In the documentary film “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn,” Refn’s wife and first-time director Liv Corfixen points her camera at her husband during the making of his 2013 crime drama “Only God Forgives.” Corfixen hoped to capture Refn’s filmmaking process and what it’s like for director like him to create a film that would be considered by many as one of the most polarizing of his career.
During an interview with Refn and Corfixen, we talked about what it was like opening up their lives for a documentary like this, what kind of film Refn thinks “Only God Forgives” ended up becoming, and whether or not Refn would ever consider “selling out” in this industry. I first started the interview by asking Corfixen whether or not she ever contemplated taking the advice filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky offered her in the film after reading her tarot cards. He told her she should divorce Refn if she wanted to find happiness in her own life.
“My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn” was recently released on VOD and on iTunes and theatrically in Los Angeles and New York City.
Liv, did you ever file divorce papers like Jodorowsky advised you to?
Liv Corfixen: (Laughs) No, I didn’t. We went to couples therapy instead. We’re still together so it must be working.
Nicolas Winding Refn: So far.
Was it challenging for both of you to open up so candidly about your life in a project like this or did you find it therapeutic in a way?
LC: I think Nicholas found it therapeutic. I did it because I thought it would be more interesting to make a film that showed the downside of being an artist and all the anxieties that you have. I didn’t want to just glorify what filmmaking is. I wanted to show the ups and downs of it.
Nicolas, you were already putting yourself under so much pressure during the making of “Only God Forgives.” Did you ever think having another film happening at the same time would only make things more difficult for the production?
NWR: I had no say. One day Liv came to me and said she wanted to make this film. We were already living in Bangkok. I said, “OK.” Because of her friendship with Ryan [Gosling] and everyone else on the set, she was able to do it. So she started doing her own thing. We were both making our own different movies at the same time.
Looking back on “Only God Forgives” today, do you consider the film successful?
NWR: I think the movie was personally very successful. I think financially it was also successful. I just think it was a film that divided a lot of people. At the end it became the ultimate counterculture film. What more could you ask for in cinema?
When “Only God Forgives” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, reports came out that it was booed by audiences. How did you react to that?
NWR: Well, at Cannes, basically they applaud and boo you at the same time. There’s no either or. What was interesting was that in the morning screening, which was just for critics, there were either very aggressive boos or applause. It created some hostility because people were either loving it or hating it. So, when we got to the night secreting, I was so nervous about what was going to happen. I had heard stories of people reacting harshly at the night screening. But I was so relieved that I got a standing ovation at night. So I knew that whatever I had done was right.
Do you believe because a film is polarizing makes it more special?
NWR: I don’t know if you remember but “Drive” was universally hated by a lot of people. It didn’t get very good reviews when it came out and it didn’t make a lot of money. But it hit a nerve. A lot of people didn’t like the movie. The distributors didn’t like the movie. It’s always been like that for me. That polarization has always been there. I love it because that creates thought and reaction and emotion. Emotion brings the world into a better place.
Liv, is there anything you learned about Nicolas that you didn’t know before making this documentary?
LC: Well, we’ve been married for 19 years so it wasn’t like I learned something new about him. (Laughs) Every time he makes a movie it’s like this. I just felt like I wanted to show him in this process. I enjoyed it. It was a great experience for me. I really want to make another film, but I haven’t decided what it should be about.
Nicolas, what is your definition of selling out in this industry? For example, if you were offered to direct, say, the next “Transformers” sequel, is that something you would think about doing?
NWR: Well, I have a huge admiration for Michael Bay, but I don’t know if I would be the right guy for something like that. (Laughs) I’ve had some great opportunities, but at the end I’ve turned them down because I thought that was the right thing to do. I don’t believe in selling out. And actually, you don’t really sell out, you get points. You just have to ask yourself, “How many points in life am I willing to compromise?” I just like my freedom too much. It’s more pleasurable going to work and making the movie I want to make without any hesitation at all. That’s a very pleasurable experience for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right experience. I’m not the greatest filmmaker in the world, but for the kinds of films I make I’m the best at.
Is it a misconception that artists like yourself don’t care about the commercial viability of their films?
NWR: I am very conscious of the commercial situation of my movies. Fortunately, I make very inexpensive movies. “Only God Forgives” made so much money that when it came time to make my next movie, which I’m in L.A. right now to do, I was given a blank check without even having a cast. They felt there was money to be made with me and they want to support that.