Bangkok Fever Dream: Nicolas Winding Refn on Only God Forgives

He's made movies about Vikings, video store clerks and criminals. He made Ryan Gosling an icon. He even directed Geraldine McEwan in Marple. We sit down with the mercurial Nicolas Winding Refn to get the lowdown on his latest film, Only God Forgives

Feature by Tom Seymour | 30 Jul 2013

A shadow passes the waiter's face as he approaches our table; you get the impression that he's been dealing with Nicolas Winding Refn's left-field refreshment requests for a little longer than he'd like. "Do you have a carrot juice – a freshly made glass of carrot juice?" Refn enquires. Surprisingly, they don't. "Do you have steamed milk?" They do have steamed milk. "Then I'd like a cup of hot chocolate with steamed milk."

Refn, who doesn't touch the hot chocolate once, speaks slowly, purposefully, with a slight Danish accent and an impish, mischievous look behind his hipster glasses. He wears a white shirt and grey cardigan beneath a custom black Adidas zip-through top, and on his back slinks a scorpion – the same scorpion Ryan Gosling's unnamed character wore in Drive.

Known in his native Denmark as 'l'Enfant Sauvage' ('the Wild Child'), he's an intimidating person to interview. He doesn't just keep you on your toes, he makes you dance; even he seems unsure of what he's going to say next. Always outspoken, sometimes bizarrely tangential, and often as open as a bad clam, his press tactics are as mercurial as his films.

"I needed to destroy everything I'd built in order to recreate everything again," he says of his most recent work, Only God Forgives, a strange and breathtakingly poised fever dream of a film. "I could have easily have made a much safer choice, a formula that had worked before. To avoid doing that, I had to go away and explode."

When asked how, exactly, he 'exploded,' he throws his arms in an arc and puffs his cheeks out, creating a blast loud enough to catch a quick glance from the adjacent table.

After the sparse, hyper-stylish thriller Drive, which saw Ryan Gosling play a brooding stunt driver who saves his beautiful neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her young family from the hands of murderous hoodlums, Refn had Hollywood on a plate. Tinseltown was desperate to make the Danish-American director their own, a sort of commercially-safe version of Lars von Trier, a director who could inject derivative material with European high-stylings and an ice-cool fetish for violence and sex. The industry wanted more of the same, but Refn fobbed them off, returning home to Denmark before announcing he was to shoot a French-Danish co-production in Bangkok, a Kurosawa-inspired exile-revenge drama from a screenplay he wrote years ago.

"I decided: if Drive was really good cocaine, then Only God Forgives was going to be really fucking good acid," he says.

Inspired by The Evil Cameraman, a fantastically violent short film by underground New York filmmaker Richard Kern – which Refn describes as "frightening, but erotic. Vulgar but sexy" and "nihilistic but very alive" – Only God Forgives follows Julian, an American exile in Bangkok who runs a Muay Thai boxing club with his brother, Billy (Tom Burke). The club is just a front, however, for a massive drug-smuggling operation, which is overseen by the brothers' fearsome mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) back in the States. When Billy brutally murders an underage prostitute, we meet Lieutenant Chang – known as the "Angel of Death" – who hands out bloody justice via a sword he keeps concealed behind his back. As the trailer makes clear, Chang's dance of death with Julian is the film's inevitable conclusion.

"You create your alter-ego," Refn says of channelling Gosling into Julian, a character capable of the most destructive violence while remaining almost suicidally submissive. "I said to him it feels like we came from the same womb. Gosling commits hard, he's very pure. He knew that he had to do something very different from Drive; Drive was about his strength, and this is all about his weakness."

For the karaoke-singing, sword-wielding Angel of Death, Refn street-cast the unheard-of actor Vithaya Pansringarm: "Thailand doesn't have much of a film industry, and the actors that do work look very westernised. I wanted someone who looked authentically Thai," he says. "I had to go into the openness of Bangkok; it was like grabbing a needle from a haystack. I had no idea what the character was going to be like until I saw him."

Only God Forgives is a meditation on the obligation to family, on what it is to be a foreigner in a strange country, and on the way violence inevitably begets further violence. It turns Bangkok into a neon-warped, somnambulist's vision of hell, a city teeming with people, governed by a monster and unmoved by twisted, vigilante justice.

"Bangkok is like a gateway, a borderline, between West and East," Refn says. "During the day it's like Disneyland, but when Bangkok turns into night, it becomes a magical city of Asian mythology. I wanted to make a fairy tale, so I needed a city with a twilight sensibility. People talk about the magic hour in LA, but it's nothing compared to Bangkok. It's a film about the world of the dead, in which Gosling sleepwalks."

