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Ghosts, Pornographic Cock Talk, Bitch Switches & Art & Violence As Penetration: Highlights From The ‘Only God Forgives’ Cannes Press Conference

Photo of Rodrigo Perez By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist May 22, 2013 at 11:10AM

“Only God Forgives,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest collaboration with Ryan Gosling just let out in Cannes this morning and the conversations on Twitter are heated and polarizing. There’s either love or loathing in the air and not a lot in between. Many are remarking that it’s similar in tone to Refn and Gosling’s last team-up in “Drive.” This stands to reason as Gosling himself told us earlier in the year, “It's very extreme. It's part of the same dream as ‘Drive,’ but it's more of a nightmare than a dream... So that's what happens when you let Nicolas loose in Thailand. There's no one around to put the reins on and he's completely unleashed.”
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Only God Forgives, Refn, Gosling

Only God Forgives,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest collaboration with Ryan Gosling, just let out in Cannes this morning and the conversations on Twitter are heated and polarizing. There’s either love or loathing in the air and not a lot in between. Many are remarking that it’s similar in tone to Refn and Gosling’s last team-up in “Drive.” This stands to reason as Gosling himself told us earlier in the year, “It's very extreme. It's part of the same dream as ‘Drive,’ but it's more of a nightmare than a dream... So that's what happens when you let Nicolas loose in Thailand. There's no one around to put the reins on and he's completely unleashed.”

Our reviewer was somewhat in the middle, giving it a B-grade and noting that it “stretches Refn's neon-noir style over too little oedipal, amoral substance” (for a counterpoint take it should be noted that Playlister Kevin Jagernauth apparently loved it). Either way, it’s the talk of Cannes at the moment both in the online and terrestrial space. The press conference -- sadly without Gosling’s presence -- just let out at the Croisette as well. With Refn, Kristin Scott Thomas and producers in tow, the director let loose, letting his sometimes hilarious, often insightful discussions about his various freak flag fetishes out in the air. One things for sure. Refn doesn’t need a therapist, that’s what movies and press conferences talking about those movies are for. Here’s 9 highlights.

"What would be interesting for a mother to humiliate her son? And so we started talking about our cocks."
“Only God Forgives” was supposed to shoot before “Drive” and it was supposed to originally star Luke Evans.
The film began as an idea about a man who wanted to fight god and that quickly morphed into the movie it is now: a crime thriller about an exiled gangster living in Bangkok who’s compelled to avenge his brother’s death by his wicked mother. Refn said to secure his financing he simply had to pitch an idea before he had a story so he thought, “a fight movie set in Thailand, because I thought that was going to be an easy sell and they bought it.”

Refn then went on to write the script and noted he wasn’t really a fan of fight films ironically. “I was going through a very existentialistic time,” he said. “My wife was pregnant with our second daughter and it had been a very difficult period. And there was a lot of anger and violence in me, but I didn’t know how to channel it out, but I thought if someone has answers to existential problems, it must be God. I challenge you.”

“So I came up with this mother character that devours everything. And so it really became more of a mother and son story. But the key to unfold that story was this character who believes he’s God (Chang played by Vithaya Pansringarm).” Refn had cast the movie with Kristin Scott Thomas and Luke Evans in the lead part, but decided to make “Drive” instead. “The day after Cannes, this unknown actor drops out of my movie to to go do ‘The Hobbit,’” Refn said throwing some shade Evans' way. “So it was like 'fuck,' but I was in L.A. then and Ryan said [with a shrug], ‘I’ll do it,’ so I was like, ‘Great!’”

Only God Forgives Nicolas Winding Refn
Nicolas Winding Refn’s daughter saw a ghost in Bangkok and this experience informed the film.
“Then we went to Thailand and there I had the real experience about making the film in terms of wanting to make something about mysticism and reality. It really came down to when our daughter was born she had the ability to see ghosts,” he said. “We were in an apartment in Bangkok and she kept up screaming and pointing to the wall. I called the Thai production manager and said, ‘I believe there’s a ghost in our house.’ If I did that in Europe I would be crucified, but here she said, “Oh, ok,” and she came by a half an hour later with a Shaman who cleansed the room. But I really realized that spirituality, mysticism and reality has a different meaning in Asia and that’s when I realized that’s the kind of movie I wanted to make.

Like “Drive,” the film’s lead is taciturn and Refn spoke about virtues of “the language of silence.”
“The idea of the Julian [Ryan Gosling] character was a man who was on a journey, but he didn’t know what he was moving towards,” Refn explained. “Ryan and I talked a lot about the concept of the sleepwalker, which is a very mythological creature, and that he is destined to move, but doesn’t know where he’s going. So we realized that he’s, of course, bound to the chains of his mother’s womb and that’s his curse. And so in order for him to release that he needs to go through certain levels of violence.”

Only God Forgives Nicolas Winding Refn Ryan Gosling

So how does one play that idea? Gosling himself asked the director, “What do I say?” Refn said, “Maybe the language of silence is much more stronger and interesting and poetic and it helps us to make a film where it’s not where we ask, ‘what are you?,’ but more, ‘what are you not?’” And so that [suggested] that we had to have subliminal images all the way through. Then it became monologues from Kristin Scott Thomas or dialogues from the Thai actors, but it kind of added some off dimension things all seemed real, but there was an unrealness."

Kristin Scott Thomas had no problem turning on her “bitch switch.” She also curses like a Stevedore in the film.
“I hope we never will [hear it] again,” Thomas said about a line in the film where her character compares her two son’s... manhood that contains a lot of f-bombs and foul language. “A lot of the language that happens appeared while we were shooting it. If it was written and prepared the way in advance, I think it would have been terrified, but the confidence that was building between all of us allowed us to go beyond these taboos things and break certain barriers. It was all a bit mad, really.”

And yes, it’s a big gear shift for the actress who usually plays someone more aristocratic. “When I first read the script I was quite excited about playing someone away from the upper class thing that English people seem to love to see me in,” she said. “But as it developed, the character became more and more despicable.”

“She had no problem turning on the bitch switch,” Nicolas Winding Refn interjected with a laugh. “It’s frighteningly easy,” she laughed. “Every day we got braver. What’s worse?”

This article is related to: Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn, Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Cannes Film Festival


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