Only God Forgives is perhaps the most polarizing film released so far this year. Set in Bangkok, the stylish shocker follows Julian (Ryan Gosling), a man on the run who manages a boxing club in order to mask his drug dealing. After his brother (Tom Burke) rapes and murders a 16-year-old girl, he is killed by the girl’s father. This prompts a visit from his sociopathic mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), who advises Julian to avenge his brother’s death. (Read our review from the L.A. Film Festival.)
At a New York press conference for the film, Gosling, Thomas, and director Nicolas Winding Refn talked about everything from onscreen violence to the uproarious reaction the film has received.
Ryan, you stepped in at the last minute to replace Luke Evans when he went to do The Hobbit. I was just wondering, did you have much input into the character of Julian? Also, the film has a bit of a reputation of dividing people – they either love it or they hate it. Is there anything that you would want to say to your fans about what to expect?
Ryan Gosling: Can we start off a little easier? [laughs] There was a lot there…
Can you talk about stepping into the role and whether or not you had an imprint?
Ryan Gosling: I mean, I think that’s what is great about working with Nicolas [Winding Refn]. He involves everyone, so there’s a lot of input from everybody involved. He’s very interested in what everyone thinks. I was happy to get the chance to go and do this. I obviously had a great experience on Drive and after that film Nicolas and I both had a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things you know, a lot of big films. But still, Nic was opting to go to Thailand and make this very challenging film, financially and for other reasons. And it was going to be something that was sure to divide people but I wanted to be a part of it. I feel like the film is like a drug, you either have a good trip or a bad trip.
Since you’ve already played a similar character in Drive, was it easier to craft the character of Julian in this film? Generally, this would be a tough role to play since you can’t speak much but having already worked with Nicolas on a similar character, did it come any easier to you?
Ryan Gosling: Ya, obviously we had history and this type of role takes a lot of trust, so that helped. Nicolas works chronologically so you’re not really sure of the film you’re making and neither is he. [laughs] You just sort of go along for the ride though. This film was different than Drive. Both films have a lot of silence but in Drive I was the Driver and in this film, I’m more of a vehicle for the audience. This film is more about the experience than the story. So in that sense, I did feel a difference between the two roles.
Kristin, you’re almost unrecognizable in this film. Can you talk about how you created the look of this character and what inspired you?
Kristin Scott Thomas: I did a photo shoot about a year before we started discussing the character. And I had dressed up in a similar type of outfit and I was amazed by people’s reaction to me and how the atmosphere around me changed completely. Men especially became incredibly aggressive and woman cowered and were kind of nervous. I felt really uncomfortable. It seemed to be a really great way into the character, to just be dressed for battle like that. It was a way for me to get into the character. I felt very distant about Crystal, especially since she’s American. When she was English, I at least felt some relationship to her but when Ryan came on board and Nicolas made her American, that was gone.
Ryan, your face gets beaten to hell in this film, to the point you’re almost unrecognizable. Apart from everything else, was that something that appealed to you, getting to play against the handsome guy image by getting banged up like that?
Ryan Gosling: That wasn’t part of the film initially. When you work chronologically, it was just something that seemed like it needed to happen. Also, being trained by these stunt coordinators, they like the best of the best and it felt foolish to then turn around and be beating them in a fight. So it just seemed to make sense that I lose. But again, when you work with Nic, it’s something that you discover along the way.
Ryan, Nicolas, can you talk about what makes your relationship different from the typical actor/director relationships out there? And how does that show up in the film?
Nicolas Winding Refn: That’s a very private question. [laughs] The process of creating is a very delicate concept. And when it clicks, it’s great. There are other people who I’ve worked with that I enjoy working with a lot, but when there’s a similarity between certain things it kind of becomes easier. And that’s how it is with Ryan. We work well together and I enjoy his company. It’s a lot about trust too, in terms of the professional collaboration. Trusting each other and seeing where that can go. It’s like, I’ve only had one girlfriend so I don’t know what else there is.
Ryan Gosling: There’s got to be a better way to describe that. [laughs]
Can you talk a bit more about working in chronological order and how that experience is?
Yaya-Ying: It’s all about getting into character, I think. This is actually my first film ever but everyone here has taught me a lot. It’s been an honor to work with all of them.
Vithaya Pansringarm: As the story moves on, things happen and you react according to the situation. I feel like if we jumped around with the story, we would never get that pure feeling. You wouldn’t get those same reactions.
Kristin Scott Thomas: It’s very rare to shoot like that. It’s a huge luxury really to not have to leap back and forth. It makes things easier as an actor, at least technically, because you can keep track of what you’ve done and what you haven’t done. When you’re on a long shoot and it’s not going chronologically, you have to kind of keep tabs on how you played certain things. The chronological order also makes everything easier to change and we changed so much. We made changes to Crystal and had things happen to her that I was totally unprepared for.
Ryan Gosling: It’s like Kristin said, we changed the exit for her character. One day Nic was just like “I think she should die” and then he’s like “what do you want to do when you see your dead mother?” And as kind of a joke I was like, “well, maybe I can cut her open and look at her womb.” And he was like, “ok, cool, let’s do that.” [laughs] So he called the effects guy and we got a pig’s stomach from the butcher and that’s what we did.
