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Q&A: Nicolas Winding Refn’s heightened, indulgent reality of “ONLY GOD FORGIVES”

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An intensely singular “something else,” ONLY GOD FORGIVES is an amazing flipside to the cool that was DRIVE. Nightmarish, surreal and red all over, Nicolas Winding Refn delved deep into the dark silence and hard stares of his work and returned with a fable about undeserved revenge and a mother-son relationship that “warped” only begins to describe.

It’s incredible.

The film, starring Ryan Gosling and eclipsed by Vithaya Pansringarm and Kristin Scott Thomas, will not be everyone’s favorite of this year. Those who love it, however, will be exhilarated. They will live in, and much like Refn discusses with FANGORIA, both be disturbed by and fetishize it. We spoke with the director and great lover of genre cinema about ONLY GOD FORGIVES’ goings on and more largely, the significance horror has in movie making and our lives.

FANGORIA: Early in the film, in a ghastly scene, you frame Julian’s brother in a similar manner to how you framed the Driver after the elevator attack in DRIVE. Although you wrote ONLY GOD FORGIVES first, DRIVE had a significant impact. Were you thinking about ONLY GOD FORGIVES at all in tandem with or as an antithesis to DRIVE?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Well, I do this trick with myself. Whenever I’ve made a film, when I finish it, I kind of try to erase all memory of the process for a long time. So, it’s almost like whenever I make a new movie, I almost try to forget what worked on the last one because I’m afraid I may become too comfortable. A lot of times, however things turn out, they can be interpreted in many different ways, but certainly not conscious. But it’s an interesting scenario. I didn’t think of it as that, but it’s certainly…

FANG: The film is obviously much different, but I almost think of it similar to how LOST HIGHWAY and MULHOLLAND DRIVE are two sides of the same coin. There’s the physicality of hands in both films, but this is the more nightmarish scenario. Do you put much weight in hands, in general?

REFN: I’ve always been obsessed with my hands. If you look at them, they’ve never had a hard day’s work in their life. They’re very well groomed, I use a lot of moisturizer cream to sustain the softness within them—more than any other drag queen. Hands are something that are probably the first part of the human body I observe on other people. The hands say a lot about people; how they treat their hands. There is the whole concept of the reading of the palm and in a way, that’s the gateway into the soul. The eyes may be the window of the soul, but the hands are the DNA of it. So, I’ve always been very obsessed with hands and my mother told me that when I was much younger, that I would always protect my hands when I fell. I don’t know what that means.

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FANG: In the end credits, there’s a prominent thank you to your mother. In light of the content and characters, it’s a bit funny. Where did Crystal arise from?

REFN: She’s very much a design. The movie had to have this very classical gangster character of a head of a family and a lot of times, those characters are very male dominated. So, the idea of the mother essentially being top of the food chain was of course very indulgent, but with that you could not pronounce the whole mother-son domino effect. That is dramatically very interesting because then you touch upon the theme that mothers and their boys is a very difficult relationship to define. The idea, in the movie, of a sexual past between mother and son is in one way repulsive and terrifying, but at the same time, there’s an erotic-ness to a man’s sexual awakening coming from the place of his origin. It’s a subject most people don’t want to even consider because it is very complicated.

FANG: Well there is that theory of being in the womb and a newborn, and thinking of yourself as being a part of your mother, not separating yourself as other until you see a mirror. Then, you’re basically searching for that wholeness again throughout life.

REFN: I’m sure a lot of philosophers and analysts see different patterns of that. I’m not an expert in any of those kinds of fields, but I can definitely understand the reaction consists of trying to define the classic scenario of wanting to return to the womb and what that essentially means. What I did, the film is very much about a heightened reality. As a man chained to your mother’s womb, how would your life resolve? The confrontation between mother and son can only take place through a third person, which is almost the protagonist’s sexual fantasy.

FANG: Is there then two “third persons” in this scenario? Are both Mai and Chang vessels to interact with her?

REFN: You could say that the Mai character is the opposite of his mother’s territory. She’s purity that he’s willing to also sacrifice to confront his mother. But as she does not solve his dilemma, he has to realize, through the course of the film, that the real confrontation needs to come from the sexual desire to penetrate his mother; to have his hands removed. It’s a very mythological notion that once your hands have been removed, you’re no longer active. The removing of hands is the oldest form of punishment. It’s an instinctual way for us to impart justice. It’s still very instinctive.

FANG: Do you find working in this kind of heightened reality, this fable-esque level, the best way to express and work through these ideas?

