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Only God Forgives Director Nicolas Winding Refn on Getting Booed at Cannes

Writer Nicolas Winding Refn at the Gucci Premiere Fragrance Launch at Hotel Cipriani on September 1, 2012 in Venice, Italy.
Nicolas Winding Refn. Photo: Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

You’ve already heard from Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan about the smattering of boos — mixed with applause — at the Cannes press screening for Only God Forgives, Ryan Gosling’s new, extremely violent collaboration with his Drive director, Nicolas Winding Refn. Reviews have been polarized for the highly stylized odyssey of a drug dealer and Muay Thai boxing promoter (Gosling) who’s manipulated into avenging the murder of his brother, at the urging of his harpy of a mother (Kristin Scott Thomas, whose foul-mouthed monologue deriding the size of Gosling’s cock compared to that of her favorite son is one of the most emasculating moments in recent cinema). Said vengeance places him in direct conflict with a Thai police officer (Vithaya Pansringarm), who carries around a samurai sword he seems to pull straight from his spine, then, after each violent act, sings mournful Thai karaoke with David Lynch–ian surreality. Variety called the movie “an exercise in supreme style and minimal substance,” while the Guardian gave it five stars. Jada Yuan spoke to Refn — who’s been making the press rounds, calling himself a pornographer and talking about how his 2-year-old daughter can see ghosts — at a beach club in the pouring rain about violence and misogyny. And she broke the news about those boos.

Nicholas Winding Refn: [looking at my black ballgown] Well, you’re dressed for the rain.

I’m going to the Robert Redford premiere. It’s about a guy stuck alone on a sinking boat in the middle of the ocean. If he can survive that …
Oh, that’s why it’s raining. It’s a production stunt.

You said at the press conference that Kristin Scott Thomas’s speech about one son being more endowed than the other came from a discussion you and Ryan were having in your shared apartment about your cocks.
Yeah. [Laughs] Careful what you say. Well, the conversation was more about how could a mother humiliate her son the most. Like, what would be the most degrading, but in an oddly sexual way, to kind of push her weight or have this shadow over him? He is chained to his mother’s womb, so coming up with that as a subject matter just made it very, very aggressive.

There’s not much dialogue, but what you do have is so incredibly vivid and biting. Were you coming up with it on the fly?
Yeah. I would ask Ryan, “So what’s the worst thing you can call a woman in America?” He goes, “We call her this, and then …”

He said you call her a “cum-dumpster,” right? Were there other insults he mentioned?
He had a long, long list, but I think KST [Kristen Scott Thomas] really liked this one, even though it took her ten takes to actually get the words out of her mouth. But it became very much like, If you’re sitting there and she has to poison you, what would you react to? So, it was very much in terms of the POVs of the characters.

So you can confirm definitively that “cum-dumpster” comes from Ryan.
Oh, 100 percent. That’s all his.

What about other lines? Because Ryan doesn’t say that many.
[Laughs] I can’t tell off of the top of my head right now because a lot of it we’d cut out at the end when we were doing it, a bit like Drive. Cinematically, we’re so resolved on dialogue: The spoken word is a lot of the time what moves story, what adds facts and so forth. If you eliminate that, it’s like a blank canvas and it becomes much more about cinema and how you sell this story without having this obvious tool. The last couple of movies, I’ve just really liked that kind of filmmaking. In a way, it forces any viewer to activate themselves within the story because you have to. It’s not going to say what it is, you have to ask or figure out what it is.

I was concerned when I read that you came up with Kristin’s character during your wife’s difficult second pregnancy. How does your wife relate to this character, who is basically the most evil mother ever?
[Laughs] My wife said to me, “Sons and their mothers …” and she rolled her eyes. I think the concept of the original film was very heightened and it came from this awkward situation that I was in, that I couldn’t — you know, what happens in a woman, I have no control over and the fear of what will happen is so terrifying.

