Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Nicolas Winding Refn: Faith and Violence

Valhalla Rising (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
Nicolas Winding Refn was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1970. At the age of 10 he moved to New York with his parents, who both worked in the film industry. After graduating from high school, Refn attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, but found the environment difficult to cope with and was soon expelled. Back in Denmark he was accepted by the Danish Film School but he never took up his place, having decided to drop out prior to the start of the first term. After seeing a short film by Refn on cable TV, a Danish film producer offered him 3.2 million Danish kroner to adapt his short into a feature. At the age of 24, Refn was writing and directing his gritty and uncompromising feature film debut Pusher about a drug dealer in over his head. Pusher became a cult hit and won Refn widespread critical acclaim. 

Refn explored the seedy underbelly of Copenhagen further with Bleeder – a stylized and grim tale exploring the relationship between two friends living on the city’s margins. Bleeder premiered at the 1999 Venice Film Festival and proved a big domestic hit. Fear X, Refn’s third feature and his first in English, is a complex, evocative drama starring John Turturro as a man searching for his wife’s killer. Co-written by renowned novelist Hubert Selby Jr and with a musical score by Brian Eno, Fear X received positive reviews but was a commercial failure. Refn returned to the mean streets of Copenhagen with Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands and Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death, completing the renowned Pusher trilogy and consolidating his critical status.

Refn was next approached to write and direct Bronson, a violent and surreal film about one of England’s most notorious criminals. Featuring a remarkable performance from Tom Hardy, Bronson combines theatrical tradition and British pop cinema of the 1960s to make a movie about a man who creates his own mythology. After the success of Bronson, Refn co-wrote and directed Valhalla Rising – a bleak and relentless film set in the middle ages about a silent, one-eyed prisoner who escapes from his captors and falls into the company of a group of Christian Vikings preparing to embark on a crusade. Uncertain whether One-Eye is a visitor from heaven or hell, they take him with them on their ship across the sea. 

Returning to Hollywood, Refn next directed the hugely successful Drive in 2011 – a retro genre movie based on a James Sallis novel starring Ryan Gosling as a stunt-car driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. 

While Drive was in preproduction, Nicolas Winding Refn spoke to Adam Stovall of Creative Sceenwriting Weekly about his recently completed Viking odyssey and his approach to screenwriting:

Valhalla Rising (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
‘Valhalla Rising’ opens with a man, One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen), beating another man to a bloody pulp. Then another, and another, and another. Once there is no one else to defeat, he is released and crosses the barren Nordic landscape, accompanied by a boy (Maarten Stevenson). Eventually, they find themselves on a ship with Vikings searching for a new land. More beatings ensue. ‘Valhalla Rising’ is the latest film from director Nicolas Winding Refn, who co-wrote the film with Roy Jacobsen. CS Weekly sat down with Refn to discuss his tale of faith and violence, and how the two are often found in each other’s company.

What was the initial seed of the idea?

When I was five, I was at my parents’ friend’s house and they had a pulp sci-fi novel with a spaceship on the cover. I can’t remember why it was there or what happened, but the obsession with traveling into outer space has been very much a part of what I do. I became interested in making a Viking film that was a film about the discovery of America, because for the Vikings to go out and travel the oceans was the equivalent of us going to the moon.

Can you walk us through how that initial seed became this story?

When you sit down, you come up with all the obvious solutions, and you try them out and see that they don’t ring true, and you get kind of frustrated. It wasn’t until one night, I was having some kind of dream, maybe I was trying to meditate, but the idea of a mutant man who has no past or present and lives on top of a mountain came to me. That was the genesis, because what would happen if that was how the film opened? The idea of the child came about because he needed a companion to travel with. If he had a person his own age, it would be a friendship. If it were a woman, there would be a tension of love and sexuality. A child, however, makes it almost innocent in a way.

The man and child travel the wasteland and encounter a group of Vikings who are off to the Holy Land. Originally, they were pagans who were basically being outlawed by the Christians, who, in the 1100s, were spreading through the North either by violence and war or they would use money to buy influence and sell Jesus to the Vikings. People who didn’t believe were on the run, and America was an interesting concept.

Valhalla Rising (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
Originally the film had a more conventional kind of approach, a more conventional kind of story structure. I called Roy Jacobsen, who is a very famous Norwegian novelist, and is also a historian on these matters. I felt like I knew nothing of this history, so it was essential that I find someone who could be part of this journey. Well, two weeks before we were supposed to shoot, I had a complete meltdown and was just lost. I shut down the movie, I said I wouldn’t make it, sorry, bye. Budget had been spent and people were panicking. Roy Jacobsen flew up and sat with me for a few hours in my apartment trying to talk some sense into me, but it wasn’t happening. Until, finally, he said to just make them Christian Vikings. I asked him if there were Christian Vikings, and he said absolutely. They were Vikings, but they were Christians as well. They would travel all around to fight wars. They were warriors and mercenaries in Russia. Suddenly, the whole film became about the future, not about the past. Christianity became an order that was about the future. Everything had always been about the past, and I couldn’t relate to that. I couldn’t get my mind around it. So, that changed everything, and I swapped what the characters wanted to achieve.

