With films like Drive, The Neon Demon, and Only God Forgives to his credit, director Nicolas Winding Refn has demonstrated time and again his belief in following one’s own muse, wherever that leads them. It’s a path the filmmaker continues to walk in his latest project, a book showcasing his own collection of exploitation movie posters. Titled Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing, it hits stores on October 5th. But filmgoers lucky enough to attend Austin’s Fantastic Fest this year (from September 24 through October 1), will have an opportunity to check out the posters firsthand, at a special exhibit hosted by Mondo. I caught up with Refn recently, and he explained how his collection, and the resulting book and gallery show came to be; as well as his thoughts on the much-parodied Lincoln car commercials he made with Matthew McConaughey…
Nerdist: How did you develop your love of exploitation movie posters?
Nicolas Winding Refn: It started by chance, because I purchased a poster collection from a friend of mine, Jimmy McDonough. Who was a writer and was one of the creators of the first fanzine to write about Times Square films in the ‘70s and ‘80s, called Sleazoid Express. He was getting rid of his poster collection and he asked me if I wanted to buy it. I said, “Yeah, sure. Why not.” But little did I know eight weeks later a thousand posters would show up at my house in Copenhagen. I was like, “Oh my goodness. What am I gonna do with all this paper?” I started to go through it. My life was like, “What the fuck is this?” I’m like, “Nothing.”
I’m not a walking encyclopedia of film. I haven’t seen every movie ever made. But as I was going through them, it was like Doctor Who. I was traveling back in time. I thought, “This would make a great poster book. Because I don’t know what this is. But I can do the Andy Warhol trick, and represent what was considered trash a few years in the most expensive, high-end way.”
N: How did you go about selecting which posters you wanted to include in the book?
NWR: It took a long time, because it was like editing a movie. The flow of the images had to be unpredictable and yet cohesive, yet it couldn’t be too predictable. And each image had to represent something, so it took a long time for me to find the right order. Then, on top of that, Alan Jones, who is a friend of mine, had to do research every single film to find information. Because I wanted them to be documented. So he had to come up with interesting information about each film. That took almost two years, because they were so difficult to find.
N: Do you have any favorites from among your collection? Or favorite poster artists and designers?
NWR: I don’t really know the designers’ names. I know in the book there’s a lot of great posters that I would put on the wall if I my wife allowed it. [Laughs.] I don’t have a favorite designer I follow, I tend to go with what looks right.
N: Do some of the posters have more significance to you that others?
NWR: Well, in the book there is actually something very personal. I incorporated two posters from a movie called Night Tide. It was directed by Curtis Harrington, and I was friends with Curtis Harrington before he passed away. I actually love the movie Night Tide. I think it’s absolutely magnificent. He’s very under-appreciated, I feel. I wanted to remember him, and so that’s the reason I included those in the book, which are just my favorite things to look at.
N: Was it even more difficult to select which films you wanted to display at Fantastic Fest’s exhibit than it was choosing which ones to feature in the book?
NWR: Oh yeah, they were. But you always have your favorites.
N: Why do you think the movie poster is a lost art? Why don’t more studios use illustrated posters these days to promote their films, instead of using photoshopped images?
NWR: Oh God, I don’t know what goes on at those meetings. I can just say that I generally think that a poster is an extension of your vision, and it should be equally as interesting as your film. Making a film, and incorporating a poster is hard. But I think what’s great about the book is it shows that they didn’t have funds or the talent, but they had the imagination. That’s usually what I find more interesting. Where nowadays it seems like there’s so much money around, but not always a lot of imagination.
N: You’ve been to Fantastic Fest before. What does the festival mean to you? Why is it a great place to debut this gallery?
NWR: I love Austin, as a city. My introduction was when Radius brought me down to do Only God Forgives, which was great fun. I worked there last year when I did the Lincoln commercials with Matthew McConaughey. We shot them in Austin. It was great to work there. Then Tim League invited my wife’s documentary about us last year at Fantastic Fest, and it was so much fun. What was interesting to me, having grown up in New York, it was like, “This is the CBGB of cinema.” This is where it happened. This is where the fun is.” The love of cinema is so strong, and the acceptance of everything. As long as it’s personal, it’s interesting. I find that very refreshing. I just think it’s such a great place to be. Both Fantastic Fest and Mondo were very interested in doing something together, so it was a very easy deal and concept to approach. And as a foreigner, especially from Denmark, being in Austin, Texas, you really feel your out of your comfort zone. [Laughs.]
N: Even coming from the States one sometimes feels that way. “Keep Austin weird” is a noble slogan.
NWR: Yes, “Don’t sell out.”
N: You mentioned your Lincoln commercials with Matthew McConaughey. Were you surprised to see how they took off, and how they were parodied by so many people?
NWR: Oh yeah, it was hysterical. Especially the one with Jim Carrey. It was really well done, and he actually said something that made sense. I thought it was terrific. I loved working with Matthew, and I think we did some really good advertising that became its own identity. From a professional perspective it was very satisfying, but then people taking that and doing their own interpretations of it, with love and respect, I thought it was hysterical.
N: You could tell the admirers weren’t just watching it, but studying it.
NWR: Yeah, it’s like, someone made a Mario Go Kart out of Drive. It shows that there’s so much imagination going on in the digital revolution.