Nicolas Winding Refn | Too Old To Die Young
There are few creative ventures that Nicolas Winding Refn hasn’t tried his hand at. While the Danish auteur received widespread international acclaim with his 2011 feature, Drive, his career has been anything but predictable. In addition to creating a series of ensuing films (Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon), Refn has directed a series of commercials, created a vinyl curation series (“Nicolas Winding Refn Presents”), and launched his own streaming platform (byNWR).
His latest project, Too Old to Die Young, sees the filmmaker return to somewhat familiar artistic ground, albeit through a new template. While Refn himself has described it as a 13-hour movie, the series is being released episodically via streaming on Amazon. Co-created with Ed Brubaker and scored by Cliff Martinez, Too Old to Die Young stars Miles Teller as a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who moonlights as a killer for hire, visiting vengeance upon those whom he deems to represent the most vile and reprehensible aspects of humanity.
In a recent interview with Flaunt, Refn spoke about the future of streaming and television, his long-standing fascination with Los Angeles, and the ideas behind his latest project.
How would you describe your new series, ‘Too Old to Die Young’?
It’s about America. This stage of America has turned into a Shakesperian play, and I find it very interesting that there is a large portion of the country that would rather burn it all down than continue the way that it was moving. And, of course, everything in America reflects the rest of the world.
You began work on the series while you were still finishing your last film, ‘The Neon Demon’. What compelled you to start working on this project, and pursue the ideas that you’re exploring in it?
While I was doing The Neon Demon, Netflix had really solved the puzzle of what the future of streaming would be like. Not foreseeing what would happen, but they’d taken the first step into a much more interesting way of approaching accessibility. When you’re in L.A., a lot of people in the industry would say that you’ve got to get into TV, because that’s where everything is going, meaning that that’s where there is an enormous amount of money coming in to produce. You’re always looking for a new avenue, so I came up with this concept which, in a way, was an extension of my first Danish films, the Pusher trilogy, about crime in Copenhagen. I thought maybe I could go back to some of those ideas that I had while I was doing those films, which were very much like television, like a serialized narrative in a canvas of a background, and that’s really how it began. I came up with the title and a concept, and I called Ed Brubaker, a friend of mine who I’d hired to work for me on another project, so we were already creatively collaborating, and then we started expanding this idea. It was the concept of telling a narrative in a fixed environment, but over a large amount of time.
Like several of your other projects, the series takes place in Los Angeles. What role does the city play in this series, and how would you describe the Los Angeles and the America depicted in the show?
To me, L.A. is like an alien world. There’s nothing really quite like Los Angeles. Of course, there’s a sense of South America — aesthetics and iconography — within California and L.A., obviously, since they used to own it before you guys took it. If you travel down to South America, there are some of the same sensibilities — how you use the outdoors, how you use the climate, the idea that something is built in a desert. That, in a way, is an artificial construction, because you’re not supposed to survive in a desert. For me, L.A. has always been very mythical. I wasn’t interested in it earlier on in my life, because I grew up in New York. New York was my idea of America. Manhattan was my idea of America. When I made Drive, which was my first introduction to working here, I really enjoyed it.
New York, London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, they’re all cities of a certain sense of concrete. They’re all devised in similar ways. They present similar elements. Whereas L.A. is a bit like a puzzle. It’s a bit like London — it just expands, expands, expands — but it has this American iconography that is very alien to a European, and I find that very interesting. It’s the third time I shoot here, but every time I come, I automatically am inclined to create my own vocabulary on how to do what I do.
Music is also a key component in your work, both in your own vinyl curation series and in this show. Could you speak to your collaboration with composer Cliff Martinez, and to how you worked to create the show’s soundtrack?
Cliff and I have now worked together multiple times, over a span of 8-9 years. It’s the family. He’s worked with my wife, as well, so there’s a sense of intimate trust between us. We don’t really have to say very much anymore. We just know that the combination will give birth to something. Of course, here, one of the surprises was the amount of material that needed to be produced. Cliff, who had done long-format prior, would warn me saying, “You better stack up on your espressos, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
In terms of performances in the show, a lot of what's communicated among characters seems to take place in between dialogue. How did you work with the actors to create that communication?
It’s about the subtext, really. You create a narrative that is not about what you say, but about what you don’t say. This is also a language. Unfortunately, we live in a time when information or narrative — in terms of the mainstream category, more wide, accessible — is very much based in relaying information, and the faster you get the information, the faster you can move on. But, that doesn’t mean it’s interesting.
