A bold and intriguing talent, Danish writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn called himself "a fetish filmmaker," stating that he chose his projects based on whether he would like to see them and felt strongly it was necessary for art to be extreme. Poetic and baffling in turns, his work was frequently punctuated by jarring bursts of violence, often amidst gritty, intense looks at criminal sub-cultures. Winding Refn's lead characters were invariably pushed past their breaking point by circumstances, but sometimes also reacted with surprising degrees of sincere human emotion. Always shooting in chronological order as a way of getting consistent performances from his actors, Winding Refn was open about his influences, which ranged from the cinema of Kenneth Anger, "Le Samourai" (1967), "Mean Streets" (1973) and "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (1974) to others more unexpected like the teen comedies of John Hughes. However, this was in keeping with the duality of a director who described his films as being "very feminine," even while they incorporated instances of cringe-inducing brutality. Presented with the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for the mesmerizing, widely acclaimed thriller "Drive" (2011), Winding Refn was hailed as one of the most visionary directors of his generation, delivering the sort of dazzling creativity and risk taking that reinvigorates genres and take viewers on difficult, astonishing journeys.
Nicolas Winding Refn was born Sept. 29, 1970 in Copenhagen, Denmark and wound up in New York City at age eight with his mother, after his parents separated. He was born with color blindness and dyslexia (preventing him from learning to read until age 13), afflictions that would certainly prove a hindrance to anyone interested in becoming a filmmaker. However, that vocation was very much a part of Winding Refn's family background, given that his mother was a cinematographer, his father a director-editor, his half-brother a film composer, and his stepfather a screenwriter. Winding Refn later stated that New York City brought out his wild side and one instance of this occurred while he was attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. When an improvised outburst by Winding Refn during an acting class resulted in the destruction of a table, he was asked to leave and went back to Denmark, where he made a short film. Not long after being accepted by the Danish Film School, he received financing to make a feature and bypassed class in order to shoot "Pusher" (1996), about a dealer's desperate attempt to pay off a debt and stay alive in the Copenhagen underworld. Halfway through filming, he decided to shift gears away from the more traditional tropes of this sort of movie and concentrate on the protagonist's inner turmoil and downward spiral. The young filmmaker (who also acted in the movie under the name "Jang Go Star") peopled his cast with actual pushers and street thugs, and the film quickly became a cult phenomenon across the globe.
Winding Refn's subsequent film, "Bleeder" (1999), was crafted along the same lines of "Pusher," but was not greeted with much interest. His first English language feature, "Fear X" (2003), which he co-wrote with novelist Hubert Selby, Jr., was a very different animal from his previous work, revelling in almost suffocating degrees of quiet and stillness. Unfortunately for the director, the highly oblique and comparatively expensive "Fear X" was a financial failure that left him deeply in debt. While he had no plans to revisit "Pusher," Winding Refn ended up making two back-to-back sequels, "With Blood on My Hands: Pusher II" (2004) and "I'm the Angel of Death: Pusher III" (2005), both were well-received by critics and audiences, and the director would later credit the productions with helping to jump start his creativity. However, still needing to get his financial house in order - Winding Refn's struggles and uncertainty about his career even became the subject of the 2006 documentary "Gambler" - he undertook the most unlikely assignment imaginable: directing one of the British ITV network's series of Agatha Christie adaptations, "Miss Marple: Nemesis" (ITV, 2007), which was slammed for deviating too far from the Agatha Christie source novel and being produced in a style that regular viewers of this sort of fare found alienating. Another film Winding Refn made for financial reasons, the UK production "Bronson" (2008) was nonetheless much closer in tone and spirit to his previous work. The story of Britain's most notorious criminal, Michael Peterson, whose gruesome exploits during his many years behind bars generated numerous headlines, the film benefited from Winding Refn's surreal approach to the material and offered a new and surprising take on the cult of celebrity. His medieval odyssey "Valhalla Rising" (2009), about a group of Vikings discovering an altogether inhospitable America, possesses an unsettling ambiance, making for one of Winding Refn's most dreamlike and challenging films.
In the wake of the heady, occasionally impenetrable "Valhalla Rising," Winding Refn was set to make his first Hollywood feature, "The Dying of the Light," While planned for a comparatively low budget, the project still boasted a Paul Schrader script and Harrison Ford in the lead. However, because of disagreements between director and star, it never went before the cameras, likely a blessing in disguise as Winding Refn instead made "Drive" (2011). Originally conceived at Universal Pictures as an expensive mainstream action picture, the project ended up in the hands of star Ryan Gosling, who was given his choice of directors and brought in Winding Refn. The resulting film was described by its director as more akin to a fairy tale by The Brothers Grimm and certainly subverted genre expectations. Produced on a modest $10 million budget, the existential thriller brought to mind works by directors Walter Hill ("The Driver"), Michael Mann ("Thief") and William Friedkin ("To Live and Die in L.A."), but with what Winding Refn described as a "female" soundtrack (including songs by College and Desire) helping subvert the usual macho vibe and contributing to the intriguing dual personality at the movie's core. The masterstroke of casting comedian Albert Brooks against type as the main antagonist, a gangster-turned-movie producer who inevitably returns to his criminal behaviour, gave the film a further degree of unanticipated electricity. Following the considerable critical success of "Drive" - which including winning Best Director at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and scoring a 2012 Indie Spirit nod for Best Director - Winding Refn and Gosling announced plans to collaborate on additional projects and the former served as executive producer on a British remake of "Pusher" (2012) by director Luis Prieto.
By John Charles
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Moved to the U.S. and grew up in New York
Moved back to Copenhagen at 17 to finish high school
Made his feature writing and directorial debut with the violent crime thriller "Pusher," starring Mads Mikkelsen; also acted in film
Wrote and produced the Danish TV series "The Chosen 7"
Wrote, directed and produced the sequel "With Blood on My Hands: Pusher II"; also starred Mikkelsen
Completed the trilogy with "I'm the Angel of Death: Pusher III"
Directed the biographical drama "Bronson," starring Tom Hardy; also wrote screenplay
As writer and director, reunited with actor Mads Mikkelsen in "Valhalla Rising"
Earned critical praise for his U.S. feature debut "Drive," starring Ryan Gosling