Nicolas Winding Refn, Bronson
At a time when Danish cinema boasts a large number of first rate directors, Nicolas Winding Refn stands out among his peers for his raw talent and ambition. The son of filmmaker Anders Refn, Refn was born in Copenhagen in 1970 but spent much of his teenage years living in New York, which had a great impact on his cinematic sensibility. He started film school at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but was expelled for throwing a desk at a wall, one of a number of incidents that got him the nickname “Enfant Sauvage,” or “wild child.” He was accepted by the Danish Film School but dropped out before his studies had even begun. However, when a producer saw one of his short films and asked him to turn it into a feature, he was able to bypass a conventional cinematic education entirely. That film was Pusher (1996), a violent drug movie set on the streets of Copenhagen which drew rave reviews as well as comparisons with Refn’s idol, Martin Scorsese. He followed up the huge success of that film with Bleeder (1999), another unvarnished portrayal of urban Copenhagen that showed a greater depth to his work. In 2003, Refn released Fear X, an unconventional take on the revenge movie, starring John Turturro and written by Hubert Selby Jr., however the financial failure of the film bankrupted him. To pay off his debts, he agreed to complete the Pusher trilogy, making Pusher II (2004) and Pusher III (2005) back-to-back.
According to Refn, making the second and third Pusher movies purely for money transformed his attitude to filmmaking, and we see a reborn director at work in his latest movie, Bronson. The film is based on the story of Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy), a petty criminal infamous for being the most violent prisoner in Britain and who reinvented himself as tough guy “Charles Bronson.” Refn’s Bronson, however, is not a biopic but rather a riff on some of the events of Peterson’s life and his transformation from an unexceptional nobody to a prison “celebrity” to, ultimately, a much celebrated artist and writer. Bronson is a thrilling, dynamic cinematic experience as a result of Refn’s inventive, quasi-operatic way of telling Peterson’s tale (which includes a theatrical one-man show by Bronson) and Hardy’s powerhouse performance in the lead role make. In their hands, Bronson becomes a classic screen character as his vulnerabilities and tragic qualities – along with his sense of humor – are drawn out to great, and sometimes moving, effect.
Filmmaker spoke to Refn about overcoming his initial resistance to making Bronson, his personal parallels with Michael Peterson, and making movies with James Stewart.
Filmmaker: When did you first hear about Charles Bronson?
Refn: The producer Rupert Preston had acquired the rights to make a movie about his life. Rupert is a good friend of mine and also the distributor of all my films in the U.K. He basically asked if I was interested in making a movie about him, and my first reaction was no. But then when I began to think about it, I said yes, because I saw some potential. I didn’t know what the potential was yet, but I needed to find out what it was.
Filmmaker: Was there a script at the time?
Refn: For many years, people had been trying to make a biopic of Michael Peterson so there were some very, very bad scripts written. But one of the conditions was that they were all eliminated and we had to start from scratch, because I didn’t have an interest in making a biopic of Michael Peterson, but a movie about the transformation from Michael Peterson into Charlie Bronson.
Filmmaker: So you went and did your own research?
Refn: I didn’t do research, I basically just thought, “How would I like to make this movie?” And that’s how it began.
Filmmaker: What were your materials for writing the script?
Refn: Well, first I had to come up with the stage performance – that would be kind of how Charlie sees his own life. The second act is when he’s released in Luton, when we get to see that Charlie has difficulties living in reality, because he has his own alternative reality. And act three is the audience perceiving as they wish to interpret him: is he crazy or is he not?
Filmmaker: How important was it for you to root this in historical fact?
Refn: Because I was making a movie about a person who does exist, I needed to stay close to a certain degree to what happened to him, but at the same time take artistic license. But I had a gray area because I wasn’t making a biopic of Michael Peterson, I was making a movie about my own interpretation of the transformation.
Filmmaker: How did the performance aspects become part of the film?
Refn: Because I wanted to make the film very operatic and very feminine, because it’s also very much about the concept of art and art is a feminine medium. So it was having all those elements thrown into it. The painting of the face is more like he’s a circus entertainer, like an old-fashioned personality that doesn’t exist anymore. And yet there is no face – he’s an invisible person, because Charlie Bronson is a made up person, he doesn’t exist.
