Idling Hands

by Charlie Latan

Interview with Nicolas Winding Refn
With my photographer Priscilla in tow, I cautiously approach provocative Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. He’s seated on a wooded bench, prim, hands crossed over crossed legs. His appearance calls to my mind a nautical version of the class-kissass Martin from The Simpsons… Boating shoes, crisp khaki shorts, a white button-up and a thin wool sweater… small circular eyeglasses punctuating an overt intellectuality.

Refn rises to greet me. His grip is strong, rigid (a one-percenter of excellent handshakes, definitely). “Wow. Nice handshake.” I’m immediately star-struck (sorry, I tried to play it cool). For the next twenty minutes, I bumble, mumble and slur my questions for the controversial auteur; a man press claims to have directed “the Clockwork Orange of the 21st Century!” (2008’s Bronson)

Priscilla takes charge, asking Refn if she can photograph him while we chat. “Do whatever you want,” he tells us.  He’s laid back, totally Topanga Canyon-cool. I ask Nicolas if it’s true, that he doesn’t drive. “I failed my driver’s test eight times, before I gave up.”

How do you get around?

“I take lots of Ubers.”

There’s an obvious irony in this admission from the filmmaker behind 2011’s Drive starring Ryan Gosling. The film is notable for many reasons, but I’ve always particularly loved the soundtrack.

“I use, very much, music as a drug.’ He tells me, ‘I don’t do drugs. But [music] enhances your emotions and can give you insight into things that normally you wouldn’t access.”

Sub-consciousness?

“There’s many ways you can reach your subconscious. That’s your platinum, your ultimate. How do you access that? Music can give you gateways.

“I think art is really about expressing of emotions. For me, the more raw it is, the more I am interested in it. So I can only project what I would like to see myself. What I do is just flow of emotions. I’ve chosen the canvas of cinema, which has a lot of mechanical-ness to it, so you have to use ingredients and then as Nike says, ‘Just do it.’ But I’m very much a fetish filmmaker, so I make films based on what excites me.”

And you’re known to be excited by violence—

“No not really. Because I don’t think my films are very violent, but they are very violating. They’re very different. Violence is when people kill each other for mass entertainment and they kill many people and there’s no consequence. That’s violence. Violation is consequence. And it’s much more penetrating to the mind. In a way, what’s meant to be anti-violent can seem more violent because there’s a consequence of the action.”

From macabre insignificance to macabre consequence, I ask Refn who the dead actors are that he wishes he could have worked with.

“I’d love to work with James Stewart. I’d like to work with Charles Bronson, but he’s dead. I mean I’ve worked with the three best living actors—Mads Mikkelsen, Tom Hardy and Ryan Gosling… I just worked with Elle Fanning which was extraordinary [for] Neon Demon which just wrapped in L.A.”

And LA, you’re leaving, you’re not gonna be back for a while?

“L.A. is like Disneyland. It’s great to come. But it’s also great to leave… Because then you appreciate everything more.”

Refn lives in L.A. with his wife and daughter. Recently his wife Liv Corfixen directed a serene documentary about her obsessive, brilliant, capable, and loving husband.

“I’ve been together with my wife for 20 years. She’s the only girlfriend I’ve ever had. So I wouldn’t know what else to do. So I say, I came straight out of my mother into her.”

We all laugh, and while Refn tries to keep a straight face, a huge smile breaks through.

“Most people aren’t so romantically successful—for 20 years—I always say, behind every great man there’s always a greater woman. A lot of what I do leads back to her. Drive is really about her. Because she is the Carey Mulligan part and I am the Driver. This is what I would do to protect her.”

I ask Refn if he has read Hegel, since there are corollaries I find in Drive.

“No. Because my problem is I’m very dyslexic, so I have a lot of difficulties reading and writing and stuff like that. And I’m colorblind. I have all these difficulties, so when I read I have to read very slow, I have to read very specific. I’ll tell you who I love to read—J.G. Ballard.”

Would you ever adapt J.G. Ballard’s work?

“I thought about it at one point because there are some things that are very good. But to me, it’s almost like they’re un-filmable because it’s so much about his vision. And transcending that, it almost makes it normal and I don’t like normality.”

David Cronenberg directed Crash, but it doesn't capture any of the literature, the play with language, the machinated sexuality—

“The human mind is always so much more powerful in its imagination than what I, or anyone else, can project. Creativity is a two-way street, because creativity only works if the spectator meets it halfway. And by meeting it halfway, then it’s a two-way street. Do you understand what I’m saying?

“Whether you like it or not is irrelevant. It’s not about good or bad. That’s silly. I can only respect you by giving you, what I have, 100-percent. Whether you like it or not is up to you, but you’re never going to forget it.”

After our interview, a passerby asks Refn why his oeuvre includes so many close shots of hands. Nicolas explains that he loves hands for what you can learn about a person through them—their personality, their ambition. He also concedes, jovially, that as a child he was concerned about the safety of his hands. Before bed, he would have his mother apply Vaseline and cover them with socks. “I have the softest hands of any man!” Filmmakers and socialites take note: if you get a chance, shake hands with Nicolas Winding Refn. His grip won’t disappoint.

The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack for Bronson is out now on Milan Records.

Interview by Priscilla Rodriguez