Film: Scandinavia's answer to `Trainspotting'
Nicolas Winding Refn has long been at odds with society. For his debut film, `Pusher', he moved into the dark world of the drugs dealers. Nick Hasted meets the clear-eyed `infiltrator'
Nick Hasted has been a film journalist since 1986. He writes about film, music, books and comics for The Independent, Sight & Sound, Uncut and Little White Lies. He has published two books: The Dark Story of Eminem (2002), and You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks (2011), both from Omnibus Press.
Friday 26 September 1997
"Frank is very much a terrorist," Refn says, sitting in a Soho basement, full of gangling energy, "and very much me. He comes, like myself, from a pretty good middle-class family, and for some reason he's declared war on society. What society fears most is when one of their own turns on them, and he does it by saying `Drugs'. It's the same thing I've done. I just have a different approach...
"I see myself as an infiltrator of the system, a terrorist in a positive way. I'm a very moralistic person. I want to inspire people with my films. It's so easy to destroy or to shock or to offend people. It's so hard to do the other thing, to show your faith in them."
Refn's sympathy with the criminal mentality didn't extend to their professional lives, the way, as Pusher shows, friendship can turn to murder when a deal goes wrong. The viciousness never became ordinary to him. "And it's not ordinary for them," he says firmly. "Even though you may be a gangster, you may be a bank cashier or a hairdresser, the human instincts we're born with are very much the same. We just choose different ways of living our lives. Was it shocking to me? Of course. But it was their way of life. If you listen to two corporate executives firing half the staff just to make a couple of million more pounds, that's pretty shocking too. I really don't see much difference between them and the gangsters."
Pusher's huge success in Scandinavia, and the way its Scorsese-inspired street-energy and propulsive use of music have shocked Danish cinema into the Nineties, have naturally prompted comparisons with Danny Boyle's Trainspotting and Matthieu Kassovitz's La Haine. But what makes Refn distinct from his fellow directors is the sort of adolescent, unbeaten idealism that emerges as he talks - the way Europe's auteur traditions and his own anti-corporate leanings clearly propel him as much as any desire for pounding gun-play.
He's already shown his true colours. When Hollywood came calling with the chance to re-make Pusher for the US market, he turned them down. "I will never do it," he spits. "First of all, if you do a re-make of a picture, you have no respect for that picture, you have no respect for the art that you do. Picasso did not paint a picture twice just to please a different audience. The guy who did the re-make of Nightwatch, if he wants to, he can make a re-make of my film, but I'll never do it. I've no desire to work in Hollywood in that way. If Hollywood phones me and says, `We'll give you $200m, and you can do whatever you want, you don't even have to show us a screenplay,' fine, but I don't think that's going to happen."
Refn isn't anti-American, though. He used to lived there. The experience runs through his work like blood. Moving to New York City with his step- father, aged eight, he couldn't speak a word of English. He soon forgot all about his roots, dismissed the very notion. He was a man of the world. He couldn't read in any language, and wouldn't until he was 13. So he soaked up culture through comics, and the films he was already addicted to. His hated yuppie schoolmates pursued their own materialist pleasures. Every day after school, Refn left them to revel in Times Square's world of sordid exploitation cinema. The most gruelling double-bill imaginable, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, seen when he was 14, gave him a permanent benchmark for how far cinema could go. "I was a fanatic," he grins. "My mother kept on yelling at me that I should stop talking about films, it was not interesting. But I never could. It's my favourite subject. It's the best thing that I know."
Refn honed his anger on the conformity of his schoolmates, instinctively rejecting their values, latching on to anyone he thought of as "pure", as more human, anyone with "a fucking standpoint". But though he had a social life, it was never central. His values really formed in Times Square darkness. "I think for many years I created a world of my own," Refn admits, "by seeing films, by myself mostly." Was the reason that he didn't read until he was 13 because it would perhaps have diluted his connection to the images he was seeing? "Yeah. It was definitely something like that."
Pusher's claustrophobic qualities as a film, its sensual, ground-level rush into destruction for its protagonist, a viewing experience like being locked with escalating disquiet in an eardrum-pounding club that gets worse by the minute, can all be traced back to those New York nights. Pusher wasn't written as a literary exercise, its script just translated what Refn saw in his head. And, far more than Trainspotting, music is part of its texture, as important as words in describing Frank's descent. Refn flung on record after record as he wrote, and the sounds and music in his film, sometimes unrealistic, sometimes cutting out without warning, are the sounds in Frank's head. A failed love scene between Frank and his would-be girlfriend made Refn particularly proud. "We have a tendency to talk too much. I had a lot of dialogue for the scene, but I cut it out. I also did that because it takes a lot out of my personal life to show those emotions. I wanted it to just be music." Was he hiding behind the music then? "Maybe so. Maybe I was."
The two choices that define Refn so far are the same choice, really. When he was 24, almost everyone he knew advised him to take the safe option, to enter film school, not to make a film. And when Pusher had been made, most advised him to take up his Hollywood offer, too. He has stood firm, with a clear eye for temptation that's rare. "I know what I want," he says. "That's the knife that cuts through everything. Even more than that, I know what I don't want. I don't want to have restrictions put on me, I don't want to be told what to do. I'm not interested in power and fame, I'm not interested in anything else. I am exposed to temptation. But my pride outweighs anything they've offered so far."
`Pusher' goes on limited release from 10 October
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