Nicolas Winding Refn on His Favorite Song Choices in Movie History

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 19 2013 1:48 PM

The Greatest Music Cue of All Time

Nicolas Winding Refn explains how he uses music in his films—and names his favorite song choice in cinematic history.

Once Upon a Time in the West.
Once Upon a Time in the West

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Driving down country roads on a summer night in 2011, I arrived at the local movie theater in Woodstock, Ill., the onetime home of Dick Tracy cartoonist Chester Gould and the town that doubled for Punxsutawney, Pa., in Groundhog Day. To my surprise the local theater was screening Drive, a film of interest both for its tailwinds following a coup at the Cannes Film Festival—Danish provocateur Nicolas Winding Ref received the Best Director Award, a first for his home country—but also because Refn and his star Ryan Gosling, who claim to share a telekinetic connection, were in lock step referring to their neon noir as a “violent John Hughes movie,” whether in press-junket interviews or from an armchair on The Tonight Show. My father was John Hughes, and it was striking to read of his association with what I anticipated to be a conventional chase movie. By the time the cursive-pink credits seared across the Los Angeles skyline over Kavinsky’s “Nightcall,” with its vocoder vocals growling as if from the depths of the sewer grates below—I’d spent years editing a book on the history of the vocoder, so my ears perked—I had that rare experience of feeling like a movie, even one about cars, was customized for me.

The pop songs in Drive stuck with me for days, weeks, months. Cliff Martinez’s original score was just as haunting, its rolling waves of synths and Cristal Baschet saturating what one patient in Oliver Sacks’ book Hallucinations refers to as his “intracranial jukebox.” Refn’s work is often noted for its hallucinatory qualities, and music is generally the culprit. After Drive I cruised Refn’s catalog, seeking out such infectious cues as the Glass Candy track that electrifies his 2008 prison epic Bronson.

“I never did drugs, so music was always the means of inspiration to get that heightened emotional feel of indulging within yourself,” Refn told me earlier this week during a conversation at the Bowery Hotel in New York. “I’ve begun making films that are very much about silence, so the music is very dominating.”

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Some of my more powerful childhood memories were of witnessing my father pore over his record collection in his home office, doing endless needle drops on his turntable or speeding through mixtapes and CDs to find a song that matched the mood of a scene spinning on a loop in the VCR. These temp tracks—songs suggested in the script or placeholders that filled silences in rough cuts—often had a way of making the final cut, and ever since I’ve been drawn to filmmakers who have a special touch for appropriating existing music into their films, be it the hymnal quality of Terrence Malick’s selections, the feverish energy William Friedkin could inject into an already-insane scene (look no further than the use of the Mutiny track “Lump” in Cruising) or the game-changing musical pathways presented by Stanley Kubrick a generation earlier. That Refn was able to travel down these same lanes with a pop sensibility was an especially potent combination.

After connecting with Refn, I spoke to Cliff Martinez by phone from Los Angeles to get a composer’s perspective on the art of appropriation. “The thing that’s interesting about carving your film around an existing song is you can really do some unexpected things,” he said. “From a composer’s point of view, sometimes I think it’s cheating. I think you take somebody else’s great work of art—for example, you could take ‘In My Life’ by the Beatles and put it over an image of a steaming pile of manure and it would probably still bring a tear to your eye. There’s a shortcut aspect to the whole appropriation of other people’s music, especially when you have the budget to get classic songs. I like original music, but then, that’s my job.”

Whereas the pop songs in Drive—which, it should be noted, Martinez was an enthusiastic supporter of—had already been integrated into the cut before he was brought on as composer, his collaboration with Refn on their latest film, Only God Forgives, was more bottom-up. During production Martinez relocated to Thailand, where the revenge fantasy starring an increasingly laconic Gosling is set, for several weeks to compose round-the-clock in his hotel suite, carefully fleshing out Refn’s silences.

For 90 occasionally challenging minutes, the characters in Only God Forgives slither through pools of neon that have been painstakingly isolated across the frame. Within those stylish hits of color, faces are broken, stomachs are butterflied, innocent bystanders are mowed down, and my violence threshold was crossed. Martinez’s score serves as a life preserver at times—something to hold on to when the waters run red. The cue at the climax of the film, “Wanna Fight,” is a standout, a hypnotic piece of score quickly filed into the intracranial jukebox. The challenge of achieving this kind of trance, Martinez explained, “is to maintain that simplicity and also make it engaging. ‘Wanna Fight’ started from a simple, repeating, relentless motif. I wanted it to hold your attention, but stay primitive and numbskull-stark.”

My conversation with Refn was anything but stark, especially when music was at the forefront.

What were some of your earliest musical influences?

Music has always been part of my upbringing. My mother was a huge jazz and Motown fan, so I was exposed to that at an early age. She was a still photographer in Copenhagen. The ’60s was a time when a lot of American jazz musicians were coming to Scandinavia and performing, and she photographed just about every one of them.

Her photographs are very different; she refused to take any pictures of musicians onstage. They’re all before or after, never onstage. That was when they were in their armor. I remember she told me the first time she photographed Miles Davis, he didn’t want her in the room. So she photographed him through the crack of the door. It’s very intimate; she captured the man in a moment he wasn’t aware of.

Of course, when you’re rebelling against your parents, you have to find your own niche, and I always very much liked what I would call more aggressive music, especially when I was younger. At the same time, I loved the New Romantic sound. That was my teenage years. I now go back and listen to a lot of those bands again. A few weeks ago, I was sitting at LAX and I wondered what happened to Book of Love. I went onto iTunes and downloaded every Book of Love album again, and they were great.

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