On-Screen, Off-Screen: My Life Inspired by Nicolas Winding Refn

“On-Screen, Off-Screen” is our new monthly film series created to showcase a more personal retrospective about some of our favourite filmmakers. Each month, one 25YL staffer will choose one of their own favourite filmmakers – be it a director or performer or writer or composer or production designer, etc – and will analyse what it is about their on-screen work that they love, and how they’ve been influenced/inspired by them off-screen either personally or creatively or artistically. Maybe one of us will write about the entire filmography of a director, or someone might choose an actor associated with playing a certain role multiple times, or maybe there’s that one soundtrack by a composer that gets them every time. This month sees Jon Sheasby writing about his admiration for Nicolas Winding Refn, specifically through the lens of the documentary, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Enjoy!

There are many reasons why I love the work of the award-winning Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. He’s an artist who knows no bounds. He’s always pushing himself and his art to the limit. Yet, behind the hyper-stylised imagery of his filmography stands a deeply insecure man, whose self-critical nature threatens to destroy every artistic decision he makes. My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, directed by his wife, Liv Corfixen, is a brief but essential examination into the mind and life of a one-of-a-kind filmmaker during the making of Only God Forgives. Of course, the majority of film fans will associate Refn’s name with his 2011 breakthrough Hollywood masterwork, Drive, but his career actually started 15 years prior with the release of the intense Danish crime drama, Pusher. The film spawned a very successful trilogy and would become recognised as helping launch the careers of Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) and Kim Bodnia (The Bridge).

Mads Mikkelsen in Pusher looking at himself in a mirror lit in green

In-between the first and latter two entries in the Pusher trilogy, Refn directed another successful Danish-language thriller, Bleeder, and he entered Hollywood for the first time with the release of Fear X. Unfortunately, Fear X was such a financial failure that it forced Refn’s production company into bankruptcy and left Refn heavily in debt at the age of 33. Thankfully, he would later recover and continue to make an impression on the festival circuit with Bronson and Valhalla Rising. In 2011, Refn delivered his first real international hit with Drive, which I’ll go on record as saying is my favourite film of this decade. I’ll be very surprised if anything surpasses it between now and the end of 2019. There’s not an ounce of fat that I’d cut from Drive. It’s as tight as a snare drum, seamlessly weaving together rousing action and romance, while staying true to its neo-noir roots and punishing violence. Refn fully deserved to win the Best Director Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

Seriously, there’s a film for everyone in Drive. Do you like breathtaking car chases and bone-crunching action sequences? How about a good old classic exploitation-style revenge plot? Or maybe you just want to watch Ryan Gosling, the quiet unassuming mechanic/stunt double/getaway car driver, fall in love with Carey Mulligan, the married girl next door? Drive has it all. An astonishing balancing act, really. Quite remarkable. And lest we not forgot, it was Refn and his longtime composer, Cliff Martinez, who brought synthwave and artists like Kavinsky to the masses long before it was fashionable. It was Refn who introduced me to the world of Johnny Jewel, Desire, and the Chromatics six years before they appeared in Twin Peaks: The Return. Music plays a huge role in the filmography of Refn, and I’d argue that the soundtrack to Drive is up there with the most influential of the decade so far. So, once you’ve made a film like Drive, where do you go next?

Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling in Drive, standing in an elevator with a little boy

I adore My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn simply because of what it is: a documentary made by Refn’s wife about her husband’s creative process, their family life and his human imperfections. Honestly, there is no need for this film to exist (not for public consumption, anyway). It wasn’t made for monetary gain. It wasn’t made to further his career. It’s just a short, 57-minute personal document about being human. About uprooting your family to Bangkok for six months for the production of your latest movie. About being an artist, a friend, a father and a husband, all while struggling to make Only God Forgives following the success of Drive. It’s an incredibly intimate look into the life of a visionary, which is something we seldom get to see. How much do we know about anyone, really? Refn puts everything out there for the world to analyse. This is him. Warts and all.

That, for me, is hugely inspiring. Not only as a massive fan of his work, but as a flawed human too. My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn is about as raw and honest as you’ll ever get to see a filmmaker from the other side of the camera. We put our favourite artists on pedestals because we love their work and are inspired and influenced by them either creatively and/or personally. We all write for 25YL because we love David Lynch. We love his art and the mystery that surrounds him, but in reality, he’s just a guy who loves cigarettes and coffee. Refn is a guy who just wants to be accepted as an artist. He lives in a constant state of anxiety, brought on by his persistent fear of rejection. Who can’t empathise with that? He’s just a guy doing what he loves, and he wants the world to love it too. He’s no douchebag Hollywood executive, living life thinking he’s a rockstar. He’s an artist, and a damn fine one too.

I’m no artist. I may have chosen to study art and music technology at school and went to university to study film, but that doesn’t make me an artist in and of itself. True artists are a rare breed, of which I’m not one. I don’t think I have any particular talent as a writer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t relate to everything we see Refn go through in My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. I constantly question my ability, like whether I’m wasting the time of everyone who reads my work. Yet, I’m just a guy with a laptop; Refn is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of auteur. Nothing I’ll ever say or do creatively for the rest of my life will be comparable to even Refn’s most derided work, and yet, knowing someone of his stature has the same fears and worries makes me feel a little bit better about myself. It’s what makes us human.

Nicolas Winding Refn in My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.

