Nicolas Winding Refn was just 26 years old when his debut, Pusher, caused a stir both in his native Denmark and further afield. Refn’s grim portrayal of Copenhagen’s criminal underworld and the bottom feeders who eke out a living peddling drugs was hailed as the first Danish gangster film and set Refn on an upward, albeit wavering trajectory that would soon see him working in Hollywood. However, numerous obstacles stood between Refn and unmitigated success – not least the young director’s own inflated ego – and the next decade proved a bumpy ride that saw him retreat to his homeland, languish in British television, before hitting his stride with 2008’s Bronson and finally glimpsing genuine success with 2011’s Drive.

Along the way, Refn introduced the world to Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, The Hunt), shaped the career of little-known British actor Tom Hardy, and transformed all-American pretty boy Ryan Gosling into one of the decade’s most hardboiled antiheroes. In his latest film, Only God Forgives, Refn reunites with his Drive leading man and heads for the sweltering heat of Thailand, descending into a neon and blood-drenched hell, where he proves as controversial and provocative a force as ever. I was gifted a rare opportunity to talk at length with the director about Only God Forgives, his career-to-date and the tumultuous road from Copenhagen to Bangkok.

Were you familiar with Thai Cinema before you began Only God Forgives?

NWR – Not really, but I was a huge fan of Tears of the Black Tiger, so much that I hired the same costume designer. She didn’t speak English but was absolutely terrific and was a huge influence on the style of the whole movie. Because of my limited budget I decided to get more shooting days by trading off production design and camera equipment. So (cinematographer) Larry Smith’s lighting equipment went down to essentials and Beth (Mickle)’s production design budget dropped to basically just wallpaper. We would just use locations as they were, but Bangkok is extremely visual, almost like a science fiction environment.

What were the unique challenges of working in Thailand?

NWR – I quickly realised that the crew was absolutely terrific, they exhibited a very professional standard, so there were no obstacles there. But right before we started shooting, The Hangover Part II had been in town and prices had skyrocketed. Warner Bros would just pay for everything and here we were, saying “No we’re not Thai but we need to make movies at Thai price.” That took a lot of persuasion.

What really messed with my mind was the insane heat. I shot the whole movie at night, and everywhere had air conditioning. But because of the noise we had to turn them off when we were shooting so we would all end up in this intense furnace. For a guy from Scandinavia who’s used to the cold and rain, that was pretty hectic. But otherwise it’s always about time. How can you get the most value from the time. We had 8 weeks prep and 7 weeks shooting. But because we were only shooting at night we were probably about 50% slower, so it was tight. One thing that definitely didn’t help that was the traffic, it drove me absolutely insane.

As far as make-up and practical effects, you certainly go further than ever before in Only God Forgives.

NWR – We were just more creative with what we could do. It’s finding that balance between being explicit and being subliminal, and if you tip over in either direction it loses its effect. But as with pornography, you’ve got to have the payoffs.

You often talk about violence as pornography and the femininity of violence. What do you mean? 

NWR – There’s certainly something very pornographic about violence, it’s the flip side of sexuality. You can say drama is based on two emotions, sex and violence, everything leads back to a combination of both. They are very different outlets but they’re essentially the same emotion. Art is an act of violence. The act of creating is a violent expression. In real life, violence annihilates everything. Violence in Art can be a way of expressing an emotion that penetrates the audience very profoundly and provokes a reaction. And it’s through our reaction that we use our minds and engage with Art, rather than just consume it. So the act of penetration is essentially the purpose of Art.

Does it bother you that Only God Forgives has been criticised as being misogynistic?

NWR – No, on the contrary. It keeps it alive. They call me misogynistic because the antagonist in Only God Forgives is a woman. If you really want to analyse it you can say I’m the exact opposite, because most of my male characters end up self-destructing, so I’m obviously not interested in worshipping masculinity. Art is all about your own fetish. I love women, they are very rarely victims in my films, and if they are it’s quick and relatively painless, whereas the men suffer a long, slow death. Julian’s girlfriend, Mai, is the only one who stands up to his mother, and for that he threatens her. So it’s a very strange label to put on my films. I think people are so desperate to define everything that they will say things they may not really understand. The need to define is stronger than the willingness to accept what my films really are.

There are certainly no easy answers in your work. Almost all of them end ambiguously.

NWR – That’s the only way art can travel with you. If you as an audience take it with you, you have to add the conclusion yourself. It always reminds me of the ending of The Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky has led his disciples up the mountain, and then turns to the camera and speaks directly to the audience. The camera zooms out and we see that it’s all an illusion. That certainly made a big impression on me.

