Hey, hey, everyone,
We have a real treat for you this week. We talk about the cinematic masterpiece Valhalla Rising and also interview the director of the film, Nicolas Winding Refn!
Here is some of that interview. If you want to hear the whole thing, press play below! You can hear us chat about how he became friends with Alejandro Jodorowsky, some info on his Barbarella TV series, One Eye’s Tokyo adventure, the religious themes in his films and much, much more.
The interview starts at the 27:23 mark.
We also have a kickass guest host, Jon Padgett. Jon is a horror writer, voiceover artist, and trusty steward of ligotti.net – a site founded in 1998 dedicated to horror writer Thomas Ligotti (one of the “inspirations” for HBO’s True Detective).
Dan & Nick
Dan: Valhalla Rising is a science fiction film set in the 1100s. It’s a spaghetti Western. It’s a samurai film. It’s a retelling of A Boy and His Dog. It’s such a fantastic blend of genres. Was it difficult to get everything you wanted into this film?
NWR: Well, it started off really easy because I got the film financed with me saying, “I want to do a Viking movie with Mads Mikkelsen.” And from a Scandinavian point of view, that was a bona fide hit. And prior to that, the Viking genre was almost like a cursed genre, because there has only really been on good movie made of it – the Richard Fleischer, Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas movie called The Vikings. So it was pretty much like an open playing field of what could be done. Now, I can’t stand Vikings. I don’t get the obsession. I can’t stand the look. I have no interest in the mythology. Which is the exact reason I wanted to make a Viking film. Because I am interested in what doesn’t fascinate me. So I started working on the script and having very little knowledge of that era, I hired a Norwegian novelist, named Roy Jacobsen, to help me flesh out this story about this “mute warrior.” And it just evolved. Then when I started shooting, I changed things again. I shoot in chronological order so everything was constantly evolving. But they had already given me the money. And when the movie was done, and the financiers saw it, they hated it. [Laughter]. They thought that this was not what I had originally said I would do. I said, “I know. But remember that life is like Christmas. You never really know what you’ll get.” So the film was in a bit of limbo because no one really knew what to do distribution-wise. I was able to hook up with some very good distributors that saw the potential. And the movie turned out to have a very good financially lucrative life.
Nick: You once said that your original idea for Valhalla Rising was to make a Viking action film. Was there anything specific that helped it evolve into, as you put it, a metaphysical science fiction film?
NWR: Well, you say things that people want to hear to get the money. Then you have to figure out what to do afterwards. Sure, there is action in the movie. But I really wanted to make a science fiction film without science; a science fiction film that had no technology. But after doing this movie, and becoming more knowledgeable in this era of the Vikings, it is very fascinating. I certainly have more of a respect for the whole time and the fascination with them. They built ships like we built space ships. They were sailors like we were astronauts. They were warriors like we had armies. There was a very intelligent, clever, social structure within them. Making the movie from Roy’s knowledge was very enlightening and very interesting. So a lot of these things made me say, “This is a science fiction movie.” For them to discover America would be like for us discovering Venus. That was the approach. And this was halfway through the movie.
Jon: Vikings are a pretty hot commodity in 2015. This is a turnaround from the environment before Valhalla Rising was released. You called it “a cursed genre.” What were the pitfalls and clichés of earlier Viking-themed films and/or stories and how did you avoid or subvert them in Valhalla Rising?
NWR: I’m not here to criticize any other movies. But I did watch a few that were made and it’s not a genre like the samurai or the cowboy genres that have great masterpieces and great cinematic storytelling. A lot of it was not very well-produced material. And every time I was like, “Why are they wearing those stupid helmets?”
Jon, Nick, & Dan: [Laughter] NWR: When I started learning more about the Viking culture, it was such a fascinating archetype. This is the Scandinavian samurai/cowboy and there had to be something to what makes those other characters seem so sexy. What I did was strip away all production design and I shot the movie just purely in the mountains, so there was an almost post-apocalyptic feel to it. I tried to minimize the costumes to just modern leatherwear, but being very nondescript about it. I had difficulties with the weapon, but that was more of a budgetary thing. Whenever you have something sharp, you have to have an armorer on set and I couldn’t afford one. So that is why they very rarely drew their weapons. It was just too expensive for me to do that [Laughter]. So I had to find other ways of making that work. But it was a genre where there were not many successes, financially. In literature, there are millions of great books about it, but there aren’t that many films, unfortunately.
“I am interested in what doesn’t fascinate me.”
Dan: Now, you had worked with Mads Mikkelsen on the Pusher films. What was the toughest part of directing him in this film where he has no lines?
NWR: It’s a very Danish tradition, the whole Viking lore. The people pretty much grow up with it in school and in our culture. I grew up in New York so I didn’t have that privilege. But when I called Mads I said, “I’m going to make this Viking film and you are going to play this guy.” And he’s like, “Absolutely. Count me in.” Then I go, “That’s great! So, he’s only going to have one eye.” Mads says, “Oh cool! That’s so evil and mean.” Then I say, “Yeah, you aren’t going to have any dialogue.” And he’s like, “Oh. Okay.” Then I say, “By the way. You’re from outer space.”
Jon, Nick, & Dan: [Laughter] NWR: Being someone who is always up for the challenge, he was like, “Yeah. Of course I am.” Now, when you have actors who are very skilled, and have superstar quality, you can photograph them any way and it always looks fantastic and engaging. When you take away an actor’s speech, you are taking away half of their tools. So it was tough in the beginning to figure out how to make him inhuman and yet still engaging. So any time there was a reaction in his body that was too human, that was wrong. If it got too robotic and too removed, that was wrong. So it was trying to make him into an animal without all of the traps of doing that. It took its time but we very quickly found, because we know each other, a language that we were able to flow with.
Nick: The scene in the film where One Eye and the Vikings arrive in North America and it becomes a living hell for them. Did this reflect any fears you had as a child of moving to America?
NWR: Oh my goodness. I don’t think so. I moved to New York when I was eight. But maybe. I think the idea that the idea of traveling into the unknown is always terrifying. The idea that they come upon this incredible continent. With clashes of religion and power. There is this great movie in this idea of the mercenary Vikings going off to fight the Holy War. There is an amazing, epic story in that. They were hired as elite bodyguards throughout Asia in that period. So historically, it is at a time where Christianity is starting to spread through Northern Europe. It was basically three scenarios. Either it was by war. It was by money, meaning they would buy people’s religion. Or it was mutation. And the Vikings basically mutated into Christianity. At one point, Jesus to them was someone who died in battle. So when they get to this continent of possibilities, the priest and the general become conflicted. The general wants to conquer but the priest says, “How can we?” And that is when the general says, “Believe in me.” And then, in a way, the concept of One Eye, appears because he has no past. So he is an entity that brings everyone to their destiny. What they realize during the movie is that he is the one that brings everyone where they are meant to go. He’s a bit like The Driver. It’s the same character. The DNA from Valhalla went over to The Driver and that same character went over to The Lieutenant in Only God Forgives. And the evolution is that in Valhalla Rising, the character is defined by the way he looks, because he has one eye. In Drive, he’s defined by his action. And in the third one, The Lieutenant in Only God Forgives, he has no definition at all. But they all share the same DNA and are all created from the same concept.
Intro music provided by Mr. Nick Nightly.
Outro music provided by From Below. Stream or purchase their debut album “No Gods, No Monsters” here: http://musicfrombelow.bandcamp.com