In saying that, it still doesn’t make it any easier to watch Refn struggle during the making of Only God Forgives. At one moment, he’s as happy as one can be, playing with his family and joking around with Gosling. The next, he’s laying in bed, totally and utterly inconsolable, thinking he’s made the biggest piece of crap the world has ever seen. “I’ve spent three years making this film. And I don’t really know what it’s about… I can’t show any signs of anxiety, doubt or nervousness. Because then everyone else would feel the same way,” Refn tells his wife early on. Then later, after viewing a cut of the movie, Refn says, “I think it’s a bad film… I wasted six months of our lives.” On-screen it may come across as over-dramatic and neurotic to some viewers, but who’s to judge Refn’s state of mind during this time? His mood changes dramatically day by day, resulting in various scenes of inspired jubilation and dejected angst.

I don’t know what it feels like to have depression, nor would I ever claim to out of respect to those who do. Depression is a crippling condition, which too often gets wrongly generalised as a sign of weakness. It’s not, nor should it ever be thought of as such. Do I have bad days? Sure, but I’ve never experienced the pressure of millions of pairs of eyes staring at me, expecting me to follow Drive with yet another masterpiece. Success in the entertainment industry is a vicious doubled-edged sword. With it comes fame, fortune and respect, but it also encompasses an unimaginable weight of expectancy, as there are people who want nothing more than to see you fail. People like Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse became famous because they were great artists, and in a cruel twist of fate, it’s the pressure of living their lives in the spotlight that’s partly to blame for them never living beyond the age of 27.

On a lighter note, seeing Refn’s friendship with Gosling is a joy. There’s clearly a lot of love and respect between them, and Gosling comes across as another member of the family while hanging out with the Refn’s. I don’t have kids and I’m not married, but should my circumstances change, I hope that the relationship would be as loving as the bond between Refn, Corfixen and their children. They’re not perfect by any means, as we see many petty and pointless arguments throughout the documentary, but it humanises them beyond that of any tabloid celebrity power couple. Oh, and by the way, I love Only God Forgives. I admire the way that Refn followed Drive with something as visually decadent, nihilistic and non-commercial as his second collaboration with Gosling. Critics may dismiss it, but who cares? Would you rather see one of your favourite filmmakers make the same movie over and over again, or would you rather they swing for the fences, taking risks that may or may not pay off?

Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson, a woman sits at a table in a restaurant smoking an looking sexually provocative

One of the things that is most often criticised about Refn’s work is the accusation that his films are more concerned with style over substance. In general, I disagree of course, but despite being a huge fan even I have trouble with a film like Bronson, which I believe is an over-stylised mess. His most recent psychological horror film, The Neon Demon, is perhaps his most polarising yet, having split audiences and critics alike. At its core, the film is a commentary on the ugliness of the modelling industry, juxtaposing outer beauty with inner vapid monstrous horror. I’m fully aware that it’s a brutal, shocking, overindulgent film, but isn’t that the point? The Neon Demon‘s garishly morbid style is its substance. Who else but Refn could make a film about the world of L.A. fashion starring the angelic Elle Fanning, and sprinkle grisly death, necrophilia and cannibalism throughout?

The Neon Demon is not a fun watch by any stretch of the imagination (it doesn’t demand an annual rewatch like Drive), but it’s yet another bold step in an already incredible career. There’s nothing wrong with making stylish, experimental cinema – just ask Lynch! After all, film is a visual art form. How boring would cinema be if every film was required to have more substance than style? The Italian Giallo genre would have never existed. Can you imagine taking all of the lurid, majestic, bloody surrealism out of Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece, Suspiria? There wouldn’t be a film to watch! Suspiria is one of the greatest horror films ever made for a reason – not because of its plot, but its style. A style that Argento perfected and has influenced countless filmmakers since. If you want perfect storytelling, go and read the unparalleled The Great Gatsby. If you like a bit of visual glamour, go and watch Baz Luhrmann’s fantastic 2013 adaptation. Film is art, and Refn is an artist.

a womans body draped on a couch, blood pouring from her neck, lit in red, white and blue

Nicolas Winding Refn was destined to work in cinema, as his father, Anders Refn, was and still is a working director/editor. His mother, Vibeke Winding, a known cinematographer in her own right too. Many children want to follow in the footsteps of their parents and fail miserably. Refn’s career, conceivably, could’ve been over after the failure of Fear X, but his art was eventually and thankfully accepted by the masses after the release of Drive. I love the work of Nicolas Winding Refn, and I love the somewhat painful story of his rise to the top. A career full of ups and downs, but a career that’ll undoubtedly leave an everlasting impression on the history of cinema. Style over substance? I’ll take a Nicolas Winding Refn movie, thanks.

P.S. We’d all like to be quite close with Alejandro Jodorowsky too, wouldn’t we? Yep, I thought so. Though, I don’t know if I’d let Jodorowsky baptise me as his spiritual son. Each to their own, I guess.

Nicolas Winding Refn in a documentary about his life

What are your thoughts on Nicolas Winding Refn? Do you agree with my opinion or is Refn’s brand of exploitation a bit too much for your liking? Please leave a comment and let us know by following the information about our social media accounts, which can be found below. Alternatively, you can follow me on Twitter (@JonSheasby), and we’ll continue the conversation over there.

Written by Jon Sheasby

Leave a Reply

Film Obsessive welcomes your comments. All submissions are moderated. Replies including personal attacks, spam, and other offensive remarks will not be published. Email addresses will not be visible on published comments.

Take Shelter: A Portrait of America’s Mental Health Crisis

Cover of Blue Velvet movie

Sex, Violence and Humanity: Artistic Empowerment Through David Lynch