I don’t like television. To me, the idea of streaming was interesting because it’s a canvas that’s far more advanced. And, I don’t understand why we still work within serialised TV when it’s very limiting. The idea of streaming is a constant glow around us that we tap in and out of, and we will decide when, and how, and why to pause it and then start it again. It becomes a much more interactive experience, rather than just the traditional consuming, do-what-you’re-told-to-think-and-just-move-on, at least for me.
‘Too Old to Die Young’ is now available through streaming, and just last year you launched your own streaming platform. What are your thoughts on streaming as a vehicle for your work and its consumption?
It’s the final frontier. It’s what everyone does. She’s paying the bill with a credit card that’s linked to a satellite, so she’s paying it via streaming. I still love the cinema, but Too Old to Die Young wasn’t made for the cinema, because it’s too long. But, I could make it for streaming. And even when you make a movie, meaning a traditional cinematic, first window approach, you still end up on a streaming channel, so what you need to do is accept the fact that whatever you do in the future has to be able to be consumed on an iphone or on a giant stadium screen. It has to work on all apps, all tablets, all screens. You can’t just decide on one, because you’re limiting yourself.
You chose to premier the fourth and fifth episodes at Cannes, rather than the first and second. What prompted that decision? Do you feel that parts of the series can be watched independently without viewing the whole?
I think anything that’s good should be able to be viewed in all different situations, and all different abilities. With Too Old to Die Young, because it’s a giant beast of such grand, operatic senses, it’s like when you go into a bookstore and you’re looking at a book, or a photo book, or anything. You very rarely start on page one. You go into the middle. And I thought, what better way to introduce the show than the heart of the show? It’s also how my kids decide if they want to watch something. They’re not going to wait to be introduced before they make up their minds. They have the freedom. It’s not like conventional TV where you had that Sunday slot, and just let it play. We’re much more advanced, in a way. My children are much more advanced. You go on something, and you scroll and go, “Oh that looks pretty interesting. I’ll go back and watch that.” It’s up to people to make up their own mind if they want to go back and see more or see less. And it was a way to say to the establishment — that have always been very dogmatic about me, and criticizing me, and their opinions being very vocal about me — that you don’t control me.
Cannes is the greatest place to show anything, because it’s the mecca of film as an artform. It’s the highest appreciation and acknowledgment of what you do. It was my fourth time there, and even though they couldn’t put us in competition, because legally we were a streaming show, we were treated as if we were, which was great because that meant that I’d created a new Cannes. Because, it is going to be the norm now, whether they like it or not.
What are you most inspired by in your work? Has this changed over time?
I don’t have a specific thing. It could be anything. It’s whatever I find interesting.
Most of your films mix stunning visual imagery with intense violence. Can you speak to the relationship between these two elements in your work, and why you find that combination compelling?
I make what I want to make. I don’t question it. I’m not a politician. I’m not here to explain myself, nor do I want your vote. I’m not here to be liked.
In an essay for The Guardian, you wrote about the importance of pushing people outside of their comfort zones. How do you feel that you’re able to achieve that in your work?
It’s the primary object of art. How do you make the world a better place? By pushing one and everyone else around you into an uncomfortable experience that makes you think. Otherwise, it’s just pleasant, or nice, sweet, good. But, that doesn’t mean that it necessarily enlightens you or touches you. I always say that polarization is the true success, because that means that what you have done has had such a different effect on people, that they can actually talk about it and get very vocal about their experiences, which automatically creates dialogue. If we just engaged with each other a little bit more as human beings, face to face, the world would be a better place.
I think now, there’s an opportunity to really understand that — the need of that is becoming more and more apparent for us as human beings. We have so much wealth, globally. We have so much opportunity, yet at the same time, inequality rises and paranoia kicks in when, in a way, it should be the exact opposite.
What are you hoping, or expecting, that the reaction to this new series will be?
I don’t know. I’m not a politician. I’m here to entertain you, and give you something to think about. You may not like it now, but you may like it tomorrow when you think about it. We live in a time when there’s a knee-jerk reaction, and instant opinions outweigh anything, which is kind of silly, because a true experience you need to think about. How can you actually have an opinion on anything until you’ve truly digested it?
Photographed by Alix Spence