Nicolas Winding Refn on the Joys of Vinyl and the Transcendent Keanu Reeves

Nicolas Winding Refn Photo: Tony Barson/FilmMagic

At this point, Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is as well-known for his musical curation as he is for embracing the sheer brutality of violence: To wit, the glistening synth-pop that soundtracked his 2011 commercial breakthrough Drive was as instantly iconic as the scorpion jacket Ryan Gosling wore in the film. So it makes sense that Refn's taken his curation skills to the next level with Milan Records' Nicolas Winding Refn Presents series, which collects some of his favorite film soundtracks on vinyl with stylish packaging. The series has already included the soundtracks to Park Chan-wook's 2003 revenge opus Oldboy and this year's surprise horror buzzmaker It Follows, with a reissue of Basil Poledouris's score for the classic dystopian sci-fi actioner Robocop set for release on July 14 — before that, though, comes the soundtrack for Refn's giddy, murderously operatic 2008 biopic Bronson, which paired Tom Hardy's violent rampages as notorious British criminal Michael Gordon Peterson with Pet Shop Boys and Wagner alike.

We talked with Refn as he was wrapping shooting on his next film, the Elle Fanning–starring The Neon Demon, about Bronson's legacy, growing up with learning disabilities, his relationship to violence, and what's next for the provocative director.

How did you get involved in doing this series?
[Milan Records owner JC Chamboredon] came to say hello in Copenhagen — [the label] had [released the soundtrack to] Only God Forgives, and both of us were very happy with the outcome. I used to collect a lot of vinyl, and he said, "Why don't we do your own series?" We started with Oldboy, which did very well — then I saw It Follows and really liked the soundtrack, so I added that. We were hoping we could get Robocop, which is everything times 1,000.

The Robocop score is so different from the music that appears in your own films.
Robocop is a movie that I absolutely love. It's one of the great examples of an European filmmaker being given all the toys of Hollywood and just going insane with them and achieving something quite unique. Musically, it's an incredible throwback to an era when American soundtracks were at their height. There's a bit of Max Steiner in it, with a '40s pulpiness.

How many records do you own?
I used to have hundreds and hundreds, but I was very specific in what I collected — nothing popular. I was a big predator for obscurities — things that weren't on CD, things that hadn't gone digital yet, strange '60s and late '50s comic-book-storytelling records. I was once in a place and I found a vinyl record of obscure Russian electronic music from the '70s, and I was like, "What the fuck?" Those are the things I really like. It's almost like you're an archaeologist and you're going through the past. The future is so accessible, but what has gotten lost in the past is always the most fun for any collector — seeking something that may have gone by us. I was very active with that process when I was younger, but now not as much, since I have normalcies of a family and work.

You're color-blind. Do you think that your condition enhances your other senses and affects your relationship with music?
I suffer from multiple disabilities — I'm also dyslexic. I had a lot of problems in school. An obstacle like that can be a great hindrance in life, but it can also be a wonderful gift. When you have a disadvantage, you can force yourself to create a skill that otherwise normal people don't have to because they have no need [for] it. It's like Daredevil. His weakness is his blindness, but he makes that his strength, and that's what makes him such an intriguing superhero. The greatest ability in life is to go in the opposite direction [of] what's considered normal.

The music for Bronson was an early glimpse at the sonic aesthetic you'd develop for Drive. How do you view the legacy of that film?
It's hard for me to comment on my own film like that without sounding like a complete asshole. [Laughs.] The whole idea was to make Bronson an opera, and with that comes classical music — but it was really by mistake that I decided to go that route. When I was shooting it, in between takes I would play various classical pieces because someone had a CD of the greatest hits of classical music, which is pretty annoying. But a lot of it actually started to fit what I was doing. The film was becoming very operatic and larger-than-life. I added in some New Order because it was a band that I very much grew up with and a sound that I very much liked — early electronic, but not as poppy as it was or became. I've always liked electronic music, but I like when things don't sound right, or off, because it makes you much more aware of it. You can still create beautiful melodies, but I like when things are off.

My intention was to have Pet Shop Boys redo the classical pieces in their flamboyant, operatic style. I met with them and showed them pieces of the movie; they were very nice, but they were like, "Darling, you can't afford us." Which was true! In hindsight, it probably wouldn't have been the greatest idea, anyway. I went back and used the original classical pieces, and then they were very kind for me to license a piece of their song at a very affordable price. I was so obsessed with Pet Shop Boys at the time that I really wanted to work with them. While I was making Bronson, I would listen to Pet Shop Boys 24 hours a day because it gave me that very flamboyant sensibility that the film needed.

The films you chose for this series are fairly violent. As you get older, how do you feel about your relationship with violence as an artist?
I don't feel I make very violent movies. Maybe I make films that are more violating, which is very different. There's so many films or TV shows where people die left, right, and center with no consequences. That's a shame because it has no significance. What's really interesting about violence and drama is the consequences. Shakespeare wrote a lot of violence into his most famous and best plays, but there were always consequences — that's what made them so engaging. But it becomes very violating because consequences means you have to be emotionally engaged, and then it's a completely different game than seeing someone kill 47 people with a machine gun with no remorse or emotional impact on them. It just becomes mechanics. I find that very dull, very quickly. Everyone finds it very dull. It numbs the senses. It has no meaning — you might as well dance or say something funny instead. It makes no difference. But I do believe that art is an act of mine, and it's there to violate your senses and penetrate your brain, whatever it is. I find it very sad that people mistake violence and violation. It's two different things.

Drive and Only God Forgives composer Cliff Martinez is working on the score for your new film, The Neon Demon. Any musical inspirations you two have in mind?
A band that I came very late to and I had in mind was Suicide — but I've left it very open to interpretation to see what he comes up with. But otherwise, we've talked more about emotions. For Only God Forgives, I showed Cliff the script at various stages of evolution, but he also knew that I was going to change everything and throw the script out when I shoot. I shoot [my scripts] in chronological order, which affects everything. I very much love Cliff — both personally and his talent — and I feel very fortunate to work together the way we do. He's absolutely marvelous.

Elle Fanning is one of the leads in The Neon Demon, she's 17 years old. Does her age fit into the film's plot?
Well, she's a young girl, so her being 17 factors into the film's plot. She's just amazing. I have worked with the three best male actors in the world — Mads Mikkelsen, Tom Hardy, and Ryan Gosling — but never did I ever imagine working with a powerhouse of talent like her. She is absolutely amazing.

Keanu Reeves is in The Neon Demon, too. Did you see John Wick?
Yes, I did — and I loved it. My favorite line in many years is, [Refn does Keanu Reeves impression] "Everyone keeps asking if I'm back. And you know what, yeah, I think I'm back!" It's like, "Do you feel lucky, punk?" One of the great action lines. I really like Keanu. The thing about him which is so unique is that he's the only movie star I can think of that actually transcends generations. Every ten years, a new generation rediscovers him in their own way. I don't know anyone else who has done that. 

What's the status of your next film with Ryan Gosling, I Walk With the Dead, as well as the Barbarella TV show you were going to do with Amazon?
I had to put Barbarella on the back boiler again while I was making this movie, but I think it's time for us to start talking about it again. It's a tricky one, but I would love to do it. The biggest challenge with that is how far are people willing to really indulge in the character's female sexuality, that's been the most present obstacle. She's such a fascinating character but it takes a lot of balls to bring her onto the screen — at least, in how I see her. So who knows. As for I Walk With the Dead, I'll probably do something with it. I still very much like that title.