Crime Pays:
An Interview with Nicolas Winding Refn

by Brad Westcott

Nicolas Winding Refn could quite possibly be the most talented writer/director you’ve never heard of. Though his gritty first foray into film, Pusher (1996), is legendary in his native Denmark and enjoys a strong cult status throughout the rest of Europe, his work is little known stateside. Refn turned down a highly coveted spot in the prestigious Danish Film Institute (only six applicants are accepted every two years) in order to take the minimal financing he’d procured to complete Pusher, a barebones verité account of a Copenhagen street dealer who finds himself under the thumb of his ostensible friend, the terrifyingly congenial Croatian drug-lord Milo (Zlatco Buric).

Refn garnered further acclaim with his follow up, Bleeder (1997), and then, Fear X (1998) happened. His first English-language production with a known Hollywood actor (John Turturro), Fear X won the admiration of critics but proved a trifle too ambiguous and challenging (Refn harbors quite a predilection for open endings) for audiences. Having financed much of the film himself, the poor box office showing of Fear X left Refn and his production company roughly one million dollars in debt.

Initially appalled at the thought of a Pusher sequel, Refn decided that if the material could be revisited in such a way that it might prove successful both commercially and artistically then it was worth a shot. Refn would use part of the financing he would raise for two more Pusher films to square the debt owed by his production company—a risky venture chronicled in the documentary Gambler, directed by Phi Ambo. And so, Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands, and Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death were written and produced in relatively short order in 2004, and 2005, respectively.

Uncompromising, often unsettling, and always compelling, each successive film gains added depth as a minor character in a previous film becomes the central character of the next. Pusher III may even boast a rarer achievement than The Godfather Part II, as many critics have tapped it as the strongest of the series. It’s not just the genre-pleasing grit and gore (though there’s plenty), but the films’ investment in character and human interaction which drive their dynamic appeal.

Reverse Shot recently sat down to chat with Nicolas Winding Refn. In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that Magnolia Pictures also happens to be the company from which this journalist draws a paycheck.

REVERSE SHOT: I think when a lot of readers think of Danish cinema, it probably stops at Dogme.

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Of course. Dogme put Danish film on the international map.

RS: Pusher hit the scene in 1996, just after the splash Pulp Fiction had made. I’m wondering if critics at the time kind of missed the boat in regard to your film, trying to fit it into that tide of Tarantino knockoffs? For me, although there are some similarities, the things you and Tarantino are actually up to are quite different…

NWR: I think we make very radically different films, but we both came out of the video generation, having access to obscure films, spending a lot of time watching them and being inspired by them.

RS: I can see how your work would seem slightly obscure to mainstream American audiences, but it’s strange to me that even within the more rarefied realm of the cinephile, your films have been overlooked.

NWR: Well Pusher was released in 1997, and disappeared very quickly. I think that had a lot to do with the company that handled it; they weren’t capable of working with a film like that. I think Danish cinema only really began to have a large appeal in America when Lars von Trier created Dogme. My father was editing Breaking the Waves while we were editing Pusher, and both films used handheld cameras, cinema verité, naturalism; it was a combination of those things that Lars borrowed when he solidified Dogme as a concept.

RS: The profile of the Pusher films is hugely different in Europe, particularly in the UK…

NWR: When I made Pusher, I never imagined it would leave Denmark. No festivals wanted it—they all turned it down. So it was shown at the market in Berlin, and by chance a British distributor saw it and picked it up for the UK. Because of the very positive reception there, we were able to sell the film worldwide.

RS: I’ve watched the documentary Gambler, in which you, and specifically the circumstances surrounding the making of Pusher II and III are the subject. Can you tell us about that period and the kinds of pressure your debt put on the production of those two films?

NWR: It wasn’t so much the production, because once you had the money, then the ball is rolling…it was more that time frame before, basically sitting in bankruptcy, owing a million dollars, and my wife was giving birth. I remember the day my daughter was born, going home to our apartment to find any foreign currency I had lying around in order to exchange it for Danish cash. That was how broke I was. My parents were paying for me. Before we started to get financing it was very bleak. We knew we wouldn’t be able to pay our debt until Pusher III was financed. That was the focus of the documentary, how we got the money for both. We needed both.

RS: And initially you were ambivalent about returning to Pusher…

NWR: Oh I hated it. I despised it, but that’s because I was afraid. Having to go back, what if I couldn’t do it? What if I couldn’t make a better movie? I mean could you imagine anything more terrible than going back and realizing that you burned yourself out?

