Filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn will always be divisive yet I don’t think he minds. He loves to shirk off what you expect from him, which can be agitating to people that latch onto one or two of his films and think they know what they are getting when they see his latest film. The most recent example of this is Only God Forgives, which was Refn’s follow-up collaboration with Ryan Gosling after the critically and commercially successful Drive. A new documentary called My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn is from Refn’s wife, Liv Corfixen, and follows the struggles to get the film made and how arduous his process is. It’s a documentary that truly puts you in the heart of the filmmaking process and what it takes to balance being a director on set and having your family live with you for six months on location in Bangkok. What becomes clear throughout the 58-minute documentary is how much that balance takes a toll on everyone.
As enlightening as it is about Refn’s process and how he freewheels at times because of the freeing nature of shooting in chronological order, My Life Directed is a film that really nails his relationship with Corfixen and how that bond needs attention even when everyone else needs it as well. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Refn and Corfixen to talk about the world premiere of the film at Fantastic Fest and we hit on some interesting details. During our chat we touched on why the film is only 58 minutes long and whether there was any intention to extend it, whether Refn believes he should have won the Palme d’Or, why he switched from composer Peter Peter to working with Cliff Martinez, how they had little boosts of money that helped get the film made, why the film is just now coming out instead of closer to Only God Forgives‘ release, whether Refn ever wanted to stop being filmed, the commercial prospects of an hour long documentary, and much more. For the full interview, hit the jump.
Collider: I’ve got to say that I really appreciated how real you are about the struggle of making Only God Forgives in this documentary. You give a realistic portrayal of what it takes with having a family, going to Thailand for six months and just so many other issues you’re dealing with, both as a couple and as a filmmaker. Many might wonder, why this film? It seems like such a struggle at times. I might think that Nicolas, you might just say at some point, “No more documentary. This is stressful enough.” Were you fighting for it?
LIV CORFIXEN: No, actually, not. He never said that.
NICOLAS WINDING REFN: It was always, “Whatever you want to do.”
CORFIXEN: Yeah, he’s pretty exhibitionistic, actually.
[Corfixen and I laugh]
REFN: [Shocked face] Wow.
CORFIXEN: No, when it comes to the filming, of course there were a few times when he was in a bad mood. He might say, “Can’t you go away?” But nothing major. I felt that I could film everything. So that was good.
Well, it’s great because we even see you looking at the scenes up on the board. How you’re running through the streets of Thailand at two or three in the morning, trying to setup another shot. At one point you show how Refn and Ryan Gosling raised some money right before the shoot started. How much did that money actually end up helping?
REFN: A lot. The reason we had to go to the festival was because we needed the money to buy security to shoot in Chinatown. I didn’t have enough money to buy cops. Actually, there was one sequence but Liv didn’t put this in but at the end of the movie, we ran out of money. Literally, ran out. And I couldn’t make payroll. So I emptied all our accounts to make payroll. We were kinda like, “What do we do?” Then out of the blue, we were saved by Gucci. So it’s always been like, you just gotta reach for the stars and hopefully the moon will catch you.
Coming into this film, you had so much success with Drive, and you reflect on that throughout. You have some conversations with Alejandro Jodorowsky and he’s talking about whether you want to be an artist. To just simply forget success and put that out of your mind. But at the same time you have to bring in money. You still have to get investors for a film. It’s this very careful balancing act between being an artist and being a success. Overall, was Only God Forgives a success? Do you think?
REFN: Well, yes. Financially, it was very successful. Which is the most important thing. That is the only way you get to make another movie. It’s very simple. The market will value you. Because the film was made at a very good budget, it became very profitable. Personally, absolutely. When you make something that everyone likes, it’s very easy to say, “Well, I’ll just repeat that.” Because that was easy. I have a formula. But creatively, it’s not very interesting. So it was very important to do something completely the opposite after Drive. But I also knew the consequences of that. It wasn’t like I was naive. I know what it’s like every time. Every time that I’ve done a movie, I always like to do something very different the next time. With every movie, I’ve been told, “Oh, wow, this is not going to work.” We went from Bronson, to Valhalla Rising, to Drive, and then Only God Forgives. Each time, I’ve proven that it does work. We just have to believe in it. I mean there’s no question that I should have gotten the Palme d’Or. But if I didn’t get the Palme d’Or, it was the movie that everyone talked about. So you got everything out of it that you wanted. And if you want to be the Sex Pistols of cinema, you gotta be prepared to really make people angry. But people were so angry that it was almost like they loved you for it. Anger breeds creativity.
