Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn always seems to take us places we didn’t expect to go. The “Drive” director’s latest effort, “Only God Forgives,” is a highly stylized genre film filled with menace and suspense. It starts out as a gangster drama then slowly evolves into a strange revenge thriller reminiscent of a Greek tragedy complete with a final showdown between mother and son. The dark and violent film features a terrific score by composer Cliff Martinez who worked previously with Refn on “Drive.” It also marks the director’s second collaboration with actor Ryan Gosling.
Gosling plays Julian, an American fugitive from justice who runs a boxing club in Bangkok as a front for his drug business. When Julian’s brother is killed after he savagely murders a young prostitute, their mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), the head of a vast criminal organization, arrives from the U.S. to collect the body of her favorite son. Crazy with rage and thirsty for vengeance, she demands the heads of the murderers from Julian. But first, Julian must confront Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a mysterious retired policeman who metes out karmic justice in a corrupt underworld of brothels and fight clubs.
During my recent interview with Refn and Martinez, they talked about their inspiration for the look and sound of the film, how the vagina dentata theme influenced the visual design, why shooting on location in Bangkok provided a magical backdrop for the action, what makes Gosling such a fearless actor, how Thomas flipped the bitch switch and delivered a riveting performance, why the term “cum dumster” became inspired dialogue for a pivotal scene, and how sound and music played a critical role in a film that has almost no dialogue. In addition, Refn discussed his new sci-fi TV series, “Barbarella,” and Martinez revealed his next project, “Mea Culpa,” a French action-revenge thriller.
Q: There are a lot of motifs like the dog and the dragon. Is this the symbolism for Julian’s relationship with his mom?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Yes. The idea was to make a movie that takes place in the vagina and I wondered what that would look like.
Q: And clearly with the teeth and the scales and all?
Refn: Pretty accurate.
Q: With Jess Wexler, that’s the whole premise, the vagina is lined with teeth.
Refn: Yes. Man’s fear of sexuality is the basis of all horror from the male perspective.
Q: How did you come up with this stunning visual palette?
Refn: I think that I am a pornographer, meaning that I make movies based on what excites me and what I would like to see. A lot of the time, even if it’s “Drive” or “Bronson” or this film, 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 going like this (shows a closed fist), which was the erection, the extension of a male power, into becoming this (shows an open hand/palm up), 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. And then, practically, when I wanted to shoot the movie in Bangkok, it was because the nights of Bangkok are very particular. They’re like a magical landscape because the city itself is so enormous and insane, and you don’t understand how there’s logic in this city. The buildings are so old and new, and they’re very mysterious, because the heat is so intense that nobody ever opens windows, so almost everything is just closed down. The lighting and the fluorescent-ness of it is the whole Asian acceptance of the spiritual world next to the world of reality going hand in hand as something that’s never explained or it’s just accepted. Those are very interesting concepts to make a movie about.
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 (laughs), so sound and music become a very powerful character to tell the story. It’s almost like with sound and music and images, it’s your tool 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 which most films are made out of. 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. But it’s a very important part of the process, and as a composer, I’m sure Cliff can talk about this. 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.
Cliff Martinez: Nicolas’s films are a special challenge for composers, but it’s always a great challenge, because he relies on music to do things that I normally don’t get called upon to do. My biggest challenge in this film, aside from the general idea that it was almost a silent film, which always draws much more attention to the music, was Nicolas gave me the scene of the one-armed man telling Ryan Gosling the story of what was then called the Angel of Vengeance or Chang, the Lieutenant. When Nicolas sent me the scene, I called him up. I said, “Okay, now you’ve gone too far. Not only is there no dialogue in the film, but I see the guy’s lips moving and there’s still no dialogue. What’s up with that?” Nicolas said, “Yeah, it didn’t really look right. He kept pronouncing it ‘Angel of Wengeance’ and it had comical overtones and we can’t use it.” I said, “Okay, so it’s up to me to tell the whole story of this mythical, supernatural or semi-supernatural superhuman character or a myth, a legend that may or may not even exist.” It was left to me to do that. That’s probably my proudest moment in the film and that’s a great example of where the music is like, “Well let’s just give it to… Okay. We can’t use the dialogue…”
Refn: Give it to Cliff. He’ll fix it. (laughs)
Q: None of the songs that Chang 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. But specifically, the songs are about vengeance coming. They’re very much folk tales because they’re based on Isaan 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.
