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‘Art can be an act of violence’

Nothing about Danish auteur Nicholas Winding Refn is ordinary, or indeed, normal. His films are divisive, loved and loathed by critics and audiences with equal fervour. What isn’t in doubt, however, are his genius and knack for providing the world with talented new indie actors that we’ve grown crazy about — Ryan Gosling, Tom Hardy, Mads Mikkelsen. In his first interview ever to an Indian publication, Refn tells Nikhil Taneja that he’s done tryin

Nikhil Taneja  28th Jun 2014

Nicolas Winding Refn with Ryan Gosling on the sets of Drive. AFP

ou've said that your early career was about trying to make a great film, but that now you're only doing what you like to do. What do you feel makes for a great film?

I guess that's the one thing I thought I could try to capture, when I was young and naïve. What makes for a great film? My favourite film is probably It's A Wonderful Life. But then, I also like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I've realised you can't capture greatness, you just have to make what you believe in, and hopefully it works. That's why I say my life is in two stages. The first time I was trying to capture the ingredients, and I failed, miserably. But by failing miserably, I also realised that I should approach what I do in a radically different way, in order to really find the reason I was doing it. I realised that essentially, I'm a fetish filmmaker, putting everything together as if in a pin-up magazine.

Is there a reason you make films today? Is it to explore something about yourself or to explore something or somebody intangible?

I think there's a reason I make every film. And I think the reason comes purely out of myself, you know. I'm not a political filmmaker; I don't have a political message that I want to get across. Or even a social-oriented message, for that matter. That holds no interest for me. I like the act of creativity and expression, and I believe that art with a singular vision is what really can change the world. Every film of mine is an extension of my alter-ego. Especially my last three — Valhalla Rising, Drive and Only God Forgives. Bronson was autobiographical in a more direct way, in the sense that I took somebody else's life and made my own autobiography. I did that because Charlie Bronson is an artificial character, a made-up persona by Michael Peterson. In a way, I was taking a constructed reality to base it on my own autobiography. The first half of Bronson is about a man who aspires to be world famous, not knowing why. Which is very much how I started out. But, like Bronson, I was very nihilistic in everything I had to do. I was destroying everything around me. I felt art had to annihilate everything. You realise violence is a way to become famous, but of course, it had its limits. Bronson's stage, after all, is a prison. His art teacher finally explains to him that his art can be his act of violence.

That's when I realised that I should no longer try to capture great filmmaking. I should actually just enjoy the act of creativity, and not think about the results. And that's what Bronson did, you know.

What message do you want audiences to take back from your movies? Do you even try to have some sort of takeaway?

No, except for polarisation. You can love it or hate it, as long as it has penetrated your mind and implanted a thought, which is a very personal and individual experience. I don't have a personal agenda that I want to get across. I believe art is up to people's own interpretation. That's when it becomes interesting. It inspires people to think, but they have to look at it from their own perspective. All I can do is to release it, all I can ask of them is to absorb it, and do with it as they wish.

Art is like weapons of mass destruction; it has the same power. War and weapons of mass destruction can change history. So can art. The difference between the two is that where war destroys, art inspires. Art inspires thoughts, but it has to come from a singular vision in order to speak to an audience.

That begs the question about your responsibility as an artist. Your movies have often been accused of glorifying violence. Do you ever worry that it's the enduring impression of your films?

I think anybody who has the ability to create has a responsibility. But I do think that there's a big difference between people feeling and seeing something violent, and them being violated. I think one way to react to your responsibility is by always making sure that there is a consequence to the violence. Violence in my movies always brings destruction. It is never based on humour or a cartoon. But people can be violated by the images, because they feel that it penetrated their mind, and they have no shield against it, and then it becomes, of course, much more of an experience.

I’m not a political filmmaker; I don’t have a political message that I want to get across. Or a social-oriented message, for that matter. I like the act of creativity and expression, and I believe that art with a singular vision is what really can change the world.

There's so much more violence in other films or television shows than in my work, so sometimes people get confused. They think they see more than what's actually there. It's the power of subliminal images, because art works as a two-way experience. Art has to plant a thought, a seed in the mind of spectator, who then continues to build their own visions with it.

It also has to do with the way you design violence in your films. Doesn't creating a beautiful-looking violent scene also glamourise violence?

Art can be an act of violence. Why should it not be a seductive sexual experience? The more you sexualise it, the more shocking the violence of art can be. That goes back to the initial instinct of art. Art is a combination of sex and violence. It's how you create the equation that matters. 


I'm surprised you don't factor love into this equation. Your films are essentially about people striving for love, than either sex or violence.

Of course, because love is what makes it all interesting. Sex and violence are the ingredients. You see, in order to get to love, it has to start from somewhere else. You have to fall in love. I strongly believe that the core, in terms of our interests in storytelling, lies in love. If you have love for your characters, the audience too falls in love with them.

What about romance? Is that also important to you?

I wouldn't call romance a pure emotion because I think romance means thought. Romanticism is great, and it's great to make films about romanticism, but, in terms of drama, the initial ingredient is a combination of the two core emotions within us as human beings, which are lust and violence, or sex and violence, or aggression and desire — whatever you want to call it. But those are very, very primal emotional instincts that have nothing to do with logic. That's what drama is based on. Then of course, we can alter and create stories around it that can end up being romantic. But romance is a process, you know. You can make something romantic, but it has to be based, primarily, on the idea of desire and lust.Image 2nd

Your interest in primal emotions translates to your writing as well. Is it true that you use index cards to write?

Well, that's more because I realised I wasn't a very good writer. If I approach the movie based more on what I would like to see, then I could create a story after deciding what I would like it to be visually. As I said, it's a bit like shooting a pin-up magazine. You pose the women with a certain precision. You photograph them in the exact position that you desire. You normally don't really know what it all means until you have a series of images. That's when you suddenly realise that there might possibly be a story in it.

Is your pin-up magazine approach the reason you shoot chronologically, too? You are one of the only directors in the world who do that.

Yes, I always write chronologically, so I shoot that way too. I basically did it because I read that John Cassevetes had done it in his film, so I thought, "Well, if he did it, maybe I should try it!" And yes, it became a way for me to submit myself to the creative process. Doing everything chronologically, like painting a picture, helps your work constantly evolve. I'm not interested in the results any more; I'm interested in the process. The results are of no interest when it's over.

Do you think you'll every attempt anything conventional before you're done? Do everything the way everyone normally does, just to see how it turns out?

(Laughs) I hope so. (Laughs again) But I don't know. Because normality is only interesting if you twist it.

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