Nicolas Winding Refn Interview For ‘Only God Forgives’
Bangkok. Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a Thai boxing club as a front for a drugs operation. He has everything he wants for and is respected in the criminal underworld though, deep inside, he feels empty. When Julian’s brother murders a prostitute the police call on retired cop Chang – the Angel of Vengeance (Vithaya Pansringarm). Chang allows the father to kill his daughter’s murderer, then ‘restores order’ by chopping off the man’s right hand. Julian’s mother Jenna (Kristin Scott Thomas) – the head of a powerful criminal organization – arrives in Bangkok to collect her son’s body. She dispatches Julian to find his killers and ‘raise hell’. Increasingly obsessed with the Angel of Vengeance, Julian challenges him to a boxing match, hoping that by defeating him he might find spiritual release… but Chang triumphs. A furious Jenna plots revenge and the stage is set for a bloody journey through betrayal and vengeance towards a final confrontation and the possibility of redemption.
‘Only God Forgives’ reunites writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn with Ryan Gosling, the lead of his fantastic neo-noir crime drama, ‘Drive.’ Alongside Gosling, the likes of Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Tom Burke and Yayaying also star. Shot on location in Bangkok, the film’s score is by award-winning ‘Drive’ composer Cliff Martinez (Spring Breakers, Contagion). ‘Only God Forgives’ is set for a July 19th release in the US, while the film will open across the UK and Ireland on August 2nd.
After the great success of ‘Drive,’ why did you decide to make a medium budget film in Thailand? You had many offers from major studios. Why did you turn them down?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Medium budget is an understatement, it’s more a very low budget film (laughs). It all started with my two-picture deal with Wild Bunch and Gaumont. ‘Only God Forgives’ was going to be our first collaboration. Then ‘Drive’ came along so I decided to make it and postpone ‘Only God Forgives.’ But the film was so firmly rooted in me that I had to make it. So even while I was making ‘Drive’ I was preparing ‘Only God Forgives.’ And I was indeed offered some financially very interesting propositions that I seriously looked into, but ‘Only God Forgives’ had haunted me for too long, I had to get it out before I could seriously consider other projects. And it started out as a normal fight movie, but because I was doing other stuff and becoming interested in other things it developed more into the idea of creating your own world – of a sort of dream world next to reality. Which is a bit like what ‘Drive’ is.
Having revisited the American crime picture you wanted to revisit the martial arts genre. Is this a general love of genre movies?
Nicolas Winding Refn: I’ve always loved martial arts films but thought it would be extremely difficult to make one, particularly since I wanted the actors to learn Muay Thai and fight for real. It takes a lifetime to learn the art of Muay Thai and I wanted the actors to learn to fight in 8 weeks. Just that was a challenge in itself.
Your film begins as a gangster movie then gradually turns into a strange revenge film. Can you tell us where this story – very reminiscent of Greek tragedy – came from?
Nicolas Winding Refn: I’ve always wanted to make a film about a mother/son relationship and its conflicts. I wanted the film to begin in one genre and gradually transform into something else as the final showdown between mother and son approaches.
‘Only God Forgives’ marks the second time you’ve worked with Ryan Gosling. Can you describe this new collaboration? How would you describe his character?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Another actor was supposed to play Julian but pulled out close to shooting. Now I consider this a blessing because it allowed Ryan and me to continue our collaboration. Oddly, I’d written the screenplay before I made ‘Drive’ and Julian had been conceived as a very silent character. When Ryan and I started to work on the script after ‘Drive’ this language of silence came naturally, which was very useful since Julian is an extremely tortured character – he never goes towards others but withdraws into himself. With hindsight I can’t imagine another actor playing this role. But again, Ryan and I are practically one. We are so very similar, it’s like we must have been twins separated at birth. But then of course, then there’s the question of who is the good and who is the bad twin (laughs). He is incredibly talented, he can say a thousand words without saying anything. When you have such a cinema powerhouse, why wouldn’t you want to use it?
For the part of the strange policeman/avenger you chose Vithaya Pansringarm. Can you talk about your collaboration?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Casting in Thailand was extremely complicated because actors there don’t really have a theatrical training. They tend to be people who have decided to become actors while holding down another job. I was very lucky that during this open casting (itself a real challenge in a city of 12 million inhabitants) Vithaya miraculously appeared at the beginning. I met him a year and a half before shooting and knew he was the one. I can’t tell you why exactly because his tests weren’t remarkable but there was something in him – his kindness and his calm – yet I knew he would be unpredictable, which I always find interesting.
In all my films, the actors always play a large part in the creation of the characters, they really are part of their DNA, and Vithaya quickly understood that his character was judge, jury and executioner in one – a man with the ability to decide what is good or what is evil. He was able to bring to the character exactly what I was looking for, the ability to control a kind of karmic justice. For each bad thing you do, something bad will come to haunt you in return and he is the one who decides to haunt you or to forgive you.
Kristin Scott Thomas is totally transformed and extremely Machiavellian? How did you work that?
Nicolas Winding Refn: We are so used to seeing crime and violence as being the work of male characters that the very notion of seeing a woman embody absolute evil – and a mother to boot – it was great fun to write. I had Kristin in mind for the part of Julian’s mother early on. We met in Paris and I thought it would be very interesting to do a combination of Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace. And of course Kristin was delighted to be acting a part in which she could go all out playing the ultimate bitch. Yet it was very important that we made her character larger than life, she needed that to be able to play this domineering and diabolical mother.
What were your influences for this film?
Nicolas Winding Refn: There were a lot of different influences that led to different ideas. One of the main ones was the work of Richard Kern and his obsession with violent images, in particular his short movie ‘The Evil Cameraman’ (1990). And there was also my obsessive desire to tangle with Greek mythology, with Bangkok as the backdrop…
How do you relate ‘Only God Forgives’ to your other films?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Everything I do comes from the need to challenge myself, every time. Of course there are connections with my other films and characters, but years ago I decided to stop trying to understand why I do things so I could follow my instinct: what do I want to see when I go to the movies?
Look out for an interview with Ryan Gosling and another interview with Nicolas Winding Refn for ‘Only God Forgives’ later this week on the site.
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