RS: That makes sense in that Pusher is the kind of film, where the suggestion of a sequel sounds ridiculous.

NWR: But I wouldn’t be sitting here if we hadn’t done it. It needed a different approach, and I think that came out of television, and my love for TV, especially The Sopranos, which basically set a whole new standard for making fiction for the small screen. Television is probably is a lot more inventive than cinema is right now. Pusher II and III were conceived like a television series, but instead of making it for TV, I made them as features. I’ve just been contacted by one of the major networks in the U.S. about doing Pusher as a television series.

RS: When you were making the Pusher films, how important to you was it to see them as part of a broader tradition of crime films?

NWR: I never thought of it like that, because I never thought I was going to make another one. It never occurred to me that it was going to end like this.

RS: Why are we so fascinated by stories about criminals?

NWR: It’s because they mirror our image of normal society, enough so we can relate but it still remains escapism. When Shakespeare wrote about the royal family it was the same scenario. But the royal family is a joke now—it’s tourism. In a way crime has taken over that place, and that’s why we’re so obsessed with it. But we’re also obsessed because the media has glamorized crime, repackaged and resold it very falsely as escapism with a positive bent, and I could not disagree more with that. I think that being able to work in art, you have a responsibility, you have to remember that you do affect people. Shouldn’t you do something good with that?

RS: Do the Pusher films bear any relationship to Hamlet?

NWR: No! But I think I say that in interviews sometimes because when people say they never imagined Denmark being this way, I say, you know “Hamlet” did take place in Denmark, and he’s a pretty deranged character. We have a tradition of people like that…

RS: One of my favorite parts in Pusher is when Frank is really starting to feel the pressure of his debt to Milo, and he’s trying to shake a guy down for money, and the guy just seems so calm and reasonable. He’s telling Frank: “Look, if you’d only told me you were coming by, I could have had something for you.” Frank is infuriated, and as he leaves he hurls a large box at some poor guy on the street who just happens to be passing by on his bicycle. There’s no real explanation for it, and I love that. How do these things work their way into your creative process?

NWR: I think it comes very much from shooting in chronological order. It allows you to be very sensitive to your surroundings—you’re like a sponge. You’re picking up everything around you like radar signals, because you’re just moving forward. You’re not planning or pre-thinking or analyzing, saying I can’t do that because of blah, blah, blah…everything is open. I shoot all my films in chronological order. But you also have to know what you want, because it can get out of hand really quickly. You have to be very precise about getting back on track, but that choice affords you the possibility of doing these things.

RS: Do studios or financial backers ever balk at your shooting in chronological order?

NWR: No, as long as I keep it within the budget. I write with that in mind. For example with the Pusher films, I constantly switch locations. Where I may have one location that I rent for four weeks, but then I save on something else, we save time on rehearsals, because we don’t rehearse, we just go into it. It’s a very much an in-the-moment approach to things. With my new film, Valhalla Rising, it’s the same thing…start Scene One, move on. But for me, it’s a discovery process, it makes the film much more interesting to make. I don’t like to read manuals. I’m very bad at reading the manual to a television set, for example, because I don’t like logic. Not meaning that I like chaos, but I want to be surprised. I always tell the actors, I’ve done this in my head, and we’re going to do it again, and this time you’re going to play the lead, and we’re going to see where it’s going to go. That’s why I always ask actors, what are you going to do for me? What are you going to bring to this?

RS: Could you talk about the strength of the central performances of the films? I’m tempted to single out Kim Bodnia (Frank) as the most impressive, but then I think about what Mads Mikkelsen and Zlatco Buric were able to do in their respective films. It seems you were very fortunate in the casting of these roles.

NWR: I think I was extremely lucky with the first one, in casting. Originally there was another actor hired to play Frank who I had to fire because he wasn’t working out. And I got a hold of Kim Bodnia, who agreed to do it. I had found Mads already in a casting session, and Milo I had found in another casting call. I never imagined it would end up like this. I never imagined that Zlatco Buric would end up an actor with such a range. I mean that guy can do anything. In Pusher III when he’s getting high on heroin while they’re choking the other guy in the other room, I mean that’s great. I remember when we were shooting that scene the other actors were staring at him because they didn’t know where he was going. I’ve been very, very, very lucky. But then I also demand a lot from them, at the same time.