Only God Forgives is dedicated to Jodorowsky. What does he mean to you as a filmmaker?

NWR – There’s a strong personal friendship between us. We’ve known each other for years. He christened me his spiritual son, he gives me tarot readings. I’ve been using that a lot, when I’ve gone to the dark side or I’m at a creative crossroads, so for that of course I wanted to thank him. On a professional level I think his influence in pop cinema is still very unappreciated. I think it’s because his inspiration is so deep, you can’t just go to a specific type of film or style or piece of music. It’s more a state of mind. You can say that without El Topo there would be no modern pop cinema. Everything leads back to that.

I suppose the closest you have come to surreal cinema would be Fear X, which I understand was a very troubled production. Have any happy memories survived from that experience?

NWR – It was a fucking disaster, financially and creatively. I completely self-combusted. The happy memories were working with Hubert Selby Jr., Larry Smith, Brian Eno, but everything else is just painful. But it had a lot to do with myself, I needed to go through that experience. There was almost something cathartic about it. I needed to crash and burn in order to reinvent and actually become who I became.

Hans Christian Andersen, the famous Danish fairytale writer, tried many different art forms until he finally stumbled upon fairytales. I think I was very eager, maybe too eager in my younger career to figure out what kind of films I should make. I would make something like Pusher, to catch the handheld street vibe of a gangster story. Bleeder became more autobiographical and more episodic, but then Fear X was all about surreal cinema and subliminal images and endless interpretations. So in four years I went through those three films like a machine gun and crashed and burned, owing my bank $1 million. But like Bergman said: it takes 3 movies and then 1 movie, so when I went back and did Pusher 2 and 3, I made them a lot better.

Most people are probably unaware you directed a Miss Marple TV movie, Nemesis, but it’s where you met one of your key collaborators, isn’t it? How did that gig come about?

NWR – Yes, it’s where I met my editor, Mat Newman, who has been probably my most essential creative partner on anything I do now. When they first called me, I was about to start Fear X and I said no. I was very arrogant about it. But after that failure they called again. I was penniless, flat broke, and said yes right away. They shoot four of these TV movies in a row, and they had fired the director of the first movie, so I took over that one as well. So I actually directed two Miss Marples back to back, but I didn’t want to be credited on the first one because I didn’t want to do the reshoots. Because I was just doing it for the money I didn’t care what anyone thought of me. I basically did whatever I wanted to do because they were so afraid of me. I thought I might as well just indulge myself.

It’s where you got the title for Only God Forgives as well, isn’t it? At the end of the film the killer begs for forgiveness, to which Miss Marple responds, “It’s God who forgives.”

NWR – That is true. I had forgotten about that. Maybe that planted the seed, subconsciously. You’ve found the missing link that maybe even I was unaware of! That’s very interesting.

Stylistically, your work from that point on is very different from your Danish films. How conscious was that shift?

NWR – Very. From Bronson onwards I started to make what I call heightened reality. In a way, I became Hans Christian Andersen because I began using the language of fairytales in my movies. You can categorise them: Bronson, Valhalla Rising and Drive were all about reality that is almost futuristic or artificial. Where my Danish films were very much about reality and authenticity, and the whole sense that art has to reflect life, my other films are very much about getting as far away as possible from any sense of authenticity, by creating its own artificial world.

In a way, it was good for me to experience Pusher, Bleeder and Fear X in such a short time period, because it taught me what doesn’t work. I’ve always had this Fear of formula, whenever there is a formula that works commercially and creatively it frightens me, so I do everything I can to self-combust when I make my next movie. It’s like going from Pusher 2 to Pusher 3. You have Pusher 2, which is much more mechanical in its function, but it also resonates on a much larger scope. My Fear of repeating myself is what made Pusher 3 go in a much more extreme direction. I can see why Pusher 2 is more successful, but I think Pusher 3 is a much more interesting film.

After Miss Marple you then made Bronson, which remains to-date your only “true story”.

NWR – Bronson was very autobiographical. I don’t care about Charles Bronson, I’ve never met the guy, but I saw a way to do a movie about me, and I really needed to self-analyse my life and career in order to go on. I had exploded onto the world stage at the age of 24 with Pusher and now I was directing British television at 31. I felt like a complete burnout, but really needed the money. So when I got to make Bronson, it wasn’t because I cared about Charlie Bronson, but I had to reflect on this life I had.

