It took a pandemic and a lockdown for “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn to make a directorial comeback in Denmark, where he had delivered the “Pusher” trilogy early in his career.
“Sometimes the strangest things come in mysterious ways, and this is one of those,” Refn says of “Copenhagen Cowboy,” his Netflix original series, slated to world premiere Sept. 9 at the Venice Film Festival.
Since “Drive,” Winding Refn has directed the Bangkok-set thriller “Only God Forgives,” with “Drive” star Ryan Gosling; “The Neon Demon,” with Elle Fanning playing an aspiring model in Los Angeles.; and the Amazon Prime Video series “Too Old to Die Young,” starring Miles Teller as a grieving cop in crime-ridden Southern California. He was preparing another project set abroad when the pandemic hit.
“We were stuck as a family back in Denmark and I came up with this idea,” he says, noting his wife, Liv Corfixen, executive produced the series, and his two daughters, Lola and Lizzielou, star in it. “It became a wonderful creative process where I was no longer living in two separate worlds as a creator by day and a family man by night. It’s a new chapter in my way of working but also in our lives.”
Refn has faced some criticism over the use of gratuitous violence in his films, notably “Only God Forgives” and “The Neon Demon.” But he says he’s “not a violent person.”
“If there is violence in what I do, it’s because I believe that’s what the painting needed,” he says, adding that “art is an act of violence. It’s meant to violate you, penetrate your mind. It’s like giving birth. It’s a beautiful, but also a violent act. “
While the plot of “Copenhagen Cowboy” remains under wraps, Refn suggests that it has greater depth than some of his previous work.
“It sounds like a cliché, but the older you get, the more concerned you become about the world. I think it’s a responsibility to take that seriously,” he says.
“’Too Old to Die Young’ was certainly a prediction of what America has turned into post-Trump. It was a show made at that specific time with what was being fed to me through media and what my own concerns and obsessions were. ‘Copenhagen Cowboy’ is a continuation of that,” he continues.
The filmmaker also says the new series had a fantasy element, “along the lines of what Hans Christian Andersen would do, a fairy tale that reflects everything around.” He says the “hero” of the show (played by Angela Bundalovic) is “almost based on on his wife, “at least when it comes to her powers.”
Refn also praised Netflix for understanding his vision from the very start and giving him “a lot of enthusiasm moving forward.” “It was a really fast and enjoyable process. I created the show, made the deal with Netflix and hired some wonderful female writers (Sara Isabella Jönsson, Johanne Algren) from Denmark and we wrote it in six months. A year later, we’re launching it in Venice.” He also produced the show through his banner NWR, along with Lene Børglum and Christina Bostofte Erritzøe.
“Copenhagen Cowboy” looks as stylish as Refn’s previous work, with a key crew including well-known cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck (“A Hijacking”), production designer Gitte Malling (“Land of Mine”) and music by Cliff Martinez, Peter Peter, Peter Kyed and Julian Winding.
Although he’s made several films in the U.S., Winding Refn never directed one for a studio. He admits that he was approached to direct a James Bond movie (believed to be “Spectre”) but that was it. “We just met and it was a wonderful meeting. But you know, not everything is supposed to happen. Sometimes it’s more fun to talk about it than actually realizing it,” he says.
He says the best piece of advice he’s ever received was from Elia Kazan, who told him some 26 years ago, after he had directed “Pusher”: “Do it your way.”
While he had a cathartic experience working from home in Denmark, Refn suggests he’s not done exploring Los Angeles.
“I have enormous love for Los Angeles and working there,” he says. “It’s built on a desert — it’s like an alien landscape and an alien environment. So for me, it’s like flying to Mars and shooting there.”
A reunion with Gosling could also be in the cards for Winding Refn. “Ryan is very much part of my life. We’re very interconnected to each other’s existence creatively and personally, and I love him very much and I’m sure we’ll work again in the future. We talk about it all the time.”
Watch the trailer below: