Interview: Nicolas Winding Refn on Valhalla Rising

Editor's note: I thought I'd republish this short interview with Nicolas Winding Refn from an old, and now defunct, website. As I remember, Refn was driving in a car somewhere - open top, I imagine, because I could hear traffic whizzing by - and I got about 10 mins with him to discuss Valhalla Rising, which was released through Vertigo in April 2010. (I was just starting out, back then.) I first saw the movie during the London Film Festival, October 2009, and it was one of those great cinematic experiences. I especially like the last line of this interview, because it shows he was intent on making Only God Forgives, but his next movie was actually Drive (2011), and the fact he referred to it as a 'western.'

How did your idea for Valhalla Rising develop?

Refn: I don’t have a “thing” for Vikings, I’m not a Viking fanatic, but the original story that got me hooked was when I was a sixteen. There was a radio programme on about a runestone that was found in Delaware. That was a very big puzzlement because that’s way south of Newfoundland, where the first settlements were that we know of. For many years people tried to study it and how it could possibly have happened. One of the conclusions is that a Viking ship had sailed much further and got into America and maybe got lost or something. The runestone is a warning that it was a dangerous territory and at sixteen, I thought ‘Wow’. And little did I know that twenty years later I would be using it as the basis of a science fiction film.

That's an unusual combination.

It took me a long time to get the film going and figure out how to tell the story ... and how it turns into something like outer space travel. I went away did Bronson and there were the normal film problems, but after Bronson I went straight into Valhalla Rising.

What were the cinematic influences on Valhalla Rising? Is there anything particular?

Many films were an influence. I guess I always wanted to make Escape From New York because that was my favourite film when I was little. Valhalla Rising is very much about mythology and cinema is a mythology medium, or can be, so it’s a mix of everything. I can’t really come up with anything specific.

Was it a tough shoot, up there in the Scottish Highlands?

It is such unfriendly terrain, but beautiful. We knew that nature was overpowering us and we shot in one of the strangest, most faraway places you could imagine. It almost became about how far we could get away into the mountains. I didn’t have a lot of money to make the movie so I couldn’t provide any kind of luxury for anybody.

The atmosphere conjured by the movie is very dreamlike. Was that always the intention? It’s quite different from your other films, isn’t it?

I always wanted to do a science fiction movie but without the science ... so it becomes like mental fiction.

One Eye is a mysterious figure. How would you explain him, or do you even want to?

One Eye is a character who suddenly appears like a monolith with no past or present, and who appears at times of religious turmoil. Back then Christianity was spreading through Europe very rapidly. They were going from a very primitive pagan-worshipping culture to an organised religion. So the idea that One Eye appears and travels with these people to their destiny. It’s almost like he represents faith. During the travels there is an evolution starting as an animal … as a slave … then he becomes a warrior and then he becomes a God for the people around him and at the end he becomes a man.

Was the character always written as a mute?


It’s a very physical performance from Mads Mikkelsen.

It was always written that way because it would sustain the mythology around him and it was always about what people read into him.

You break the film into chapters. Was this devised from the start?

No, the chapters came later when we were editing the film. I felt it would be more … it would benefit from being divided up in sections. Actually, I stole that from 2001 (1968). It made the dramatic storytelling a little more concrete and compelling, you know. Once you set the stage you’re able to create more in it.

The sound design is ferocious. What did you want to achieve with that particular approach?

The sound is almost like a character. I couldn’t really approach it with a musical format. It’s not like a contemporary movie where the music is very much part of it. I couldn’t use a musical voice, I felt it would be too much … I didn’t want any medieval music or things I couldn’t relate to. I decided that One Eye’s silence is kind of the music in a way … the sound of nature. The ambient sound of nature is a very powerful force.

Would you make a film in this style again?

For me personally, this is my favourite film that I’ve made.

I agree.

Cool, so we both agree.

You’ve mentioned the sci-fi elements. Do you think one day you’ll make a full blown sci-fi film?

Yeah, I’d love to make a movie with science now … now that I’ve gone beyond science and outer space. I would like to make something with technology.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I’m going to Asia in the summer to do a western.