The Sex Pistols of cinema: Director Nicolas Winding Refn on movie violence, anxiety and his artistic gamble after "Drive"

Nicolas Winding Refn and Liv Corfixen talk to Salon about their new documentary

Published February 27, 2015 11:59PM (EST)

Liv Corfixen, Nicolas Winding Refn    (Reuters/Regis Duvignau)
Liv Corfixen, Nicolas Winding Refn (Reuters/Regis Duvignau)

I smile when I realize that I’m a five-minute drive from Nicolas Winding Refn and his wife, Liv Corfixen’s house. We’re neighbors (temporarily: the Danish natives are renting an L.A. house for production). Feeling extra cheeky, I put on the “Drive” soundtrack as I pick up my photographer, the eerie synths sounding odd during a sunlit day as we drive a winding road to a beautifully secluded, gated house. We’re greeted by Liv, a blonde beauty, who constantly apologizes for the state of the place. “Please forgive the Legos and wigs. Our youngest is really into wigs at the moment.” It’s a stark contrast: framed prints of “El Topo” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” hanging above childhood.

Corfixen’s documentary captures that dichotomy well in “My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn,” a film capturing six manic months in Bangkok during the making of Refn’s follow-up to “Drive,” “Only God Forgives.” The film was divisive to say the least, and Corfixen immortalizes the anxieties and fear of a director trying to follow up commercial success with an artistic gamble. The project is also a tribute to family, and how we all need someone to champion our desire for risk-taking.

When and how did you first meet?

Corfixen: That’s like 19 years ago. We’ve been together for 19 years. Nicolas was editing his first movie, “Pusher,” in 1995. Nicolas’ dad is an editor. He edited “Breaking the Waves.”

Weird. I just watched the Criterion version with no knowledge a Refn was involved.

Corfixen: Yeah, it’s a good movie. The editing rooms were in the same hallway, because my mother was an editor and she knew Nicolas’ dad. They were friends, but she passed away. I was sitting with Nicolas’ dad in the editing room of “Breaking the Waves” because I thought that maybe I wanted to be an editor. So I knew him, but not Nicolas.

Refn: We moved to New York when I was 8 and back to Copenhagen when I was 17, so this was in Copenhagen. She asked me out.

What was the initial attraction, beyond the physical? Did you relate to movies instantly?

Corfixen: I think so, because we grew up in the same kind of environment. Our parents actually went to film school together. My dad’s a photographer and his mother’s a photographer. Before we were born, they were in the same Danish film school class. I think we felt we had something in common, completely film-obsessed, and we just started talking.

Refn: I had never had a girlfriend before her, so I was, of course, very scared of women.

Corfixen: He didn’t seem scared

Refn: [Laughing.] Inside I was shaking.

Are you normally a pretty confident guy?

Refn: Don’t I look it? I guess so. That’s a strange thing.

Corfixen: When it’s work-related, you always seem pretty confident. If it’s not about work, you can be insecure.

Refn: Especially in the house. I’m in a world ruled by women.

Corfixen: You surround yourself with women!

Refn: Guys are boring.

You’re not into sports?

Refn: Who wants to go to a bar and watch football?

Were you always on a filmmaking trajectory, Liv?

Corfixen: When I was a child, my stepdad was an actor and he had a theater, so I grew up thinking that I wanted to be an actress. My mother passed away when I was 15 and that was hard on me. I got a little introverted, so I thought, “Maybe I should be behind the camera.” It was so boring in the editing room [Laughs]. I had too much energy! So, I started taking pictures and have been working as a photographer. Then I went back to acting and I was in Nicolas’ second movie, “Bleeder.” Now, after having our second child, I don’t work as an actress anymore and am back behind the camera again.

In regards to the origin of “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn,” how much coaxing was involved to get Nicolas on board?

Refn: Over the years, we’ve had our ups and downs, but I think when Liv agreed to go to Bangkok, she was like, “What the fuck am I gonna do?” It’s very alien when you live there as a foreigner.

“Lost in Translation?” 

Refn: Yeah, exactly. I think it was just her idea to start documenting our life and see where it goes.

So the idea wasn’t planned?

Corfixen: Yeah, I didn’t really have the plan before. I was just so nervous about what I should do for six months in Bangkok, because I go crazy if I’m just a housewife. I decided to document the whole thing and just see what would happen. I didn’t have a full plan until I realized that this could be cool as a documentary. At first I was like, "Should we light behind the scenes?" but that was only for a few weeks and I decided that was too boring. I wanted to make a personal film.

“Only God Forgives” was obviously not a safe film. In that sense, Liv, I was wondering if you knew that you were going to have the ability to capture raw moments and meltdowns.

Refn: Every time is like that.

Corfixen: Yeah, it is. We’ve been through it so many times because I’ve been with him for every movie he’s made, so it’s not just “Only God Forgives” that’s been like this. Every time there’s meltdowns, and ups and downs. I knew that I would get good stuff because I’m so close with Nicolas and (Ryan Gosling), so I knew I could have personal access to a lot of scenes that maybe if you were an outsider you wouldn’t be allowed to film. I knew that was an asset I could utilize.

