People’s desire to not only fight and question those who have wronged them, but also their internal struggle with faith and belief in improvement, are topics rarely featured in crime thriller. While the genre is often associated with violence and characters who have no moral compass, writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn’s new crime thriller ‘Only God Forgives,’ chronicles when stereotypes are reversed. With a drug lord searching for the reasoning of the continuous violence on the innocent people around him, and a retired police officer longing to end the gangster’s way in order to fell closer to God, the film explores the effects of self-exploration.
‘Only God Forgives’ follows American fugitive Julian (Ryan Gosling), who runs a boxing club in Bangkok as a front for his drug business. His mother, Crystal (Thomas), who runs the vast criminal organization, travels to Thailand from the US to collect the body of her favorite son, Billy (Tom Burke). Julian’s brother was killed by the father of the young prostitute he savagely murdered. Eager for vengeance for her first born son, Crystal demands Julian not only kill the man who took Billy’s life, but also Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the mysterious retired policeman who instigated Billy’s murder.
While Julian struggles with his mother’s continuous and harsh demands to seek justice for his older brother, he forms a relationship with local prostitute Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam). As Julian struggles to define his growing feelings for Mai, and her urging to break free from his mother, he must also confront Chang. The former police officer serves as a figurehead of a divine justice, and has resolved to scourge the corrupt underworld of brothels and fight clubs.
Refn was joined by two of the lead actors from ‘Only God Forgives,’ Gosling and Thomas, during a recent press conference at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York City to talk about shooting the crime thriller. Among other things, the filmmaker and actors discussed how Refn and Gosling’s previous collaboration on ‘Drive’ helped create an easy-going and open shooting environment in Bangkok for ‘Only God Forgives;’ how they enjoyed filming the movie in chronological order, because it helped keep their creativity constantly flowing; and how Gosling thinks it’s dangerous to think that his recent string of action films will alienate a certain group of his fans.
Question (Q): Ryan, you stepped into the film at the last minute and replaced Luke Evans. Did you have input into the character?
Ryan Gosling (RG) It is a lot stepping into the film. There’s a lot of input from everybody involved, and Nicolas is very interested in what everybody thinks. I was happy to go and get the chance to do this. I had a really good experience on ‘Drive.’ After ‘Drive’ I had a lot of different opportunities to do different things and a lot of big films. Instead Nicolas was opting to go to Thailand and make this film that was going to be very challenging financially for a lot of reasons.
It was something sure to divide people, and yet he was still going to make this personal film. So I wanted to be a part of it. I think the film is kind of a drug; you’ll have a good trip or a bad trip. (laughs)
Q: Since you worked with Nicolas on ‘Drive’ and you played a similar character who’s mysterious and doesn’t say much in that film, was it easier to craft this character for this film?
RG: Obviously, we had a running history, so it takes a certain amount of trust to go into working this way, because chronologically you’re usually not sure of the film that you’re making, and neither is he. (laughs) He’s kind of finding it as he goes along, and there’s a lot at stake, so you just kind of go along for the ride.
For this film it was different, although there was a lot of silence. In ‘Drive’ I was the driver and in this I’m more of a vehicle for the audience. It’s more of an experience.
Kristen Scott Thomas (KST): One of the greatest things about working on this particular project and with this director was that I felt free to suggest anything outrageous and no one was going to gasp and giggle. No one was going to look at me disapprovingly. It was going to be taken seriously as a proposition and not as a judgment. That’s very rare and very exciting.
Q: Kristin, you looked almost unrecognizable in this film. How did that come about?
KST: I had done a photo shoot a day before we first started talking about this film. Donatella Versace had dressed me up in a similar kind of thing and I was amazed by peoples’ reaction to me and how the atmosphere around me changed. Particularly with men, they became critically aggressive and women cowered. I felt really, really uncomfortable.
It struck me that there are women all over the planet who think that this is an ideal of beauty they want to emulate. Every day they will get up and do this whole thing and create this kind of atmosphere. So, it seemed to me a really good idea for my character to have this type of war paint, a kind of armor used to dress for battle. It was a way for me to get into this character when I didn’t have a clue about it. I felt very distant from her especially when she became American. I felt at least some relationship to her when she was English.
Q: Why did Crystal and Julian become American?
KST: Ryan came on board.
RG: Yeah, I came in and ruined everything.
