"There were many cheers. There were many boos. It’s no difference to me," Nicolas Winding Refn says while sitting next to his composer, Cliff Martinez, in a back booth at Midnight Cowboy in Austin. It’s a Friday afternoon, and the filmmaker is in town to promote Only God Forgives, his follow-up to the 2011 surprise hit Drive. The reason he’s in Austin to talk about the movie is because it’s been selected as part of the "Drafthouse Recommends" program that the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse theater chain started this summer to generate positive word-of-mouth about movies that the chain’s management thinks deserve the extra attention—and Only God Forgives could certainly use some good word-of-mouth after its Cannes premiere made international headlines for being booed at its first screening.
So Refn is playing it cool, explaining that the boos meant nothing to him, that he wore them like a badge of honor, that he knew he wasn’t making another Drive, and anyone who expected he was is the one who’s confused here.
Although that film, which also starred Ryan Gosling as a taciturn, violent man who walks a thin line between dreamlike unreality and brutal hyperreality, didn’t necessarily win over all audiences either. While many rated Drive the best film of 2011, famously, one woman filed a lawsuit against the movie theater that sold her the ticket for "having very little driving in the motion picture." All of which leads to an interesting question for Refn: If you’ve been sued by your audience and booed by your critics, and you’re still out there making movies, you’ve already experienced the worst case scenario for most filmmakers. And once you’ve lived through the worst, are you free to do whatever you want?
It’s an idea that seems to appeal to Refn. He talks about the creative freedom that comes with making art without a concern for pleasing his audience in rapturous terms. "I’ve lived on the border of financial destruction for the last 20 years, because the sheer joy of doing something your way is—you can’t define it," he says. "It’s like heroin."
Here are some of the creative lessons that Refn has learned as a result of his willingness to make divisive art.
Refn may appreciate the rush he gets from fully indulging in his creative freedom, but that doesn’t mean that the Danish director doesn’t have feelings. Even when he talks about the boos he received at Cannes, he’s quick to point out that there were others in the crowd—like, presumably, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who gave the film a 5-star review immediately following the festival—who cheered at the end.
"Every time that you express something, you have to prepare yourself for critique," Refn says. "It’s not like critique is a nice thing to get. We all don’t want to be yelled at for doing something wrong. But you begin to look at how people are critiquing, and it becomes interesting. So when people are violently reacting to an experience that you have given them at the same time that people are praising or loving it for the exact same thing—that’s when you know you have done something right."
Most artists are sensitive by nature, and sensitive people are inclined to hear the voices of their critics much more clearly than the voices of the people who praise them. For Refn, the key is to hear both the people who love you and the people who hate you as a combined sound that signifies artistic validation. "It makes them think," he says. "It makes them react. Art was not made to satisfy the masses in any way, and it never has."
"When you make something that’s extremely successfully financially, or with an audience, there’s the expectation that now you’ve got to do that again," Refn says. But as the type of artist who uses the term the masses to describe an audience, he’s not inclined to find that even remotely interesting. "That puts you in a prison, because you can’t do that again. You can do a version of it; you can imitate it; you can do similar things, which can be terrific and very satisfying in a way, but I just don’t respond to that."
When Refn looks to controversial art for inspiration, there are a few names he keeps in mind—he refers to David Lynch as David—but he seems most proud when he talks about Lou Reed’s controversial album Metal Machine Music, which the Rolling Stone Record Guide described in 1979 as "a two-disc set consisting of nothing more than ear-wrecking electronic sludge, guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time."
"We talk a little bit about the Lou Reed album Transformer, and then his next album, Metal Machine Music," Refn says. "I think every film I make is the Metal Machine, because every time I’ve made a film, people have always said, Why didn’t you do what you did the last time?"
A few minutes after explaining that art shouldn’t cater to the masses’ demands, Refn says, "I do believe art is for the masses, for sure." He also talks about other heroes he has as a filmmaker—and when he’s pressed on whether David Lynch tops that list, he veers sharply in the other direction.
"I’m a huge Michael Bay fan," Refn declares, perhaps in jest, perhaps not. "I think The Rock is a really well-conceived film. I think technically, it’s incredibly inspiring. Those Transformers movies are just incredible. I have a lot of respect for Michael Bay."
It’s not exactly what you’d expect to hear from a guy whose latest film takes one of the most handsome actors in the world and puts his bruised, beaten, puffy face on its poster—but declaring your affection for a similarly critically reviled icon of the mainstream is also kind of a counterculture move. At the very least, part of following your own muse is being as willing to disappoint your high-art fans as you are those who came to see you at the multiplex. So how does Refn really feel about the big Hollywood blockbuster?
"I would love one day to make a Michael Bay movie," he says. "That would be a lot of fun."
Drive was a critical and financial hit. Refn’s previous film, Valhalla Rising, grossed just $30,000 in the United States, which made Drive’s $77 million something of a lightning-in-a-bottle moment. But Refn had no expectations for that film’s success, which allows him to keep those expectations in check for Only God Forgives. "Drive was never devised as anything but my next movie," he says. "Things just become different from day to day. It frees yourself from the expectation of what you did, so now when you make a new film, it’s a blank slate."
Ultimately, for Refn, the key to creative freedom is simply chasing his own interests and passions wherever they take him—and if that results in making a film that’s hated by as many critics as love it, that’s a trade-off he’s willing to make. "There is a great satisfaction in people cheering and booing at the same time," he says finally. "Then you know that you are the Sex Pistols."