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Film Fix

in Directing, Filmmaking
on Aug 16, 2006

Director Nicolas Winding Refn on “The Pusher Trilogy”


Halfway through “Pusher,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s first installment in what would ultimately become an epic trilogy, the director faced a predicament. Suddenly, the genre marked by guns and car chases held no interest. He abandoned the beatings and foot chases from the film’s early scenes, and went for a haunting, harrowing character study. “I realized I wasn’t interested in gangsters and crime,” the Danish filmmaker explains of his 1996 film. “I was really interested in the morality of the characters, and their emotional descents into hell.”

“The Pusher Trilogy” is currently addicting audiences at film festivals, and word of its tough-to-shake resonance will grow during a theatrical run this fall. Refn’s vision is raw, gruesome, and unsavory – a downward spiral of decay through Copenhagen’s Vesterbro District. We wander through red light hotels and smoke-filled bars with junkies and prostitutes. We’re left alone with shady crime lords who cook up thoughtful snacks, before serving up less hospitable electro-torture to deadbeat clients.

Recruited not by Hollywood agents, but through on-the-street casting calls, many of Refn’s onscreen subjects are the genuine articles. “I liked the idea of having real people,” explains the 35 year-old director, still in his mid-twenties when the first film wrapped. “With the ‘Pusher’ films, I wanted real crime. I wanted to set people from an environment like that into a fictionalized world depicting themselves. See how they would act, and morally portray those characters.”


Aside from the trilogy’s convincing, here-and-now realism, it also captures three magnificent character studies. During “Pusher,” we spend time with Frank (Kim Bodnia), a brutish, physical smack dealer with serious debt issues. In “Pusher 2: With Blood on my Hands” (2004), the limelight shines on Tonney (Danish superstar and upcoming Bond baddie Mads Mikkelsen), an insecure young punk dismissed by both his gangland father and an arrogant girlfriend. “Pusher 3: I’m the Angel of Death” (2005) concludes the series by following Milo (Zlatko Buric), a Croatian crime kingpin troubled by ecstacy-peddling competitors, a spoiled, rich-bitch daughter, and the teasing temptation of a quick high.

After “Pusher,” Refn swore he would never return to crime-film turf, let alone make a sequel. He wasted no time beefing up a resume with 1999’s “Bleeder,” his sad, alarming story of another loser under pressure. Then came “Fear X” (2003), an experimental mindbender that alienated audiences at the box office. It also left Refn owing over one million dollars. Suddenly, the director could relate to his characters’ anxiety, desperation and fear.

In fact, the director’s disastrous financial state ultimately led to his revival of the “Pusher” films. “I had no money,” he remembers. “That was about the time my daughter was born. After she was delivered at the hospital, I had to dig foreign currency out of my drawers and exchange it for Danish kroners. That’s how strapped for cash I was. “Pusher 2” was really made out of desperation, in order to survive. (“Gambler,” a documentary concerning these tense financial struggles, is currently making the film festival rounds.)

Refn is the first to point out that the “Pusher” films in no way mirror his own life. Born in Copenhagen, the filmmaker moved to New York in 1978, following the separation of his parents. (He later returned to Denmark, where he currently resides with family.) Even so, the director has learned a thing or two about his unsavory subjects. “These people live in constant fear,” he proclaims assuredly. “The lifestyle is nihilistic and sad. A lot of the media world manufactures crime as an image of glamour and excitement. But within that image, there is decay.”

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