The Sound of the Devil: Talking with Nicolas Winding Refn

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When I called Mr. Refn this morning, he was dropping his kids off at school. It’s hard to imagine the Danish auteur behind hyper-violent operas like Bronson, Drive, and Only God Forgives as Daddy, there’s a certain kind of pleasant meekness about him which is every so often imbued in his films and, even more, his soundtracks. That kind of vulnerability is also present in the documentary his wife, Liv Corfixen, made My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, where we get to see the director at a point of vulnerability that is, as the title suggested, only a window that Ms. Corfixen really gets to observe.

“She’s my wife, what was I going to do, say ‘no’?” Refn quips when asked about being vulnerable on screen. Evident in that film is, at least implicitly, an interesting kind of working relationship between the two. But as far as vulnerability goes, it’s much more difficult for Refn to present one of his “babies, as it were” to a wide audience. With the tepid response to Only God Forgives (despite his Cannes Best Director win for Drive a couple years earlier), Refn said, “It’s much harder presenting that kind of work to people. It’s always harder.” But, he mentions that the process was therapeutic for him.

Perhaps it’s because his films are injected so much with his personality. “Bronson is autobiographical and personal for me, so the music choice was very much inspired by what I grew up listening to.” His process for soundtrack curation has evolved, certainly, but arguably to a point where it’s more personal than his earlier work, like Pusher and Fear X. Pet Shop Boys, New Order, et cetera. While he says he listens to “pretty much everything”, he says that each film has a musical center point or “pin point”. For Bronson, it was the inner glow of the Pet Shop Boys and New Order, for Valhalla Rising, it was Peter Peter (of Sort Sol), for Drive it was the electro-synth of the ‘80s he grew up with living in New York, like Johnny Jewel, and for Only God Forgives it was Thai pop music. “It’s kind of like painting, when you’re creating these images,” he reveals. How does he get that moody atmosphere he’s so well known for in his films on set? “I play a lot of music. And loud, I play it very loudly, even when the actors have lines. You kind of have to do that in order to get your actors in the mood.”

For The Neon Demon, though, what direction will that go musically? Refn hints at the iconic Giorgio Moroder as something he’s been listening to constantly, seemingly this film’s musical center point. He’s coy about revealing much more beyond that and one possible track (“Homicide” by 999), but his musical reference points, like, Moroder, resonate as personal for him. Particularly, his collaborative relationship with Cliff Martinez seems to work in as much of a muse way as the relationship he has with Ryan Gosling: “When I’m making a movie, I keep thinking, ‘This is where Cliff comes in, and this is where Cliff comes in, and here as well.’ It’s kind of like working with actors, you sort of consider how they’re going to influence your project.” He calls his collaborative relationship with former Red Hot Chili Peppers member as “the greatest collaborative relationship I’ve had”, having worked with him since Drive up to Refn’s next film The Neon Demon. He recalls the musical relationships between Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, and Hayao Mizayaki and Joe Hishashi, saying that those relationships make the movies.

It’s sort of retro to be releasing vinyl, but it makes sense since retro and vintage are the new black. Leave it to Mr. Refn to make that trend more interesting, as he speaks about his new label Refn Presents from Milan Records, with one their first releases being the soundtrack to Bronson. Working with JC Chamboredon, Refn says, “JC and I had expressed a love for not only soundtracks, but soundtracks on vinyl. We had made this long list of film soundtracks that we wanted, and we went about trying to figure out what could happen and what could not happen.” Included as some future releases are Robocop, which Refn describes as “everything perfect that Hollywood can do”, The Dead Zone, Oldboy, which Refn mentioned was “an experiment to see if we could really do this”, and David Robert Mitchell’s recent horror offering It Follows. “I quite liked the film,” he says. “It’s a new kind of contemporary horror.” When asked about what makes a compelling soundtrack, he replies, “If you hear the music after the film, and the film just starts playing in your head.”

Given the iconographic images that Refn composes and his carefully curated soundtracks, for his films to play inside your head isn’t hard. “I’ve thought about doing music video directing, but it’s such a hard industry to navigate. Some things just don’t come through.” Not least of all, a proposed Wonder Woman film. “I wanted to do a Wonder Woman movie and set it to disco music, but apparently no one wants that.” Nevertheless, he says he’ll solve that by just creating a superhero all his own, to the sounds of “Czar Love Triangle” by New Order, no less.

 

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