with this was this—and I don’t really know what it meant. And then I had other things going on at the same time—my wife had a difficult second pregnancy, I was very distressed and destroyed and afraid, and I wanted to fight God. Because why was he putting me through all of this pain, if there is a God? So I wanted to make a story about a mother and a son, and I had all of these themes combined with this. And I started taking all of those individual experiences and trying to map out a flow of them—not so much a story, but a flow. How would they flow through the film?
Because the movie frequently shifts between events that are imagined and ones that are actually happening, how much do you personally distinguish between the moments that are symbolic and those that are actually happening?
The few times I’ve seen it lately, I always see something new in it. It’s like the way that I make movies, I structure them. I put all of these ideas down on index cards. They can be all of these various ideas based on all of these fears or thoughts or fetishes I have. And then I use these cards to create a waterfall. And you don’t always understand why the waterfall works, it just feels right, and then when you see it, you go, “Oh! Well, that didn’t work.” Or you go, “Oh, that works.” Or you go, “Let’s mix it like that.”
For example, when he’s looking at the Asian girl in the club, fantasizing about penetrating her, the vision of his mother comes up—and the vision of his mother is raw masculinity. Like she devours men. And then he’s taken out of that possible fantasy about his mother, even as he’s entering this beautiful Asian girl. To him, being taken out of it, his fantasy, by these customers that are having a good time, you see that through his behavior sex is violence. And that’s something that comes along as I’m putting it together, so I like that sense of constant exploring, and not knowing always why, but it just feels right.
You say this story of a mother and a son was inspired by your wife’s pregnancy, and when you talked about Drive, you said you wanted to tell a story about rescuing your wife. How do you come up with ideas like these, and then how do they evolve into these dysfunctional stories?
You know, first it’s like, heighten the drama. You know—you kind of come up with something like, well, in Only God Forgives it was all about the idea of an antagonist. Who was going to be that? Because I didn’t want to make just a mother and son drama, I wanted to make an action movie out of it, and the idea that the mother has full control, almost like she’s put him under her spell and devours him. And once he rebels against her, she takes advantage of him and uses him and manipulates him—and we see all of the evil colors that she represents. At the same time, there’s a very strong moral character with this man who believes he’s God. That kind of in a way is the connection, the key to unlocking the relationship between Julian and his mother. And it’s through him, he kind of represents Julian’s redemption by having his hands removed—because his sin is that he can’t rebel against his mother, because he’s both sexually attracted to her, and repulsed, and under her spell. And that’s a very dysfunctional set-up, but it’s extremely dramatic at the same time. And so that’s what makes it interesting, that that heightened reality is so enormous and yet the dramatic nature is so accessible—but at all, multiple levels of meaning. It’s like staring at a red wall for an hour and a half; it will automatically give you images of what red represents.
Yes, I exorcise it out of me. It’s like therapy. I’m so happy, and empty, afterwards. I’m relieved. But I know it’s going to come back. So I have to get ready to do it, again, and again, and again.
Working with Ryan on this in comparison to Drive, it seems like he’s supposed to do very little as a performer—and your last several films, Bronson and Valhalla Rising, you seem to use actors in a spatial way almost as mannequins. What kind of guidance do you give to him, and how much do you rely on color and sound to enhance his performance?
We very much talk about the sense of movement, you know. Once all of the dialogue has been minimalized, next to nothing, like also in Drive, it’s about positioning him and the camera and understanding that the camera and him, the camera is the window to his soul, which is his performance. And you realize that he has this ability to say everything without having to talk. That I can become obsessed with, and it’s so inspiring to work with, because it opens a whole new possibility of how to tell the story. And music underscores that in different ways. Like when this Asian woman apparently ties his hands and he’s submitting as she pleasures herself, which is a symbolism of his own fear of sexuality—a sense of impotence, symbolically. And as that goes on in the beginning, there’s a very romantic love theme—a very gentle, sensuous piece as the woman pleasures herself leading up to this amputation of his sexual genitals. We take that theme again and we place it in the exact same situation with his mother, in the same room, and this time, she’s a predator. She hugs him in the wrong way. She caresses him in the wrong way. She commands him. She tells him off, she humiliates him. But because of that theme, there’s a sensuous, sexual nature between them, and Ryan’s ability to portray that just by his aura is what great acting is about.
