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Director Nicolas Winding Refn on his obsession with exploitation films

Nicolas Winding Refn

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Nicolas Winding Refn is the quiet, meditative yin to Tarantino’s hyperactive yang. Beneath the artistry, the heady rush and cheap thrill of 42nd Street neon bathes the seedy gangsters and antiheroes in Refn’s lurid, cinematic netherworlds like Drive. One can feel the delight in the moment proceeding extreme violence; often edited in slow-mo, brightly lit and accentuated with classical score, assuring no one misses the Grand Guignol horror show to come. The kid who grew up loving VHS exploitation—pulling a fast one on his parents and relishing in the victory of getting away with seeing something he wasn’t allowed to see—welcomes his audience to share in the same cinematic high.


The new volume Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act Of Seeing, which highlights Refn’s unique collection of rare American film posters, makes its U.S. debut at Fantastic Fest (September 24-October 1) in Austin. Three of the films featured in the book—Farewell Uncle Tom, The X-Rated Supermarket, and My Body Hungers—will screen during the opening weekend, with each screening followed by a Q&A and book signing with Refn and Act Of Seeing writer and researcher Alan Jones.


The A.V. Club: You’ve said that Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a seminal film for you. Can you elaborate on that?

Nicolas Winding Refn: When I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I was 14 years old. I was at the right age to see something like that. It’s the age where you’re very affected by what you experience. I remember after having seen it, I decided that whatever that movie did, I wanted to do. When I decided to make movies, I wanted to do what that movie did to me. That’s when I discovered that film was an art form. It could be a painting, a Jackson Pollock; it could be anything. It could be a piece of music: John Cage. It could be a book: Last Exit To Brooklyn. It could be so many different things. This piece of art was made by a director with such a clear definition of wanting to penetrate your mind, violate it, and then leave. You will never be the same again. It made me want to create. At 14, it was like, “Hey man… this is it.” It also had a very unconventional structure. Up until then, I was more used to Hollywood three-acts. Those are great, but this one didn’t even have a logic. It was an experience, and you made up your mind afterwards.


AVC: The sequence where The Cook is prodding Sally in the truck with a broom handle: That’s such an unnerving glimpse of cruelty, as he’s taking such pleasure in it.

NWR: What’s also so interesting is the film has no sexuality. That’s what makes it so fascinating. That’s why it never feels sleazy, degrading, or misogynistic. It was so pure.


AVC: Exploitation box art is sometimes the biggest draw. Did you fall in love with VHS boxes as a kid?

NWR: Oh, yeah. I come from the VHS era. But I wasn’t really aware of exploitation cinema until I was 17 or 18. I remember renting The Evil Dead and stuff like that on tape and really enjoying it.


AVC: Were you a fan of the banned films on the Video Nasties list?

NWR: That was in Britain, and in Denmark we had no censorship. That’s why Danish VHS [tapes] were always so much in demand. But yeah, I like some of the Video Nasties. I love The Driller Killer. I think The Driller Killer is one of the best films made about what it’s like to create.

AVC: Were you an avid VHS collector, who then had to make the shift to DVD?

NWR: Sadly, but true. I still have a part of my VHS collection in the basement. It’s still in one of the closets. I donated a lot of it to some people who are more obsessed with it now—a new generation of collectors. I’ve got a few 16mm, 8mm, and some laser discs still. I keep a little piece of everything from my past. Music is difficult to collect nowadays, unlike movies or books. Wherever you are, you just have to go online and it’s there in really good condition. I used to collect vinyl, but then it all got digital. I still buy old vinyl, but there are only so many hours in the day. It’s so insane. In L.A., someone gave me a hard drive with 93,000 songs on it. I was thinking that if I turned that hard drive on, I could probably live an entire lifetime never having to hear the same song twice. You could never collect something at that level. The digital revolution made everything so extremely accessible that you’re pushed toward the obscurities. I started collecting Japanese toys a couple years ago.


AVC: As kids, we’re drawn to what we’re not allowed to see. Were your parents strict?

NWR: Very much. I grew up with a socialistic, Scandinavian background. That means that anything that’s violent is bad. Capitalism, war, and money is bad. But I grew up in a penthouse in New York, which is kind of ironic. My mother photographed Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, so the only way to really rebel against my mother, one thing she despised, was violent American films and ultra-capitalism. As a teenager, that became Mecca for me.


AVC: Are you drawn to more taboo exploitation like nunsploitation and nazisploitation? Are you a fun, sex romp kinda guy or a gorehound?

NWR: I think I’ve gone through the whole cycle at least once over the years. I’ve endured them at that particular time, but I don’t think I can sit through them again. Now I’m in what I call my “melodramatic exploitation phase.” The famous one is Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. Some of the Joe Sarno movies I find quite interesting. They’re very talkative. He came more from a counterculture, melodramatic point of view on social issues like the sexual revolution.

AVC: With someone like Umberto Lenzi [Cannibal Ferox] you feel like you’re in the hands of a dangerous, depraved mind. Is that part of the attraction?


