Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy) is courting controversy with Bronson, a tour de force meditation on violence and celebrity about real-life British felon Michael Peterson. Over a period of three decades and through sheer determination and bare knuckled brawn, Peterson has earned the distinction of being Britain’s most violent criminal; in Refn’s gloriously macabre film, he’s also Britain’s most charismatic anti-hero since Alex DeLarge. But does Refn’s film recklessly perpetuate Michael Peterson’s self-made myth? And how much of himself does Refn see in his violent, controversial film, which he calls “autobiographical?”
Refn speaks about his controversial subject, the idea that Bronson’s violence was a form of performance art, and how, in his mind, film making “is like f***ing.” He discusses almost casting Jason Statham before realizing that Tom Hardy, who gives a mesmerizing break-out performance, was his perfect Bronson. Finally, Refn shares how he made Bronson simultaneously with his next film, the science fiction Viking film Valhalla Rising.
JEN YAMATO: Bronson is a film that really seems to polarize audiences…
NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Especially in the U.K., because in the U.K. there’s a bit more of a political element. They are sometimes reviewing him, Charlie Bronson, and what he stands for, rather than the movie. So it was a great divider – but then every movie I do divides.
YAMATO: Do you feel that in some way, your film is helping the real Bronson?
REFN: It’s not helping him, but it’s not not helping him. It’s just the next evolution of his journey into his own mythology, because Charlie Bronson is a made up personality; he doesn’t exist.
YAMATO: You’re originally from Denmark, but you chose to make a film about a real-life British prisoner. Did you find that the British public were very aware of Michael Peterson, AKA Charlie Bronson?
REFN: Certain groups are massive fans, and a lot of people know him. Now they really do, which of course makes him more happy.
YAMATO: Peterson’s driving impulse is to create his own self-mythology; he’s happy just knowing people are talking about him and his legend. Was that part of why you wanted to have minimal contact with him when you were making the film?
REFN: I didn’t want to have any contact with him, because I had no interest in Michael Peterson. I wanted to make a movie about transformation, which is much more an interpretation of Charlie Bronson, rather than make a biopic. I didn’t feel there was a movie there, but I felt there was a movie in his transformation.
YAMATO: You joined the project after an initial script had been written; how different was the original script and what did you change?
REFN: There had been many writers working on it and many people have tried to make it, including other directors. The material that was floating around was just very average, a “lad’s” kind of movie like they make in Britain – this kind of film made for young men romanticizing crime and all those elements. I absolutely don’t want to make a movie like that, so when I decided to make Bronson I kind of had to reconceive it and start from scratch. I said, ok, how’s this movie going to turn out? What’s it going to be about? Then I came up with the one-act play as the backbone of the whole movie and used that as the backdrop, that this was a man coming onstage, narrating his life.
YAMATO: It’s a fascinating method to use; when Bronson takes the stage dressed as a showman and breaks the fourth wall, it makes the audience all the more complicit in his self-aggrandizing and his attention-getting agenda. You get the feeling that some viewers are uncomfortable with how much they’re enjoying it all.
REFN: Well it’s just strange, for a country that has so much violence in their media; what makes this film different from American media violence?
YAMATO: It doesn’t actually portray much violence on-screen so much as it champions Bronson’s nihilistic attitude.
REFN: No, it’s not really a brutal movie compared to what you see on American television or even British television. But I think that they’re reviewing him; the concept of him is what I think they oppose.
YAMATO: Your lead actor, Tom Hardy, really transformed himself to play Bronson, and he does a phenomenal job. Why did you decide to cast him?
REFN: Tom and I have a strange history; first, we didn’t like each other. I certainly went other ways and looked at other people and I know he started doing other stuff as well. I met with some bigger stars about it, like Jason Statham and Guy Pearce, but things never really materialized. And I was looking at a lot of younger actors, but meeting Tom again I saw no other alternative. And it turned out to be the right choice, I just had to take a great journey into discovering that it was him all along.
YAMATO: Was Tom any different by the time you changed your mind, or was it all a process of you coming to believe that he was the right actor?
REFN: I think it was just me accepting that it was him all along, but I didn’t know it because when I first met him I didn’t know if I really wanted to make it, and also how to make it. I was just not there in my head. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was a strange way for us to meet again many months later and me say, Oh my God, you’re Charlie Bronson! Where have you been?
YAMATO: He’s incredibly versatile, and almost unrecognizable in Bronson.
REFN: He is, he’s a chameleon. I also needed someone who was a great theatrical performer, who knew theatrical acting and not just movie acting. So he had to be a combination, plus do all the physical fighting, and he had to not mind doing it all with no clothes on.
YAMATO: How do you imagine the film would have turned out if you did get that bigger name, that Jason Statham?
REFN: It’d probably have been not as good a movie. Partly because I think people not knowing who the actor is gives a lot of freshness to the story. But it would have also left me with very little money to shoot the movie; I shot the movie for under a million dollars.
YAMATO: What would you have done with more money?
REFN: I would have done the same thing, only bigger – but then that doesn’t mean you’d make a better movie.
YAMATO: Are you of the mind that certain restraints are beneficial to making a film?
