One of the most highly anticipated films of the Cannes Film Festivals was unveiled this morning to a divisive response, Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Only God Forgives. As we said in our review, “set amidst an underground Muay Thai boxing club and glowing with hellish red lights from countless brothels, the mood and style is more emblematic of the themes Refn is interested in conveying than it is of some traditional narrative — in fact, much of the film serves more as symbolic representations for larger concepts, particularly religion and morality, than it does any real life characters. This abstraction in crafting the narrative is a double-edged blade for Refn: despite the gorgeous technical elements of the film and implied imagery, it’s hard not to think that Only God Forgives is little more than a slightly shallow fetishization of Asian revenge flicks.”
While lead Ryan Gosling couldn’t make it due to his commitment on shooting his directorial debut, Only God Forgives, director Nicolas Winding Refn, stars Kristen Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm, as well as composer Cliff Martinez all gathered for the ritualistic press conference in france. They covered a variety of topics, including talking about lack of dialogue, the worst thing you can call a woman, genitalia, how Refn perceives himself to be a pornographer and much, much more. We’ve picked out the best details and one can read them below and on the following pages.
Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy led to Ryan Gosling getting cast in Only God Forgives, and how the film came about.
Explaining how the movie came to fruition, Refn says he attained a two-picture deal with Gaumont and Wild Bunch, but in order to sign the deal he had to come up with two stories. He says, “I quickly came up with a fight movie in Thailand because I thought that was going to be an easy set up and they bought it. I started writing the script and I’m not really a big fan of fight movies, but I was going through a very existential time. My wife was pregnant with our second daughter and it had been a really difficult period.” He adds that he felt anger and violence he didn’t know how to channel, so he turned to God, “something that has answers to life’s existentialistic problems” and he challenged him.
Refn explains that he had couldn’t go back to his financiers and say, “that’s the movie,” she he had to construct “a more linear story.” This is where he “came up with this mother character who devours everything,” and adds, “it really became more of a mother and son story, but the key to unfold this mother and son story was this character who believed he was God.” He says, “I was basically ready to go and I had cast the movie with Kristen Scott Thomas as the mother and another actor [Luke Evans] to play Julian out of London then I decided to go and do Drive instead. I went to Los Angeles and I put the film on hold until afterwards and then that went very well, kind of, and me and Ryan became very close. I remember the day after the premiere of Drive in Cannes, this unknown actor drops out of my movie to go do The Hobbit. So I was like, ‘fuck.’ Then I was in LA right after and Ryan said, ‘I’ll do it.’ And I said, ‘great.’ So we pushed it a few months cause he was finishing something and then I called [Kristen] and said you’re going to be an American.”
Nicolas Winding Refn’s daughter’s ability to see ghosts changed the director’s vision for Only God Forgives.
When he arrived in Thailand, Refn says he had “the real experience where I found the film that I wanted to do, in terms of making a film about mysticism and reality and it really came down to that.” Bringing up a peculiar story, the director says, “When our daughter was born she had abilities to see ghosts and we were in an apartment in Bangkok and she kept waking up screaming every night and pointing to the wall. “I decided to call the Thai production manager and said, ‘I believe there’s a ghost in our house.’ If I did that in Europe, I’d be crucified, but here she said, ‘oh, OK’ and she came by half an hour later with a Shaman who cleansed the room. Refn adds, “I really realized that spirituality and mysticism and reality has a different meaning in Asia and that’s when I really realized that this was the kind of movie I wanted to make.”
Ryan Gosling only has 17 lines in the film and how dialogue can hurt the poetry of cinema, according to Refn.
Fans of Drive know Refn’s fascination with silence and Only God Forgives is no different. Hollywood.com tells us that there are actually only 17 lines of dialogue spoken by Gosling’s character Julian, and Refn explains a bit more about this. “The idea of the Julian character was it was a man who was on some kind of journey, but he didn’t know what he was moving towards. So the idea we talked a lot about — Ryan and I — was the concept of the sleepwalker, which is a very mythological creature that is destined to move but he doesn’t know where he is going. He keeps on being taken in different directions and we realize, of course, that he’s bound by chains to his mother’s womb and that’s his curse. In order for him to release that he has to go through certain levels of violence.”
