Let's try a bit of free association. Danish? Pastry. Copenhagen? Wonderful, wonderful, Hans Christian Andersen. Well, not for much longer. This week Pusher, the first feature by 26-year-old Dane, Nicolas Winding Refn, rips open the seedy underbelly of Denmark's capital, proving that here are mean streets to match Scorsese's. A scabrous trawl through the city's gangster underworld, the film is seen through the eyes of Frank, a heroin dealer who beats his best friend to a pulp, treats his girlfriend like dirt and scams money from his mother. Not your traditional hero, then, but a strangely sympathetic one nonetheless.
A super-confident autodidact, Refn, rather surprisingly, likes to draw parallels between Frank and himself. "Like me he comes from a middle-class background, and like me he has infiltrated the system," the director says, while conceding that his own anti-establishment "terrorism" has taken a slightly different form to Frank's. At 21, Refn dropped out of an acting course at the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts to write the screenplay for a prototype Pusher. After unsuccessfully hawking his five-minute short around the festival circuit, failing in an application to London Film School ("Ha!, thank you," he scoffs), Refn had just enrolled at Denmark's Film School when a producer offered him pounds 1m to develop the short into a feature. "I thought 'fuck film school' ," he recalls and eagerly set about planning his contribution to the "mental revolution" he believes necessary for social evolution. "In Western society we're very quick to judge people," says Refn, "And too many films these days support that by telling you what to think. We all know that selling drugs is wrong, that the people who do it are bad. But I wondered what would happen if I made the audience spend two hours hoping a drug dealer would save his skin. I thought it would be interesting to have people leave with their black and white morality screwed up."
His filmmaker father, Anders Refn, editor of Lars Von Triers's Breaking the Waves, was not impressed. "The first thing he said was 'you can't do that, you haven't been to film school'," remembers Nicolas, with relish. "Sure, I'd never written a screenplay, never used a camera, never worked with actors, but how difficult is it? Film schools take so long to teach you things," says the impatient revolutionary. "Four years to tell you 'this is a camera, this is a viewfinder', and often these artistic institutions forget to teach you the most important thing of all, which is that art is about vision, about inspiration, about having something to say."
Many people won't like what Refn has to say in Pusher. And Refn can hardly contain his excitement at the prospect. "The greatest critique you can have is if people really love or really loathe your work," he says. "Pusher was showed to some West German filmmakers a couple of months ago and they hated it so much. You know they absolutely despised it," he smiles. "But I told them 'Good. Great. This is probably the first time for a long time that you've felt so angry' ." And with that, the young Turk takes his unshakeable confidence off to work on his next movie, the ominously-titled Bleeder.
Pusher goes on general release this weekendReuse content