You mean, with the pregnancy?
Yeah. That you don’t know, as a man; it is like a mental castration. You have no idea, you can’t feel it, you can’t touch it, you can’t go through it, and that’s why women are the center of the universe. But I needed some kind of plot around that, and I came up with this mother character, so it became more of a Western: two brothers, Cain and Abel, they run a city, one of them dies, and the mother comes and says, “I want revenge.”

You’ve said you made KST’s character a cross between Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace. So I want to know, what did Donatella Versace do to you?
Well, it’s what she did to KST, because the whole look is hers. After KST agreed to do the film, she was very much like, “I need to transform myself. I can’t walk in looking like one of my other films doing this.” I said, “So what would you want?” So she said, “Look, I have this picture from this photo shoot that I’ve done.” And she sent it to me, and she had this long blonde hair, long nails, very creaturelike, very this Versace sensibility, and she tried to emulate something, and I said, “That’s very, very fetish.”

Fetish? A Versace fetish?
Yeah in a way, because the KST character is a woman that almost has an armor. She’s frightening, but at the same time she is also very sexy. She’s like a predator but she’s fragile, and all those palettes of emotions she had to really play out.

Did Donatella do something bad to her?
Not that I know of. I doubt it.

What is your relationship with your mother?
Mine? I have a very healthy relationship with my mother [laughs].

Well, in the press conference a woman journalist asked you to justify the extreme violence of the movie and you said, “Oh god, that sounds like my mother.”
Because that is something she is like, but afterwards she said, “I never asked you that question.” And I was like, “Well, that’s the truth.” She did never ask me that question. But it is of course something that a lot of people bring up and I wish I could answer that better besides just saying, “I don’t really know.” We live in a society where violence is controlled, it’s kind of written all out of our body because we no longer need to be violent. But instinctually, we are born with the desire of it, but it’s through art that we can exercise it in a nondestructive way.

Have you experienced real violence, something like a mugging that would make that instinct well up?
No, thank god. I would just give them what they want: “Please don’t hurt me! Please, no!”

I’m not sure if you’re aware, but at the press screening this morning, there was a smattering of boos and some walkouts.
Oh, cool.

You’re excited about that?
I mean, how can I expect someone to not react like this when on one hand you are dropping what you do in everyone’s face and at the same time saying, “Love me, please,” you know? You’re going to get that. You know, great art — horrible thing to say — but art is meant to divide, because if it doesn’t divide, it doesn’t penetrate, and if it doesn’t penetrate, you just consume it.

Any idea what they were booing about? Either it’s the violence or they thought it was too stylistic. I don’t know what it was.
People have so many strange opinions, and also, a lot of a people begin to own you and they want you to do things in a specific way.

What the reviews seemed to say was it was too much style over substance.
Wasn’t that the same critique they gave Drive? And I think it’s a strange critique. I mean substance, God, there’s so much going on. What else would they want?

The Brooklyn Academy of Music has a film series called “Booed at Cannes,” and Taxi Driver is in that.
Well, I think we are in pretty good company then.

Your next project is adapting Barbarella as a TV series. What do you plan to do with it?
We are just writing it still. I kind of went back to the original comic, and really began to close my eyes and fantasize about women in outer space and it looked pretty good.

Do you have someone in mind for the Jane Fonda lead?
No, I haven’t started casting yet.

And I also read you’re doing a horror movie that will only cast females?
I have this two-picture deal, Only God Forgives being the first one, so I have another one that I have to do contractually — which I want to do, of course — but I thought it’d be fun to do just a horror film with only women.

Why only women?
Because women and horror is so sexy.

But Only God Forgives is kind of a horror movie about a woman. Here, the embodiment of evil is KST’s character. She’s like the worst human possible.
Maybe it’s the stepping stone into the next one. I think I set out to make films about women and I end up making films about violent men. So now I have to force myself, by casting only women, so there are no men in the shots.

Nicolas Winding Refn on Getting Booed at Cannes