Only God Forgives

Celebrate the filmmaker who is able to rip stuff right out of their head and put it on screen. One of the most striking movies of 2013 is Only God Forgives, from Drive and Bronson director Nicolas Winding Refn and Drive star Ryan Gosling.

Refn’s movie is a hallucinogenic trip through stunted sexual growth, with a manchild (Gosling) defined and constrained by the influence of his domineering mother, played by a fierce Kristin Scott Thomas. The film seems hell-bent on shattering Gosling’s image as a muscular leading man, and in diving deep into the corners of an unstable and not entirely welcoming mental space.

Only God Forgives is out on disc this week. Earlier this year I spoke to Refn and the film’s soundtrack composer, Cliff Martinez, and they explained the gestation of the voice of the film, and the idea of following artistic inspiration. 

Because there’s so little dialogue in the movie, the music becomes the voice of the film. So let’s start there; I would love to hear from both of you about the idea of who determined the approach to the music, and how that collaboration worked out.

Nicolas Winding Refn: Well from my point of view, it started with… Like every movie I make, I always try to look at it as a piece of music. For example, on Bronson I would listen to The Pet Shop Boys constantly, because if Bronson was a music video, it would be for The Pet Shop Boys. On Valhalla Rising there was a lot of [unintelligible, but not Einsturzende Neubauten], a German band, which is all about distortions and silence and abstracts. On Drive, when I was making the movie, there was a lot of Kraftwerk. Here it was hard to figure out what kind of music it would be. I think country and western became kind of the obvious approach with the idea that we were making a spaghetti western, but I think when Cliff said… I would show Cliff the script and we would talk about these specific types of songs. That’s when Cliff introduced me to Esan music, which is a part of Thai northern folk music, right?

Cliff Martinez: Northeastern Thai music, yes, from the impoverished part of the country. In a country that’s already got a lot of problems, so it’s like starving poverty.

Refn: And [lyrically] it’s very much like fable talk and…

Martinez: Lyrically you know more than I do what the songs were about, but it’s widely regarded in the whole of Thailand as the rural country music. It doesn’t sound anything like our country western music. Interestingly, I thought when we first looked at the script, you wanted to have these iconic American country western songs, like ‘Ring of Fire,’ sung in Thai.

Refn: But then you realized that that would diminish the effect, that this had to be a Thai movie. So once he Esan music became part of it, that really started to create the sound of the film. This film would be like a piece of Esan, because Esan music lyric-wise can sometimes be a lot about fables and almost fairytale stories… like rap music in a way. So once you have that, when we started putting together the music, Matt and I tried many different kinds. We had horror music. We had sci-fi music. We had romantic music. We had pop music. We had non-pop music. But the one thing that we felt represented the film over all was the… soundtrack. So that would be our first temp score, so that and then we kind of took if from there, wouldn’t you say?

Martinez: A lot of the interesting scores I’ve been hired for — and I count Only God Forgives as one as eclectic and interesting scores — I have this objective of “I’m going to do this.” Fortunately I do a very poor Bernard Herman impersonation, so once again I was banking on the idea of “I’m going to do this [Herrman thing] and put it in a bag with Thai pop music, shake it up, and have this wonderful hybrid.” So what ended up happening is kind of this hybrid of several different ideas, one of which was The Day the Earth Stood Still. My favorite score of all time, but even as well as I know it, I can’t imitate it, nor would it have been appropriate. But the idea of something fantastic and something that was otherworldly was the quality we wanted to take from that score. I think at one point we liked the idea of the retro and fifties, but I couldn’t really nail that. So once again I failed in an interesting way.

Refn: I think one thing is that, what you expect to be right, most of the time you realize in the end is not. When it’s not “right,” then it actually seems to work. I think in terms of the music, because my films, especially the last three movies, the music has been so dominating, because the minute that there’s sparse dialog or no dialog, the character of the music becomes so much more important. It’s a very essential part of the story and not just for filling in the blanks. I mean you are actively telling the story with music. Because this film has a supernatural sensibility, but also a bit of horror-esque element, and yet there was this kind of melodrama feel to it. These are many specific directions and it was pulling all of those directions into one singular approach.