The strongest scene in the film comes when a father must beg Chang to spare his disabled child's life, while taking his own. The child's taut face as he stares at Chang, the almost imperceptible movement he makes that seems to suggest Chang should unsling his sword, is one of the most unsettling moments in film this century. "I found him in an orphanage," Refn says apologetically of casting the disabled child. "The idea of the character was the dawning of cause and effect – that his father has already been marked."

When Only God Forgives had its world première at Cannes in May, it was the festival's hottest ticket. Yet it got trashed, brutally, by critics who were expecting, and probably hoping for, another Drive. 'This picture isn't so much about who, what, where, when, and why as much as posing Gosling just-so in front of exotic orangey Oriental-print wallpaper, or allowing the camera lens to travel lovingly across the length of a sword about to be used to perform horrible deeds,' reads the review from the Village Voice's Stephanie Zacharek. 'Without a brand name like Refn's at the helm, there's no way this project would be in competition at Cannes, or would even find its way out of your local bargain bin,' reads the verdict of Film School Rejects.

“I decided: if Drive was really good cocaine, then Only God Forgives was going to be really fucking good acid” – Nicolas Winding Refn

They should know better. "People forget that Drive was very polarising when it was first released," Refn says. "It got a lot of heat. But we all know that criticism fades very quick. People liked it, and that's what stays."

Refn has always had an anti-establishment ethos, a determination not to meet expectations. Both colour blind and dyslexic, he was a contrarian and a trouble-maker at school. At the age of 18, he got thrown out of acting school in America for throwing a chair through a window, and at film school in Denmark he lasted less than a month: he dropped out after realising that his tutors were only interested in teaching him how to make "products".

"Fuck acting school, man. Fuck the system. Fuck the enemy," is his comment on that experience.

Refn's first flush of success came at the age of 24. He had independently written, directed and starred in a short film that aired on an obscure Danish cable TV channel. It was spotted, and he was offered 3.2 million kroner to turn it into a feature. Pusher was the first in a long line of dark, noir-centric films that have come to characterise millennial Scandinavian cinema; but he was far from set. In his early 30s, he declared himself bankrupt – owing his bank £1 million – and had to close his production company, Jang Go Star, after the commercial catastrophe that was his third feature, Fear X: "That film ruined me completely – creatively and financially," he says. "It was made out of ego and vanity and it still haunts me every day." He ended up in London, "flat broke and indifferent," trying unsuccessfully to get his surreal Charles Bronson biopic, Bronson, into production and eventually agreeing to work, believe it or not, on the glamorous set of Marple: Nemesis, ITV's TV-movie adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel.

"If I could say something to the Nic that was making Miss Marple, I would tell him he's so fucking lucky he's experiencing his downfall at an early age," Refn says. "Because he had the strength to get through it."

The doldrums have served Refn well. His collaborators talk of a humble, open director who rarely says what he wants. He'll ask his production designer, his editor or his cinematographer to do what they think would work best for the scene. "You have to utilise your talent," he says. "I'm more interested in what other people think than what I think, because usually there is a better version of what I want to do."

The 42-year-old director has never worked with a substantial budget. Drive, his most expensive film by far, cost only $13 million – nothing in the world of Hollywood – and Only God Forgives cost roughly a third of that. But he likes working this way. "Money feels great, but it's your burden," he says. "The more money you spend, the more the movie has to make. The only way you can make more movies is by being commercially successful. You can't lose money in this industry. So the more expensive your films are, the more enslaved you are to what the film should be."

This dash for cash is most pointed in LA: "The return on an investment in cinema can be so enormous that Hollywood's equation is constantly, 'How much money can we make?'" he explains. "That's why they don't do small films anymore, because financially it's better to do big movies – or at least that's what they think. It's a sad place."

But what would happen if a big studio came to him with $100 million?

"I would take it as a great challenge," he says with a half-smile, "but knowing I would have to make a certain type of movie. I'm much more interested in doing that after Only God Forgives actually. I deconstructed myself in this movie, and it feels I've opened up new possibilities."

It's difficult to imagine Refn answering to anyone. He's a director working only on his own terms, writing his own rule of law. It makes for a cinema exhilarating in its unfamiliarity, compelling in its inscrutability, and audacious in its lack of concern for the tried and tested methods of 'product' filmmaking. "A lot of people want to be in control in the cinema, to be made to feel secure," he says. "I go against those conventions, for good or bad. I want to create a permanent state of unease. I want the audience to ask, 'What the fuck is going on?' If they ask that, they can start to let go a bit. Some people don't. Some people can't. But if you go with it, then trust me: you're in for a ride." 

Only God Forgives is released in cinemas 2 Aug by Lionsgate