I found it interesting that so much of this film, you vocalize the fact that you’re still working it out in your head. You’re not quite sure what this film is supposed to be at times.
REFN: But so was Drive and all the other movies.
Was it shot in chronological order?
REFN: Yeah, it was shot like all my other movies. Same process. Same approach. Same amount of changes. Everything. Things being made up on the fly. Changing things around. Firing and recasting. Constantly, constantly, in chronological sequence, not really knowing how this is going to end up. That is the only dogmatic approach I take towards everything.
REFN: Cuz you’re in Bangkok, baby, and it’s a cash country. But they did give you a receipt. And they took their tax cut.
The film is only 58 minutes long. You likely had a load of other material at your disposal that you left out. In larger terms, a 58 minute movie isn’t going to have a lot of commercial potential. Theaters just aren’t going to book something that is only 58 minutes. In that sense, it’s very brave to just say, “Well, this is what we made.”
CORFIXEN: Yeah, actually. Everyone was trying to persuade me to make it longer so it could fit for cinemas. I have a lot of funny scenes with Nicolas and Ryan. But I just didn’t think it could bare it. I didn’t think the movie could take it. I felt it only had to be one hour. Then I was like, “Okay, then it will just be for TV.” But somehow, they put it in the cinema anyway in Denmark. And it sold to various countries. So I was surprised.
Yeah. You did everything that everyone told you not to do, and it still sold.
REFN: Also, I think that has changed because of the whole digital revolution. And to be fair, most documentaries are half an hour too long, anyway. [Laughs]. Let’s not kid ourselves. Most movies are an hour too long. I didn’t make this film, but I will say that the internet has changed everything in terms of distribution and because of iTunes and other outlets like that, length is no longer something you really think about, in my opinion. It’s irrelevant.
REFN: Yeah, it’s irrelevant nowadays.
I do have to say, I love Bronson, so it’s not just Drive love that’s out there.
REFN: Oh, well, thank you.
But I’m curious because you have gone through different collaborators through your career. I know you started off with Peter Peter for the Pusher trilogy. Then you went to Cliff Martinez. I think Drive was the first film you made with Cliff and you returned to him for Only God Forgives. What was the split? Was it just scheduling?
REFN: It was just natural evolution. I started making films in another language and I met Cliff really by accident. I’ve always loved his music but we met in a way that was very odd. I just think he’s like the fucking coolest. He went in and even scored this movie. He is very much part of our daily lives now. And he’s doing my next movie. The way that I work with composers is that I show them the script and we talk about what kind of music very, very early on and throughout the whole process.
You mentioned at some points that you were aware of the talk on the internet blogs about Drive and what was coming up. How much do you have to self-regulate your own self? I could almost see getting an assistant to just tell you, “Don’t look at the internet.”
REFN: Well, I never look at the internet because then you just have nothing else to do but just look. Most generally, and even myself as a consumer, you think you know what you want. But what’s more interesting is figuring out what you don’t want. I think the only way that I can do that is just to do what I think is right. That is the only real gesture of respect. Then people can react to the movie how they want to react. Only God Forgives was very much a generation gap in a way. It was all the youth of the world that embraced it. I make films for young people. That’s what I will continue to do.
Last question before I wrap with y’all. I want to know about the timing of the release of the film. I’m not sure when you wrapped or when you first showed it at any kind of screening, but I assume it was fairly recently. Instead of releasing right after Only God Forgives, was it to just give it some air?
CORFIXEN: No, it wasn’t done. It was hard to get the money for it and it just took a long time to make. When we returned from Bangkok, I think it took eight months before we started looking at material. I didn’t have money to pay the editor so I just sort of waited until I had money to pay her. So we were trying to have it finished earlier but we just couldn’t make it.
REFN: But also it was probably good because what’s really interesting about the movie is not what I’m making but it’s what we’re going through. If you release this movie in ten years, it would still work. At least in my opinion.
Well, I’ve got to wrap with y’all but I just want to thank y’all for coming back to Texas.
My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn premiered at Fantastic Fest. A U.S. distributor has not yet been announced.