I'm Givin' You a Nightcall: Filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn Talks on the Role of Music in Cinema

The man behind 'Drive' and the newly released 'Bronson' soundtrack talks about scores, pop music, and more.

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Jun 9 2015, 6:00pm

Of all the directors working today, few weave music and image together in as mesmerizing and efficient manner as Nicolas Winding Refn. With the overnight-success of Drive in 2011, Refn hit the mainstream and suddenly his name was on the tips of everyone in and out of the film world’s tongue; No longer was he a cult figure, he was a major force. Drive also marked the first significant, widespread praise for Refn’s distinctive musical aptitude — the soundtrack receiving multiple releases and even ranking 31st on the Billboard 200 —, but Drive was not the exception to the rule, it wasn’t the mark of a changing director. Refn has, in all of his films, applied a similar approach to music. Whereas with Drive Refn blended an original composition by Cliff Martinez with a bed of pre-existing pop music, his earlier works were as tonally proficient even while relying only on the use of pre-recorded musical beds.

From his dynamic debut in 1996 with Pusher, Refn established himself as an uncompromising artist with a penchant for mixing the high brow with the low brow. It is with Bronson that Refn was able to test the limits of this juxtaposition. Blending classical and new wave tendencies, he created a harmonious kind of chaos. It is not only from track to track as the film progressives, but also within the clash of image and sound. In the opening minutes of the movie, we are met with images of horrific violence set to the tune of the dreamlike The Walker Brothers’ track “The Electrician.” This becomes the blueprint for the film, with Refn always placing the viewer between opposing sensorial poles. Bronson is the purest example of Refn’s mixtape-like asthetic.

Having collaborated on a various releases in the past, Refn re-teamed with the California-based Milan Records to release, for the first time ever, the soundtrack for the film. In light of the release and in order to better understanding the reasoning behind the decisions that go into building a score for a film without the use of original compositions, we hooked up with Refn. Over the course of the conversation many aspects of Refn’s process became clear but nothing was as clear as his complete love and devotion to cinema.

Noisey: Your films seem especially driven by music, at what point in your life did you start to take note of music in movies?
Refn: It came when I was born. I’ve always loved all kinds of music. Some people gravitate towards filmmaking through photography. Some people gravitate towards filmmaking through writing. I gravitate towards filmmaking from music — even though I can’t play a note to save my life. I have no musical abilities.

I think that you are among a minority of filmmakers that are effectively proficient in applying pre-existing music to their films, and, from that, creating something entirely unique. How do you approach finding the right song or sound to define your films, scenes, and/or characters?
It usually starts with the music giving me some kind of image, and then that image becomes part of the movie. Music helps me to define an image. I will be listening to a piece of music and I will think, ‘that would be great for this scene because the scene will have much more subtext than if it wasn’t there.’ An example is in Drive, I had this idea for the elevator scene that it would be in slow motion with the Driver smashing a guy’s head in, but that was only after listening to Brian Eno’s “An Ending.” So, I use music very much as a source of inspiration. I don’t do drugs anymore, so I have to find somewhere to go to get inspiration. Music enhances emotions.

Other than the composers you have collaborated with, how closely do you work with others — either producers or supervisors — in obtaining the right sound?
It’s very simple, it’s just me and my editor Mat Newman. Mat has been working with me on all my movies from Bronson onward. We just take out our musical libraries and we try different things out. I’ve never used a musical supervisor. I mean, I would love to but right now, you know, you just put on your iTunes and try many things out.

Bronson’s score reminds me of 2001: A Space Odyssey in many ways. Especially in that the music is essential for the visuals but not always in a conventional way. Was Kubrick an influence for the soundtrack?
Well, it wasn’t so specific but of course. Probably more than 2001, was Kubrick’s work with Wendy Carlos for A Clockwork Orange. That’s more than just putting wonderful classical references to images that creates a whole new sensibility. With A Clockwork Orange, it was a revolution in how to use that kind of music.