There’s a lot of Nicolas in bed.

Refn: Yeah, you wake up, and there’s a camera pointing at you asking, "How are you feeling?"

How many days was the shoot?

Refn: The shoot was like seven weeks, but we were there three months before because the kids had to settle into school and preschool. We were there for six months.

It seemed like the kids got along well. Did they do alright in school and outside of the apartment?

Corfixen: Yeah, it was kind of hard for the little one because she was a late talker and didn’t even really speak Danish at the time, so she was in this Canadian preschool. It's so hard to learn a new language, so it was a little hard on them. So that’s why I said, “Next time, I’m gonna choose where we go and it’s gonna be L.A.” He also wants to do a movie in Tokyo, and I’m like, “I think I’m kinda done with Asia for a while.” [Laughs.]

Refn: Our daughter sees ghosts, so we had some very interesting supernatural experiences.

She believes in ghosts?

Refn: She sees them.

Corfixen: I don’t even know.

Refn: Yeah, she does.

Corfixen: It was so hard because she woke up every night screaming and pointing to the wall, like there’s something in the room. In Bangkok, they don’t think you’re weird if you see a spirit in the house. They just think it’s normal. After three months, we moved to the big penthouse where most of the shooting took place, and the first night she slept all night. Before, she was waking up four times a night, screaming and pointing to the wall saying, “No! No!”

That would terrify me. 

Refn: We also experienced once where she pointed to the wall and said to Liv, “Why are you over there also?”

The film echoes “Hearts of Darkness;” a family in a strange land and a director under enormous pressure. Did the similarities occur to you during filming?

Corfixen: I watched it, because people recommended I watch it, but it wasn’t like I wanted to do a movie like that. I watched it pretty late into my shooting of the movie. I liked it, but it wasn’t like…

Refn: Your inspiration.

Corfixen: No, it wasn’t like that. I just knew I didn’t want a movie where you interview people and they say, “Oh, Nicolas is so great.

You didn’t want talking heads.

Corfixen: Yeah, because that would be boring and just like a normal documentary. I wanted a different approach.

It’s almost like you’re a fly on the wall, but you’re involved.

Corfixen: Yeah, exactly.

Nicolas, are you happy on set? You seem to come alive physically creating, but downtime seems to be your enemy.

Refn: [Laughs] On set, you have to be happy, because if you’re not, no one else is going to be happy. You’re basically just lying to yourself and everyone constantly. It’s like the military; you’ve got to be the front one running up the hill, saying to everyone, “It’s going to be great, and we will conquer.” I think when you’re not doing that, there’s not a lot of people you can be honest to, because everyone around you is involved in your perception of what this is going to be. If you voice concern, it ripples backwards. There’s no one around that you can really talk to about all the obstacles or your concerns, because you don’t want to discourage anyone else with your concerns. Downtime becomes a massive headache for Liv because she has to deal with all the fears that come up.

You couldn’t say to Ryan, “I’m freaked out?”

Refn: We could talk, because we know each other very well, but as a director, you have to be iron-willed, 100% confident in whatever you do. You set the template, and have to take charge. It’s a very militant structure.

You don’t seem loud on set, but you definitely have command.

Refn: No. A director’s main function, or asset, is to inspire everyone to give their best. If you don’t do that, I’ve never understood what you get out of it. For me, it’s about making everyone come to work with the attitude of, “Yes, we can do it.” It’s like an Obama campaign [Laughs] -- Yes we can, and we will achieve greatness. Like Obama, my hair is going grey.

What’s your level of anxiety like at home? Do you take any prescription meds?

Refn: No. I’m too afraid of any drug. There’s always anxiety, and anxiety comes in waves. You know when it’s coming, and then the trick is how you deal with it. It’s easy if you’re by yourself, but when you have a wife and kids that you want to not completely fucking hate you, you have to find a way to release it. I don’t believe chemicals, at least in my situation, would be beneficial. It would just make me more paranoid. I’d be afraid of getting sick or something. I think Liv knows how to deal with me now. Behind every great man there’s a greater woman.

Corfixen: Ahh…thank you! Couples therapy helped also [Laughs].

That’s what this is.

Corfixen: It’s been great. I think Nicolas’ panic attacks or whatever you want to call it, is less now. It’s always when the movie is about to start, or before and after, during that period of time. That’s the craziest period of time because there are so many things going on. You like to be in control, you like to produce, write and direct. You want control.

Refn: Of everything.

Corfixen: To be a part of the process in every way. That’s why he has so much in his head. Sometimes I’m just like, “Can’t you just give the hat to somebody else for five minutes?”

Refn: It’s more like, if you’re going to fail, make sure you fail. Don’t blame someone else for doing it. I’d rather take that responsibility on any movie that I’ve done. There were many situations on “Drive” where I remember coming on to the set and just freaking out. I had a great crew, but I remember coming on the set of “Drive” one time and I could not stop crying. We were just doing a normal scene where he has to pick up a car or something. I was just like, “I can’t take it anymore!” The process is like this: In order to create, you have to destroy everything around you. I know the mechanism now: that I have to erase any knowledge of what worked before to do it again. Then you have this fear that if I don’t know it, is it going to work out? Every movie you erase your past, and try and start again like a foreign object.