How tough was the “God”-like detective to conceive as a character, as opposed to maybe just a concept, and then what did the actor bring to him?
The idea was to base a creation on the origin of God in the Old Testament. The Old Testament says, God says, “You have to fear me because I will be cruel. But you have to love me because I will be kind.” And that’s a very primal instinct to base someone on, because that’s beyond all logic, it’s beyond any kind of common sense. It’s purely based on instinctual emotions. And the idea that he has this logic, which is that he is God, everything he sees has a consequence—and we all know that, without logic. And that is of course a very frightening character, because that means everything is possible—there is only one judge, jury and executioner, and that is God. And the Thai actor that played him was a very interesting person; he was 50 years old, he had only started acting three years before, and he had many different kind of professions. He was also a master in all of these Asian art forms of martial arts, so his movement, his construction, the way he looked, his sense of speed—it was almost like he would float as he walked. And things like that would give him an unearthly character. At the same time, I wanted him to have a normal life, so the sense that was he unearthly or not was always a mystery.
Your cinematography is always so specific and deliberate, it gives viewers lots to examine when they watch the movie a second or third time. In one scene, for example, you have a static shot of a little enclosed area, and a limping dog runs through.
That was just there. I didn’t put that in. I was like, oh my God—shoot shoot shoot! The dog’s running!
How do you find the compositions that combine the location and the action to achieve the meaning you want a scene to communicate?
It’s very much about finding locations, and finding the right locations. Because that is very much like a character. And then it’s how well can you use it, and what do you want it to represent. The important part of the movie was the film had to have no modern technology—there’s no cell phones, there’s no computers, there’s no Google, all of the devices we’re used to having. There’s none of that. It’s almost like it doesn’t exist. It’s like a land of its own authenticity.
And then it’s like finding, like some of those for example, we shot a lot of the gay bars in Bangkok because they were very flamboyant, and very fairytale-oriented in a way that would give the sense of this film being almost science fiction, in fairytale land. With those it becomes very important to tell the story, because with the limited budgets one has, you have to turn your weakness into your strength. And I always believe that’s one of the great creative experiences, when you can take something that is a weakness and turn it into a strength. You are being creative, and that’s the most enjoyable process. It’s not about the result, it’s about getting there.
This and Drive both have a sort of “neon” aesthetic, which seems to have become popular lately. What intrigued you about it?
Well, I liked that sense—it’s very strong colors, very vibrant, very alive, and Bangkok is full of it. It’s how they light the nights in Bangkok, so it was also something that was given to me by the locations. But it’s a very powerful world of lights.
Because of your collaboration with cinematographer Larry Smith, it’s easier to see stylistic similarities between Only God Forgives and Bronson than, say, Drive, where you worked with Newton Thomas Sigel. How much are those differences a result of just choosing what you think is right for each project, and how much do they come from those cinematographers exerting their creativity upon your vision?
Well, I really love working with Larry, and I very much like to set up the compositions, and then let the director of photography light the image. That’s some of the most fun in the actual filmmaking process. But what’s good about working with different DPs, I find, is it helps you to look at the films you make in different perspectives. Larry’s strength in Bronson and Only God Forgives is that there’s a very strong unity, unlike with Newton Thomas Sigel on Drive, but it’s like each one brings their use of light, and sensibilities—and I take full advantage of that. I always like to try to make something different from the various films that I do. But I loved working with Larry in Bangkok, one, because I was working with a very tight budget, and under a lot of pressure in a foreign location. So it was good that we knew each other very well.
How specific is the construction of each frame for you before you turn it over to Larry, particularly on a film like this that’s so heavy with symbolism?