Was that because of the incest between the two characters, that you wanted to go back to the womb?
Ryan Gosling: [laughs] I honestly can’t speak for what I was thinking then. It just felt like the right thing to do at the time.
Kristin Scott Thomas: I think it’s open to interpretation. You can see it as reclaiming where you came from and reclaiming your identity. Other people may see it as a completely sexual thing.
Nicolas Winding Refn: It goes back to a very old theory that in order to be re-born, you have to return to your origin. The concept of transformation is something that I find intriguing, especially in dramatic ways. Then of course you can also get into the whole concept of the fear that men have about their mother’s sexuality and at the same time there’s also something very erotic about it. Books have been written about the idea of what it would be like to have sex with your mother. So you know, it kind of goes on from there.
As for the chronological thing, I did it on my first movie because my mother had given me a book about John Cassavetes and in the book it talked about how he shot his films in chronological order so I was like “oh, maybe I’ll do that too.”
With Nicolas being so collaborative, was their anything that the actors suggested that Nicolas had to respectfully decline?
Ryan Gosling: I wanted a British accent. That was shot down.
Kristin Scott Thomas: One of the great things about working on this particular project with this particular director is that I certainly felt free to suggest anything outrageous and know that no one was going to gasp and giggle or no one was going to look at me disapprovingly. It was going to be taken seriously and that’s very rare and very exciting actually.
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?
Ryan Gosling: 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 kind of things, and the reaction is strange, and 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, and they were so happy about it, and excited, and it was the most bizarre reaction that I could imagine. I feel like I’m learning about it.
Do you ever wonder about alienating viewers or fans?
Ryan Gosling: 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.
So how are we going to keep making memes of you?
Ryan Gosling: You seem to find a way. I’m not worried about that!
Could you talk a little bit about the visuals for the film and working with cinematographer Larry Smith?
Nicolas Winding Refn: I worked with Larry Smith on Bronson and he became a collaborator. I knew that filming in Bangkok would pose two obstacles, one was the amount of money we had. We did Bronson for under $1 million, so we had to move very quick and so the light package was very small. For (this film) practical lighting was essentially what we had to work with. Larry is very good with actors. In a way the relationship with people and cameramen is a close collaboration. When I was a teenager, I was a huge fan of Richard Kern and for some reason, when we got to Bangkok, I started thinking about his films again.
With such an intense shoot, I was wondering if you did anything off set in Bangkok?
Ryan Gosling: Yayaying [Rhatha Phongam] took me to karaoke, and I got cooking classes. We did a lot of boxing.
Kristin Scott Thomas: I did mostly massages.
Nicolas, were there any specific fairy tales that you were thinking of when you were developing the film?
Nicolas Winding Refn: It’s more about the language of fairy tales, I used to make films that were much more about authenticity. When I was a lot younger, I even went the classic route of catching morality in a frame. I think that with Bronson, I became more interested in hyper-reality.
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?
Ryan Gosling: 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.
Did you like that movie?
Ryan Gosling: Yeah, I did like Blue Velvet.
That’s the new meme.
Ryan Gosling: You may be right. I’m going to stop talking about this.
Did you have to cut back at all on any violence in this film for the sake of its rating?
Nicolas Winding Refn: There was a bit of an issue in France where it was rated very low. When it came out, there was huge backlash. Apparently, people thought it was very extreme to be rated so low. The rating system is a dying concept because it really has no value or meaning. It’s just a matter time before it disappears. Coming from Scandinavia, it was always the opposite. Sexuality (verses) violence was always accepted and taught in schools. It seems that in America, this issue of sex and violence being viewed in another way is puzzling to me.
During that scene were Kristin’s character rips into you was it hard not to break character?
Ryan Gosling: No, it was fine. She was so good in the scene that it was great to watch.
Kristin Scott Thomas: There were some words that just wouldn’t come out because a nice, well brought up girl just couldn’t say those things. It became sort of a handicap, we ended up doing something like 14 takes.
Kristin, can you talk a bit about the dark humor in the film?
Kristin Scott Thomas: Personally, I didn’t think it was funny at all, I wasn’t getting the humor at all. I find this film deeply shocking and disturbing actually. Crystal does have to say some awful things and they make you gasp and perhaps that gasp does turn into laughter. It wasn’t purposeful though, I don’t think that any of us set out to say something so outrageous that it would be funny.
Only God Forgives is in limited theaters now.
Latest posts by Justine Browning (see all)
- London Film Festival Review: ‘Locke’ is a Brilliant Tom Hardy Vehicle - April 25, 2014
- Review: Shailene Woodley and Theo James Save A Laughable Mess in ‘Divergent’ - March 19, 2014
- Review: ‘Labor Day’ Will Make You Hungry For Pie and Better Movies - January 31, 2014
- Interview: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and More Talk ‘August: Osage County’ - December 26, 2013
- Review: ‘August: Osage County’ Keeps the Drama at Home - December 24, 2013