Refn said Gosling had questions on what his character will say and the director responded, “‘Well, the language of silence is so much more stronger and interesting and it’s so much more poetic.’ And it helps us to make a film where it’s not we ask, ‘what are you’?’ but it’s more, ‘what are you not?’ and that kind of thing, that everything had to have subliminal images all the way through. Then it became monologues from [Kristen] or it became dialogue from the Thais, but the idea was that it added some kind of off dimension where things all seemed real, but yet it was some kind of unrealness.”
The director goes on to say, “One of the things about dialogue in these kinds of films, that has a fairytale language, is that dialogue can actually hurt the poetry of the film because it’s all about interpretation. Whereas dialogue is very logical most of the time, images and sound are very emotional — it’s finding the balance between that kind of language. When you have very little dialogue you use other things to describe your character. We’re so used to spoken word and information given because we’re used to speed of information, but once you take away the sound, everything else becomes heightened.”
Refn explains why Only God Forgives is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky and equates meeting him to sparking up his sex life.
While we previously thought Alejandro Jodorowsky popped up in two features at Cannes, Only God Forgives makes it a hat trick. The filmmaker is honored in the credits of the film, with a dedication and Refn explains, “Jodorowsky has always been this kind of mythological creature in this whole pop culture filmmaking and a lot of that had to do with the fact that it was impossible to see his movies for many, many years — since the ’60s and early ’70s, because they were out of circulation. I got the chance to become friendly with him a few years ago and, of course, having seen his films by then numerous times, I was always fascinated by that type of cinema language. It’s a very unique cinema language and it’s very much a cinema language that goes against all conventions. I think that after having Bronson and Valhalla Rising and Drive, I wanted to try something that would go against all those kind of conventions that I had worked with before. It’s like when your sex life gets a little boring, you have to spark it up. I felt going to Paris and meeting with Jodorowsky and actually talking to him about how he does his things, it gave me the confidence to try it out.”
Along with talking about their genitalia, Gosling told Refn the worst thing you can call a woman.
Refn discussed how he shared an apartment with Gosling during filming and says, “So we would sit and say, ‘what could be interesting for a mother to humiliate her son?’ And then we started talking about our cocks and when two guys talk about their cocks, it becomes very masculine, very much. But when you suddenly have your mother talking about it, it becomes extremely unmasculine. And we were like, ‘ok, that’s going to work.'”
The discussion did not only surround what Thomas’ character would say to her son, but also his girlfriend. After feeling like “we were beating around the bush,” Thomas said, “it suddenly seemed like I just said, ‘why don’t we just say the worst possible things, the sort of nightmare things, the things that only come out after dark. Why don’t we just get those out on the table?'” She adds, “a lot of the language that happens in that particular [dinner] scene appeared while we were shooting it. I think if it had been written and prepared and set up weeks and weeks ahead, I think I would have been terrified of it. There was something about the confidence that was building between all the actors and Nicolas on the set allowed us to sort of go beyond these taboo things and break certain barriers. It’s all a bit mad, really.”
One of the worst things actually came from the mind of Gosling. Refn say, “I remember asking Ryan, ‘so what’s the worst thing that you can call a woman in American?’ And he said, ‘oh, call her cum dumpster.’ Alright, cum dumpster.” It wasn’t so easy for Thomas, as she says, “I couldn’t say that word. It took me about eight takes to say that word.” “She had no problem turning on the bitch switch, ” Refn says with a laugh. Thomas says, “It was frighteningly easy, actually. It wasn’t like, ‘I desperately need to find a film that is going to break this terrible shell that I’ve been trapped in!’ It wasn’t that at all. It was much more organic than that and every day we got braver.”
Kristen Scott Thomas doesn’t enjoy violence in films, but Bronson convinced her to work with Refn.
“This kind of film is really not my thing — films where this kind of violence happens, I don’t enjoy watching it at all,” Thomas admits. “What appealed to me when Nicolas approached me was working with him, because when I’d seen Bronson I just thought it was the most beautiful thing. It was an incredibly moving film about some very violent acts, but there was something really deeply emotional and troubling in it, which appealed to me enormously. So when I read the screenplay and was asked to be involved, I was excited about the idea of playing something different. When you’re asked to do films, you sort of forget that we’re going to be involved in as as hyperviolent and quite disturbing and I just thought about interesting it was going to be working with [Refn] and how it was going to be playing this wild, savage person.”