NWR: Yeah. I certainly love any kind of artist that has a point of view. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s almost irrelevant to me. Lenzi’s great. They’re all great in a way. They’ve all made great stuff. With time, as you grow and have kids, it’s almost like, “Been there, done that.” I actually find some of the Herschell Gordon Lewis movies quite interesting still. I know he’s like the king of exploitation. Some of his stuff is still interesting. Russ Meyer has some interesting stuff. Growing up, I liked the more obscure and extreme. I remember the movie The Last House On Dead End Street. It was made by Nicolas Roeg’s speed dealer, or something like that, who made a horror movie in upstate New York. It’s really, really deranged and it’s very hard to get any material on it, which makes it more exciting.

AVC: Nicolas Roeg’s speed dealer?

NWR: Oh, I’m sorry. It was not Nicolas Roeg, it was Nicholas Ray. [Laughs.] That’s actually even more interesting.


AVC: Do you keep up with modern extreme fare? A Serbian Film comes to mind.

NWR: Yeah. People send me stuff or recommend stuff. I’ve begun to realize that when I was younger I liked the shock value more than what was really going on. Now that I’m more grown up, I appreciate more of what’s going on in the film, rather than the shock value. I guess it’s because I’m a little boring. [Laughs.] A little mundane never hurts anyone.


AVC: Has any film gone too far for you?

NWR: No. I don’t believe there is such a thing, unfortunately. [Laughs.]

AVC: The animal snuff in Cannibal Holocaust and Ferox is pretty unbearable.

NWR: Yeah. It’s revolting and depressing, but it’s like watching The Discovery Channel.


AVC: Is your wife [Liv] ever disturbed by your movie picks?

NWR: Oh boy. I mean, she is not into all that stuff. She thinks it’s absolutely ridiculous. She’ll go, “What, am I married to a 10-year-old?” We don’t have any posters at our house, or those kind of films. All those things go into the basement. On our first date, I did show her The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. She endured. I think she found it very interesting. Which shows that it is a very, very unique art movie. Very soon after that I showed her The Hills Have Eyes, which she just hated. I think halfway through the movie she was like, “That’s it. I don’t want to watch anymore. This is terrible.”

At home with Nicolas and Liv (Photo by Visum Creatives)

I remember we went to see Showgirls at the cinema and she hated it! Ugh! She thought it was a vile, degrading, misogynistic, terrible film. We had just met, so I was completely agreeing with her, being like, “Oh, you’re so right.” But inside I was like, “Oh God! This movie is so fucking good!”


AVC: She didn’t appreciate it on a camp level?

NWR: No. She doesn’t do camp.

AVC: In your poster collection, do you have one you know is the rarest? How did you acquire it?


NWR: I think 60 percent of it is ultra-rare, because they’re so obscure. It took Alan Jones more than a year to basically gather information about the films. Some were fairly easy, about 10 to 20 percent and then the 80 percent really got difficult. Out of the 80 percent, 50 percent were truly difficult. Then there was 10 percent that were just like a guessing game, just trying to find some kind of information. There’s one, that in terms of aesthetic is the most interesting, called The Nest Of The Cuckoo Bird. That is a lost film. I know there was a guy selling some outtakes from it on eBay for like $5,000. There’s a few others. There’s a double feature one with I Was A Male Call-Girl, or one of those with really weird titles. That was another one that was really difficult to touch upon.

The way all this started was I had purchased this poster collection from a writer Jimmy McDonough, a wonderful writer who wrote a lot of biographies, including ones on Andy Milligan, Russ Meyer, and Neil Young. He’s a great biographer. He had started a magazine with Bill Landis on Times Square called Sleazeoid Express, which was the first fan zine about Times Square and the films playing at that time. He wanted to sell his poster collection and I bought it over the phone. We’d become very good friends also. A couple of months later about a thousand posters arrive at our house and Liv was like, “What the fuck?” I’m like, “Yeah, I know, I know, I know.” I started going through them and of course they were so obscure and odd. I was like, “What the hell am I gonna do with all this?” What I realized was that it was like a time machine. I was traveling back to an era that is very romanticized. A lot of the key players are dead or too old to remember. Suddenly I was holding these historical artifacts from that era in my hands. I decided that I was going to make the most expensive poster book ever produced by anyone. It was going to consist of posters from films no one has ever heard of. It cost me $100,000 to make.


AVC: Were most of the posters mint?

NWR: Some were, some were not. I brought Alan Jones in, who was a friend of mine. I said, “You have to do research and write something interesting about every movie. You’re not going to review them. You’re going to inform people. I don’t want your opinions. I want your research abilities.” That took about a year or more, probably.


AVC: For instance, there’s barely info on The X-Rated Supermarket on IMDB and no reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. That must have been a hell of a task for him.

The Act Of Seeing (exclusive for The A.V. Club)

NWR: It was so, so long. He had to find so many convoluted ways to get access to what could potentially be worth something. Most of the people involved in the films used fake names, or were names we’ve never heard of. In between, there were a few strange ones like Night Tide, The Angry Red Planet, The Astounding She-Monster, which were some of the fancier but beautiful posters, and I also wanted to include them.

AVC: Is there a film you consider the best of exploitation, one that truly elevates the genre to high art?


NWR: Oh God. There’s so many and I could probably pick something really obscure that doesn’t mean anything. I would probably say Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is the ultimate. It was made within a Hollywood system with key players. It’s the most of everything.

Artwork from The Act Of Seeing (exclusive for The A.V. Club)

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