If you didn't know otherwise, you might think The Playlist was doing free street-team PR for Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn.
We can't help it. We're pretty dazzled and taken aback with his striking, take-no-prisoners pictures.
In 1000 AD, held prisoner by a Norse chieftain, a fearless mute warrior (Mikkelsen) aided by a boy slave kills his captors and then falls in with a group of Vikings seeking a holy land which begets a journey into the heart of darkness. The picture is sort of a mix between Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky making it a spiritual horror film with maybe a soupcon of sinister John Carpenter vibes. However you want to describe it, it's a wonderful piece of work and a cinephile's delight. The picture comes out tomorrow Friday, July 16 in limited release and we sat down for a very long chat with Refn earlier this month. In case you're curious we spoke to him about his "Wonder Woman," film aspirations, his desire to one day work with Channing Tatum and another new project coming in the to be determined future called, "I Walk With The Dead."
The Playlist: Why a Viking movie of all things?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Well, I've had the idea for many many years to do a Viking-like action movie. But the strange thing is, I've never had an interest in Vikings. I heard a story on a radio program, which was about in the 1930s in Delaware, Washington, about a Viking rune stone found on a farmer's field. It was a great puzzlement because at that time, I'm sure at least Americans didn't accept there had been anybody to America before Columbus. So it was dismissed as a hoax. But evidence of Viking settlements were found as far away as Newfoundland in the 1980s. So historians speculated that possibly a ship had sailed south and gotten lost. And some kind of conflict had begun because the writing on the stone; it's a warning. And I felt like, "wow. "That's a great action concept, you know? And then when I finished the "Pusher" trilogy that I began to kind of see okay now I know how I can make this film at a budget that I can get fairly easy and control it.
Ironically, it's not much of an action film.
No, because I think originally it I had more conventional approaches to it. I was just never very happy with it, but I wouldn't let it go. Finally I came up with the idea about a man prison on top of a mountain. And he doesn't know where he comes from. And he doesn't know where he's going. And it came to me very late at night. Then [Norwegian novelist and short-story writer] Roy Jacobsen and I had to come up with a story around that, and it became more like a science-fiction film in a way. And I guess it's because I always wanted to make a science-fiction film but without science. Like, mental fiction.
There's cinematic influences all over this one.
Well there's a lot of "Stalker" by Tarkovsky, and there's a lot of "2001," "Escape from New York," like the whole Snake Plissken kinda one-eyed thing persona of who they are. Einsturzende Neubaten, the German band, their music was very inspiring. I usually work with contemporary themes, so I use contemporary music, and I work with music a lot. But here it was very difficult – what would this movie sound like?
The droning, thunderous tribal music in the movie is really amazing, but at the same time it's used very sparsely.
Yeah, if I were to describe what the film was it would be like silence, like putting like this [pause to listen to the room ambience]. That sound you create in your head. I was always really fascinated by the drug films of the '70s and late 1960s. How do you make a film that's like a drug? And I don't do drugs, so it was an interesting kind of approach to see what could I come up with.
Was it a hard sell? I can't imagine anyone in America would ever finance this movie. I mean that in a good way.
It's like with "Bronson," nobody in the world, would have financed it. I mean they would when they saw the result, but 'Bronson' was financed because I was going to make a movie about Britain's most dangerous prisoner, and there was gonna be a lot of fights. It's just like 'yeah, it's a geezer lad movie – "yeah, we can get that going!" Shot for a million dollars. With 'Valhalla,' I was gonna make a Viking action film with Mads Mikkelsen and that kind of already gave us the money. Because he's well known, and me and him and the 'Pusher' trilogy and our past work.
So you keep your costs way down.
That's how you survive. I mean, 'Valhalla' was about three and a half million dollars. And I always say this, because I own it also, but the way you survive in the film industry, really, is unless you go to Hollywood and you work within that system, you got to learn two things. You gotta learn how to write. You don't have to be good at it, you just have to learn how to do it. Because if you can't find anything, then you gotta do it yourself. And then you gotta learn about distribution. If you don't, then you're cutting off your knowledge of how to get your film released. And then, the two things you have to think about when you make a movie is you've gotta make it good, which is relatively individual and you've gotta make it cheap because each dollar is a headache, and how many headaches do you want, really? The less headaches, the more fun. And that's how I was able to make these films.
Mads seems like a muse, but it seems like you guys have some tension, yeah?