Compared to other films he has worked on, composer Cliff Martinez appreciates that Refn gives him a “starring role” in his projects.
After teaming together on Drive, composter Cliff Martinez was eager to work again with Refn. “It’s a great job for a composer,” Martinez says. “I never said to Nicolas, ‘more dialogue, please.’ I was like, ‘the less dialogue, the better.’ It gives me a bigger part, because you feel like you have a starring role as I did in this film. And then there’s other films where you are just a character actor and then there’s film where you’re just sitting out in the parking lot waiting for the film to end. So I was very grateful, when I first saw this, that it was so lean, so spare in dialogue. It just gave me a great opportunity to try and tell the story with music.”
Refn also talked about how he didn’t know anything about Thai music, but it was Martinez that opened him up to the style. “Cliff caught me to the esan style and then I was able to realize that there was this whole tradition of this folk music that’s about fables and so each of these songs has a fable side to it that talks roughly about revenge or it’s about cleansing the body and coming home or some very, very, very sappy Thai love song which is pure sugar, Refn says.” So that’s how that came about. And I like all kinds of films and I very much like Asian cinema and I think I like the stoicalness. I like the stillness, because it makes things extremely cinematic but in a way that I don’t really understand it and that’s what excites me.”
He adds, “One of the things I realized in Bangkok was that karaoke was like religious for this people — it was a part of their beings. The whole movie is shot at night and I would spend a lot of time in Bangkok at night and I saw people would go to these places and sing songs all night. It was almost like they lived in that world and it was very, very intoxicating and interesting and yet so far removed from anything from my logic,” Refn remarks.
Nicolas Winding Refn would whisper “you’re God” into Vithaya Pansringarm’s ear during filming to empower him.
After receiving the script from Only God Forgives back in the middle of 2009, Pansringarm says, “I started reading and I said to myself, ‘this is a very important role.’ Because the character is not only a retired policeman, but he believed he had this spiritual power. In the east we do believe believe that the spiritual would come through your body and you become that spirit. For me to accept this character I have to both accept that I’m the retired policeman who also used to be a Thai boxer and he has this spiritual power inside of him that makes him have this authority. He likens it to “a judge to decide who is right and who is wrong and the karma of what the person did and what they deserve.”
He adds, “I play many police man characters, but for me to play God is very different. So many times I asked God, ‘how do I act like you?’ And he didn’t answer me, but Nic did. He kept coming to me and said, ‘if you believe you have this power..’ and sometimes he would whisper in my ear and said, ‘you’re God.’ And so he tried to convince me that I have this God-like power to carry this character and that helps a lot in building up my character in this film.”
Nicolas Winding Refn says the womb is the most mystical place we’ll ever enter, and why he wanted no explanations in his film.
Jumping back to cutting out dialogue, Refn says, “One of the things with the original script, was there was a lot of logic and explaining all of these mystical happenings and to explain magic or spirituality — things that we’re very used to in the western world, we’re much more bound by facts and acceptance and if we don’t have a fact, it’s hard for us to even understand and accept it. But the more I spent time in Asia and the more that I had this experience with my own daughter, who can’t verbalize how she sees the world.”
Refn adds, “A man who is on his own self-destruction is nihilistic, but at the same time the mysticism is the sense that the [end] of the journey is the mystique. We all know the center of the universe is the womb of the mother but at the same time it’s also the most mystical place we will ever enter and at the same time we can never explain it. So whenever there was a sense of definition or logic it always stopped the whole ability of the film to carry on its own alternate [realities], between heaven and hell in a way.”
The score of Only God Forgives was influenced by sci-fi and horror films, including Bernard Herrmann’s compositions for The Day the Earth Stood Still.