I would block out the scene with the actors, and then I would look at that blocking with Larry, me and him. And once the actors felt comfortable in their movement, they will also give their best performance, so I find that very important—to work with the actors in terms of how they would like to move. And then once we find what works for them, I would look at it with Larry, and we’d talk about style. After we set up the camera, then I set up a frame, once I have the frame, Larry then lights.
You’ve talked often about the way the specific ideas for Only God Forgives arose, but when do you get a real sense of what you have has become cohesive or achieved some sense of meaning, even if it’s a different meaning than you intended?
It kind of varies, but I look at every frame, or every set-up and every composition, and it’s like each composition has its own DNA into the next composition will follow that or even precede that, [and that] is much and much of my existence. It’s more like painting a picture—you use each set-up so individually. Because first, someone invented the camera, then they took the camera and shot something as mundane as a person walking down the street or the filming of normal life activities. And in a way, the camera is the mirror of the actor’s performance, so with the camera, you can enhance, you can disregard, you can compose, you can create, you can symbolize the performance of the actor which relays the emotion—because the camera is not an emotional mechanism. The camera is a mechanical device, and it helps you access an emotional reaction from the actor. But the camera can be a huge tool in the construction of a performance, in terms of how it composes.
Looking at some of your other potential projects, Barbarella is a movie that I really love, and the sense of sexuality in your work suggests it will be an interesting interpretation. But the original film was sort of silly, so what you feel the emphasis needs to be in an updated form, since she was so passive, which audiences might not embrace like they did then?
All of what you’re saying is true, and that’s why I feel that I can never reinvent Roger Vadim’s version. His collaboration with Jane Fonda was a very successful marriage between a time, a certain political movement, and a certain aesthetic movement in filmmaking. But what’s interesting about Barbarella is that she’s essentially a counterculture character, and the comic books are very different from Barbarella, the Roger Vadim movie, and we just went back to the comic and forgot all about Roger’s film. Because I could only make this if I was to go back to the source material and find my view of Barbarella, because again, her being a counterculture character, you can basically resurrect her every ten years or so. And don’t forget the real appeal to me for Barbarella was also the fact that I knew that my chance of doing “Wonder Woman” was [shot down]. So maybe in a way, Barbarella was a better canvas for me to indulge myself.
Another project that you’re attached to is “The Incal,” a graphic novel that is illustrated by the iconic comic book artist Moebius from a story by filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Given that you clearly like Jodorowsky, whom you dedicate Only God Forgives to, how much pressure does that put on you to avoid the safety of their imagery and their storytelling in your adaptation of the material?
That’s what will make it interesting. I mean, who knows if it’s ever going to happen, because one thing is what you say and another is what reality brings with it. But if I were to do “The Incal,” I certainly wouldn’t fear it; I would do what Alejandro did on his version of “Dune,” which is tear it to pieces, and in that process make his own version—almost, not disrespect the source material, but take the source material as only being source material.
As films like Drive get more commercial recognition, how much are you thinking about each project just in terms of it following your previous ones, and how much consideration are you giving to the movement you’re making, by accident or design, towards the mainstream?
Well, it’s a very interesting question because it’s a minefield of explosions. I do an exercise after every movie, which is to erase my memory of it as much as I can. Or I make the conscious effort of always saying to the people that I work with, we’re not doing what we did the last time, simply for the fact that the fear of repetition, but also for myself, if I’m too comfortable, there’s no pleasure in the creativity. And so I always approach every film I make as if it was going to be my last movie—if I was in a situation where all of the funding was going to be drying up and I was going to be able to do no more movies, at least the last movie I went out with was the way I wanted it to be, regardless of what I had done before.
And I think it’s important to me to always retain that approach, to erase my memory of what was, because I’m always more interested in what doesn’t work. And all of us want success in everything we do, but if we’re still making this contribution with so many different elements, once there’s a formula that seems to work, there’s a tendency to cling onto that just because of the fear of failure. It can be so destructive for us. And that is the exact same fear you have to turn into strength—the fear of the unknown, the fear of deconstructing everything again, and again, and again, whenever you’re making a new movie.