What are some other films and/or filmmakers that have soundtracks that particularly inspire you?
There are a couple of films that define the combination of music and images. The greatest achievement in that collaboration is, of course, Once Upon a Time in the West. That is the most consequential, orgasmic arena of music and images. That’s where it’s like, ‘Fuck. How the hell do you do that.’ And then you have Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone. There’s Psycho with and Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrman and, even though North by Northwest, Rear Window, and Vertigo have better soundtracks, Psycho is really where it comes together in a different way. Of course you have Fellini and a lot of Dario Argento’s early films, especially his work with Goblin. Suspiria is wonderful. You also have, of course, Martin Scorsese’s ability to use music in his films. I remember when I saw Mean Streets when I was nine years old, and I still remember the scene when Robert DeNiro walks in to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (Rolling Stones), and being like, ‘fucking hell, now I know how it works.’

Absolutely, Scorsese kind of transformed the use of pop music in cinema.
Yea, it’s unique but you know what is weird, for everyone (whether it is Kubrick or Scorsese, or even like the work that Pino Donaggio did with Brian De Palma — and of course, we are not even touching the whole Asian world. All of the Japanese filmmakers that use composers well) all lead back to one movie…Scorpio Rising by Kenneth Anger. That was the first time that a filmmaker would use pop music of its time to underscore the emotion with the images. Its very interesting that it all leads back to that film.

You’ve talked extensively about different composers’ contributions to films, yet Bronson doesn’t have an original score. Do you think that there is something liberating about retaining the control over exactly how the music interacts with your work.
I like the combination. I love working with Cliff [Martinez]. I absolutely love it. I think he brings things to the films like any great actor would; consequential importance, he elevates the films. So, I love that collaboration. I also love taking songs that I may have been listening to while writing or developing a movie and using that. Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes it does. I love the combination but it is very important that the combination has a thread to it, so it doesn’t just become all over the place. There is nothing more annoying than if music just becomes background.

Speaking of that thread, for Bronson there is a clash between New-Wave and classical tendencies, why did you feel that this was necessary for this film?
Bronson was a very autobiographical movie. I was a teenager in the early 80s, that’s where my musical identity formed and it was in New York, so I always loved the rough and synthetic sound. What is interesting about the synthetic sound is that it was modern composing in a classical way. It was writing melodies with instruments that would essentially be a substitute for a violin, for example. You can even manufacture, later on, through a digital element, so you didn’t even need to know how to play it as long as you could make a melody out of it. It was equal opportunity. Bronson is very much a combination of music I grew up with at an early age combined with a classical nature of its operaticness. From then on, I have been mostly just using electronic music.

Is that what you are still drawn to in current music, do you still seek out new bands?
All the time. I’m not one of those people that know every name of every artist and track, but I can hear something on the radio and go, ‘I like that,’ or see something in a store and go, ‘I like that.’ I have this thing that every time I am in London I go into Rough Trade and I buy loads of CDs of unknown artists and I see what comes out of it. It’s like rolling the dice. Sometimes it’s something fantastic, sometimes its not. I like everything and if I can’t understand it, I find a way to define it.

Was it a budgetary or aesthetic choice to film Bronson without the use of a composer?
It was an aesthetic choice. I didn’t need a composer at that point for what I was looking for. I did meet with Pet Shop Boys asking if they would compose, basically take the musical references of the classical influences and compose something themselves. They were like, ‘sure, but you can’t afford us baby.’ [laughs] and it was true. But, they were very nice to me and let me license one of their songs.

The way you utilize music often put the sound in conflict with the image, what is it about this contrast in tone that inspires you?
Well, it is about the contrast. I like the twilight zone between sex and violence, insanity vs. normality, the romantic and fear. I don’t like in between. I like extremes, and I like different extremes at the same time because it evokes emotions within you that can be unidentifiable. It becomes more subliminal, and subliminal leads to penetration; penetration leads to experience; experience leads to thought.

I think that your collaboration with Milan is part of a trajectory of projects that are putting an increased importance back on the work of composing, back on soundtracks. In turn, I think this is having a positive effect on the future of film composition, especially with the release of something like the It Follows. Is this part of the reason that you are interested in seeing these scores obtain physical releases?
Yea and also it is a wonderful collaboration. Whether it is It Follows, which is a wonderful movie with a wonderful soundtrack; or its Robocop (that I am also doing with Milan); Battle Royale, which is source but the combination of source and the film was just so outstanding; or The Dead Zone, which is Michael Kamen’s best work. Music speaks to our emotions. It is part of our creation. So why not utilize that to its full extent.

The soundtrack for Bronson is now available to purchase for the first time ever via Milan Records