As a blueprint, Martinez says, “The musical process kind of began with the Thai karaoke pop songs. That was kind of the stylistic ground zero. I did those very early because they needed to shoot to it, so that’s what started the ball rolling.” While he was excited to weave that into the score, Martinez said he discussed with the director “about it wanting it to be very large scale and big and epic, so Thai pop music and Wagner were kind of two big influences on the score.”
Refn also told him he wanted it to sound nothing like Drive, but it was difficult. “We all have our own very strong artistic personalities and it’s hard to shed that 100% for everything project, “Martinez says. “I was very intentionally trying to not do anything that I had done before. So that was the thing I was trying to do with it, epic and orchestral. There was also a science-fiction and horror aspect to the score, which Nicolas and I had talked about. He always has some interesting ways to approach the film. I didn’t see it as a science fiction film or a horror film, but that was kind of the genesis of a lot of the music for it, was to go in that direction. In fact, an early role model was Bernard Herrmann‘s score to The Day the Earth Stood Still, which I thought was a very peculiar role model. But, like with a lot of things, when somebody gives me a direction to go in, I usually fail to role model that direction in a very interesting way, and that’s sort of how the score came together.”
Nicolas Winding Refn says films need to penetrate you and at the same time, you want to penetrate them.
With his fascination of space and visuals, Refn says, “movement is one of the main things for an actors, just like their costumes, what they wear, and both Ryan and Kristen and also Vithaya are very aware of what they wear, but also how they move. On Drive we had one approach on how Ryan had to move physically and on this film it was another kind of approach, but it’s all very character-surrounded because if you’re a sleepwalker you move, but you have no speed in you. It’s just a sense of movement, it’s like liquid. And liquid represents subconscious and subconscious is up to interpretation.”
Refn goes on to say, “That’s why it’s hard to define any sort of spirituality versus non-spirituality or logic or nihilism or whatever, because people will read whatever they want in their images. There is a need for everyone, including myself, to understand what I’m seeing, or trying to understand it and engage and be part of it. It needs to penetrate you [and] at the same time you want to penetrate it. Movement in that world is vital and with Vithaya, his whole training and background, [we asked], “well if you were God, how would you walk?”
Nicolas Winding Refn loves everything about television — a lot.
With his upcoming television project Barbarella in the works, Ren discussed his love for the medium. He says, “I’m a TV junkie and I was a TV junkie ever since I was little. I love televisions. I love the size of them. I love to touch them. I like to watch them. I love the remote control. I love the power of the remote control. I love everything about television shows.”
He exclaims, “Television shows to me, in the last ten years, have leveled in a way the creatively they are sometimes much more satisfying than anything around and there are shows I can obsessively watch on for hours on end because of the need of information. I think that the way the things are moving, because of the financing of films, that television has almost become where people seek creativity in terms of challenges nowadays. It’s opened up a whole new arena and also, of course, the whole streaming element and television’s structure and storytelling has evolved in a way. You can make 13-hour movies nowadays, you can just cut them up. Because episodic television is part of the past, people accept abilities and views in different ways and so I always wanted to do television, but it’s an interesting market.”
Nicolas Winding Refn says he approaches films like a pornographer.
Fittingly, Refn went out with a bang at the press conference. When asked about the high levels of violence in his films he says, “Art is an act of violence. Art is about penetration. Art is about speaking to our subconscious and our needs at different levels. It’s a hard question to answer on why there is [so much violence in the film], because I don’t really think about what I do very much. I approach things very much like a pornographer. It’s about what arouses me. Certain things turn me on more than other stuff and I can’t suppress that need and that’s how it usually ends up like that.”
He even talks about his passive mindset, saying “I don’t consider myself a very violent man. I would die if someone even looked at me evil, but I surely have a fetish emotions, violent images. I just can’t explain where it comes from but I do believe that through art it’s a way to exercise certain things in you and from a viewer, it’s the reverse. We must not forget that human beings, when we were created, we’re very violent. Our body parts are created for violence, mostly based on instinctual needs to survive. But over the years our physicality no longer needs violence, but we still have an urge when we’re born, because that itself can be an act of violence. So we have more of a mental need, a spiritual need for it that we exercise. Or we watch [as a viewer] and in a way, exercise out of our perceiving and so forth.
Only God Forgives premiered at Cannes and hits theaters and VOD on July 19th.