Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn, left, and festival director Thierry Fremeaux, right, pose for photographers as they arrive at the opening ceremony of the 7th Lumiere Festival in Lyon, central France, Monday, Oct. 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

How to divide a film audience: meet Nicolas Winding Refn

A couple of years back I had some time to kill and picked a random film on show at Filmhuis in The Hague. It was called Drive and I had no clue what to expect. I knew it starred Ryan Gosling, an actor I did not care much for at the time, but was nevertheless attracted by the premise that the plot might have some relation to the 1979 classic The Driver that starred the charismatic Ryan O’Neil. Despite little commonality Drive literally blew me away and it remains in my view one of this decades cinematographic highpoints. The day after the screening I discussed my experience with peers and colleagues and I was perplexed by the polarizing effect it had on its audience. Half of them were disappointed as the movie did not fulfill their expectations. To be fair, despite what the title suggests very little driving actually happens in the movie. People were expecting explosions, fires and car stunts, but instead received a slow paced love story that lacked dialogue. The other half of the audience however had a similar experience to my own. I remember the first time I saw it very well. The electronic sound design gripped me from the start and elevated the melancholic atmosphere. The dialogues were indeed sparse, but every spoken word had purpose and intent. I truly enjoyed every second of the film and felt like it took me to places I did not realise I wanted to visit.


I walked away from this experience and did not even look up who directed the film. This was not due to ignorance, but rather a lack of trust in Hollywood to produce genuine films. Directors are hired and constrained by investors and producers. What remains is limited creative freedom and the condition to output a movie with a politically correct theme. Actors are selected on trial and error basis and new combinations of characters are experimented with to score that next new hit. In the end it’s just a business more concerned with revenues and profit margins rather than creative pioneering.

Time went on and I kept watching a lot of movies. One day eventually I stumbled across a film called Pusher (2012). I watched it and halted. Something was strange… something wasn’t right. I had the feeling I was watching a commercialised version of something that was much darker. A fluffy version of something raw at the core. This sparked my curiosity (finally) and I googled away. Pusher, apparently was an American remake of the Danish Pusher trilogy staring a very young Mads Mikkelsen. The original was directed by a guy called Nicolas Winding Refn. (If you never heard of him get acquinted by watching this hilarious moment during a BBC interview)

So I started googling what this guy was about.. and little did I know Mr. Refn was the creator and director of Drive. I spent the coming weeks collecting anything he was involved in. I devoured the Pusher Trilogy, Fear X, Bronson, and Valhalla Rising (2009). This last film in particular stood out as I saw clear similarities in style to Drive. I believe Mr. Refn realized from Valhalla Rising onwards what creative tools he wanted to deploy in order to tell a story. It might be interesting to note that Mr. Refn is color blind and has trouble seeing the middle spectrums. This likely explains the high contrast and color drenched images he uses and is well known for. This “handicap” serves him well! In addition, Mr. Refn is said to be highly dyslectic. As a result, dialogues tend to be minimalist and protagonists spend a lot of time in silence. Every word is deliberate and serves a purpose as do the images.

Nicolas Winding Refn with Mads Mikkelsen
Nicolas Winding Refn with Mads Mikkelsen

After the acclaimed success of Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn had Hollywood at his feet. Everyone wanted a piece of him and budgets at his disposal were limitless. He was offered to direct a spy thriller with Harrison Ford. A remake of the Sci-Fi classic Logan’s Run was under consideration and he was to direct the next James Bond movie. Yet months before one of his new high profile projects should start he turned it all down! He ripped up that winning lottery ticket and rolled the dice again. Only God Forgives (2013) was his follow up to Drive and was an uncompromised continuation of his work. Unfortunately this new entry was a commercial disaster. I have never seen that many people walk out of the cinema before the end of a screening. The movie stared Ryan Gosling again and I think a lot of uninformed viewers were expecting “Drive 2”. To be frank Mr. Refn went overboard with the depicted violence. It was a true gorefest and diverted attention away from what the movie did accomplish well. Again the opinions of the audiences were split. Unfortunately only a minority of the viewers were able to take the movie at face value. In my view it was one of the most underrated films that year and had the potential to achieve cult status. Kirsten Scott Thomas performance in this film was outstanding and she should have been flooded with awards for her role (watch a glimpse below)


It’s 2016 and Nicolas Winding Refn spent the last two years working on his new project, The Neon Demon. I have no clue how he managed to find investors to sponsor his new endeavor after the financial disaster of his last film, but he did pull it off. This new project concerned itself with the obsession of beauty in our society. “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing”. He went with an all women cast this time round, but continued his collaboration with most of the team he worked with since Drive. People that worked with him tend to stay loyal. Cliff Martinez for example has been responsible for the sound design since Drive and some of you might know him from his long term collaboration with Steven Soderbergh. Fun fact, Cliff was the drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their first two albums and went on to scoring movie soundtracks later in his career.

The Neon Demon is out on 14 July in the Netherlands and you might have noticed ads plastered around The Hague city. I tend to stray away from films that are heavily advertised as it can indicate that a movie lacks genuineness and requires additional propaganda to fool people into seeing it. The need for additional marketing in this case however was likely the result of the negative response at the US box office. As expected, his new project has divided viewer opinions again and will struggle attracting larger audiences. At the time of writing I have not yet seen The Neon Demon, but nevertheless have full faith in this director. If you would like to see his new project on a big screen I urge you to hurry to a theater near you soon. It likely won’t be there long.

Nicolas Winding Refn is a misunderstood genius and perhaps his underground cinema was never meant for a mainstream audience. Art needs to divide opinions, penetrate and provoke reactions.

If everyone liked or hated a movie equally it must have been a shallow experience. We are all so very different, how could we possibly all like the same things. Perhaps this division of opinion is the true measure of accomplishment for a director.


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