A Danish director who comes from a cinema family (his parents are a cinematographer and director/editor, respectively), he has a distinctly unique perspective on the inner workings of Hollywood. He doesn't do things traditionally on his sets: he prefers to shoot in "emotional chronological order," hugs his actors when they're trying too hard to be original, and likes driving around L.A. at night for inspiration. He can be credited with giving Tom Hardy his start as Charles Bronson in Bronson and was awarded Best Director at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for Drive. He and Ryan Gosling have the sort of working relationship that can most aptly be described as a marriage -- and they're pairing up again for next year's Only God Forgives.
Winding Refn credits The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) as the thing that first inspired him to make films. "My parents were brought up on the French New Wave. That was god to them, but to me it was the antichrist, and how better to rebel against your parents than by watching something your mother is going to hate, which were American horror movies" (Director's Guild of America). All of his films bear a gritty realism that reflects his blunt speaking style; there is something purely European about his phrasing, that he doesn't shy away from potential offense to make a point. And yet, he is never crass -- simply truthful. The Danish film Pusher (1996, about a drug dealer who grows increasingly desperate to repay his boss when a deal goes south) was Winding Refn's debut; it began as a short film made after dropping out of film school but a producer approached him about turning it into a feature. It holds strong on Rotten Tomatoes with a respectable 81%, and its sequels were rated even higher. Pusher established Winding Refn's style as gritty, unvarnished, and heavily influenced by his dual upbringing in Copenhagen and New York.
Bronson came to him through his U.K. distributor. It is a pseudo-biographical film about Michael Peterson, better known as Charles Bronson, England's most notorious prisoner. Winding Refn had honed his directing skills after Pusher with two sequels, Fear X and Bleeder, all especially adequate preparation for the character study given their violent and psychological themes. Together with Tom Hardy he created a theatrical, manic picture of a man who is both notorious and non-existent. "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... 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).
Bronson is the identity Peterson assumed after years in prison, wanting to give himself over to the spectacle of it all -- wanting to be famous. Winding Refn has spoken about similar tendencies he struggled with as a child and young filmmaker: impatience, and wanting to have the finished product before earning it. It was partially because of this that he began shooting films in chronological order, preferring to let the film surprise and develop organically. "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.... But shooting it in chronological order, you add a metaphysical part, where the movie takes on a life of its own."
Shooting in this manner gives his films a palpably authentic feeling that is so often missing in Hollywood. Drive benefitted not only from being shot 80% chronologically (since the more expensive set pieces had to be done in one go) but also from his need to "make films for himself." Gosling requested that Winding Refn direct it so the director pulled it from Universal's shelf to retool the story. Drive as it was originally drafted starred Hugh Jackman and lacked the driver-as-stuntman component, a book-inspired addition that would prove virtually impossible to remove from Winding Refn's interpretation without degrading the story. In the way that Bronson explored femininity, Drive explored masculinity in all of its bloody, muscle car-bound stereotypes. Though based on the book by James Sallis which has a sequel, Driven, Winding Refn has no plans to direct the next chapter of The Driver's story.
Gosling and Winding Refn continue their productive partnership with Only God Forgives, now in post-production and slated for an April 2013 release in Denmark (U.S. dates are so far unavailable). The pair have also begun scripting a remake to Logan's Run that won't surface until 2014 at the earliest. If these projects reflect the sensibilities of his earlier work, Nicolas Winding Refn will soon become a household name and one of the more influential filmmakers of the 21st century.
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Pusher III, Bronson, Valhalla Rising & Drive are all available to view on Netflix Streaming.
Check out the interview with Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling from the 2011 Cannes Film Festival below, courtesy of The Film Stage (founded by Messiah College alum Jordan Raup). Heads up for some profanity.