‘Drive’ Filmmaker Sets a Course for Bangkok in ‘Only God Forgives’


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn reconnects with his “Drive” team Ryan Gosling and musician Cliff Martinez on “Only God Forgives,” a dark drama that takes place in Thailand.

Refn says he always had wanted to make a martial arts film, but thought making one would be too difficult because he wanted the action to look real. Refn, who put Danish crime drama on the map with his “Pusher” trilogy, manages to include some convincingly complex fight scenes in this darkly noirish mixture of murder, revenge and one of cinema’s nastiest family relationships. Kristin Scott Thomas appears as a sadistically overbearing mother, and Bangkok native Vithaya Pansringarm is a relentless ex-policeman named Chang.

Refn recently spoke about “Only God Forgives,” its symbolism, working again with Ryan Gosling and his upcoming reimagining of “Barbarella” for TV.

Q: How did you come up with the movie’s visual palette?

Refn: I’m a pornographer, meaning that I make movies based on what excites me and what I would like to see. Whether it’s “Bronson,” “Drive” or this movie, it starts in different places that give me the idea for the movie. In “Drive,” it was just a very strange car drive between Ryan (Gosling) and I that gave me an idea for doing a movie about a man who drives a car. Here, I had this notion of an erection, the extension of a male power, into (flaccidness), which was submission. I thought, “There’s a movie in this movement.” I like that way of making film because it’s like painting a picture. You start one place and then it moves and mutates. I wanted to shoot the movie in Bangkok because the nights in Bangkok are very particular. They’re like a magical landscape because the city itself is so enormous and insane. You don’t understand how there’s logic in this city. The buildings are so old and new, and they’re very mysterious. The heat is so intense that nobody ever opens windows, so almost everything is just closed down. The whole Asian acceptance of the spiritual world next to the world of reality going hand in hand as something is never explained or it’s just accepted. Those are very interesting concepts to make a movie about.

Q: Is it an intentional choice to be more cinematic than rely on dialogue, or is it just because in the last couple of films that’s the way the story needed to be told?

Refn: With the last couple of films I’ve had a lot of interest in that. After “Bronson,” where Tom Hardy wouldn’t stop talking from beginning until end, I was like I want to do something completely silent. I started really liking that language because it’s very primal in terms of how you tell a story. I enjoy making things different each time, especially with the surprise success of a movie like “Drive,” which really a lot of people didn’t see it coming in terms of the success that it achieved, it’s great to go and do something completely different afterwards.

Q: What’s your relationship with violence in films?

Refn: I don’t know. When I was younger, I was more like, “Yeah. That’s so cool.” But after having children, I’m suddenly very concerned about violence in media and how it’s presented, and also that what surprises me a lot of the times is you can really see the lack of consequences of violence is mass entertainment. I don’t believe that art makes people violent in any way but I do believe art can show people how to be violent and that’s much more dangerous in a way.

Q: What led you to cast Kristin Scott Thomas, and how did you develop this ‘70s Jerry Hall meets Donatella Versace look of hers?

Refn: She had it in her. (He laughs.) It was very easy actually. One of the things you have to consider when you make films like this is you have to be very conscious of the cheaper you make it, the less pressure there is on you. I didn’t have money for any stars, so I was casting unknown actresses. And then I got a call asking if I wanted to meet with Kristin Scott Thomas, who is now K.S.T., and I was like, “Yeah, absolutely, if she would be interested. What would she cost?” So we met in Paris. I’ve only seen her from the movies. My mother really likes her.

Q: Is that a reason to hire someone?

Refn: It’s a good reason. And I saw that she has no problem turning on the b**** switch. She wanted to do something that was very different to what she had done before, she said. She asked, “Why would you consider me for this?” I said, “Because you’ve done ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral.’” She took a moment to think about it and she goes, “I get it. But if I have to do this, I really need to transform myself.” And I said, “Why?” And she came back with some images of herself from a photo shoot, and I said, “Donatella Versace, here we come!”

Q: You mentioned before that you set out to make films about women, but “Drive,” “Bronson,” “Valhalla,” are all are male protagonist-driven. Will we perhaps see a female-driven narrative from you?

Refn: Yes, because it’s about time that I leave a part of me behind and embrace a new part so I don’t repeat myself. That’s why I’ve decided to do “Barbarella” (TV series) because that’s a woman. I’m a very feminine man. I like feminine things. I don’t go to strip clubs. I don’t drink beer. I don’t play sports. I love “The Pet Shop Boys.” I have daughters. I felt that I really wanted to make now something that they could see. That doesn’t mean I won’t never come back to making films about violent men, but at least if I can take a break from it, it would be healthy.

Q: How did your relationship with Ryan evolve while making this film? What carried over from your first experience and what was new?

Refn: The most important thing is the trust and also the challenge of what we did on “Drive.” If we were going to do this, it had to be completely different. Because the language of silence was the same, but he had to be something very, very different than he was in “Drive,” almost the exact opposite, like the flip. He always said to me, “If ‘Drive’ is heaven, then this is hell.” He’s a very brave actor willing to take on challenges like that and charge full into it. I admire him very much for that. And then, once you have that intimacy, it’s fairly easy.

Q: You had budget restrictions on this despite a stellar cast. Would having more money have made any difference about this movie?

Refn: Nothing. It’s very important that you never depend on money to fulfill your creative vision. If you do that, you’re doomed to fail. I’d rather have less money and total autonomy than more money and start having to answer to things, because then I’m not being true and the moneymen are not being true. “Only God Forgives” cost $4 million, and that was great because it was a healthy budget for me to make the movie I wanted to make, and it was a great financial reward for the financiers.

Q: Is the American version of this movie exactly the same as the international? Is there any difference?

Refn: There is only one version. I only make one movie. That’s the one demand I have that I can never back out of.

Q: Can you talk about the role of the sound design and Cliff’s contributions to the film?

Refn: I’ve been making films with almost no dialogue. (He laughs.) So sound and music become a very powerful character to tell the story. Sound, music and images are my tools to tell the story, especially when I decide to structure the film in a way that usually goes against the conventions of the three-act structure. The idea of it is almost like an installation where it’s about experiencing it. It’s not about good or bad, or right or wrong, it’s just about an experience and either you go with that or you don’t. That’s up to the human psyche. It’s a very important part of the process. It’s a great way to become not just somebody that puts some stuff together that connects some dots, but actually is very active in telling the story.

Q: None of the karaoke songs that Chang (Pansringarm) sings have subtitles and yet they had to have been chosen for a reason. Was that your way of making the audience work for it?

Refn: Yes, and I also felt that it would almost be ruining the image if you suddenly start subtitling something that’s more about the sound in a way. The songs are about vengeance coming. They’re very much folk tales because they’re based on Isaan (Thailand folk) music, some of it, which is part of Thailand’s country and western music, but the lyrics a lot of the times are very much fable stories.

Q: What are you working on now?

Refn: Right now I’m just really concentrating on my TV show, “Barbarella.” I’ve got some other things too. There are so many things I would like to do and I’m trying to line everything up. At the same time, I don’t want to be a casualty of a family. That balance is always the hardest thing to reach.