Among one of the new rising international filmmakers of the past few years, Nicolas Winding Refn is already becoming one of the hottest thanks in part to the critical and commercial success of his 2011 film Drive that gave him his first real exposure to the American film scene. Though the Danish-born filmmaker has already made a name for himself in the past 16 years in his native Denmark. The success of Drive has managed to acquire him new fans who are willing to discover his work. With another film set to come out in Only God Forgives, the current buzz for Refn is already ever-going as he’s become someone that film audiences are excited for.
Born in Copenhagen, Denmark on September 29, 1970, Refn was already born into the film industry as his mother Vibeke Winding was a cinematographer while his father Anders Refn was an editor who was most famous for his work with another Danish filmmaker in the very controversial Lars von Trier. Refn went to New York City with his mother and stepfather for some time where he would discover a world outside of Danish cinema. After returning to Denmark at age 17, Refn would return to New York after finishing high school to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Yet, he would be expelled after throwing a desk in the classroom where he returned to Denmark where he was asked to attend its prestigious film school only to turn it down. Despite these set backs, he would eventually make a short that landed on Danish cable TV channel that got lots of attention and would forge the start of a promising filmmaking career.
The short film that Refn made for Danish cable TV gained a lot of buzz as Refn was able to acquire a million dollars from his family to make the short into a full-length feature. With additional support from renowned Danish film producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Refn was able to turn his short about a mid-level drug dealer into a much broader story. Particularly as he co-wrote the screenplay with Jens Dahl into making the story as a day-by-day exploration into man’s life told in the span of a week.
The casting for the film would feature a diverse array of actors as it included Croatian-Danish actor Zlatko Buric as the drug lord Milo along with two rising actors in the Danish film scene in Kim Bodnia as the film’s protagonist Frank and Mads Mikkelsen as his sidekick Tonny. Shooting on location in Copenhagen, Refn decided to create a drug film that focused more on characters rather than the lifestyle that surrounded the drug culture. Notably as hard drugs like heroin were starting to become prevalent in the mid-1990s in Europe.
With a team that would include cinematographer Morten Sorborg, editor Anne Osterud, and music composer Peter Peter as they would be Refn’s collaborators for many of his films set in Denmark. Refn wanted to do something that played with the convention of gangster films as well as the drug movie without glamorizing the culture nor play too much into the violence. By having his characters not play stereotypes, characters like Frank, Milo, Frank’s prostitute girlfriend Vic (played by Laura Drasbaek), and Milo’s henchman Radovan (played by Slavko Labovic) were shown to be quite complex characters who are also eccentric despite the dark world they live in. Another aspect of the film as with the following films of the trilogy is that Refn would set up ambiguous endings for the protagonists such as Frank whose fate in the end of the film is unknown.
Wanting to play out the suspense of the film, Refn chose to shoot the film mostly in chronological order to play out the emotions that the character of Frank would go through as things start to intensify. Though the production was at times rough due to Danish union film rules, Refn was able to work around his limitations in shooting the film on location to give it a realistic feel. Notably the film’s chase scene where Frank tries to evade cops by running around the city and into a city lake. With a soundtrack that included fast-pumping heavy metal music, it would be an indication of the kind of work Refn would create in the years to come.
The film premiered in late August of 1996 in Denmark where it was a major hit in the country where it would gain a major cult following after its release. The success would mark a new alternative to the world of Danish cinema just as it was to enter the Dogme 95 movement that was co-founded by Lars von Trier.
For his sophomore feature, Refn wanted to change gears a bit to focus on something that was more dramatic and light-hearted. Re-teaming with his collaborators that included actors Kim Bodnia, Mads Mikkelsen, and Zlatko Buric, Refn decided to create a project that centered on young adults in Copenhagen dealing with the changes in adulthood. Entitled Bleeder, the film featured a main narrative about a man descending into darkness following the news of girlfriend’s pregnancy as he is unable to cope with the news.
Wanting not to repeat some of the visual traits and ideas of Pusher, Refn chose to go for a more polished look to the film to keep up with the changing times that was happening in Denmark. While the film would be shot in real locations including a video store that Mad Mikkelsen’s Lenny would work at. It gave Refn a chance to create a film that is very loose as it includes lots of hand-held tracking shots to follow characters around or to explore a world that is unique. Notably as Refn created a subplot where the anti-social character of Lenny falls for a book-loving diner worker named Lea, played by Refn’s wife Liv Corfixen, whom he has a hard time trying to get to know.