RS: Earlier today we were talking a bit about William Friedkin and how he has something of a reputation for almost endangering his actors…

NWR: Yeah, but he makes great films!

RS: Your actors have to get into some pretty violent situations onscreen and perform them convincingly, also I know you’ve made mention of Zlatko actually drinking onset for those scenes in Pusher where he is doing all those shots…I’m just wondering if you have any kind of philosophy about the ethics involved…

NWR: I think when I was younger I was more “rock ‘n’ roll” in the sense of just pushing boundaries and seeing how far I can take it. As you get older, you know, you get a little bit more relaxed about having to create this image of yourself, and you just want to do good work. I don’t have any limitations, there’s nothing I won’t show, there’s nothing I won’t do. I found out that there are easier ways to make films. You don’t have to always be so difficult.

RS: So there are other ways to get to the same end?

NWR: Yeah.

RS: Is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre still your favorite film?

NWR: It is my favorite film because it’s the film that made me want to make films. I don’t know if it’s the most enjoyable film, but it made me want to make films. At that point I realized that film was not just film, it was painting, it was music—all of these aspects opened up.

RS: What is it about those exploitation films of the Seventies that’s allowed them to have grown so much in critical stature? There was something about that era that you can never get back to or recreate…

NWR: Well, I think that a lot of it has to do with Tarantino’s success, because he put a spotlight on these films, which has been very good in terms of getting them recognized again. But a lot of these films were made by people of high integrity. If you look at painters and writers all through the centuries, there were violence and obscenity and things like that were part of their expression, and it wasn’t highbrow, but if you look at it now, these works have great artistic value. I don’t think everything from the seventies is great, and I think a lot of it is overrated. Art can be very deceptive, you look at it once and see one thing, and you look at it many years later and don’t see the same things…the more organic, the better.

RS: I think it’s a pretty rare achievement, especially for three films, that the quality has stayed so consistent. I know many who believe the third film is the best, and you don’t hear that very often.

NWR: At the beginning I said, I’m not going to concentrate, this is going be completely run of the mill, I’m not going to put any soul into them. And then suddenly things took off and I became really happy with them. I think the third one is the best, personally. Because it’s the most experimental and it’s the most cathartic, and the most extreme, and I like extreme things. The third one was up at the Fantasia festival in Montreal which was really a lot of fun. People went berserk. But they like the slicing and the dicing…

RS: The guts-down-the-drain scene…

NWR: Yes, people were applauding. That scene is there because I’m so fed up with how the media repackages and glamorizes violence and crime and all these terrible things that I think are very immoral. You know I don’t like pushing my view down people’s throats, but I do find it very sad because nothing is more false, and I wanted to make a scene that was so dehumanizing to emphasize that this is what this world is about.

RS: Can you tell us a little bit about your next project, Valhalla Rising, starring Mads Mikkelsen?

NWR: Valhalla Rising came out of me working on a horror film that I just couldn’t solve. I just got so fed up, that I went back to an old idea I had about the discovery of America by the Vikings and that was suddenly a very easy story for me to develop, and I’ve learned that if it’s easy, go with it, and so I focused completely on that one. It’s going to be about a mute man who doesn’t know where he’s from, and about the Vikings discovering America. But, I’m not a big fan of Vikings, and I’m definitely not a big fan of costume films. So it occurred to me while making Pusher III, and thought, what if I took this way of making a movie and made a film set in the year 800? Once I got the technical concept, and then I got the story down, then I needed the overall view of the story. It’s the discovery of America, so what? It’s science fiction. For the Vikings, it must have been science fiction…it’s Valhalla. And of course I’ve always wanted to do an action film.

RS: In Gambler you talk about the film Billy’s People. Is that the horror film you mentioned?

NWR: That’s the horror film I’ve been promising my agent for the last four years, which I will do after Valhalla. I want to do a horror film. But it’s like a minefield. There are so many things you can do wrong. I learned on Fear X the hard way, because it was such a difficult film to make. I had every single problem you would ever imagine on that movie.

RS: Who are some filmmakers working today who impress you?

NWR: Well I saw a really fucking terrific movie at Fantasia, a short called “Bug Crush” by Carter Smith…a fanstastic film. The last film that really blew me away was Audition. That was quite an experience. I guess my favorite thing right now is The O.C.. Especially those episodes where Mischa Barton is a lesbian… But my wife couldn’t connect with me there…