Corfixen: But that’s also because you’re so afraid of repeating yourself. You always want something new and different.

I consider you an auteur, and at this point, I know I’m watching a Refn film.

Refn: There are certain things you can never escape from, so that’s why sometimes you need other people to throw you off the track. It can be an actor, or “Drive” was a book. There were new aspects. I did a Viking movie. I had no interest in Charlie Bronson when I did “Bronson.”

You had no prior interest?

Refn: No. He didn’t deserve the interest in my opinion, but the concept of Charlie Bronson is very interesting. There were many similarities between my own life and his that it became more like a biography of my own life. Now I’m doing a movie with only women, and I don’t really know a lot about women.

Nicolas, in the documentary, you seem to waver constantly on the film. At one point you say, “I’ve wasted six months of our lives.” How do you feel about the film now? 

Refn: I’m very proud of it. On a personal level, it felt great afterwards. The process was very challenging. A lot of it had to do with the fact that “Drive” became much more exposed than I was used to. I know, of course, what that means from a business and distribution point of view. Going into “Only God Forgives,” you’re basically saying, “Whatever I just made no longer exists.” I have to make an example of making something completely different. If that’s what worked, this time I have to consider doing something that won’t work. It’s a bit like when Lou Reed did “Transformer,” which is one of the great rock albums of all time. His follow-up was “Metal Machine,” which was just an album of guitar distortions.

It cleanses you from what you just did, and you are then able to move on to newer and better things. I knew what this film had, and of course the reactions at Cannes were pretty aggressive. I mean, it was extremely aggressive and reactions were very polarizing, mostly toward the aggressive side. I hadn’t been used to that kind of exposure. The same reaction repeated itself from my other films, even “Drive,” which a lot of people did not like when it came out. For me it was the same territory, but the exposure was a lot to take in. I remember at the end of it a millionaire had given us a yacht, and when everyone else had gone back, it was just me and Cliff Martinez sitting back. Cliff comes from the old days of rock and roll. I told him, “I feel like people are going to burn down the Carlton or something.” He said, “You always said you are The Sex Pistols of cinema.”

On a yacht no less.

Refn: I was like, “Yeah, you’re right.” I’ve got a super-hot wife, beautiful kids, I’m wearing Prada, and we only fly first class.

Corfixen: Maybe it’s not so bad?

The last shot in the documentary is a photo of a child holding a gun.

Corfixen: That’s a picture of Nicolas as a kid.

That’s what I thought. What film first attracted you to violence in cinema?

Refn: I’m not a very violent person, but “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is probably the movie that told me, “Whatever that movie does, I want to do.” I think cinema can be a violent experience, but there’s a difference between a violent experience and seeing something violent. I don’t particularly like seeing violent movies anymore, but I like to have the experience of being violated.

Liv, are you ever put off by some of the boundaries that Nicolas pushes in his films?

Nicolas: You’ve only liked one movie I’ve ever done.

Corfixen: That’s a lie!

Refn: You only liked “Drive.”

Corfixen: No! I like every movie. Why do you say this? “The Pusher Trilogy,” “Bleeder.” I like “Only God Forgives.” I don’t know why he’s saying this. But I’m not really put off by any of the violence. It’s more like when he watches old exploitation movies with women screaming. I’m like, “Please! Turn down the volume!” I hate that sort of stuff.

Refn: You thought “Bronson” was boring.

Corfixen: Europeans love “Bronson!”

Refn: But you thought it was boring.

Corfixen: No! Stop it. This is his anxiety starting now.

Do you consider Jodorowsky a spirit guide? He plays such an important role in the documentary.

Refn: I just did a tarot with him, by Skype. I was able to befriend him about five years ago and we became very close friends. I’m his spiritual son, who will take up his legacy afterwards. I have very fond emotions for him.  He’s quite a unique human being.

He seems like such a cool guy. 

Corfixen: He is such a cool guy. I’m a very spiritual person, and I took a healing education, so I find it so interesting that he has both sides. He makes movies, he’s this tarot reader. I don’t do tarot, but I do healing and channeling, so it’s rare that you meet someone so in tune.

Did you know you were courting flak for not giving Gosling a lot of dialogue in “Only God Forgives?”

Refn: It’s not the dialogue. I think what really shocked people was that the hero created in “Drive” was basically emasculated and impotent. It made a lot of people uncomfortable. Then at the end when he sticks his hand into his mother in “Only God Forgives,” because it’s the only way to have sex with her, I think it’s great. But it’s two different characters. Ryan was different, and the language was different because it was dialogue that very much suited the film. He’s a very smart and brave actor, so he really clicks into that and goes with it.

By Drew Fortune

Drew Fortune is a Los Angeles freelance writer. He's a regular contributor to A.V. Club, Interview Magazine, and his work has appeared in Spin, Paste, and many other publications. Tweet him @drewster187.

MORE FROM Drew Fortune