Though the storyline would represent a lot of what Refn wanted to experiment with, he still manages to find focus in a main storyline that involved Kim Bodnia’s Leo character who starts to become undone as there’s a chilling scene where he threatens his girlfriend’s brother Louis (Levino Jensen) at a movie screening with a gun. It shows the kind of striking composition that Refn wanted to establish the anguish of Lenny although it’s a scene also has some dark humor. That would later escalate in a much darker scene where Louis would take revenge over what Leo did to Louis’ sister. It’s this scene where Refn ups the ante of what is disturbing though he does in a very subtle manner while the violence also becomes more intense in a film’s climatic moment to establish the breakdown that Leo is going through towards the end of the film.
Released in August of 1999 in Denmark, the film was another hit as it would also give Refn the chance to expand beyond Denmark as the film got a chance to play the Venice Film Festival later that year as well as the Sarajevo Film Festival where Refn won the FRISPECI prize. At the Bodil awards, the film was nominated for Best Film where it lost to Susanne Bier’s The One and Only. Still, the film would help raise Refn’s profile as the Danish film scene was about to grow even further as Refn was one of its key participants.
The back-to-back successes of his first two features would have Refn form the production company Jang Go Star as a chance to develop projects such as the Danish TV series The Chosen 7 that he was involved as a writer. It was during this time where Refn got the attention of famed novelist Hubert Selby Jr. who was famous for writing the books Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream as the latter was successfully adapted into film by Darren Aronofsky. Refn collaborated with Selby on a project Selby had written for a film about a man who is trying to discover why his wife his murdered by some random event in a film called Fear X.
In collaboration with production companies from Canada and Britain, the film would become Refn’s first English-language feature. Shot in Winnipeg in Canada, the production definitely seemed promising due to the cast that Refn got for the film as John Turturro in the lead role of Harry Caine along with famed character actor James Remar and Deborah Kara Under in a role. The production would also have Refn start a collaboration with famed British cinematographer Larry Smith who was previously famous for being the lighting cameraman for Stanley Kubrick’s final film in 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut.
Through Smith’s photography, Refn was able to create compositions that allowed him to set an atmosphere that is unsettling and evocative. Notably in scenes set in an elevator where Refn would later refine his technique in later films. The film also marked Refn’s first foray with ambient music as he was able to get the service of ambient pioneer Brian Eno to create a score the film with collaborator J. Peter Schwalm. The score that Eno and Schwalm made help intensify the film’s suspense as it would indicate the future ideas of how Refn would set a mood with low-key electronic music in his films.
The film made its premiere at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival where the film was well-received but the reviews would be mixed as the film would be a commercial failure in its native Denmark and in Europe. The film is often regarded as Refn’s weakest film as indicated in the film’s incomprehensive second half and an ending that has managed to frustrate viewers. Though Refn has tried to defend the ending, the film would spark a lot of trouble for Refn as his Jang Go Star production company went bankrupt.
After the failure of Fear X and sporting a huge debt as he and wife Liv Corfixen were the subject of a documentary called Gambler that was released in 2006. Refn decided to return to his famed 1996 debut film Pusher by creating a sequel. This time around, Refn decided to do something different by not picking things up where the first film left to focus on another character in the form of the sidekick Tonny who had been played by Mads Mikkelsen. With Zlatko Buric reprising his role as Milo for a small appearance, having Mikkelsen back as Tonny is what Refn needed as Mikkelsen was becoming a big actor in Denmark who was breaking into the international film scene.
Wanting to make the story something more thematic in terms of Tonny’s attempt to gain respect in the drug world, Refn wanted to take more chance to uncover the drug world as it had changed in Copenhagen. While researching the world of the drug culture to maintain a sense of realism, Refn’s life was also changing when he and his wife were expecting their first child. Refn would infuse his own personal take about becoming a father into the screenplay that would allow the character of Tonny to find some form of redemption later in the story.
One of the key elements for Refn’s approach to the direction was wanting to make the drug world unglamorous as it is often depicted in grand style in American films. Adding to this sense of unglamorous world was the music as Refn and music collaborator Peter Peter discussed creating a soundtrack that was European but also trashy. While Refn had always been fascinated by the world of electronic music, it would be the film’s soundtrack that would have him go full on with the genre as he and Peter chose several underground Danish acts to create music to set a mood for the film.
