Liv Corfixen’s documentary My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn paints a sincere portrait of an artist actively balancing work, life, family, and expectations. Refn’s wife followed the director with a camera for six months during the time their family relocated to Bangkok for the production of Only God Forgives. The film captures a unique time for Refn as the expectations for his follow up to Drive were incredibly high, with very little real understanding of the movie he set out to make.
The documentary works as a companion piece to Forgives, letting us see Refn struggle with his decisions while projecting confidence on set to keep the crew focused, but doesn’t require having seen the movie to care about the circumstances. We spoke to the director and her subject about My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn (in select theaters in New York & LA, and on all VOD platforms, and iTunes now), their relationship and being okay with controversy.
Nerdist: You took the film to Fantastic Fest in Austin last year. How was that experience?
Liv Corfixen: It’s a great festival. Austin! It was my first time, this year.
Nicolas Winding Refn: Austin!
N: I was sitting behind you during the Fantastic debates. (Where two film nerds debate a topic and then fight a boxing match after to settle things.)
NWR: Right. Well, that was great. I’ve never – I can’t hate the ring, but I was like, damn! They take the punch.
N: Well, that’s how we do it in America. We’re not going to solve things with words. [chuckling]
NWR: No, you invade. [laughter] But I think just creatively, Austin is like the next level of creative explosion. I can only see my films premiering in Austin from now on. You can quote me.
N: How did the discussion come about of you filming your husband making a film?
NWR: We never discussed it.
LC: I just said “I’m going to do it.” But I didn’t have the idea before we moved there. It was just when Nicolas usually works, I have been staying home in Denmark with our children, and it was so hard on us always being apart, especially after Drive, because that was, like, 10 months away, where I have to travel back and forth. So we decided to go with him this time in Bangkok and put the children in schools and all that–the whole move for six months. I was like, what should I do in Bangkok?
N: So your children were attending a school in Bangkok at the time?
LC: Yeah. She was eight at the time–Lola, the older one–so she was in an international school in second grade. The little one was in a nursery, in a Canadian school. So I was like, I’m going to die if I’m just going to do nothing, just being a housewife in Bangkok for six months. So I sort of just got the idea. I think I talked to the line producer, Johnny, on the movie, about it, and he got me a camera, and I told Nicolas “I’m going to film the process. Is that OK?” And he was like, “OK, sure.”
N: (to Nicolas) And how did you feel being the subject matter of something, instead of being the person behind the process?
NWR: Well, we had done it about nine years ago. There was a feature made about us called Gambler, a documentary about our life. So I think we had tried it already–both of us–what it was like, having a camera on us constantly. So for me, I was like “If that fulfills what you need in your life, good luck.” But I was also like, “Just go all the way then.” It was very therapeutic, I think, actually, while we were making it, for both of us, in a way. It brought us closer in that sense that we were now using each other in a way that we had never done before.
N: Between the film and the documentary, does that put extra pressure on your relationship?
LC: Yeah, but it’s always those eight weeks, when Nicolas shoots a movie, there’s really not time for a relationship, because he’s so into the movie. And he’s sort of… (asks, clarifying question in Danish)…
NWR: I’m, like, in a safe haven.
LC: Yeah, I know that those eight weeks, I can’t come with all my demands, because it’s such a tough period for him, because creatively he has those ups and downs, and I know money-wise it’s tough, because he always doing low-budget movies. He has so much pressure on him. So relationship, I’m like, sort of–[knocks on wood.] Yeah, safe haven, as he says.
NWR: Behind every great man, there’s a greater woman.
LC: [chuckles] Yeah. Does that answer your question?
NWR: The way she holds everything together–you know, it’s easier when you’re single, but then it’s not very fun living. So we’ve been together for so long, I think that, for me, seeing the documentary, I guess I saw more what it’s like sometimes for her, and I shouldn’t take it for granted. It was, I think, good for us to go through this together.
N: Your camera work was very good. You have a very steady hand.
LC: Cool! That makes me so happy and proud when people say that, because I was an actress, but at one point in my life I really wanted to be a photographer. I worked as a still photographer for a number of years, but I was so nervous about shooting, because technique is not my strength.
