The art of forgiveness

Nicolas Winding Refn, Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas on Only God Forgives.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas - "I was amazed by people's reactions to me."
Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas - "I was amazed by people's reactions to me." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Only God can forgive Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn on the making of Only God Forgives. The impact a mother can have on her son through John Cassavetes is revealed. Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas talk about disguises, surprises and the creation of atmospheres in character.

Only God Forgives is an unforgiving look into an abyss. Refn's Bangkok has blood-red corridors where sibling rivalry knows no bounds, and a human god named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) sings Karaoke to celebrate his justice.

On a steamy summer afternoon in New York City at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel near Central Park fairy tales were disclosed and it was "time to meet the devil."

Nicolas Winding Refn, Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Nicolas Winding Refn, Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: Tell me about how Only God Forgives relates to fairy tales. Were you thinking of specific ones or the genre in general?

Nicolas Winding Refn: Well, it's more the language of fairy tales. I used to make films pretty much about authenticity. When I was a lot younger I even tried the classic route of catching reality in a frame, you know. Whether it was real drugs on set or real people playing themselves - whatever I could get to be as real as possible… Then I became more interested in hyper-reality. Coming from a country where we have Hans Christian Andersen, where we have a great tradition of fairy tales of the north. Astrid Lindgren's characters, you know, Pippi Longstocking is a great conceptual fairy tale construction. Grimms' fairy tales are very much part of my upbringing.

AKT: I was reminded of The Maiden Without Hands, which is a tale collected by the Grimms that would fit your context well. [In the tale a father makes a deal with the devil and in return for riches cuts off his daughter's hands].

NWR: No hands is a very mythological, biblical element. The oldest form of punishment was always the removing of a hand or hands. It still is a practice in certain parts of the world as a sort of punishment. My mother told me, apparently I was very obsessed with my hands. When I was little, I always covered my hands when I fell. For a number of years I had my mother soak my hands in vaseline and then put socks on when I slept. So when I woke up they were as pure as snow. And there's of course the historical background to loss of hands - you use hands to pray, to maneuver around.

AKT: Any connection to forgiveness?

NRW: Forgiveness. Part of the Thai character, the Thai place is based on the Old Testament where God says you have to fear me because I will be cruel and you have to love me because I will be kind, which is a very primal instinct. Later on, when it became Jesus, it was organised. So I think with revenge and forgiveness - it is a constant, every-day struggle with this. It goes back to very pure notions of violence, forgiveness, not forgiveness. It's very basic of how we live our lives. It's a very individual definition.

Ryan Gosling explains the effect of Refn shooting chronologically.

Gosling: It takes a certain amount of trust to go in and work this way. Generally he works chronologically. You are not really sure of the film you are making and neither is he. He is sort of finding it as he goes along. You just go on for the ride. In Drive I was the driver, more of a vehicle for the audience, more of an experience than it was a story. I did feel a difference between the two roles [Driver and Julian].

Nicolas Winding Refn with Kristin Scott Thomas, Ryan Gosling, Vithaya Pansringarm and Yayaying Rhatha Phongam.
Nicolas Winding Refn with Kristin Scott Thomas, Ryan Gosling, Vithaya Pansringarm and Yayaying Rhatha Phongam. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

RG goes on to impersonate his director: "I think she should die. What do you want to do when you see her dead body? [referring to Scott Thomas's character Crystal, his mother] Do you want to cry? Do you want to laugh?" I was trying to joke and said: "Maybe I could cut her open and look at her womb?" And he was like "cool".

Nicolas Winding Refn: It's the idea of a man chained to his mother's womb, in order to free himself from her spell. It's a heightened fairy tale version of a very common problem… The idea of filming chronologically, I did it on my first movie because my mother had given me a book about John Cassavetes… It talked about him shooting his movies in chronological order, so I thought, I'll do that. It seemed so natural, I guess. Now it's almost a way of submission. Submitting completely to the creative process… I like the unknown.

Kristin Scott Thomas, almost unrecognisable with a long blond wig and garish tacky clothes in Only God Forgives, talks about the origin of her transformation.

Kristin Scott Thomas: I did a photo shoot about a year before we started talking about Crystal [her character in the movie]. I've been dressed up in a similar kind of thing - like Donatella Versace. I was amazed by people's reactions to me. The atmosphere around me changed completely. Men particularly became incredibly aggressive. And women cowered and were kind of nervous. I felt really, really uncomfortable and it struck me that there are women all over the planet who think that this is an ideal of beauty that they want to emulate. And every day they get up and do this whole thing and create this kind of atmosphere. It seemed to me a really good way into the character, a kind of war paint or armor. She's dressed for battle, if you like, which is a way for me to get into a character I really didn't have a clue about…. I don't actually see much humor in the film. It's not a humor I recognise. I find the film deeply shocking and disturbing.

Only God Forgives opens nationwide in the US on July 19 and in the UK on August 2.

As the late Jacques Derrida might have commented on Refn's film - only the unforgivable is worth forgiving.

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