Filmmaker: Did you try to make contact with Charles Bronson at all?
Refn: No, I didn’t have an interest in contacting him because I didn’t want to make a movie about him. But at one point I needed to speak to him about two things. I wanted him to come up with some ideas for the monologue about what it’s like being in prison, and I wanted a little on how he got back into prison, just some factual things that I needed to clarify.
Filmmaker:What was it like speaking to him?
Refn: Interesting to speak to a guy who was in solitary confinement for his whole life, probably. You can’t say a lot of things, because you don’t know what you’d say. What do you say? “How’s life? What are you doing? What are you up to?” That conversation is not there. So I was very specific about what I needed to know, and I passed him back to Tom [Hardy] who was more friendly.
Filmmaker: Did you ask him any questions that probed at the core of personality?
Refn: No, because there was no way I could get to the bottom of it – it was too complex. Plus, I wasn’t interested in him. There is no “Rosebud” in Bronson. On the contrary, that’s why there are reasons to make a film, because there is no “Rosebud.” It’s all about interpretation. Great art has to leave a bit of a question mark and a lot of interpretation so people still feel they’re getting what they’re paying for.
Filmmaker: Has Charles Bronson seen Bronson?
Refn: No, he’s not allowed. But he’s heard the movie, I’m told, and he thought it’s the greatest movie ever made. Obviously.
Filmmaker: Can you tell me about how you worked with Tom Hardy to build the character? Was it a very collaborative process?
Refn: It was a very close partnership. I’m very collaborative in that way because I shoot in chronological order so I leave great responsibility on the cast. So it’s always a very collaborative form when I work with anybody, in that it’s seeking out all possibilities and finding out which ones work and which ones don’t.
Filmmaker: Did you allow him to improvise at all, like for the monologue?
Refn: No, that was very clearly written, but I definitely utilized Tom a lot in terms of phrasing and so forth. He had a friend called Kelly Marshall, a very nice woman, who helped me write some of the wording because, not being English, it was sometimes difficult for me to find the right phrasing.
Filmmaker: You seemed to capture the Britishness very well. How difficult was that coming in as an outsider?
Refn:Well, I didn’t have an ambition so I didn’t know what to achieve with it, because I’m not British. I can’t really identify with that specific thing.
Filmmaker:Was it important to you that you got that aspect right?
Refn: Whatever you do, you have to get it right no matter what, so it’s part of the game.
Filmmaker: Tom Hardy went through a miraculous physical transformation to become the character. Given what he previously looked like, what prompted you to cast him?
Refn: I’d never seen him before. He worked out, he did all the things that needed to be done. He got all muscular. Those were the things that I found least interesting, but he was very obsessed with it. I said, “You go do your thing and I’ll do mine.” [laughs]
Filmmaker: And were there things that you became obsessed about?
Refn: Yeah, that more about how the movie became more and more about my own life, in a way. It’s probably the closest I’ll get to an autobiography. That was very creepy, in a way, but I didn’t know that until after I was editing.
Filmmaker: In what sense did you feel it was about your own life?
Refn: When I was very young, I was very nihilistic and destructive like Charlie was. I wanted to be very famous like he did. I was searching for a stage like he was. I didn’t many skills, which he says he didn’t either. My second phase started when I completed the Pusher trilogy, seeing that art can be a way to express and not a preconceived notion. Charlie realizes that art is an act of violence and that if he can just let it go, it will just be a natural evolution for him and he can become a complete person. There are many things like that that are very similar in our lives.
Filmmaker: Do you always need to find parallels like that in your work?
Refn: Anything I do is part of me, part of my DNA.
Filmmaker: I was struck by how sympathetic you make Bronson, despite his violent nature.
Refn: You always have to love your character. When you do that, you find vulnerability. Charlie’s a very vulnerable man and that’s why he reacts the way he does. So is Tom Hardy, so it was very good casting.