Last night when we were talking about the film, you mentioned the idea of going back to the womb. Was that the intent with some of the music? There’s a use of drums and droning sound that suggests being in that close, muffled space. 

Refn: I would think If you got a band made up of embryos, what would their music sound like? That’s probably… I think you nailed it.

Martinez: It’d be like “me, me, me…”

You said something a minute ago that was interesting, the idea of “the thing that is wrong” turning out to be the right thing.

Refn: Well art, a lot of the time, is about taking your weaknesses and making them your strengths. In the process, you can do many things for the right reasons, but they usually turn out to be wrong and sometimes doing things for the wrong reason turns out to be right. Art is most successful — and I’m not talking financially or critically, but in terms of the process of the creativity —  when you are able to move with it. It’s like guiding something through you, but never fully defining it, always letting it define itself.

I have this theory, which is that always you’re going to get more out of an experience if you don’t ask what you’re watching, but ask what it’s not. Because automatically by doing that, you seek deeper within yourself to find the answer. Because art, if you are viewing something or hearing something, that’s not just about a specific structure and timeline with each plot elements, but something that is more abstract of more expressive, more demanding or goes against the normal conventions of what is more mass-produced entertainment. It kind of creates an interesting dialog between yourself and the experience. If you keep on asking what it’s not, you are almost forced to answer it yourself. If you ask what it is, you expect an answer from it and most of the times you wont get it, so then it becomes a one-way conversation. If you ask what it’s not, it’s a two-way relationship.

It’s easy to hope for, or insist on a declaration. For this movie, “I am a spaghetti western.”

Refn: Then you’re like “With my knowledge, I can categorize that.” Then it’s like, you define it, but then where is the fun? Where is the experience beyond that?

As you are writing a movie, are you ever tempted to be more rigorous in creating a narrative structure? There’s a pure path of creativity, but also a line between bowing to and resisting our own natural desire to structure things.

Refn: It’s varied, because it’s the one struggle we all have. The most interesting films are the ones that have been able to balance on both sides, like ones from Sam Peckinpah or Alfred Hitchcock or a lot of modern filmmakers like Michael Mann. It’s all about budget really, because the less money you have, the more you can go crazy. The more money you have, the more responsibility comes with it. It’s finding that balance between the amount of money you have compared to the amount of money that you are willing to lose. In the end, we work in an industry that is fairly expensive, even though we can make it for ten dollars now, because of our iPhones. It’s still an expensive industry, It’s expensive to market it…

Martinez: It still costs a lot of money to distribute.

Refn: Yeah, distribute… You can do a low-budget movie, but then it’s going to cost twice as much to release it. So there is a certain financial logic you have to respect and understand, because it’s not until you understand that that you can actually have freedom. Then you know the consequences. I think I approach everything as a pornographer. I make what turns me on. I know all the right rules of the script-writing system, but I’m not particularly excited by them. Drive came about because I had an idea about doing a film about a man who drives a car at night listening to pop music; it was Ryan that gave me that emotion, then how do we take that emotion and make a movie out of it?

Martinez: Those of us who are in Nicolas’ orbit, that’s the reason we love him and like working with him. I think film is a very conservative art form overall and the reason that you don’t get a Picasso or Rauschenberg or Andy Warhol is because of the enormous costs to produce, distribute, and promote the film.

Or those who achieve things artistically don’t become successful in any financial sense; their stuff is limited. Stan Brakhage is the classic example.

Martinez: An experimental filmmaker, which is kind of where I put Nicolas or at least some of his films, those types of filmmakers are as rare as Himalayan snow leopards in that you just don’t see them. Because it’s got to be a certain minimum return that you have to make with the film. I think the David Lynches, the Harmony Korins are so few and far between and I think if this popular art form of filmmaking is ever going to become a fine art, we need more people like that.

Are you influenced by Steven Soderbergh in your thinking there?