REFN: I believe all art only works if you challenge it. And also, challenge it financially. Excessive behavior certainly doesn’t make a film better. On the contrary, I believe that the less you have, the more creative you have to become, and the more subliminal you have to become. Subliminal images are really what works in art. It’s what you think you see that you walk away with. It’s much stronger than what you’re seeing. That’s why horror movies that are not explicit can be much more effective, because you think you see it. It’s harder to create because you really do have to create an illusion that it’s there, but it’s not really there. That comes down to the skill of the filmmaker. The art is like fucking. It’s all about preconceiving it, about seeing something that’s not there that speaks to your heart. When you see a movie that speaks to your brain, if there are subliminal elements – or you think there are – it speaks to your heart. The trick is to find those elements and put it into the film. So the audience thinks they see something else, or reads something else, or reacts in a different kind of way. It’s very sexual in that sense. It’s all about emotions.
YAMATO: Do you think many people will come away from watching Bronson with a much more superficial reading of the film than you intend?
REFN: I don’t know. You’re more an expert in that. I’ve certainly never thought of it like that, but I’ll leave that to you.
YAMATO: It seems like the most supporting reactions have been from younger audiences; maybe there’s something in the directness of Bronson’s philosophy that speaks more to them?
REFN: Well, I make films mostly for young people. That’s the kind of people that watch my movies. But also maybe there’s a kind of rebellious, rock ‘n roll attitude to Bronson, very similar to Alex in A Clockwork Orange. The comparison is that they’re kind of anti-authority.
YAMATO: Do references to Stanley Kubrick come up often when you’re asked about Bronson? Stylistically, the film strikes a similar chord.
REFN: Yeah, and then I have to tell them who I actually stole everything from. Everything is stolen from Kenneth Anger. It’s Inauguration of the Pleasuredome and Scorpio Rising combined into one.
YAMATO: What and who are some of your other influences?
REFN: I like all kinds of filmmaking and filmmakers. When I made the Pusher trilogy I used more of a gritty, New York, Abel Ferrara/Martin Scorsese kind of approach. With this one it’s Kenneth Anger, and with my next film, Valhalla Rising, it’s basically Tarkovsky with Snake Plissken. I have a cineaste background; that’s my language.
YAMATO: Mads Mikkelson, your star in Valhalla Rising, described that film’s shoot as particularly difficult, which fits in line with your reputation for conducting grueling productions.
REFN: [Laughs] Well, you know, we embark on a journey, man. It’s going to be tough, but it’s going to be rewarding. It was tough especially for the crew on Valhalla Rising because I wanted to shoot in such remote places that a lot of the time we had to carry the equipment up the mountains, which might sound fun but when you get to it it’s actually quite… intense. It’s a great story to talk about afterwards, but at the end of Valhalla Rising we were shooting in nature reserves where we couldn’t drive, so we would start the morning by carrying equipment for hours up the mountains.
YAMATO: Judging from the trailer, Valhalla has a lot of intense stunt work and fight scenes. Were those especially hard to film in those conditions?
REFN: There’s fighting, but I think those stunt people were getting heart attacks while Mads Mikkelsen was like, this is a piece of cake!
YAMATO: Why did you want to make Valhalla?
REFN: I don’t know. I think I wanted to make a science fiction movie, but I didn’t want to make it about technology and the future, I wanted to make a mind-science fiction film. So I decided to make it in the 1100s, because of the religious turmoil then, and from that I created my own myth and characters who embark on a journey to the Holy Land. They end up in America instead and it goes horribly wrong.
YAMATO: It sounds like you let yourself have a little bit more fun with that film.
REFN: I look at it like whenever I make a movie, I have fun. It may be tough, because filmmaking it tough, but you always try – you only live once, so you might as well have fun because all you’re going to miss out on is X amount of years of fun. I’m very much that way; I’m more relaxed with what I make, whereas when I was younger I was maybe more serious, more preconceived, it had to be this or it had to be that. Now, with family and children I’m more like, eh, whatever.
YAMATO: Has family lightened you up a little bit more in your professional life?
REFN: I’ve kind of relaxed a little. There are other things that are more important, which are good because that means you have an easier attitude toward your work.
YAMATO: What was the timing like, since your work on Bronson and on Valhalla Rising overlapped?
REFN: Basically, I cast the movies simultaneously. Then I started Bronson. When I finished shooting Bronson, Valhalla started pre-production. When I was editing Bronson, I locked Bronson on the first day of the Valhalla shoot. I shot Valhalla and went straight to Berlin and mixed Bronson. So they were basically done simultaneously.
YAMATO: Was it hard keeping track of two movies at the same time in your mind?
REFN: Not really, because it was almost like a natural evolution that after Bronson I would do a movie like this. Valhalla Rising is like the first canvas in my mind after Bronson, which in a way is very autobiographical.
YAMATO: How so?
REFN: It kind of reflects my own life, in many ways. My own transformation from when I started making films to where I am now. The ups and downs I had to go through. The search for my canvas, and my need to create my own myth, and the fame and what that brings. Hell yeah, it’s rock ‘n roll.