The Future for Nicolas Winding Refn
(If you haven’t already, check out my previous Refn essay on his 2016 film The Neon Demon)
For the past two months I’ve been doing bi-weekly film essays as a retrospective of the career of Nicolas Winding Refn hitherto. We’ve learned about the rocky box office lives of his films with their occasional break-out successes and intermittent box-office failures. I’ve talked about his biggest collaborators like cinematographers Larry Smith and Morton Soborg, composers Johnny Jewel and Cliff Martinez, and actors Mads Mikkelson and Ryan Gosling. His obsessions with kitsch and arthouse film history have been laid bare through his cinephile characters in his first few films, the encyclopedic knowledge of film and its role in Bleeder, the inspiration of Italian and American horror film cinematically through how he shows gore and produces fear, and his indebtedness to figures like Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg of the Dogme 95 movement, to David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky, and through his musical inspirations and stylistic attempts to Blade Runner.
The big question for anyone who has seen this retrospective and has been following along now is, what is Refn currently working on? The answer is a ton of stuff.
In 2016, after the release of the Neon Demon, Refn was offered the role of director for the upcoming 007 Bond film Spectre. He ultimately turned down the role, but began reading Ian Fleming novels on the eponymous spy and eventually created an entirely new story and script for a unique story of his own. He called it, tentatively, The Avenging Slice, and described it as a mixture between Fleming’s sixth Bond novel ‘Dr. No’ and the classic sci-fi body horror ‘The Soft Machine’ by William Burroughs, but shone through the prism of Refn’s own neuroses and interests to produce a unique product. The plot was about a European one-time spy commissioned by a Japanese CEO to seek out and destroy a troublesome Yakuza boss. I, and probably most of the people who have heard about it, want this movie.
But, like many other Refn projects in the past, nothing came of the project, and instead, he has moved on to a different story while attempting to channel themes from Avenging Slice into the new work. The work I am referencing is a project announced in late 2017 for an Amazon TV show titled ‘Too Old to Die Young.” The project began production last year and will likely take around ten months to complete the 10-episode series set ultimately for marathon release format. If anyone thought that Refn hadn’t been creating enough material on a quick enough time frame (10 films in 20 years from 1996-2016), you may be happy with this release, which will probably be of the hour-length episode order. Meaning we will get the equivalent of 5-6 Refn films of content all at one go. The series is set in L.A. and recounts the stories of killers who become honorable urban samurai who fight the forces they once followed and will star Miles Teller and Jena Malone amongst others in a world wherein The Neon Demon (and hopefully Drive) are relevant tie-ins or myths within the underground consciousness.
The second confirmed work for Refn in 2018 is his and his company Space Rocket Nation’s production of a remake of William Lustig’s 1988 film ‘Maniac Cop’. The story is about a police officer turned serial killer and the other cop within the precinct who is on the case attempting to find the guy. The film will be directed by John Hyams, son of the legendary Sci-fi Director Peter Hyams (Outland, 2010, Timecop), and is set to be a procedural action thriller instead of a horror film like its predecessor. That Refn would sign his name onto such a project in the same year that Lars von Trier is set to release his film ‘The House That Jack Built’ (about the life and development of a serial killer from his own perspective) sets Refn into a seemingly inevitable ideological conflict with von Trier. Unfortunately for Refn, with him on the conservative, hopeful side of the equation and von Trier on the stronger, more truthful, dark side of things that champions evil and recognizes its validity.
Finally, Refn’s most interesting project of the year is the launching of his self-financed 4K Film Restoration project, ByNWR. The site launches in Spring 2018 and hopes to offer viewers high quality restorations of lost films, for free, with optional commentary, extra features like interviews and essays, and yes, again, for free! The first two quarterly release titles have been titled Volume I: “Regional Renegades: Exploitation Gems from the Southeastern USA” and Vol II: “Missing Links: Restored and Rediscovered Classics of American Independent Cinema.” The titles in this first release are 1965’s ‘The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds,’ and 1967’s ‘Shanty Tramp’ and ‘Hot Thrills and Warm Chills.’ The titles in the second release are 1961’s ‘Night Tide,’ 1967’s ‘Spring Night, Summer Night,’ and two films by hellfire and brimstone preacher Estus Pirkle: 1971’s ‘If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?’ and 1974’s ‘The Burning Hell.’ These films run the gamut from horror, to poetic realism, to arthouse, and industrial, but are mostly bound by Southern Gothic and Horror themes.
This is especially interesting to me, as I am from the South, have lived here all of my life (besides a three-month stint in Kyoto, Japan in college), and have been largely molded in this atmosphere. Films like ‘Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus’ and ‘The Night of the Hunter’ ring true and speak to me on a deeper level than those by most anyone else, and I hope that the films released in ByNWR do likewise. Though I won’t be waiting around for the 4K restorations to find out.
Refn has always gauged his own success as an artist in relation to Lars von Trier who is never known merely as “the guy who directed Breaking the Waves,” but as a creator of regard in his own right whose oeuvre is studied in film schools worldwide. Refn has alternately been known as the guy who made Pusher, and once he directed Drive, as the guy who made Drive. Hopefully his move into creating for Television, into Producing other’s films, and into the role of Film Archivist and Restorer will make Refn’s name more prestigious and eventual garner him the critical success as an auteur that he has always yearned for and hoped to get.