Released on Christmas Day in Denmark, the film became a hit in its native country as it would help Refn’s financial troubles following the failure of Fear X. The film would receive excellent reviews as it would be in sharp contrast to what was happening in the Danish film scene where the industry was set to face a creative and financial crisis that would shake things up for the country.
While working on research for Pusher II, some of the material that Refn gathered would give him ideas for the third film of the trilogy as he went ahead to create the third part. This time around, it would focus on Zlatko Buric’s Milo character who would struggle with changes in his life as he attempts to get sober on the day of his daughter’s 25th birthday celebration. The film would mark a departure of sorts for Refn in terms of its narrative in order to explore the day in the life of a man who is falling apart.
Retaining the same crew he had in the previous film, Refn wanted to maintain a look that was similar but have a different feel. Notably as the camera wandered around more while Refn wanted to create more entrancing compositions to contrast a world where Milo feels out of place with these new drug dealers. Notably as it include characters like Kurt the Cunt, Jeannette, and Muhammad who had both appeared in the previous film with the latter getting a bigger role. Another character who returns from the first film is Slavko Labovic’s Radovan where he appears in the third act as a changed man gone straight.
With a more stripped down narrative and a score that was also stripped down to include ambient and industrial rock cuts to play out the suspense. It’s Refn’s approach to explore Milo’s fall from grace as he’s dealing with a birthday party, trying to get sober, and these new drug dealers who order him around following some bad deals in which he got screwed. For the first two acts, Refn chose to follow Milo around as he tries not to fall apart as it culminates with this tense meeting that involves a sleazy dealer, his Polish pimp, a brothel madam in Jeannette, and a young hooker who had just turned 18. Yet, Milo is in the background having to watch this meeting go wrong because Jeanette refuses to take the girl in because she’s too young and she looks to scared.
It’s a very tense scene where Refn chooses to focus on these characters though he knows that Milo is watching where he’s eventually going to be pushed as he’s forced to bring food from a party and they’re being unappreciated. He tries to cheer up the young hooker by giving her a birthday cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to her as she is grateful. Yet, she would later run away where Milo and this Polish pimp go after her where Milo is forced to watch this young girl be beaten where he finally just loses it. It’s a sequence that is entrancing to watch for the way Refn builds up suspense as it later followed by another violent moment, a confrontation, and an old character returning to the fold where it is followed by one of the most goriest moments in film.
The film was released in August 2005 to a great reception at the box office despite very negative reviews from many critics in Denmark who were detesting Refn's filmmaking style. A month later, the Toronto Film Festival chose to play all three films for the festival where it became a major hit as it finally gave Refn more attention outside of Europe. The film’s success led to the exploration of the entire trilogy as a cult following started to grow outside of Denmark and Europe making way for Refn to emerge outside of his native country as Denmark was going through one of its worst period for the film industry.
Following the success of Pusher 3, Refn was working on a project that would be very different from his gangster trilogy that would become the basis for a film called Valhalla Rising. During the development of the project, Refn was hired to direct an episode for the British TV series Miss Marple where he met British producer Rupert Preston. Preston offered Refn a chance to develop a project about notorious British prisoner Michael Gordon Peterson who would rename himself after American film actor Charles Bronson.
Entitled Bronson, the film explores the peculiar life of Peterson who became a man of great notoriety as all he wanted to do was be famous through his violent demeanor. Realizing that Peterson‘s life doesn‘t fit in with the traditional narrative of a bio-pic, Refn collaborated with Brock Norman Brock to write a screenplay that was told largely from Peterson’s perspective as if it was this strange mix of dark humor and sheer terror. Notably as Peterson was a man who spent a lot of his life in solitary confinement while finding ways to entertain himself and get into fights with guards just to satisfy his craving for violence. Since the film would be told by Peterson, it would be presented as if Peterson was telling his story on stage that is inter-cut with the events of his life.
To play the role of Peterson, up-and-coming British actor Tom Hardy nabbed the role as Peterson where he put on 19 pounds of muscle and shaving his head bald to play the character. In order to create an accurate portrayal of Peterson, Hardy decides to meet with Peterson just to get to know him and portray him in a honorable fashion. That meant having to create a performance that is out of this world where Refn gave Hardy the freedom to act out the character and the result would be a performance that is unpredictable and uncompromising that is true to the character of Peterson.