Martinez: Steven, yeah. He does both. I really admire that he does Magic Mike — and that was an accident. He wasn’t aiming for the middle with that. But when he does something like Ocean’s Eleven, that has definitely got to hit a broad audience. Then he turns around and does Bubble. So I admire that he’s able to do both. He makes his stock value skyrocket so that he can do the weirdest, most personal, self indulgent films and he definitely keeps his audience guessing, although you can kind of tell like when he does an eighty million dollar film like Contagion, it’s like “Okay, get serious. We are aiming for the middle here.”

Always, you’ve got the pressure of that money.

Refn: It’s all about money.

Money is always weighing on you. Your career has been interesting to me, Nic, because you’ve been very up-front at times about the pressures that money has put on you. I recall with Pusher III you were talking about the financial reasons to do the film.

Refn: (smiling) I have been all the way around.

Cliff said that Magic Mike is an accident that kind of hit the middle not by definition, but just because of the way it happened. Nicolas, your films seem to have the potential to do that as well. It seems like an uncanny sensibility.

Refn: Well, it’s a sensibility which is survival. If you compare it to the world of animals, it’s very much like animals have found a way to survive for millions of years by a specific means. I very quickly realized that if I was to survive in this industry… Because I come from a country that’s very subsidized in terms of filmmaking. You know, I come from a country where the government is a huge part of the filmmaking business, but going to the government and making the kind of films I sometimes make, or even for someone like Lars [von Trier], it took a long time to get the access to get some funding.

But if you know that… if you make the films that I make and you don’t always want to have to answer for why you do what you do, then you have to go into the market to get additional funding. The market only values you with “is there a return or not?” So now you’re in the market and you know the mechanisms of a market are if you make a genre movie, the chances are you’re making your money back. It’s better than if you’re not genre nowadays, because television has come in and taken over the dramatic movies.

So then you understand how the market works and in the end, you know, for example Only God Forgives is part of a two-picture deal that I have with Gaumont and Wild Bunch in France. They way that came about was that I found out that a French film would cost six million euros, so I went to them and I said “I will give you two movies for six [million] and I’ll make them genre.” They were like “Okay, you bring in a third of the budget and you can have all the control you want.”

So it’s like you have to be able to understand the mechanism. Every time I make a movie, I sit down and I think “How much can I get to make this movie? Can I get one million dollars? Can I get two million dollars? Fifty thousand dollars?” Then whatever it is, that’s what the movie is going to cost. It’s the survival instinct, because if I don’t do it like this, then chances are I may have to spend four years trying to get a movie off the ground and I would literally go insane if that’s the case.

That’s a very pragmatic approach to art, which in general is necessarily not a pragmatic endeavor.

Refn: It’s just that survival instinct. It’s like we can be as artistic as we want once we are doing it, but there is a reality that if we ignore it or if we find champions of the arts… I’ve been very lucky that very rich people feel the need to support me. It’s terrific. You know, with Harmony [Korine], it’s the same thing. We are able to find people… David Lynch is the same way.

We find, because of this system itself with the value of the economics, it goes back to the seventeenth century with the kings and patrons. They would kick us out after a month, saying “Thank you very much for your little party. Get out of here.” (Laughs) That’s our lives. And I have had opportunities of doing much bigger films and stuff like that and it’s very tempting, but in the end I’ll always say, “Well what I have, I have everything I want. Why would I risk all of that for more money?” It’s not that I couldn’t make a big film, but it’s like the responsibilities that go with it.

More money, less control.

Refn: It’s not so much less control, because you don’t have control when it comes to those things in the end. If you don’t make that kind of money, you’re out the door no matter who you are. It’s more a sense of “are you the right person to make those financial films?” When we make a commercial it’s very simple, we are making a commercial, this is the market, this is what they have to obtain, and we approach it like that. One day I will make a two hundred million dollar movie, but it’s going to be the time when the trade off feels right.

Martinez: And it will be a silent movie.

Refn: In black and white. [both laugh]

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