REFN: I certainly like the fairy tale construct because it allows you to work with genre cinema, which is on a commercial level the last frontier left in filmmaking that is commercially justifiable. At the same time, genre is an open canvas of interpretation because it allows artistic license on a much more heightened level than if you make a film based in authenticity. I’ve done films where authenticity was the final goal in a direction that became an absurdity because I was trying to replicate reality by incorporating reality into what I was doing, in a fictional sense. In the end, it was just fictionalized imagination.

FANG: Do you think that’s almost more of a put-on, than when you explore these things through something heightened?

REFN: I think so. And I like indulgence. I like to indulge in what I do, so when people see what I make as “self indulgent,” that’s what art is. It’s an indulgent medium. Why would you not immerse yourself 100%? It’s a strange way for people to define something when the act of creativity is indulgent.

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FANG: One of the things I find interesting is you also indulge your own kind of fandom, like within DRIVE and using music from GOODBYE UNCLE TOM. There was also word you’re working on a new MANIAC COP.

REFN:: I still am. I’m a huge lover of pop cinema and it was basically my relationship with Bill Lustig that led to rethinking the MANIAC COP franchise. He owns it and we basically partnered up on it to give it a spin. I’ve always loved the original films, so it was a way to revisit part of my past, but also it’s one of the few franchises that has not outstayed their welcome.

We’re working on it as we speak. I’ve been a little bit delayed because of finishing this film and travelling around. It’s something that we’re very much prioritizing now that I’m coming to the end of this film. It opens up a whole new breathing space to concentrate on future projects.

FANG: Could you direct it?

REFN:: I wouldn’t be the right person to direct it purely because I have such an admiration for the original. So, Bill’s film is still so fresh in my mind that I wouldn’t be the right… I mean, I’ve been approached for other remakes of other genre movies and I’ve always declined. I’m too old, because they are a part of my identity. So, therefore to get someone that is younger, meaning somebody that maybe doesn’t have the same sensibilities connected to it. Somebody who can re-envision it from their perspective.

FANG: Do you envision yourself making something more explicitly horror?

REFN:: I kind of decided that I would really like to do a horror film, but the word’s true definition. I think a lot of things lead up to that experience. The question of what will I do next exactly, I’m not sure yet. I’ve also got a television show, BARBARELLA, but the idea of a horror film feels very intriguing and it’s in a way, the right time do it.

FANG: You said the true meaning of horror, but that seems so subjective. What’s your true meaning of horror?

REFN:: Well there are things, of course being a parent, that are obvious that you fear that are just unspeakable. Then, there are fears that in a way become a fetish pleasure. There are things in my real life that I’m very afraid if, there are things I experience that I’m very afraid of—or I see, just turning on the news—that may help me to fetishize things in a way to release that fear into a pleasurable experience. In a way, I’m from the videotape age. I would spend many years seeking and indulging in the most extreme, explicit form of entertainment, whether it was underground filmmaking or independent filmmaking. The one thing I always promised myself I would never see was SOPHIE’S CHOICE. Not because I knew that it was the kind of film that my mother probably loves, but because I knew there was a scene that would be so horrifying that I knew I wouldn’t be able to live past it.

That scene was shown in a documentary that I, by accident, was watching on television. When I realized that it comes to the moment where Meryl Streep’s character has to choose between the two children, that’s when I realized that true horror is very different from fetish horror. There’s a great pleasure in fetish horror and there’s a horrifying truth in the really frightening sort of thing. If you just accept that then, you can live on. Do you know what I’m saying?

FANG: Absolutely, there’s an aesthetic in horror that you can love and fetishize without necessarily being scared of it.

REFN:: It’s a way to indulge yourself in your fantasies. It’s almost a way to deal with the fear of reality and that’s why genre keeps thriving and becoming counter culture and reinventing itself every other year. A new generation latches on to it. I think that, in a way, the last 10-15 years, the acceptance of genre filmmakers as real artists has become more and more accepted. That’s a great change… In a way, genre filmmaking has become what progressive cinema was when my parents saw the French New Wave.

ONLY GOD FORGIVES is out Friday, July 19 from Radius.

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About the author
Samuel Zimmerman
Fangoria.com Managing Editor Samuel Zimmerman has been at FANGORIA since 2009, where fresh out of the Purchase College Cinema Studies program, he began as an editorial assistant. Since, he’s honed both his writing and karaoke skills and been trusted with the responsibility of jury duty at Austin’s incredible Fantastic Fest. Zimmerman lives in and hails from The Bronx, New York where his pants are too tight and he’ll watch anything with witches.
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