Since the film’s narrative is meant to be a blur about what is real and what is fiction, it adds to the unconventional nature of the narrative since Peterson isn’t a regular person. The film’s mix of chaotic violence, abstract art, and black comedy would have Refn create something that is defies the conventions of the bio-pic while creating something that stands out on its own. At times, it’s a film that is visually entrancing thanks to Larry Smith’s cinematography but also extremely unpredictable for the way violence is portrayed or how Hardy’s performance seems to capture the craziness of Peterson’s persona. Even as Hardy at times has to be perform fully nude and covered in paint where he seems to relish the idea of just getting his ass kicked no matter how bad he suffers through the pain where he also enjoys it.
The film made its premiere at the 2008 London Film Festival in the fall of that year where it was a festival hit as it later got a wide release in Britain in the spring of 2009. The critical acclaim and the buzz for Tom Hardy’s performance help give the film a small American art house release in the fall of 2009. Its American release not only gave Hardy attention as he was cast in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception but also raised Refn’s profile as he was becoming more well-known in the world of international cinema.
The success of Bronson allowed Refn to go back to the project he had been working after the Pusher trilogy in a project that would extremely different from anything he’s done. While the project would contain some of Refn’s exploration into the world of violence and fear, it would be Refn’s first foray into making a film not set in modern times. Entitled Valhalla Rising, the film told the story of a Norse warrior who teams up with a young boy who travel with a group of Crusaders to a mystical land full of dread.
The film would feature many of Refn’s old Danish collaborators as it would also mark a reunion between Refn and Mads Mikkelsen whom was just starting to emerge as big international film star thanks to his appearance in the 2006 James Bond movie Casino Royale as Le Chiffre. The only non-Danish collaborator Refn brought in was editor Mat Newman whom he had just previously worked with on Bronson as Refn wanted to aim for a film that didn’t rely a lot on dialogue but rather action. In this minimalist approach, Refn and co-writer Roy Jacobsen decided to focus on this mute-character named One-Eye and his travel across a dreary land.
Shot on location in Scotland with a mix of Danish and British actors, Refn decided to go for a look that really was a mix of the old visual style of his earlier films infused with the look he had created in his English-language films. Notably in some of the surreal moment such as a sequence where One-Eye, his young companion, and fellow Crusaders travel through a misty fog where Mort Soborg’s photography is awash with red colors to create the sense of dread that is to occur. With this approach to the directing where Refn wanted to create a film where there’s a beauty to the landscape but also something that is unforgiving and disturbing. Especially with the violence as it’s presented with a degree of style where there’s a beauty to these compositions but also a brutality to the way the violence is presented.
Adding to the unconventional approach to the film is the narrative as Refn admitted that the film is based on a book that his parents used to read him as a child. Wanting to maintain the idea of a book, Refn and Jacobsen chose to have the story be split into six chapters to help establish One-Eye’s journey as it gets more tense as the story unfolds. Notably as it include an ending that is truly visceral in its image and impact. The film would eventually show a newfound maturity in Refn’s work as a director while not delving into the tropes of ultra-violence that was becoming synonymous with American mainstream action films.
The film made its premiere at the 2009 Venice Film Festival where it received an excellent reception while got an official release in its native Denmark in March of 2010 to mixed reviews. Still, the film managed to increase Refn’s fan base all over the world including the U.S. as it became a cult film thanks to the IFC studio choosing to release the film in the U.S in 2010.
After two back-to-back internationally successful films that raised Refn’s profile all over the world including the U.S., Refn was approached by producers Marc E. Platt and Adam Siegel to direct a film they had been developing for years. Based on a novel by James Sallis, Drive is the story of a stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for bank robbers at night where he befriends a young woman whose husband is in debt as he reluctantly takes part in an ill-fated robbery. The story that was adapted by Hossein Amini who wanted to create a different approach to the story as the book’s narrative was originally non-linear.
The development that went through different actors and filmmakers until Canadian actor Ryan Gosling signed on for the lead role as he wanted Refn to direct the film. Refn accepted the job as he learned that Gosling was a fan of his work as they would work closely together for the project. Refn’s involvement with the casting allowed him to get to know the actors better as the film’s ensemble cast included British actress Carey Mulligan who was also a fan of Refn’s recent work like Bronson and Valhalla Rising. The cast grew as it would American TV actors Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks as well as Oscar Isaac and famed character actor Ron Perlman. The film’s biggest casting surprise came in the form of American comedy actor/filmmaker Albert Brooks for the role of the film’s main antagonist in mob leader Bernie Rose.
