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'

When Nicolas Winding Refn turned aside the chance of education at Copenhagen's prestigious film school in order to make his feature debut on the city's streets at the age of 24 - a debut half-a-million Scandinavians would soon be smashing box-office records to see - he sank himself into his subject matter. Pusher was to be set in the underworld, so that was where he lived. He didn't have any compunction about his choice of "hero", either. Frank was to be a lazy, loveless man, prone to psychosis. Dealing drugs, assaulting anyone who got in his way, his own greed and idiocy would send him tumbling to paranoid ruin. But Refn had nothing against him. In some ways, Frank and he were as close as skin.

"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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Russell Brand discusses Trident and the NHS in an episode of the The Trews.
news
News
The cartoon depicts the UK (far left) walking around a Syrian child refugee
newsIn an exclusive artwork for The Independent, Ali Ferzat attacks Britain's lack of 'humanity'
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
film
Sport
footballManager attacks Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp after criticism of Diego Costa's apparent stamping
News
video
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Administrator

    £14500 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Administrator

    £14500 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Infrastructure / Development Support

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunity to join a...

    Recruitment Genius: Partnership Relationship Manager

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Partnership Relationship Mana...

    Day In a Page

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore