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Q&A: Nicolas Winding Refn Explores “THE ACT OF SEEING” Via Classic Exploitation

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Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s book THE ACT OF SEEING (out now from FAB Press under the NWR imprint) showcases promotional images of filth and “sin” straight from “The Deuce.” These rare, exquisitely reproduced posters from Refn’s collection are largely oriented toward sexploitation and porn, though horror and other genres are represented as well.

The book’s eye-boggling images are supported by words provided by longtime film critic and Film4 FrightFest co-curator Alan Jones. FANGORIA sat down with Refn at the recent Fantastic Fest, his only U.S. stop on his promotional tour, to discuss the book (now available at Amazon.com), his work and his kinks.

FANGORIA: What inspired you to create THE ACT OF SEEING?

ACTOFSEEINGREFN1NICOLAS WINDING REFN: I had purchased a collection of 1,000 posters about four years ago from a friend of mine, Jimmy McDonough, who used to, with Bill Landis, write Sleazoid Express, which was the first fanzine about Times Square, and the exploitation films that played there.

FANG: How did you put together the book, in terms of figuring out the order?

REFN: That took a long time, because I approached it like editing a film—which poster would represent what, or how I reacted to it, how would it appear against the color on the other side of the image or the other title or tagline; this would go with that, but it wouldn’t flow after that, so I need to put something in between. It was similar to editing a movie in a way, like when you make a collage, and have to find a pattern in a collage.

FANG: When were you first introduced to The Deuce?

REFN: Well, I was never really introduced to it, because I was too young to experience it, but I would have loved to have tried it. In a way, making this book was like “trying the Deuce.” I could never really be there, but at least I could try to save the memory of it, and that’s the reason I decided to make this book—well, one of the reasons.

FANG: What is your interest in exploitation cinema?

REFN: And extreme cinema. I do like fetishized cinema because I like the act of a personal vision. Whether it’s good or bad is sort of irrelevant, but the idea of somebody creating something out of sexual frustration, or violent frustration, I always find very intriguing. You can definitely see that what was selling in Times Square was sin. It was all about selling sex.

FANG: Culturally, is that very taboo where you’re from?

REFN: I’m from Denmark; we invented pornography.

FANG: So you came from such an open, permissive culture, and then you went to the U.S. and they were selling “sin”—was that part of your own fetishization, because Americans made it dirty and wrong?

ACTOFSEEINGREFN2REFN: I think that what fascinates me more is the sort of artistry behind it—the political and sociological content. What’s interesting is that some of the filmmakers in the sexploitation era were actually quite talented—like Joe Sarno, who then went into straight hardcore and just disintegrated. But when he was in softcore, he was actually making pretty interesting melodramas—because he could, and he had good themes. Andy Milligan is another one I like—a very frustrated filmmaker. He used film as a way to express his frustrated homosexuality or hatred of women and his other crazy ideas about life. So I don’t have so much a sociological interest; it’s more of a sense of loving anything that’s fetish. I may not enjoy it, but I appreciate that it exists.

FANG: How do you feel that quality of fetishization exists in your own work?

REFN: That I don’t know. I leave that to the experts.

FANG: Are there particular stories or images that inspire you or that you find yourself putting into your works? For example, Lars von Trier is known for the heavy sexual content in some of his films, and for exploring personal themes—

REFN: Lars has his various reasons for doing what he does, and so do I. I can’t put a word on it. I just make films based on what I would like to see.

FANG: What attracted you to the medium?

REFN: Well, I’m dyslexic, so writing’s very difficult. I can’t work with clay. I’m colorblind, so I can’t paint. I was not a very good actor. I really don’t know anything about clothes—so that kind of left filmmaking as the only option.

FANG: Were you inspired by a particular movie or director? Was there anything in particular that made you say, “This is what I want to do”?

REFN: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

FANG: Did you see it in Denmark, or in the States?

REFN: I saw it in New York City when I was 14, on a double feature with THE HILLS HAVE EYES.

FANG: What was it about that movie that influenced you?

REFN: It was more like, whatever that film did, I wanted to do. I didn’t want to make that movie, but it imprinted on my mind, and I was never able to escape it. Now I understood about the power of art.

FANG: Does your book cover any of the work of Radley Metzger?

REFN: There are a few, but the problem was that his posters just aren’t very interesting, so I took them out.

FANG: How much does design mean to you?

REFN: A lot. Filmmaking is partly designing. What’s interesting is that with all my difficulties I chose film, which is a combination of everything.

FANG: The idea of vision is very important in your films…

REFN: Yeah, but I’m colorblind. I can only see extreme colors.

FANG: Would that explain the use of gels in your movies?

REFN: Well, it’s because I can only see contrast colors. So if I can’t see anything else, I gotta see it!

FANG: Tell me about THE NEON DEMON—

REFN: It’s a movie. It has only women in it.

FANG: Are you excited about it?

REFN: I’m very excited about it.

FANG: Should we be excited about it?

REFN: I think every woman in the world should be excited about it. Elle Fanning is very good in it.

FANG: How do you define “fetish” in your life?

REFN: What I like to see.

FANG: So it’s a broad definition?

REFN: Well, there are certain things you can get very specific on… I’m very obsessed about breasts.

FANG: Why is that?

REFN: I don’t know. It’s probably a mother thing.

FANG: Well, thank you for speaking with FANGORIA.

REFN: Yeah, I’m a fan. I’ve got all of your magazines.

FANG: When did you start reading Fango?

REFN: In the mid-’80s, when I could buy the magazine at newsstands. Then some years ago, I bought the first 10 or 15. I have all of them, up to a certain point. My favorites are the first 25, because the industry was much more diverse, and I’d love reading about upcoming films and things like that. Today it’s very different.

FANG: Do you watch a lot of horror films?

REFN: I like all kinds of movies, but generally I do love horror, because it’s probably the purest cinematic genre. It’s all about what you see, and feel—and what you don’t see. The narratives are much more abstract, and it’s probably the oldest genre in the world.

FANG: Why do you think we’re always trying to scare each other?

REFN: Because it’s fun! And then some sociology professor will have a lot of analysis about why it’s healthy for society, and how we play out our fears.

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About the author
Heather Buckley
Heather has a dual career as a Producer (Red Shirt Pictures) and a film journalist. Raised on genre since the age of 13, she’s always been fascinated by extreme art cinema, monster movies and apocalyptic culture. Her first love was a Gorezone no. 9 bought at Frank's Stationary in Keyport, NJ. She has not looked back since. Follow her on Twitter @_heatherbuckley
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