Set in Los Angeles, Refn wanted to create a film that reminded him of the films he grew up watching as he and cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel aimed for a particular look. A lot of it was influenced by some of the Los Angeles-based films of the 1980s like William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. and Paul Schrader’s 1980 film American Gigolo. The latter of which was part of Schrader’s themes of the lonely man as Refn and Amini find a lot of common similarities to some of the protagonists in Schrader’s films, including Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver that Schrader wrote, in relation to the driver who is a man of great discipline and lives alone.
Another key influence that Refn wanted to incorporate in the film was cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky whose surrealistic ideas on existentialism had a huge impact on Refn’s work as he decided to put some of it on Drive. While the film was a mixture of the 1970s American car films with a mixture of American 80s cinema that included the film’s opening title credits. The film also featured Refn’s characteristic approach to violence as he decided to create more stylistic ideas of violence that also had a sense of shock and brutality. Notably a scene where the Driver and Mulligan’s Irene character are in elevator with one of Bernie’s men as they kiss and then the Driver assaults and stomps the man to death. It’s a scene where Refn creates a mood where it starts off slow and romantic and then just goes into an intensity where the Driver kills someone to protect Irene.
Another aspect of the film that made it standout from Refn’s work was the music soundtrack. While Refn had flirted with electronic music for many of his films, it wasn’t up until Bronson where Refn began to use the music of indie electronic music where some of it was coming from the Italians Do It Better label. Teaming up with Johnny Jewel and score composer Cliff Martinez, who is one of the collaborators of American filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, to create an electronic-based soundtrack. Martinez’s score would create elements of suspense and to calm things down while the music that was selected played to either create a sense of romance or to play as an accompaniment.
The film made its premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival where the film played in competition for the Palme D’or as Refn was facing the likes of Lars von Trier, Lynne Ramsay, Pedro Almodovar, Nanni Moretti, Takashi Miike, Aki Kaurismaki, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and Terrence Malick who won the top prize with his 2011 film The Tree of Life. Yet, Drive was a surprise hit at Cannes where Refn walked away with the festival’s Best Director prize as the success at Cannes would lead to a U.S. theatrical release later that fall where it did well as it ended up grossing more than $76 million internationally.
The film also became a hit with critics and bloggers as it received numerous rave reviews while garnering several prizes from numerous film critics association. A lot of the prizes were going towards Albert Brooks’ supporting performance as Bernie Rose as it gave Brooks a major comeback after having been away for sometime. The film did receive an Oscar nomination for Best Sound Editing though many were upset that the film, Refn, Gosling, and Brooks were snubbed by the Oscars. Still, the film would become Refn’s biggest hit to date while some have considered it his best film so far.
Refn’s next project will have him team up with Ryan Gosling again for a revenge story set in Bangkok where a gangster faces up against a Thai policeman over the death of his brother in a Thai-boxing match. The film also stars British actress Kristin Scott Thomas as Gosling’s mother where it plays into Refn’s exploration of violence. Set for a late 2012/early 2013 release, the film is among one of the most anticipated features many are looking forward to as Refn’s name is already hot among film buffs.
Refn is also slated to be involved into various projects that he’s been attached such as a remake of the 1970s sci-fi cult film Logan’s Run, a possible feature film version of Wonder Woman, and many other projects that includes a TV series version of the late 60s cult film Barbarella.
While Drive may have made Nicolas Winding Refn a name that puts among the current crop of elite filmmakers. The fact is that Refn is no overnight success as the films he’s made like the Pusher trilogy, Bronson, and Valhalla Rising are an indication of who he is as a filmmaker. He’s definitely got his own style and isn’t willing to repeat himself except in the themes he wants to explore. This is why Nicolas Winding Refn is a filmmaker to watch as he’s already on his way to becoming one of the best that is working right now.
© thevoid99 2012
Excellent write up of yes, a man who is well on his way to becoming one of the best working directors in movies. I really need to see Bleeder and Fear X, and Only God Forgives… damn, I just can’t wait for that one. Really pumped. Great work here.
I have a copy of Bleeder in my external hard drive if you're interested. Plus, Fear X is available on DVD and I was able to get it. I'm also excited for Only God Forgives as well. Oh, and try and find the NWR documentary on YouTube. It's a great piece on the filmmaker.
I watched that doc a few weeks ago, loved it. I only wish I spoke French... was your version subtitled?
@Alex-Unfortunately, it wasn't subtitled. I was very interested in what Gaspar Noe and Alejandro Jowardarsky (sp?) were saying. Someone needs to include this for a Criterion DVD for Drive if its ever considered for a Criterion release.
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