Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn has created one of the most recognisable palettes in modern cinema. If 2008’s biopic Bronson was cryrogenic blue, and 2011’s Drive halogen-pink, then his new work Only God Forgives is a deep, enveloping red. It's Refn's maddest movie to date, starring Ryan Gosling as an outwardly mild-mannered drug overlord in the sexually-charged, criminal underworld of Bangkok, who runs a boxing ring as a front for his deals. After the death of his brother, Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) sweeps in – all perfume haze and Fake Bake – seeking vengeance and greeting her son by pressing her crotch close to her lips and bemoaning his dick size over the dinner table. It's a lurid acid trip of a movie that makes perfect sense with the end-credit dedication: “For Jodorowsky”. We spoke to Refn in London about indulging fetishes – and why Donatella Versace was an unlikely inspiration.
DD: Before the screening last night you likened Drive to cocaine and Only God Forgives to acid. Why the drug metaphor?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Because one movie is about fluff and champagne, and the other movie is about an alternate world. The films are both located in a sense of heightened reality, but with Drive I had characters that were more archetypes. It was a teenage view of how the world should be – teenage love. I saw Drive as like an OMD song. Things were so simple back when Erasure was around. Only God Forgives is very much about the idea that a son could detest his mother as he could be equally aroused by her.
DD: Did you have any reservations about the incest theme?
Nicolas Winding Refn: No, on the contrary. It’s a theme every man struggles with. We may not accept it but I’m sure deep down there is something that confronts this. A controlling mother essentially can be a monster, and because Only God Forgives is set in the world of fantasy everything is more heightened; Scott Thomas is more heightened; Ryan Gosling's character is more submissive. Everything is more.
DD: The Kristin Scott Thomas character is quite camp, isn’t she?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Part of her is very camp, that’s the appeal of her. You know, like Donatella Versace! But it’s almost like armour. It’s like putting on an act. She’s like an insect that devours everything around her, including her children.
Only God Forgives is set in the world of fantasy everything is more heightened ... Everything is more
DD: Is it fun to write characters that you dislike?
Nicolas Winding Refn: It’s always more interesting dramatically because essentially it’s a fetish. A fetish of indulging oneself and everything that’s wrong.
DD: Is it true that the noir feel of Drive was inspired by Night Drive (2007) by Chromatics?
Nicolas Winding Refn: No. Drive was inspired by Kraftwerk because it’s a movie that deals with the fetish of the past. It had a very retro feel to it but I didn’t want to make retro music – it had to be about the future, and Karftwerk invented electronic music and are equivalent to the Mozarts of that genre. The song in Drive, the only one put into script, was “Oh My Love”, which came from an Italian move called Farewell Mr Tom which was a very romanticised film – it represents the fluffiness of the late 60s or early 70s, where the sentimental backdrop was so people didn’t feel intimidated by life. I liked “Under Your Spell” [by Desire] because it was very much like a childish pop song.
DD: Do you think it’s rare for a director to play such close attention to music?
Nicolas Winding Refn: No, I think the soundtrack is the DNA of film, whether it’s Bernard Herrmann or Max Steiner – or Goblin, who were instrumental in the design of what you would call an Argento Movement. But the big change musically was hiring Cliff Martinez, and how we worked together was very satisfying, and his contributions to Only God Forgives were instrumental in shaping the film.
DD: Did you have any reservations about casting Ryan Gosling as the bad guy in Only God Forgives?
Nicolas Winding Refn: No, because he’s such a good guy! I had another actor who decided to drop out three months before, and I was with Ryan in LA and he said that he would do it.
DD: I heard you were doing a Logan’s Run remake – is that still happening?
Nicolas Winding Refn: No. It would have been nice but it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. So now it’s all about a new TV show I’m doing – Barbarella.
Only God Forgives is out on August 2, 2013