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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.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.