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Nicolas Winding Refn’s Rising Star

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Rising Star (photo)

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The characters in Nicolas Winding Refn’s films remind one of the famous tale of the scorpion and frog. They’re trapped by compulsive behavior, often against their better natures. A small-time drug dealer in “Pusher” (1996), the director’s breakthrough debut, seems to go further and further into debt the more he tries to pay back a brutal gangster. In “Pusher 3” (2005), that same brutal gangster, trying to find some normalcy in his middle age, is sucked into a whirlpool of harrowing violence. In “Bronson” (2008), real-life British prison inmate Charlie Bronson is constantly on the search for a fight, even though it only results in him becoming even more confined; he fights, therefore he is.

The characters in “Valhalla Rising,” the director’s new hallucinatory Viking epic, are no different. These warriors cannot shed themselves of the violence, madness and paranoia that define their world. The Danish director responsible for this brutal and haunting body of work is himself something of a compulsive; he has insisted on making very personal and challenging films, even as his profile has risen.

An example: Most foreign directors given a chance at a $20 million English language film with stars would probably temper their flair for structural experimentation. Winding Refn went in the other direction when he made 2003’s “Fear X,” delivering a baffling, dreamlike thriller that makes “Inland Empire” look like “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

That film’s failure led the director to return to Denmark and make “Pusher 2” and “Pusher 3,” thereby re-starting his career, but he hasn’t gone soft: The critically acclaimed “Bronson” was one of the most playful, original, and violent films of last year. “Valhalla Rising,” with its mix of medieval tone poetry and unhinged brutality, seems certain to continue the director’s reputation as an uncompromising visionary. Winding Refn sat down during a recent New York visit to discuss his new film, his career and his influences.

07152010_ValhallaRising3.jpgSometimes when discussing your films, it’s hard not to think about other films. For example, there’s obviously a great Scorsese influence in the “Pusher” trilogy. A lot of people were reminded of Derek Jarman and Stanley Kubrick with “Bronson.” And in “Valhalla Rising,” it’s hard not to be reminded of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker.” How do you feel about those kinds of comparisons?

There’s definitely a lot of “Stalker” in “Valhalla Rising.” Any artist who creates does so in light of the experiences they’ve had with cinema — even if they don’t have specific films and directors in mind. The ones that say they don’t are lying. The whole evolution of art is to steal: Shakespeare stole everything he could get. Kubrick did, too. So do I. The trick is to make it your own. Most of “Bronson”‘s inspiration, for example, came from Kenneth Anger. “Bronson” is basically a combination of “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” and “Scorpio Rising.” I showed the Anger films to some of the people that were working on the film.

“Valhalla Rising” is a combination of many films from my youth, all the way back to me coming to America when I was eight, and the samurai and kung fu movies I would watch on TV. “Escape from New York,” the first video I ever owned. Lots of Spaghetti Westerns. The “El Topo,” midnight movie craziness of the ’70s: “Stalker,” “2001”… even “Dumbo,” which was where I had the idea of making my hero silent.

I would’ve thought the muteness of One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) in “Valhalla Rising” came from Spaghetti Westerns. Especially the way that he seems so opaque, so unknowable. You never psychoanalyze him.

07152010_ValhallaRising1.jpgReally, it came from my trying to create a sense of myth. You can’t explain mythology. People would be, like, “Is that what it’s about?” You know, “Zeus had a terrible childhood and that’s why he’s so angry.” It wouldn’t work. I feel like if I made One-Eye human, it wouldn’t have been very interesting.

“Valhalla Rising” also resists a lot of other conventions. You have a group of disparate men on a journey. Most films would find a way to unite them over the course of the voyage, but instead, they’re driven further apart. There’s a scene where they all ritualistically imbibe a hallucinogenic, and you’d think they’re about to have some kind of collective experience. But no, each one goes off and has his own drug-induced slow-motion freak-out.

Their general wants to believe that they’re here for a reason. They can’t find the enemy, and he says, “God has brought us here to conquer this place.” But they have no army and the men are dying. There’s a legend that when Vikings prepared themselves for war they would drink hallucinatory drugs. So the general gives them this liquid, which is supposed to prepare them for the ultimate war, which is of course against themselves. Everything collapses around them. It pulls everything apart.

This film strikes me as something that you must have fought some battles over. Was there pressure on you to make these characters and story more conventional?

I had final cut, and I produced the movie, so I own the movie. I was lucky. I had French financiers who were very supportive, along with the Danish film Institute, Scottish Screen and Joni Sighvatsson, an Icelandic entrepreneur who put up some money.

07152010_NicolasWindingRefnGambler.jpgI recently saw the documentary “Gambler,” which is about the period after you made “Fear X” and before you did the final two “Pusher” films, when you were struggling with a lot of debt and uncertainty, as well as a new family.

I still am. You’re always grasping for money. It’s the constant struggle of compromise. My career has been desperate, to a certain extent. I’ve been either desperate for financial gain, or desperate at not being good enough, or desperate at not being alternative enough.

When I was younger I was desperate about the way I was perceived. And my films suffered, in a way. “Pusher,” “Bleeder” and “Fear X” are kind of a collective nihilistic self-combustion engine that, in the end, just consumes itself. I was so wanting to control everything, even the outcomes, to the point where I just didn’t even enjoy it any longer. With “Fear X,” I gambled on a film that was completely uncommercial and too expensive.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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