No one was more surprised by the popularity of Drive than the people who actually made Drive. Not because they thought they'd made a dud, rather because it was made without any carefully calculated consideration for mainstream audiences. That's exactly how writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn and his composer Cliff Martinez approached their follow-up film with Ryan Gosling, Only God Forgives. However any audience that goes in expecting this to be "Drive in Thailand" may be in for a bit of a shock.
Only God Forgives is a bold, beautiful movie about the ugly evil that can lurk behind a pretty facade. Gosling plays a drug dealer living in Bangkok who is pressured by his serpent of a mother (Kristin Scott Thomas giving one hell of a performance) to track down and kill his brother's murderer. The whole thing is a seductive, lurid, unflinching look into the barely there souls of some not-so-pleasant people. Basically, no movie this year earns its title more than Only God Forgives. It's magnificent.
The film has its North American premiere at the L.A. Film Festival on June 20 and will open in theaters on July 19, but distributor Radius-TWC brought the film and its filmmakers to the Alamo Drafthouse this week for an early screening, which gave us the perfect opportunity to sit down with Refn and Martinez and talk about Only God Forgives emerging in the wake of Drive, why they make movies the way they do, and what it'll take for Refn to transition to a truly mainstream Hollywood movie.
Movies.com: Is Only God Forgives a reaction to the popular reaction to Drive?
Nicolas Winding Refn: There was nothing that was intentional because I was going to make this film before Drive, I just put it on hold. What happened originally was I'd made a two-picture deal with two French companies, Gaumont and Wild Bunch, to do two movies, the first was going to be Only God Forgives. And then, while I was writing it, I decided to go to L.A. to do a movie called The Dying of the Light with Harrison Ford, which never happened. And then Drive came about and I decided to do that instead knowing I would come back straight into Only God Forgives.
Of course, the success of Drive was a surprise to a lot of people involved with the movie. The chief enemy of creativity is being safe, so it's important that you make what you want to make afterwards and not think so much about the consequences. If you do, you start to preconceive who you are, what you do, what you shouldn't do. For me, every time we do a movie, it's the way you want that movie to be. If you get caught up in the success or failure of the previous movie, it's almost like you start to second guess yourself and now you're looking into a model, a formula that works.
We all want critical and financial success. Of course everyone aspires to that arena, but I made Only God Forgives at a budget level where everyone was financially rewarded right out of the gate. So, there were certain things I did that took off the pressure. You shouldn't think about your previous experience.
Movies.com: So this would have been the exact same movie whether it had been made before or after Drive?
Refn: Nothing would have changed. But maybe it's better for both movies if you're coming off Drive. Or if you're coming off Bronson into Valhalla Rising into Drive into this, because now I can do my teenage horror movie, you know?
Movies.com: If people are only now following your films because of Drive, it's going to be a curveball to them.
Refn: Right, right. Everyone wants the same thing if they experience something. It's like a drug. You want it again because it's really great, but it's never going to be the same as the first time. So, in a way, your obligation is to do something different. Is it going to get a different reaction? Sure, but that's what art does. It's supposed to make you react.
Movies.com: Was the mixed reaction at Cannes a sort of validation for you?
Refn: Cannes was... the anticipation was that this was one of the films that everyone was talking about, which was great. The way it works there is that there's a press screening in the morning, and you have your admirers and then you have the people who reacted negatively, and that's great! Then you know that they're going to talk about it, and boy did they talk about it. But then there's the official screening at night, and that was a great reaction. Everybody stood up and gave it a 20-minute standing ovation and all the other criteria that usually counts for a successful evening. But afterward people were still talking -- and they're still talking, so that's how you know you've done something right.
Movies.com: This movie, thanks in no small part to the music and the look of it, can certainly come across as a very pop movie, but then it has this very dark undercurrent. How do you two plot that trajectory between what people expect and what you deliver?