Martinez: I have a complete blind spot for lyrics, anything from Bob Dylan, a great lyricist. I always hear this song. I don’t even seem to absorb the lyrics, but I’ve noticed in the last few Q&A’s, people are saying, “What are these songs about?” I should know the answer to that question and I have no idea what they’re singing about. Nicolas knows more about that than I do and I’m supposed to be the music guy.
Q: Is it an intentional choice by you to be more cinematic rather than rely on dialogue, or is it just in the last couple of films that’s the way the story needed to be told?
Refn: It’s the last couple of films I’ve had a lot of interest in that. I mean, after “Bronson” where Tom Hardy would 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 a lot of people didn’t see coming in terms of the success that it achieved. It’s great to go and do something completely different afterwards. It’s a bit like Lou Reed doing the “Transformer” album and then the next one up is this album of distortion of the guitar (“Metal Machine Music”).
Martinez: Double set, too.
Refn: Double set. But it’s the sense of wanting to constantly always explore with the expression that art can do.
Q: In some films, violence is used for the sake of violence, but I feel like your films use it differently. 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 fun. Cool.” But after having children, I’m suddenly very concerned about violence in media and how it’s presented. Also, what surprises me a lot of the time is you can see the lack of consequences of violence in mass entertainment. I don’t believe that art makes people violent in any way. I don’t. But I do believe art can show people how to be violent and that’s much more dangerous in a way.
Q: Can you talk about Kristin Scott Thomas’ riveting performance? What led you to Kristen and how did you develop this 70s Jerry Hall meets Donatella Versace perversion?
Refn: She had it in her. (laughs) It was very easy actually. One of the things 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 or anything like that, so I was casting unknown actresses. And then, I got a call asking if I wanted to meet with Kristin Scott Thomas who’s now KST, and I was like, “Yeah, absolutely, if she would be interested. What would she cost?” We met in Paris. I’ve only seen her from the movies. My mother really likes her.
Q: You know that is the reason to hire someone?
Refn: It’s a good reason. It’s definitely a good reason. And I saw that she had no problem turning on the bitch switch. She wanted to do something that was very different to what she had done before. She asked, “Why would you consider me for this?” I said, “Because you did “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” She took a moment to think about it and she went, “I get it. But if I have to do this, I really need to transform myself.” And I said, “Why honey?” 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,” and “Valhalla” are all 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” 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.
Martinez: You don’t like “The Pet Shop Boys”?
Refn: I love “The Pet Shop Boys.” I love 70s disco. I love dolls. I love Barbie dolls. I like fluff. I like pink.
Martinez: And that luggage?
Refn: And that luggage. I have the Gucci luggage. And I have daughters. And I felt that I wanted to make something now that they could see. That doesn’t mean probably that I won’t ever come back to making films about violent men, but at least if I can take a break from it, it would be healthy.
Q: Well, shall we go there and explain “cum dumpster”?
Martinez: This will be V4. It should be a good one.
