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Nicolas Winding Refn Answers Some Questions, Leaves the Rest to His Shrinks

Photo: Victor Boyko/Getty Images

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Copenhagen Cowboy follows a mysterious young woman named Miu on a revenge quest through the Danish criminal underworld (it does too exist!). Or at least that’s probably how the director pitched the series to Netflix. But Refn is known for rewriting himself during production, so his movies (Drive, The Neon Demon) and especially his TV shows (2019’s Too Old to Die Young) tend to mutate beyond their original premises. For example, Miu, we eventually come to learn, is an alien abductee and the leader of a superhero team whose archnemesis, Rakel, has just returned from the dead. On a Zoom call, Refn discussed Copenhagen Cowboy (which arrived on Netflix January 5) and how his pivot to serial TV has allowed him to take bigger surrealistic detours. “It’s like painting a picture, but the canvas never stops,” he says. “It’s just endless.”

You were attached to a few other projects before this one, including a TV adaptation of William Lustig’s Maniac Cop for HBO. How did you settle on Copenhagen Cowboy and where did the idea come from?
We were in Denmark for the pandemic and I thought, If I’m going to be here, maybe I should come up with something to do. I had always thought I’d return to the world of the Pusher trilogy, but I didn’t know how. And suddenly there was an opportunity to extend it using all of the things that had changed around me, and in me, since 2005.

So I combined my pasts to create my future: I took the archetype that I had worked on as a kind of alter ego with Mads Mikkelsen and Ryan Gosling in my other films, but now as a female hero. And I had just been in the mayhem of America for Too Old to Die Young, which was a one-off reaction to the political decay and the rise of the Tea Party movement. I looked at Copenhagen Cowboy more like a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, with Denmark as a multiethnic, multi-language place that, to certain people, is supposed to be heaven because it’s the country of Bernie Sanders.

You wrote Copenhagen Cowboy with three other people: Sara Isabella Jönsson, Johanne Algren, and Mona Masri. How does a collaboration like that work when the material is this surreal? For example, a character’s penis is eaten by pigs, and then his father consults with an architecture firm to build him a new one. What was it like in the writers’ room on the day you came up with that?
It was a perfect collaboration. During the writing, I would come in and outline the themes and where the show was going, and then we would just throw ideas around like a normal writers’ room. They were incredible to build the show’s foundation with. But once I get into physical production, the idea of creativity is very much based on how I feel in the morning. I adjust and change things depending on my mood and what I would like to see.

You shoot in chronological order so you can change your scripts on the fly. Angela Bundalovic, the actress who plays Miu, is a newcomer compared to the leads you usually work with. How did she respond to all the last-minute changes?
Angela is a professional dancer, so the idea of changing choreography was nothing new to her. She just went with the flow. But she never changed her character. The narrative adapted to the character’s evolution.

What are some ways that the story changed during production?
At the end of episode two, Miu is seeking revenge on the demon that has held her captive. She was supposed to talk about how she’d been abducted as a child. I said to her, “You will now say instead that you were abducted by aliens.” And I remember she went, “What?” And then that changed the remaining four episodes.

It does seem like that might change things a little.
I’d always been very interested in science fiction. So I was like, Maybe now’s the time. I told her, “You are part of an intergalactic race and there’s another Miu awaiting you.” And then in episode three, I went to her and said, “Now you know kung fu.” And so we hired a trainer and got all these fight scenes going. That was also not really in the original plan.

What did Netflix think about all this? The final product must have been pretty different from your initial pitch.
At a certain point, they basically realized they could no longer rely on the script. They were like, “We understand that you’re going to be doing it your way, but at least tell us what’s going to happen.” The biggest gasp they had was when I had to explain episode six, and I said, “Oh, by the way, at the end, there’s a spaceship.”

Your daughter, Lola Corfixen, plays Miu’s nemesis, Rakel. Why did you cast her?
Rakel came very late in the process. We’d been using a coffin in episode three and four as an aesthetic prop. And one day I remember going, “I think Nicklas should have a sister, and she should lie in the coffin. Wait, no, it’s his stepsister, and the way to awaken her is he has to kill his mother.” But then the question was, who should I cast as the stepsister? I was about to shoot it, and I couldn’t find anyone. And then I was talking to my wife, Liv, and we were like, well, maybe it’s Lola, my eldest daughter.

Is it easier to direct actors that you’re related to?
It’s actually much more sensitive. After her first day, Lola came home and told her mom, “God, Dad has such a big ego on set.” Our youngest one, Lizzielou, was in the show too. She plays the ultimate Miu at the end of episode six. We were shooting out in the forest, and I was like, “Okay, you’re going to be over here.” And she’s like, “No, I’m going to stand right here.” I thought it was kind of cool that my daughter was taking over the direction, because who else would I want to take over? I cried a lot on set out of proudness.

To wake up Rakel, Nicklas stabs his mother with a sword. In Only God Forgives, Ryan Gosling also stabs his mother with a sword. What is it with you and stabbing mothers with swords?
I would leave that to the shrinks. Certain things you don’t want to know.

There’s a type of shot that you use over and over again in Copenhagen Cowboy: The camera slowly swivels 360 degrees, scanning everything in the room, which gives us something like a virtual-reality perspective on a scene. What was the thinking behind those shots? 
Today, everything is so fragmented. We’re insecure about our content. We make it loud and fast, because it’s almost like we want to erase the concept that it even existed. I think doing the opposite is more productive. When you have children, you teach them to engage with stillness and meditation, because the world around us is so hectic. And yet when we see content, it’s the exact opposite. It should be like educating children. So that was the thinking behind the 360 shot. The stillness and the slowness of the camera insists on itself.

Before embarking on other projects, you’ve had your friend Alejandro Jodorowsky do a tarot-card reading for you. Did he do one this time?
He did. I was in Paris with Alejandro right before the shutdown. I didn’t talk so much about the show, but I did talk about working with Netflix and how I should proceed, because I’d had, let’s say, a troublesome experience with Amazon on Too Old to Die Young. But Alejandro was very confident in the relationship, and so I went into it with open arms. And I must say I was pleasantly surprised, so much so that I’ve already begun other adventures with Netflix.

Can you tell me about the troublesome experience with Amazon and Too Old to Die Young?
Well, they took all my marketing money away because they were afraid that the show would reflect badly on Amazon. They told me that directly. They were so shocked by it. I was like, “What’s so shocking?” They said, “It’s going to make us look bad.” And I said, “But I don’t think anyone’s going to look at you at all.” Certain parts of Hollywood are so self-absorbed that they think they’re at the center of the universe. The rule of fear is very dangerous. Amazon released the show, but they said, “We will bury you.” And so they did. However, you can’t bury a diamond.

In 2019, there were some confusing reports implying that Too Old to Die Young had been canceled after its first season. I always thought it was a limited series. Had you intended to make a second season?
No. That could only be a self-contained piece. After 13 hours I had nothing left to say about America. I was drained. And 13 hours is almost two seasons. Three seasons if you look at television nowadays.

Will there be a second season of Copenhagen Cowboy?
Season one is about a hero’s creation, and it sets the stage for much more mayhem to come. But that’s up to the heavy heads at Netflix.

Is Maniac Cop still on the table?
All I can say is, unfortunately, it’s not going to happen.

Nicolas Winding Refn Leaves Some Questions to His Shrinks