N: You stick with the film through Cannes, you don’t cut off when you were done making it. Was that something you knew you were going to want to shoot, or is that just something you think you had to keep shooting so you could wrap up the narrative you had made?
LC: Yeah, I sort of felt that that would be–I mean, I wasn’t sure it was going to Cannes when I shot the movie in Bangkok, so I just felt when we came back home that I had to end the whole process. I shot a lot in the editing room, also, and when we went to Cannes, and I just felt that that was like–it needed some kind of ending, because the movie didn’t end in Bangkok. That was just the shooting. They edited back in Denmark, so it felt like…
NWR: Life went on.
N: One of the most remarkable things about the movie is that it puts up a very honest thing that happened with you, that very few directors and writers and producers will ever admit on camera before their film comes out, is that “I don’t know if we got it.” That’s a very honest response. That’s not something–I don’t think I know any writer or director that will be honest about that on camera, that they don’t know if they got what they wanted out of a picture.
NWR: Well, I think…
LC: It’s like you said–you have to lie all the time, so it’s nice that with me you could be honest, in a way.
NWR: Yeah, but that was the only honesty I could go to. I couldn’t show any doubt to anyone else, because I had to build everyone’s confidence. So you’re very much alone, when you spend your whole time lying, just waiting, gambling on it being the right thing to do. There is a certain evolution whenever I make any movie, is that chronological aspect of making it, shooting it in sequences, in a way I don’t really look at the films until a few years later on. Is it cohesive? Is it itself? Is it grounded? But I think that I didn’t expect the extreme reaction that I got at Cannes. That was very surprising, and in many ways it was scary, but it was also a bit exhilarating. The amount of hysteria was just out of proportion. It’s just a movie, but people were treating it like it was the most… You know–the next plague coming. But what happened was I was–Cliff and I were staying up all night on one of the last days talking at Cannes, and seeing the reactions. He was hearing a lot about it, and having the rock and roll background he had, he also saw how a younger–much more openness of the younger crowd–a younger crowd of critics, a younger crowd of writers–were embracing it at the same time that everyone in the establishment was trying to tear it to pieces. They were like “Now you’re the Sex Pistols of cinema,” this is what it was like. And I was like, “Fuck yeah, man! That’s it. I’ve always wanted this, and now I’ve got it.”
And of course, it’s scary to be attacked, but when you also realize they can’t really get you down, it’s like they really never got me down. That feeling of satisfaction at the same time as the exhilaration combined with fear was just like everything–this is what I felt like watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre when I was fourteen. That movie messed with me, and I hated it, but I will never forget it, and it became the movie where I wanted to make movies. In a way, the full circle had been completed. It happened.
N: When you were going through everything you had, how much of what you shot is this final film? How much footage did you end up going through?
LC: Oh. Ooh. It took me three months to look through everything, so I have a lot. But I feel like I sort of had a sense of the movie here, because I had tons of stuff with Nicolas and Ryan having fun. I was like, how much of that do you need? I know it’s fun for the women to see, but I feel like I sort of narrowed it down to its essence and its important things.
N: And this experience–how do you feel now, looking back on it and knowing that the movie is going to be out there, now you get to let go of it and move on to the next thing?
NWR: I think it’s great.
LC: Yeah, I’m happy about the film, and I think it turned out very well. Sometimes I get this feeling like, “should I have shown Nicolas this way?” Maybe he should just have been business serious–that guy for all of his fan crowd. Sometimes it hits me for a few seconds, you know. But it seems like everyone really enjoyed it.
NWR: The pain I’m in!
LC: His anxieties–he’s just a human being. All that stuff.
NWR: But it’s really more about what it’s like living with me.
LC: Yeah, and a lot of women have come to me and said “This film spoke to me, and I really know that situation, and I’m so glad that you show all these sides–how it is to live with an artist, and it’s terrible, and they’re fucking a pain in the ass,” all of that, you know. So in a way, I’m glad I did it. And also, because I made a film, which I wanted to do before.
My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn is in select theaters in New York & LA, and on all VOD platforms, and iTunes now.