Refn: I guess we always look at the light side. We never really talk in the terminology of, "This is this, and that is that." It's more, "We're doing this now, what would work here?" Wouldn't you say?
Cliff Martinez: I guess you could say that the music perhaps had a more popular tone in Drive than those in Only God Forgives, which has a lot of Thai pop songs, but there was a time when we were working on Drive that the music was thought to be unhip and unpopular. I remember one of the first things Nicolas asked me, because the songs were pretty much already in the film, "What do you think of the songs?" and I knew that meant there must have been some production entity, I think there were like three or four...
Refn: Oh, yeah, I mean everybody was kind of like, at that part, "Those songs are never going to work."
Martinez: "Get something more mainstream."
Refn: And I was like, "No, they will work." There was a lot of weight trying to get me to change the songs and the sound of the music, but I think they were not the right people to judge what an audience wants. I think we were better and I think the success of it proves that.
Martinez: I think the song choices kind of anticipated a musical trend that, at the time, was not nearly as popular. So I don't think Nicolas and I think in terms of what's cool and hip, it's just what we like.
Movies.com: It's interesting to look back on it now and realize that you guys were already ahead of the curve, and that other people in the industry, whether intentionally or accidentally, are now catching up to you guys.
Refn: The minute you try to guess what's successful, most of the time you're going to fail. At least that's my experience.
Martinez: Again, I think that we just do what we like and what is near and dear to us, and we hope that there are like-minded people out there. I gather that's how Nicolas operates. I don't think he's trying to second-guess trends or the audience, and that's why he works lean and mean, and keeps budgets within the range where he doesn't get yelled at by his investors and can make highly personal films. If they're embraced, perhaps that's an accident.
Refn: It is, almost. You go in expecting the worst, because then you know everything is going to be fun afterwards. So the key to making any kind of film is not so much about creative control, it's about what investment has been made. You may have all the creative control, but if your movie cost $100 million, you have to make a certain type of movie to recoup the $400 million it needs to recoup. And if you make a $4 million movie where only half is actual investment, the pressure is a lot less. There's no "it has to make this amount, and to make that amount you have to make it like this." It's a different criteria. You can kind of make films and hope other people will respond.
Movies.com: Speaking of big movies, a little birdie told us that you've been approached to pitch the new Terminator movie. Do you have any interest in doing something of that scale?
Refn: Tweet tweet. [Laughs] I've been lucky to have been approached with many different projects, and a lot of them are great and are with really great people. I think that the day where I trade what I have for something that's bigger, it'll reveal itself what the right choice is.
Martinez: We are doing a Grey Goose vodka commercial!
Refn: We are doing a Grey Goose vodka commerical! On that side, it's very different. I do Gucci campaigns, I do other big campaigns, so that level is different and rising. But when it comes to filmmaking, I think the next big thing I'll venture into is Barbarella, the TV version.
Movies.com: Will Cliff do the music for that?
Movies.com: Does that show have a network yet?
Refn: Very close. Very soon.
Movies.com: Back to Only God Forgives, what are the songs that the cop is singing at the karaoke actually about?
Refn: Well, first of all, that whole element came out because of the time I spent in Bangkok. In Asia, karaoke is very different than it is in Europe. It's almost a religious experience. It's an event people do with great seriousness and admiration. There are many hundreds of karaoke clubs in Bangkok where people go and reserve tables or booths or whatever and they spend their whole night singing songs, and there's various degrees of it. You can go to Chinatown at three in the morning to these very obscure clubs where there's three Chinese men sitting, singing Chinese songs.
That was really interesting and I thought it was incredible that there was almost this religious ceremony to it, especially at three in the morning. I don't know Thai music, but happily Cliff did. The first song he sings is about revenge, and that was written by a very famous Thai singer in the '60s who was killed by the mafia. The second song he sings is sort of the "Knocking on Heaven's Door" of Thailand, a very popular song about coming home and the whole revolution and stuff. And the last song is a modern, very fluffy song about Thai love.