Refn: (laughs) Well, that word came about because I shoot films in chronological order, which means it’s scene 1, 2 and 3. I do that on my films because I like the part about the canvas that you can shape and change and maneuver and alternate a bit like a picture and repaint a picture if you don’t like it or you need to change it. And so, I was sitting with Ryan talking about what would his character be like to hear for this specific scene. What would be needed for his reactions and so forth, and the idea that the mother degrades him sexually by talking about his genitals in front of this girl? It’s like the worst nightmare for any man to bring home a nice Asian girl and his mother just devours her. So I asked Ryan. And Rhatha (Phongam) is very beautiful and pure. So I said to Ryan, because English is my second language, “What’s the worst thing that you can call a woman in America?”, and he said, “I’ll give you a list.” So he came up with a list and what really worked out was the word “cum dumpster,” which he had to explain to me what it meant the first time around. I went, “Oh, oh, oh, okay.” The next part was going to KST and telling her that she had to say things like this. She’s at an age where she may be a little bit sexually repressed. So, for her to say those words, she was a bit like, “Oh…” And then, she had to train with a speech coach because she is English and she very much works on dialogue, so they did do sessions with her like, “Cum dumpster” (demonstrating different ways to enunciate the words), where they have to feel the singing of the voice because it’s in there and she would walk on set going, (mimicking KST) “Cum duuuuuumpster. Cuuuuuum dumpster.” It was the most used word that entire day, and it took her six takes to even get it right, but then it became quite fun.
Q: How did your relationship with Ryan evolve in this film? You guys already have a great collaboration going. 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. 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: Can you talk about your influences? At the end of this film, you thank Gaspar Noé and Alejandro Jodorowsky. What do you take from those filmmakers to make your films?
Refn: Well I like Gaspar a lot just because he’s so audacious and he certainly makes things feel like a great experiment, and I admire him because so few films or television or art do that. The media and the mass media of art very rarely go against any conventions now because everything has come down to money, which of course is something you have to respect, but it is essentially all about emotions. That’s really what it’s about. And Jodorowsky is more. I’ve become very good friends with him in the last couple of years and I’ve been seeing him off and on in Paris, and he christened me his spiritual son some time ago. But I also wanted to thank him for his inspiration of his own movies, because you can say with “El Topo,” which was his second movie, that was the film that created pop culture films. Everything after that you can in a visible way track back to that movie, “El Topo,” and I’m talking everything. In a way, he has never gotten the recognition for that because it’s so pure that you can’t even really reference it. It’s just a feeling in a way and a way to approach pop culture films. And then, he’s almost 90 and he’s going to die, and I wanted to say goodbye.
Martinez: As the resident senior citizen here, he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
Refn: No, no, no. The guy’s going to live until he’s 200 or something, but I may die before (laughs).
Q: Cliff, you’ve done some very eclectic scores from “Drive” to “Spring Breakers” and now this. How do you approach scoring films, especially with the different emotional beats that the music has to hit because it’s propelling and carrying the film?
Martinez: Drugs straight up. I mean, I think every composer, every actor, every director likes to stretch and explore new territory. I’m kind of conservative. I like to build on what I’ve done in the past and try something new. But I’m not in a position in my career where I turn things down. I’m very easy. So the projects often dictate the direction you will go in. I welcome things that challenge me, and guys like Nicolas, even though we have a…
Refn: …a Skype connection…
Martinez: We now have a monogamous relationship artistically. He demands that you do something different. Rule number one was, “This is not going to be “Only Drive Forgives.” We’re going to do something completely different. I don’t know what that is yet, but whatever it is, it can’t sound like that.” And “Spring Breakers” was really getting thrown in at the deep end, because the whole thing was built around this electronic dance music and Skrillex and this very youth-oriented stuff. It was a big struggle just not to sound like an old person and to try to accommodate and blend in and fit in with this very youth-oriented music. I like challenges and I definitely would like to be more of a chameleon. I think there is quite a continuity over my 25 years of doing music, and I’m always trying to break away from it. We’ve talked about maybe doing a comedy next which is the ultimate left turn.
Refn: A romantic comedy.
Martinez: I would love to do something lighter for a change, something where nobody blows up or gets stabbed or sticks their arm in their mom. That was a great experience, but I would love to do something light next, because I just know that that would be the ultimate thing to conquer, something that’s not so dark.
Refn: Well I’m going to try to get us “High School Musical 4.”