Filmmaker: In the second act, when he’s a free man, he reminded me of King Kong or Quasimodo, freaks of nature who are out of place in normal existence.
Refn: People that don’t belong in the real world. There’s an awkwardness to them, almost a childishness, like a fairy tale character. Me and Tom used to refer to Charles Bronson as “The Little Toy Soldier” who marches into the real world, realizes he can’t function, so he has to march right back.
Filmmaker: Do you think about your place among your filmmaking peers?
Refn: I don’t think like that, and you shouldn’t because then you go crazy.
Filmmaker: Did you used to think like that?
Refn: When I was younger, because it was all preconceived. You wanted your art before you made it, you wanted to create your own myth before it was there. Like Charlie Bronson. I was impatient, I wanted to go somewhere. I always wanted to work with James Stewart, but he’s no longer around. The filmmakers I would have loved to meet are more obscure, like Andy Milligan. He’s a very obscure filmmaker who made films for Times Square in the 60s and 70s.
Filmmaker: Are you ever afraid you’ll be disappointed when you meet your idols?
Refn: No, I never think of it like that. When I meet other filmmakers, I try not to talk about film. I talk about things like children and politics, which are much more important.
Filmmaker: Since you became a father, have your priorities as a person changed how you see things as a filmmaker?
Refn: Look, when you die you may be the greatest artist in the world but the only thing that they’re going to ask you about when you want to enter heaven is, “Were you good with your children?” I think I make better films than I did before because I know what’s more important and I have that easy relationship with my work. I’m more occupied with when I’m going to go to Asia and buy toys, because I collect toys. It’s not that I don’t love what I do, it’s healthier to have more than that.
Filmmaker: Does filmmaking feel like work?
Refn: No, it feels like all fun and games. That’s why it’s so difficult to prioritize your time. You’re forever in a struggle between good and evil because you want to make sure that St Peter lets you into heaven.
Filmmaker: You’ve shot all your movies in chronological order. Is this a strict principle of yours?
Refn: Yeah, it helps me discover the movie. Why make something if you know what it’s going to be like? Now, of course, when you make a movie you make two movies. You make a physical movie, which is a physical journey, and you make the physical movie with the script. Stick to the script and write a very good one, or find a very good one. But shooting it in chronological order, you add a metaphysical part, where the movie takes on a life of its own, and that is what I enjoy more than anything else. I love to travel into the unknown and see what I come up with in the end.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you cried in a film, and which film was it?
Refn: I don’t watch that many films anymore. My wife cried in Gran Torino when Clint Eastwood died. I thought that was pretty cool. I was very affected, very affected. I can’t remember if I cried; she did, at least. I was very moved by it. I loved the movie, but then I love Clint Eastwood.
Filmmaker: If you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?
Refn: I would love to work with James Stewart, and it would take place in a room in total darkness. It would be about a guy who’s trying to find a light switch. There wouldn’t be a lot of dialogue.
Filmmaker: It sounds a little like Container, the Lukas Moodysson movie.
Refn: Okay, then I’m not going to make it. That’s terrible. Then I would probably make a horror movie with James Stewart.
Filmmaker: Finally, what was the smartest decision you ever made?
Refn: Going bankrupt. Because I needed to crash in order to rebuild my own life and career and I was heading on the wrong course. It was in 2003, because of Fear X. I basically crashed, and then I made Pusher 2 and 3 to pay off my debt.
Filmmaker: So you did them purely to make money?
Refn: And it turned out to restart my career, because I was able to make two films much better than I did the first one. It was like back to basics, but I felt God had given me an opportunity to say, “Look, you’re not doing this the right way.” I approached them purely as a commodity, but I was completely at ease doing them, because I didn’t care. And that helped me see a way in. I thought, “My God, if I just didn’t really care so much about the result and just did what I felt would be fun, I’d make better movies.”
Filmmaker: So you make movies much more instinctively now?
Refn: Sure. Now, it’s anything that feels right, that’s what you do and that’s where the satisfaction comes in. It’s not the result – it’s over in 20 minutes, who cares? It’s about getting there.