The movie is about faith and the rise of mythology. One-Eye goes through four stages. He is born out of mythology. Nobody knows who he is or where he comes from, you only know that he doesn’t belong to anyone for more than four or five years. Then he escapes slavery and becomes a warrior, then he becomes God. Then he becomes Man when he sacrifices himself. And then he’s a ghost, who returns to the mythology he rose from. Then there’s the relationship with the boy, who says he wants to find home – which is very existential because he doesn’t say where. The boy claims that One-Eye speaks through him. It’s like the boy becomes organized religion, because everyone becomes superstitious again, and the boy manipulates everyone else. Also, when the Christians travel for war and they take hallucinogenic drugs to become stronger, that’s true – they would actually do that.

Valhalla Rising (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
Your films are known for having these very strong central characters. Do you tend to start scripts with a character in mind or a story?

The way I usually come up with an idea is I come up with what I would like to see. That’s usually based on character. Then I wrap a story around that character. Bronson, for example, there was no story, because Charlie Bronson’s life is not that interesting. Michael Peterson’s life is not that interesting. But the transformation from Michael Peterson to Charlie Bronson was interesting. That came about when I asked myself what this guy would want and realized that he would want to be famous. Then I knew, that’s what this movie is about. That’s usually how I approach everything I do, follow one person’s point of view and a story comes up around it.

What is your habit? Do you have a number of hours you like to work, or is there a page count you’re going for?

I consider writing very painful, and I don’t think I’m very good at it. I wish I was, because I certainly admire it a lot. I write longhand to begin with. If the story is complex, or if I need to be challenged not to repeat myself, I bring in other people – once with Hubert Selby, Jr. and once with Roy Jacobsen. When I sit down to write, though, it’s usually with a pack of index cards and a pen, just writing things down that I would like to see. Eventually that evolves into some kind of story. When it has to be shown to financiers, or people who don’t know me very well, I will sometimes bring a writer in to polish it verbally so it doesn’t just read as ‘Man walks, sees sign, crosses.’ Things you would be sent back to school for. To make it a sellable document, it sometimes needs to be polished up. But it also comes from me being dyslexic. I am very dyslexic and I have trouble reading and writing.

Pusher II (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
How important is outlining to you?

Outlining doesn’t become important until I have the core structure. I believe everything is structure. In that way, oddly, art is a complete, organic element – and in that organism a mathematical evolution is apparent.

How particular are you about your workspace and how you work, both alone and when you’re working with someone else?

In that sense, I am completely collaborative. I like to work at night. I can’t go into an office every day, but I admire people who can just sit down and write. I have to go through a process where I try to do everything that can keep me from writing. Dishes, cleaning up, looking through old email, deleting junk mail, anything that takes me away from writing – and once I’ve done everything I can and there’s nothing left, then I start writing because once I start, I cannot stop. I become unbearable to be around, and when you have kids and a wife, that’s difficult because you have to be theirs. So, that means I work at night, sometimes for a couple of hours, sometimes for a long time.

I have many different movies I want to make, so I’ve begun to enjoy the process of making films simultaneously. For example, while [my next film] Drive is in preproduction, I’ve also started preproduction on the film after it, which is called Only God Forgives. That’s a movie I’ve written myself, an original idea. It’s good because having Drive on one side, I can put things in that movie and other things into Only God Forgives, and know I will make both movies. I can sort of steal from both.

Bronson (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
Do you listen to music while you write, or do you find that distracting?

I love all kinds of music. The way that I work is, I sometimes come up with a musical approach to the film before there’s an actual story. Each movie I’ve made so far has a musicality to it. Pusher 1, my first film, is The Ramones. Bleeder, my second film, was definitely glam rock. Fear X was basically Brian Eno, who became the third person I ever hired on the movie. He would send me sounds and music ideas as me and Mr. Selby worked on the script. Pusher 2 is Iron Maiden. Pusher 3 is Neil Diamond. Bronson is opera. Valhalla Rising is Einstürzende Neubauten. Drive is Depeche Mode. I definitely prefer to listen to music while I write, it’s certainly the closest thing to cocaine I can get while I write.

– Adam Stovall: ‘He Came From Myth: Valhalla Rising’s Nicolas Winding Refn’. Courtesy of Creative Screenwriting Weekly.

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