That’s why Bronson starts off with the line “My name is Charlie Bronson and all my life I’ve wanted to be famous” because that’s what I was like when I was making my first movies. Forget being famous, I wanted to be a myth, I wanted to be an icon before I was 30. I wanted to be Christ. My first three movies were all based on my own vanity rather than about making good movies. It was all about feeding my ego and me thinking I could walk on water, because I had success when I was very young and I made film with the arrogance of youth.

Bronson is about a man searching for his stage to perform on, which he finds in prison, through violence. My early films were very nihilistic and self-destructive in a way. When Bronson’s in prison he realises that his hunger for fame is bottomless but it also has no purpose. His art teacher told him that through his art he could achieve the same goal as he did through physical violence, and that started my second wave of filmmaking. That’s when I did Pusher 2 and 3, where I said I’m just gonna make films based on what’s happening in my own life or what speaks to me, and not think about what people would expect a great movie from me to be.

Especially with Fear X, I was making movies for all the wrong reasons and so Bronson became my autobiography, but the difference between me and the real Bronson was that when he realised he could actually exorcise his demons through Art and not through violence, it was too late. He got what he wanted, he became his own myth, but he would be locked away for the rest of his life. I was able to avoid ending my life like that. I had a family, I had obligations, I had to man up. So I always thought that God gave me a second chance and that’s why Bronson became a biography of my own life.

It was a great therapy for me. It made me very focused and just say, “I’m a pornographer. I’m gonna make movies based on what arouses me and that’s all I can do.” And that led to Valhalla Rising, Drive and Only God Forgives, which in a way are three different versions of the same movie. They are all about the Cinema of Silence, and all about the same character. In Valhalla Rising, Mads Mikkelsen plays One Eye, a man with a mysterious background who is a heightened construction, a made-up character. Drive is the same thing, Ryan Gosling plays a man with a mythical background, but with a heightened construction, and in Only God Forgives you have the Thai police lieutenant. They’re fetish characters, they’re basically unreal constructions. They are people of myth, because they can be whatever you want them to be.

Valhalla Rising seems to stand apart from the rest of your later films and it appears the film’s backers didn’t really know what to do with it.

NWR – I sold Valhalla Rising as “a Viking movie with Mads Mikkelsen”, so it was very easy to finance, but when it was done a lot of people felt it was going to be the final nail in my coffin because it was deemed extremely uncommercial. But then it became more commercially successful than all of my previous films combined when it was released. I was told the same thing on Drive too, that the film was never going to work. Right up until Cannes it was being written off as a financial failure. Even when it first played, Drive polarised a lot of people, but in the last year or so it has kind of morphed into something else, like The Ugly Duckling.

It’s the same thing with Only God Forgives at Cannes. That was probably the most extreme polarisation I have achieved so far with any of my movies. But because I was able to make it very cheaply, it’s already my most financially successful film, and it’s only been released in a few territories. We all want success, personal success, financial success, the acceptance of our peers, the awards, the glamour, everything that comes with this parody of Art. If people give you two hours of their lives, you have the obligation to give them something back, not just a good time, but also an experience. That’s what I would want and that’s what I feel I should contribute. But it’s important that you erase the recipe of success every time you have it. Look at music, when Lou Reed did Transformer, one of the great rock albums of all time, his next album was a vinyl containing distortions from a guitar, Metal Machine.

It must be frustrating then to see audiences approaching Only God Forgives as “Drive in Thailand”?

NWR – Well I can never change that perspective, I can only give them something completely, utterly different. When somebody in Austin asked me to define the difference, I said “Drive was like doing really good cocaine, Only God Forgives is like old-school acid.” So they needed to change drug. They need to travel to outer space.

Have you found the reception in the US has been different to the Cannes reception?

NWR – What’s different is that now people have had time to think about it, it’s almost like there’s a revival or rediscovery. I just came from the UK, and it’s interesting to see how people react when they have seen it again, or have had time to think about what they saw, rather than what they wanted to see. Their reactions become very different and only for the better. The most important thing you can do with any kind of Art is not ask what it is. You have to approach it in the opposite direction, which is to ask it what it’s not, because each time you ask that question it reveals a new definition, a new shade of itself. Otherwise you are not being fair to the experience.

So the one thing you would say is that Only God Forgives is not Drive.

NWR – Hallelujah! And thank God for that, because that would be really disappointing.

A version of this article first appeared in Vérité Film Magazine July 2013