Q: What would more money have made different 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. The way that I make films is that I sit down and I think, “How much money could I get with less consequences?” And that’s how I start. 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 money men are not being true. A movie like “Only God Forgives” only 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. Because I’m European, I believe in using European subsidy money which made it even a better business for the financiers. When you’ve finished the film and everybody’s already made back all their money, everybody just leaves you alone and I’m very happy. That’s what it has to be like. If you want to survive in the film industry, it’s not about fighting for your visions because that’s a given. It’s thinking about how much is your vision going to cost, and then, what are the consequences, because you may have $100 million, but the reality is that $100 million needs to make $500 million to be a success. That’s a specific type of movie. If you have $4 million, you just need to make $6 million and then everything is good. So it’s a bit of a mathematic equation.
Martinez: I never do anything for the money unless it’s…
Refn: …a Grey Goose commercial.
Martinez: …unless it’s a fair amount of money.
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.
Martinez: I think the airline version will cut out “cum dumster.”
Refn: I’m not even going to get an airline version unless it’s some eastern airline or something like that. I doubt this will play on American Airlines.
Martinez: I think with “Scarface” they took out every instance of “motherfucker” and replaced it with “melon picker.”
Refn: They all have their things, but those things have changed because people watch things in a different way now. Censorship has kind of disappeared in a way because everything is accessible online.
Q: Nicolas, you’ve spoken about your cinematic inspirations for the look of this film. Cliff, what were your inspirations for the sound? What were maybe some of the scores that inspired you?
Martinez: Well, we really cheat. It’s kind of an inside thing, I guess. I’m very influenced by the temp scores, which I have to give a lot of credit to Nicolas and other directors I work with because they have to cut the picture before I even get involved. In order to cut it, you have to have some music. And as long as you’re going to select some music to cut to, you might as well pick something that you like that’s in the general direction, as the general approach that you want the film to go in. I almost always get a rough cut of the film with somebody’s idea of where the music starts, where it stops, and the style. Nicolas picked a number of things, but the one that really hit me over the head was Bernard Herrmann’s 1951 score to “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” That was in a lot of key moments. It’s my favorite score of all time so I thought, okay, I’m all over that. I will give it my best Bernard Herrmann impersonation and I’m sure I’ll fail in an interesting way. And that’s really good because there’s nothing worse than having somebody use your music as a temp score. That’s like musical incest on a cosmic scale, like knocking off yourself in a temp score. I would put it somewhere between defecating and dying. It’s just like the worst. So, to have someone like Bernard Herrmann there is like a role model. I don’t know if you hear much of it, if there’s much Bernard Herrmann residue.
Q: The horns are in there.
Martinez: It’s in there, but also I’d like to think there’s a fair amount of my musical identity as well. So I bank on that. It’s like throw me something really interesting to work with. Soderbergh does that, too. He threw in “The French Connection” for “Contagion” which I thought, “There’s a curve ball.” And I know he doesn’t mean that literally, but when he put that in there, it was like, “You know I can’t do that. You know I can’t sound that way.” But it’s a jumping off point. So temp scores, it doesn’t sound very creative to admit that they have such influence, but they can be a very useful tool. It’s a great way for a director and a composer to discuss music. If you tell me that you want brown, slinky and heroic, I have no idea what that is, but if you play something for me, it’s like, “Okay. Got it.”
Q: What are each of you working on now and what do you have coming up next?
Refn: We just completed a Grey Goose commercial.
Martinez: You did. I’m still on the hook.
Refn: Look, just say yes and cash in. Right now, I’m just concentrating on my TV show, “Barbarella.” And then, I’ve got some other things. I have 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 and that balance is always the hardest thing to reach.
Martinez: I’m about to start a French action-revenge thriller called “Mea Culpa” — more stabbings, beatings, more dark stuff. It’s a full blown commercial action-revenge film in the vein of “Taken” or something like that. That is kind of new for me. It’ll be my third French film and my experience with the French has been great. They treat this thing that I think of as a popular art form, as a fine art form, as we discovered in Cannes.
Refn: It’s “le Cinema.”
Martinez: They are so serious. A cab driver in Cannes said to me when I got out of the cab, “Thank you for the music.” So he knew who I was. That’s how serious they are over there. And the French directors I’ve worked with, it’s just been a great experience. I hope that’s what’s in store for me with “Mea Culpa.”