KST: I asked Nicolas, “What kind of accent is Ryan Gosling going to have? What kind of English is he going to do? And Nicolas said, “He’s not.” So that was that.
Q: Nicolas, what makes the relationship between you and Ryan so tight?
Nicolas Winding Refn (NWF) That’s a very private question.
RG: (Shakes his head and smiles) It’s not that private.
NWR: The process of creating is a very delicate concept, and when it clicks with the people that I work with, I enjoy it a lot. I don’t have a list of requirements; I just enjoy his company. It’s about trusting each other and seeing where that can go. I’ve only had one girlfriend so I don’t know what else there is.
RG: (Smiles) There has to be a better way to describe us. We’re going to work on that.
Q: With Nicolas being so collaborative was there anything he turned you down on?
RG: I wanted to have the British accent (laughs)
**SPOILER ALERT** Q: Ryan, was it your decision to have Julian act the way he does to his mother once she dies?
RG: Nic said “What do you want to do? When you see your dead mother, do you want to cry? You want to laugh?” I said as a joke, “I kind of want to cut her open and look at her wound,” and he was like, “Okay, we’ll do that.” Then he called the effects guy, and they got a pig’s stomach from the butcher. **END SPOILER ALERT**
Q: Was that because of the incest that happened?
RG: (exaggerates an overwhelmed face) I can’t speak for what I was thinking then, but it just felt like the right thing to do at the time.
KST: It’s really left up for interpretation. A lot of people felt it was like reclaiming where you came from or reclaiming your identity. Other people felt it seemed to complete the sexual thing. Nic kept calling it “penetrating your mother.”
NWR: It goes back to a very old theory that in order to be reborn one has to turn to one’s origin and therefore come out again. The concept of transformation is something that I find very intriguing, especially if it happens dramatically. The idea was a man who is chained to his mother’s womb. In order to free himself from her spell, which is a heightened fairy tale version of a common problem, he had to travel back into the arena. This was the only way to free this enigmatic character that appears on two levels throughout the movie.
Q: How would you describe the two levels?
NWF: One is part of his fear of sexual danger and the other part of him exists in the real world. In Thailand it’s very accepted that god, or gods, walk among people.
Then there is the concept of fear that men have. There is something terrifying about a mother’s sensuality and yet something very erotic about it. It’s been written about; what it would be like having sex with your mother.
I’ve never been very good at film analyzation or film theory but I have been attracted to filming in chronological order. It seems so natural. It is a way for the person behind the camera to keep the stream of creativity constantly at an energy level that is very extreme. Then when you have people who come up with great ideas it can completely change the meaning. That is the process. I like that. I like the unknowing.
KST: The luxury of filming chronologically is you can do things as they develop.
RG: (to Kristin): Sorry for what I did to you. This is the first time we’ve talked about it.
Q: With such an intense shoot, did you do anything off set in Bangkok?
RG: Yayaying took me to karaoke, and I got cooking classes. We did a lot of boxing.
Q: Ryan, when the film premiered at Cannes there were reports saying that when you were a kid you liked movies so much you used to put them in your pants?
RG: Yeah I just stuck VHS tapes down my belt. You really want to know about this? Okay! When I was 12 I got my hands on ‘Blue Velvet’ and I had to sneak it by my mom. I had to sneak it in my pants to do it, but it was just the idea that you couldn’t show anyone, that you had to hide it in your pants. It felt good! It made an impression on me.
Q: You’ve done incredibly violent and stylish films where crime and pain aren’t exactly glorified, but they look cool. Do you think there’s room for the ‘Hey Girl’ era of Ryan Gosling, or are you deliberately skewing that?
RG: I thought I had never really made a violent film until I was reminded that I did. I made this movie called ‘Murder By Numbers.’ It feels like a lot of time has passed but only in the last two years have I been experimenting with these kinds of things, and the reaction is much stranger than anything I’ve ever done before.
For instance when we did ‘Drive’ we were at Cannes and Christina Hendricks gets her head blown off and everybody cheered. The audience was so happy and excited about it, and it was the most bizarre reaction that I could imagine. I feel like I’m learning about it.
Q: Do you ever wonder about alienating viewers or fans?
RG: I think you can’t really think like that because it’s a dangerous road to go down. It’s nice to be around someone whose film becomes their life. It’s an interesting way to work, and it hasn’t been the way I’ve always worked but it’s been a good experience.