(A transcript of FRED’s Angelo Acerbi’s interview with director Nicolas Winding Refn, who presented a restored version of Mario Bava’s 1965 film Planet of the Vampires (Terrore nello Spazio) at the 2015 Torino Film Festival. Click here to listen to the interview on FRED English channel)
FRED: You are at the festival to introduce an Italian movie, Terrore nello Spazio [Planet of the Vampires]. What is the connection between you and this film?
NICOLAS WINDING REFN: One of the screenwriters of the film, Ib Melchior, was a Danish writer who lived in America; and me being Danish and we are only five million people, I thought that was pretty crazy. But it is a film that I have always admired a lot for many different reasons. I think [Planet of the Vampires] is an incredible combination of horror and science fiction. And I don’t mean science fiction in the sense of technology, but in the sense of evolution and religion. It is much more heightened. It is much more philosophical. It has a very deep-rooted horror structure of fear of ourselves and what is in our own surrounding darkness. So the combination of two very complicated genres into one is the reason why they ripped it off to make Alien. So that itself just technically in terms of how the film is designed is an incredible achievement.
Then there is the whole choice of the costumes and the design. I always felt that it is like an installation film in a way. It is like going to a pop-art gallery. So it transcends normal emotions of how we view space and clothing. It is probably one of the sexiest movies showing no nudity. […] It is a very sexy movie in terms of when they touch each other or fight; it is very heterosexual or homoerotic depending on what you are into. So, therefore, it transcends any normal sexuality. It is much more fetish-oriented.
The design itself of the film from Bava’s is extraordinary because it is so imaginary from a technical point of having very little money to do it. The craftsmanship is very engaging because it is really about speaking to our subconscious because obviously everything is fake, but yet they are able to make it so like we are travelling to this outer world of space and fantasy.
The acting is so-so, but that is not why we are watching the film. It has so many other qualities that the acting are more like puppets in a bigger sphere of elements. It is a pretty groovy title.
So, for me, [Planet of the Vampires] is just a film that I have always very much enjoyed and find very inspiring, actually. So when this opportunity came to present it in the restored version […] I was like absolutely, man.
FRED: So are you a fan of the Italian genre movies, like what we call Italian B movies?
NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Well I like all kinds of Italian movies. And I think B movies is a very wrong definition, especially nowadays if you look at how a lot of these movies actually stand the test of time. So I don’t know where the B comes in. I would call them great cinema or alternative cinema or genre cinema or pop cinema. But I don’t think in any way it should be degraded as B cinema. Actually, it’s beyond cinema because they kind of transcend into pop culture and other things of our lives, whether it is music or design or literature or even they are social documents of time in a way.
FRED: This is why they endured.
NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Yeah. And still continually finding new fan base. I mean, the screening last of the restoration was a packed cinema, and over 60% of the audience, which were all young, had never seen the film before. So it shows that there is a huge interest in what Italy has to offer, these kinds of films. But I am not a walking encyclopaedia of Italian cinema. I haven’t seen every Italian horror film or science fiction or western. I’m sure there are many others. But, absolutely. What I like about Italian culture generally is that it is always more extreme, it is always more sexy, it is always more vibrant, it is always more colorful, it is always heightened, it is more imaginary. I don’t have an interest in reality anymore; I like heightened reality. I think Italy is the world of design.
FRED: And don’t you think those movies can be too naive? That their narrative structure is too simple?
NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Well I don’t think naive; I think they were more about other things in a way, you know? I haven’t seen every film Mario Bava has made, but what I have seen is that he was not a political filmmaker in a sense of making a political statement. He was similar to a fairytale writer. Can you call fairytale writing naive? On one level, absolutely. But at the same time, they usually carry more subconscious weight than anything else. So I think naivety is the wrong word. I would say that they are very – they speak more to the subconscious than they speak to the logic. And, therefore, that is why they continue to stand the test of time. I come from the country of Hans Christian Anderson. Was he naive? Maybe. But what he wrote is still something that we analyze today.
FRED: What kind of movies do you watch? For pleasure, not for work.
NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Having a family doesn’t give you a hell of a lot of time to watch a lot, but I try to watch as much as I can. I saw a movie called It Follows that I thought was terrific about a year ago. I, of course, like everyone else, watch some TV shows. I find it harder and harder to concentrate on watching long form. I don’t know why. Maybe it is because I’m affected by the internet. But I love the creativity of the digital revolution. I like to see things I don’t really understand. And then I guess my wife and I like to watch re-runs of Friends.
FRED: Speaking of the digital revolution, there’s always some friction between those who like film and those who like digital. Does it make any sense to you this? You love print, but you use digital, too. So what is the reason of this fight, if there is any?
NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Well I think that it is a valid fight, I guess, of people’s choice of canvas. That’s really what the discussion is about. It is about the choice of canvas. Of course we have to preserve our culture, and one way of doing that is through digitalization. But in terms of aesthetics, there are certain filmmakers that swear to shoot on film only and want to project on film. Some people have different opinions. It is not a discussion I find particularly interesting because what I like more about the digital revolution is the accessibility of creativity.
I grew up on film, not really in the cinema world but on television. When I came to New York when I was eight years old from Denmark – Denmark had one channel that would show X amount of hours a day or whatever and none of it was any good or entertaining really – so when I came to America and saw that there were multiple channels you could switch from that would show you the film or television shows 24 hours a day, the idea of being able to click channels was what I found very interesting. And not really understanding that it was no longer film but it was actually a digital evolution – analog digital that went now pure digital – that is what I find interesting. I find interesting what my kids are doing on their iPhones. I find interesting how people use entertainment as a political weapon. What changed the Middle East was not a bullet but it was Twitter.
So, for me, you can talk in terms of an artist’s canvas with a film. It is kind of irrelevant. I prefer the digital personally because I like the unreality of it. I find digital much more interesting in what it represents for our future and the ability with it.
FRED: What do you look for when you create a new movie? What really attracts you or intrigues you more that you then decided to bring it on the screen?
NICOLAS WINDING REFN: I don’t really know why I make what I make. It usually starts with what I would like to see. So I approach everything very fetishized in a sense of what turns me on. Not really knowing why it turns me on nor having an interest in knowing why. But just what would I like to see. And then usually that builds some kind of want or need to surround it with some kind of structure that you essentially make a movie out of. But I don’t have an interest in knowing why. I don’t have an interest in the result. I actually enjoy the process more than anything else.
FRED:What can you tell us about it – Neon Demon? The side effect that – this is the first film of yours with a female lead character instead of a male one. But besides that, what else can you tell us?
NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Well, what can I say? I think that I’ve been working on the film for many, many years but I didn’t know when to make it. I have been very fortunate to be working the last couple of years with a few Italian fashion brands. I started getting very interested in the aesthetics of purity of design. And so having done that, I thought well maybe it is time to make this film now based on all these experiences that I am having in the world of design. I am surrounded by beauty at home. I have a very beautiful wife. I have very beautiful children. So I thought I would love to make this film now about beauty. That is how it all began. Everything I do surrounds – essentially is about her in one way or another.
And after we had lived in Bangkok to do Only God Forgives, she was like “the only place I would even think about going is Los Angeles”. And so with those kinds of like tools in front of you, I decided well then I have to make the movie now and it has to be about this and this is where I want to make it, in L.A. It’s about beauty.