Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has built a career on gritty, morally complex films, mostly about male anti-heroes – bad men getting themselves into worse situations.

Introduction by Nick Jarvis

You might have seen the Pusher trilogy, Bronson or Valhalla Rising, but you’ve almost certainly seen 2011’s critically lauded Drive. Its slick neo-noir style, zeitgeist-riding synth soundtrack and, of course, the troubled gaze of Ryan Gosling (complete with Scorpion jacket and toothpick) propelled it to the top of many annual Best Films lists.

Winding Refn’s follow-up to Drive’s cult success is Only God Forgives, and the fact that he’s worked once more with Gosling led many to label it a sequel-of-sorts – this couldn’t be further from the truth.

While both films are incredibly tense, highly stylised and graphically ultra-violent (Only God Forgives even more so – it’s not a film to see before a rare steak dinner), Winding Refn’s new film about Muay Thai, murder, karaoke and the World’s Worst Mother (played with relish by Kristin Scott Thomas) exists in surreal dreamscape where the line between fantasy and reality is fluid. Is it a moral tale set in purgatory? A stylised take on classic kung fu film plots? Or an empty homage full of blood and screaming, signifying nothing?

One thing is for certain – the film has divided audiences and critics alike. When it premiered at Cannes, audiences at press screenings reportedly booed and walked out, while the Sydney Film Festival Jury awarded it the prize for best film. Blogger Jeffrey Wells called it, “a shit macho fantasy — hyper-violent, ethically repulsive, sad, nonsensical, deathly dull, pretentious,” while the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw gave it five stars and said, “Winding Refn’s bizarre infernal creation, an entire created world of fear, really is gripping. Every scene, every frame, is executed with pure formal brilliance.”

Masterpiece or monstrosity? You’ll have to make up your own mind, but here’s what Nicolas Winding Refn has to say…

After the great success of Drive, why did you decide to make a medium budget film in Thailand?

Medium budget is an understatement. It’s more a very low budget film. It all started with my two-picture deal with Wild Bunch and Gaumont. Only God Forgives was going to be our first collaboration. Then Drive came along so I decided to make it and postpone Only God Forgives. But the film was so firmly rooted in me that I had to make it. So even while I was making Drive I was preparing Only God Forgives.

Having revisited the American crime picture you wanted to revisit the martial arts genre. Is this a general love of genre movies?

I’ve always loved martial arts films but thought it would be extremely difficult to make one, particularly since I wanted the actors to learn Muay Thai and fight for real. It takes a lifetime to learn the art of Muay Thai and I wanted the actors to learn to fight in eight weeks. Just that was a challenge in itself.

You had many offers from major studios. Why did you turn them down?

I was indeed offered some financially very interesting propositions that I seriously looked into but Only God Forgives had haunted me for too long, I had to get it out before I could seriously consider other projects.

Your film begins as a gangster movie then gradually turns into a strange revenge film. Can you tell us where this story – very reminiscent of Greek tragedy – came from?

I’ve always wanted to make a film about a mother/son relationship and its conflicts. I wanted the film to begin in one genre and gradually transform into something else as the final showdown between mother and son approaches.

Only God Forgives marks the second time you’ve worked with Ryan Gosling. Can you describe this new collaboration? How would you describe his character?

Another actor was supposed to play Julian but pulled out close to shooting. Now I consider this a blessing because it allowed Ryan and me to continue our collaboration. Oddly, I’d written the screenplay before I made Drive and Julian had been conceived as a very silent character. When Ryan and I started to work on the script after Drive this language of silence came naturally, which was very useful since Julian is an extremely tortured character – he never goes towards others but withdraws into himself. With hindsight I can’t imagine another actor playing this role. But again, Ryan and I are practically one.

For the part of the strange policeman/avenger you chose Vithaya Pansringarm. Can you talk about your collaboration?

Casting in Thailand was extremely complicated because actors there don’t really have theatrical training. They tend to be people who have decided to become actors while holding down another job. I was very lucky that during this open casting (itself a real challenge in a city of 12 million inhabitants) Vithaya miraculously appeared at the beginning. I met him a year and a half before shooting and knew he was the one. I can’t tell you why exactly because his tests weren’t remarkable, but there was something in him – his kindness and his calm – yet I knew he would be unpredictable, which I always find interesting.

In all my films, the actors always play a large part in the creation of the characters, they really are part of their DNA, and Vithaya quickly understood that his character was judge, jury and executioner in one – a man with the ability to decide what is good or what is evil. He was able to bring to the character exactly what I was looking for, the ability to control a kind of karmic justice. For each bad thing you do, something bad will come to haunt you in return and he is the one who decides to haunt you or to forgive you.

Kristin Scott Thomas is totally transformed and extremely Machiavellian. How did you work that?

We are so used to seeing crime and violence as being the work of male characters that the very notion of seeing a woman embody absolute evil – and a mother to boot – it was great fun to write. I had Kristin in mind for the part of Julian’s mother early on. We met in Paris and I thought it would be very interesting to do a combination of Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace… And of course Kristin was delighted to be acting a part in which she could go all out playing the ultimate bitch. Yet it was very important that we made her character larger than life, she needed that to be able to play this domineering and diabolical mother.

What were your influences for this film?

There were a lot of different influences that led to different ideas. One of the main ones was the work of Richard Kern and his obsession with violent images, in particular his short movie

The Evil Cameraman (1990). And there was also my obsessive desire to tangle with Greek mythology, with Bangkok as the backdrop…

How do you relate Only God Forgives to your other films?

Everything I do comes from the need to challenge myself, every time. Of course there are connections with my other films and characters, but years ago I decided to stop trying to understand why I do things so I could follow my instincts – what do I want to see when I go to the movies?

Only God Forgives opens in cinemas Thursday July 18.

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