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Q&A: 'Drive' director Nicolas Winding Refn

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Refn provided the negative for a British Film Institute home video release of Andy Milligan's 1970 film Nightbirds.
  • Refn provided the negative for a British Film Institute home video release of Andy Milligan's 1970 film Nightbirds.

Indiana University Cinema - which we oh-so-cleverly called Cinematheque Hoosiere a few years back to play off its now-realized goal of becoming the state's best repertory/art theater - is heading into another semester's worth of guests both big and small (experimental nitrate-lover Bill Morrison and the ever-droll Bobcat Goldthwait to name two), mini-fests and midnight movies.

This week brings Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives, Bronson) to the Bloomington theater, where he'll participate in a conversation about the scuzzy exploitation director Andy Milligan and attend screenings of two of his own films.

Milligan started off life making "very personal Nouvelle Vague-inspired dramas" (per Refn) such as a short film set in a gay bathhouse (Vapors, 1965) and a feature about a hippie couple (Nightbirds, 1970) before devoting himself entirely to "terrible" (again Refn) genre filmmaking with titles like Gutter Trash (1969), Torture Dungeon (1970) Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973). Refn began collecting Milligan's films and memorabilia after learning more about his life via a particularly sordid biography by Jimmy McDonough, who spent time with Milligan before his death from AIDS complications in 1991.

Refn's latest film, Only God Forgives, was described by Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times as "a horrifically violent movie-movie of art-house pretensions and self-congratulatory skill, in which every frame, every musical note, every line reading is delivered in a way that demands our admiration, or at least our attention." His previous three films - the Ryan Gosling-starring Drive; Bronson, about a psychopathic boxer who takes on the nom-de-ring Charles Bronson; and Valhalla Rising, about a Norse warrior who joins a Christian crusade circa 1000 AD - make up the rest of IU Cinema's mini-retrospective. He spoke to us last week from a New York City hotel room.

Nicolas Winding Refn
  • Nicolas Winding Refn

NUVO: Why Milligan, in particular? There are other grindhouse directors with identifiable styles. Other queer directors, say Kenneth Anger, who really put themselves into their work.

Refn: If I could get to buy Anger's negatives, I would buy them, but he's not selling. It's not because he was what you'd describe as a grindhouse filmmaker. When I was younger, I was into that film genre more, but you grow out of it a little bit. But I'm from that generation of VHS going into DVD, the digital revolution, when that rediscovering of what I call pop cinema became huge and a lot of films that had been forgotten suddenly resurfaced. Everything from Herschel Gordon Lewis to the other end of the spectrum.

Clearly, Andy Milligan is a terrible filmmaker; there's no point in trying to justify him as a great cineaste. You can say that Vapors is a quite well-made film, but otherwise, they're usually just deranged; they are valueless. And for me, there's no money in [collecting him]; it's all charity and money out the window.

But what I find interesting about Andy Milligan is this: filmmaking continues to become more and more about creating a set of boxes that you check off that then would create what you'd describe as a perfect product. And though that may be great, it's also the enemy of creativity, and it's sometimes more interesting looking at filmmakers that make films not because they had the opportunity or because of talent, but because it was their only way to express themselves. It's similar to certain bands or musicians where they certainly are not great musicians, but the desire behind the music itself is more interesting than the actual music, because of the need of expression. Art is essentially an act of expression, and filmmaking is an art form, of course. But we so many times try to make it perfect, and yet perfection is the enemy of creativity because it takes away the soul.

NUVO: Did you identify with that need to create when you were starting out?

Refn: No. When I started out, I was young. I got success at a very early age. For a number of years, it clouded my mind because on one side of me, I liked the pure act of expression and not worrying so much about the final product in terms of whether it was in good or bad taste. But I came from a family that very much valued high art, so I felt that I had to make what I call important films. But it wasn't until I really started with the Pusher trilogy, ending with II and III, and going into Bronson - and especially with Valhalla Rising, Drive and Only God Forgives - that the act of becoming a fetishized filmmaker really liberated me. And I just said that 'I'm a pornographer.' I make films about what arouses me; whether it's in good or bad taste, it doesn't matter because to me it's very satisfying. So I no longer made films hoping that the audience would regard them as great cinema, because you can never win that battle.

Refn says that although he doesn't "really like" guys, he often ends up with one as his protagonist, like Valhalla Rising's Norse warrior One-Eye.
  • Refn says that although he doesn't "really like" guys, he often ends up with one as his protagonist, like Valhalla Rising's Norse warrior One-Eye.

NUVO: You're coming to Bloomington for a mini-retrospective at a place that's devoted to the study of film. So given what you just said, what's it like inserting your films into that world that's focused on film as art?

Refn: I love the fact that I'm coming there to this wonderful university - and I have tremendous respect for Jon Ricker; I think he's very visionary - to talk about Andy. And not about the filmmaking process - which a lot of these places spend so much time on - but about the act of creating. You can go anywhere - painting school, writing school. The biggest kick was actually going to the Lumiere Film Festival in Cannes to show Vapors and Nightbirds, where you had the French elitists of cinema who had never heard of Andy Milligan. It was a packed screening because an undiscovered filmmaker the French cinema elite didn't know about was shocking to them. And it was hilarious.

NUVO: So if you're creating violent pornography, as you put it, do you have any concerns about the moral implications of your work?

Refn: The ability to create and the accessibility of having it produced always brings with it a moral, how shall we say...You carry a certain responsibility, but at the same time you can't censor yourself because of that. I don't believe art can make people violent. I don't. But I do believe certain art forms can show people how to behave violently, which is very, very different. And when people then have access to things that are very destructive, like you have in this country, it's a very dangerous cocktail.

NUVO: So how do you deal with that observation? I can see one person saying - and I'm not saying this is the only legitimate choice - that I'm not going to create something violent because I don't want to give people behavioral cues.

Refn: I think that the world would be a sadder place if we did that.

NUVO: Your visit to IU Cinema carries the subtitle 'Art as an Act of Violence,' a phrase you've used to describe your approach in earlier interviews. Can you unpack that phrase?

Refn: You can say it like this. Sometimes art and war are very similar, and that's what's frightening. But what the difference essentially comes to is that war destroys and art inspires. But they're both the most powerful mediums in terms of a social and political view. Both ingredients can change the world, but where war destroys, art inspires.

NUVO: And is art always about attacking - can it be a collaborative process?

Refn: Of course, it can be anything you want it to be. Art's an act of violence, but not in a destructive way, purely as a positive penetration. An experience of anything can be a very violating moment, but when art, literature or music penetrates your mind, it is a violation in a sense because it goes past our normal lives - or how we want to live our normal lives - and goes into our moral dilemmas and essentially enters our subconscious. And can change us, sometimes without us even knowing it.

NUVO: Do you ever watch the audience during screenings of your own films to get a sense of that penetration?

Refn: Oh, no, never. I never watch my films with anyone. I would be too frightened.

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