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13 Things We Learned About ‘Only God Forgives’ From Nicolas Winding Refn at Cannes Film Festival

Written by on May 22, 2013 

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.”

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