Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn has carved a career for himself in the past decade that traverses genre expectations and showcases an unique voice in European cinema. Yes, his movies are often incredibly violent, but it is never mindless, unlike the Hollywood kind.
For his latest film, Valhalla Rising, there is a great turning away from contemporary stories as Winding Refn takes on a new type of mythology that still permeates his own culture as well as that of Europe and American history. It’s grand visionary stuff and truly a cinematic experience unlike any others.
I first saw Valhalla Rising at last year’s London Film Festival and its director introduced the film and discussed it afterwards. It is my view that this film is destined to be a cult classic – the kind of film I used to stay up late for on Sunday night’s Videodrome on BBC2, despite being in school the next day.
A month or so ago, I caught up with Nicolas Winding Refn to discuss his latest movie. It could be described as a Viking-saga-with-a-twist…the twist being this could well be a sci-fi flick. Bet you didn’t expect that?
How did Valhalla Rising start out?
I don’t have a “thing” for Vikings…I’m not a Viking fanatic, but the original story that got me hooked was when I was a sixteen there was a radio programme on about a runestone that was found in Delaware. That was a very big puzzlement because that’s way south of Newfoundland where the first settlements were that we know of. For many years people tried to study it and how it could possibly have happened and one of the conclusions is that a Viking ship had sailed much further and got into America and maybe got lost or something. The runestone is a warning that it was a dangerous territory and at sixteen, I thought ‘wow’. And little did I know that twenty years later I would be using it as the basis of a science fiction film (laughs).
So the story grew from that?
It took me a long time to get the film going and figure out how to tell the story…and how it turns into something like outer space travel. I went away and made Bronson…there were the normal film problems, but after Brosnan I went straight into Valhalla.
What were the cinematic influences on Valhalla Rising. Is there anything particular?
Many films were an influence. I guess I always wanted to make Escape From New York because that was my favorite film when I was little. Valhalla Rising is very much about mythology and cinema is a mythology medium, or can be, so it’s a mix of everything. I can’t really come up with anything specific.
Was it a tough shoot up in the Scottish Highlands?
It is such unfriendly terrain but beautiful. We knew that nature was overpowering us and we shot in one of the strangest, most faraway places you could imagine. It almost became about how far we could get away into the mountains. I didn’t have a lot of money to make the movie so I couldn’t provide any kind of luxury for anybody.
The atmosphere conjured by the movie is very dreamlike. Was that always the intention? It’s quite different from your other films, isn’t it?
I always wanted to do a science fiction movie but without the science…so it becomes like mental fiction.
The figure of One Eye is quite mysterious. How would you explain him, or do you even need to?
One Eye is a character who suddenly appears like a monolith with no past or present, and who appears at times of religious turmoil. Back then Christianity was spreading through Europe very rapidly. They were going from a very primitive pagan-worshiping culture to an organised religion. So the idea that One Eye appears and travels with these people to their destiny. It’s almost like he represents faith. During the travels there is an evolution starting as an animal…as a slave…then he becomes a warrior and then he becomes a God for the people around him and at the end he becomes a man.
Was the character always written as a mute?
It’s a very physical performance from Mads Mikkelsen.
It was always written that way because it would sustain the mythology around him and it was always about what people read into him.
The use of chapters is very interesting, again was this devised from the start?
No, the chapters came later when we were editing the film because I felt it would be more…it would benefit from being divided up in sections. Actually I stole that from 2001! It made the dramatic storytelling a little more concrete and compelling, you know. Once you set the stage you’re able to create more in it.
The sound design is ferocious. What did you want to achieve with that particular approach?
The sound is almost like a character. I couldn’t really approach it with a musical format. It’s not like a contemporary movie where the music is very much part of it. I couldn’t use a musical voice, I felt it would be too much…I didn’t want any medieval music or things I couldn’t relate to. I decided that One Eye’s silence is kind of the music in a way…the sound of nature. The ambient sound of nature is a very powerful force.
Valhalla Rising is a really great film, do you have any more plans for this kind of movie again?
For me personally this is my favorite film that I’ve made.
Cool, so we both agree!
You’ve mentioned the sci-fi elements. Do you think one day you’ll make a full blown sci-fi film?
Yeah, I’d love to make a movie with science now…now that I’ve gone beyond science and outer space. I would like to make something with technology.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m going to Asia in the summer to do a western.
Nicolas Winding Refn, thanks for taking the time out to chat.
Thank you, and thanks for liking the movie. Talk to you on the next one session on the Film Shaft.
Valhalla Rising is released 30th April (UK) and 4th June (USA).