We have a lot of tension, and we don't socialize. We never see each other. We don't work. I mean, I'll call him, and he'll call me, but it also has to do about a film we're working on or something having to do with publicity. But otherwise, we have zero interest in each other's lives.
Now is the tension something something you cultivate. You had a similar experience with Tom [Hardy] on 'Bronson' as well.
Tom is a great actor — but because we didn't know each other very well and only had like six weeks to make the movie, it was a very strange relationship because we suddenly had to become almost like one person because it was such an all-consuming performance. But when we had originally met, like the year before, we didn't like each other. I mean, we met in a wine bar in London and he's an ex-alcoholic and I don't drink alcohol so it was like the worst possible place. And I went out and looked for other actors but there was nobody. I spoke with Jason Statham about it, and Guy Pearce. But when it came time, there was nobody really else. The casting director suggested I would meet Tom again, and I was very childish about it like "no, that's never gonna happen!" He said," well, he is the best thing in England at the moment." And I was like a really stubborn kid and then I met him. And for some strange reason it suddenly clicked completely between us. Within ten seconds, we knew this was gonna work out.
We've described 'Valhalla' often as if "Terrence Malike had made a horror movie." How do you prep an audience for it. Because it's not your average experience.
I tell them I always wanted to make a drug movie. Because you can present it in one way as this movie is about some Vikings going crazy and killing each other. But at least I can see now that it has many themes going through 'Valhalla,' and it's very open to interpretation. But film, even though it's a visual medium, is strangely about the subliminal experiences. So even though it's the ultimate visual format, it's not about what you see, it's about what you don't see. It's about what's going on here [motions presumably to head] as you're watching a projected image.
This one has a lot of space and silence. Plenty of time for it to swirl around in your head.
Yeah, it's about science-fiction but without science. It's about faith, and what's beyond faith is when you die. Mads' character One-Eye is kind of like a monolith that appears when there's religious turmoil. Because in 1100, Christianity was spreading through Europe, and Paganism, which were never missionaries, were suddenly being forced to convert either by violence or they were bought basically, or they would fuse, and Jesus was sold as a warrior who died in battle.
He's captive on top of a mountain, and he's like an animal. He's primal. And he escapes, and becomes a warrior which means he begins to use his tools. And then he becomes a god, because the people around him begin to perceive him as the messiah. And then they begin to perceive him as the devil, so he represents heaven and hell. And then he becomes a man, and he sacrifices himself. At the end stage of the crusade, they realize where they had come to is not Jerusalem but somewhere else, and they almost start killing each other. When you die in battle, your sins are washed away from you. So, those kind of things were interesting. That's when One-Eye bypasses that and then he realizes that he's become man and he has to sacrifice himself. And he travels back to his origins which is earth and wind and nature which is before religion, before faith there was nature.
Do you consider yourself a genre guy?
Oh yes. I come from a background of, a family that — you know when the French New Wave came out that was their kind of *gasp* — so I've always grown up in a socialistic, well attended family where European art films were "the right" kind of film. And to me they were always kind of the Antichrist!
Ha! Was that a teenage rebellion type thing? So you're not into Bergman or anything.
Probably was a teenage thing. No, you know Bergman said something very good that you have to make three films to make one movie. I certainly have respect for a lot of these filmmakers but I never — I like Jean-Pierre Melville much more than I like the French New Wave.
And my theory is that genre films have become what the art film in the '60s were to my parents. Like, when you take a movie like "Oldboy" or a lot of the Asian invasion that took genre films – like even in the mid '80s with the whole Hong Kong wave was starting to come in with John Woo, I remember thinking that if my parents got high on Godard, I got high on John Woo because he showed me another form of cinema.
Another layer to it.
Yeah, just layer and possibility. And it's interesting because when the French New Wave kicked in, they trashed everything in Europe, but they kind of kept sacred hands on American genre filmmakers like John Ford and Nicholas Ray and Howard Hawks. And this was the same way, they were actually making versions of Sam Peckinpah and films like that. So the reason why we're in this position with cinema history, and also in television, why the genre shows are doing so well is because it's tapping into our fantasy element. It speaks to our imagination and not to our logic. We all have relationship problems and that has passed in a way.
Any genres that you'd like to tackle? Are we going to see you do a romantic comedy one day?
I would love to do a romantic comedy. No, I really would! I would love to do a musical! I would love to do like Jacques Demy movies or something like that, like really oversaturated champagne. But romantic comedies are quite hard to come by and they're quite hard to make good.
"Valhalla Rising" hits theaters on July 16. While this writer does not condone drug use, you know... it might not hurt.