Nicolas Winding Refn knows soundtracks.
The music to his 2011 film Drive went beyond simply being one of the best albums of the decade, — it’s the definitive soundtrack of this era. The lush, synthesizer driven score from Cliff Martinez acknowledged the past (and certainly John Carpenter), while ultimately looking forward has left a mark on countless films in the following years. Elsewhere, the placement of licensed songs by Desire and Chromatics provided just the right boost to launch Johnny Jewel and the Italians Do It Better label to stardom.
Refn connects soundtracks so intimately with his images because it’s a practice he’s held a deep passion for all his life. Before movies came into the picture visually, he has vivid childhood memories of listening to his mother’s LP of Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon A Time In The West and imagining the film – which he hadn’t seen – from its musical cues.
That spirit has remained in his directing work, his personal life as a record collector, and now as a curator of his own imprint though Milan records. Refn Presents has been a labor of love for the director to release soundtracks that capture that magic he felt as a child: a soundtrack that will bring the movie to life simply through listening — something his own films have become the best modern example of.
I caught up with Refn at the great Cinefamily theater in Los Angeles before a screening of his film Bronson to talk about the imprint, his soundtracks, and his passion for collecting.
“If you go to someone’s house and go through their music collection, it says a lot about who they are.”
You have been working on the Refn Presents Series since last year. How did that come about?
Well, J.C. who runs Milan Records had done Only God Forgives and then he did my wife’s movie. He was a very nice gentleman, we talked about vinyl and being a collector and he said “Why don’t we do a series of your choices.” I liked that idea and I like the idea of music and images more than anything else. So we did Oldboy to test the waters — which is more like a classic. Then we did It Follows after that which I like a lot — a more contemporary film. That also worked, so it was like “ok, is there a way to project this?” And then, the first one was I wanted to do, Robocop, and that kind of kicked it all off.
Going in — what were kind of your biggest hopes with that?
I think for me it was more things I liked, things I appreciated. If I like the film and the music, it’s a wonderful combination because film and music goes so much hand in hand. Before there was dialogue there was a piano player here in the cinema projecting music to images. So I find music and movies have a very interesting relationship.
Was there a soundtrack when you were younger that first made that feeling click for you?
Absolutely — it was Once Upon a Time in the West. My mother had the vinyl edition and I actually still have that copy. I didn’t see the movie but I would hear the music over and over again. That was the first time I realized the power of it, music and images. It gave me images before I ever saw the movie. I still consider it the best soundtrack ever made.
That’s a good way to describe the sensations I get from soundtracks like Bronson or Drive. What music have you been drawn to?
I like all kinds of music. I can’t play an instrument to save my life or sing a song, but I love music. It enhances emotions. I use music a lot when I work.
Was there a feeling, in hindsight, when you realized the impact and influence you’ve had on soundtracks since?
Well god — I never thought of it like that — but I like music a lot and I think about it a lot. Vinyl says a lot about someone, and music says a lot about someone. If you go to someone’s house and go through their music collection, it says a lot about who they are, because music is all about emotions. So, for me, vinyl is that extra gateway into peoples psyches, and music is the greatest tool you can use. Even when I shoot films I play music on set, in between takes, it helps you convey emotion better for actors — and brings people to a place of being that helps their performance.
“[Music] brings people to a place of being that helps their performance.”
When did you start to collect vinyl?
I’ve been collecting all my life, I have this mania and I collect certain things at some points and then lose interest. Do you know that feeling?
Yeah, I definitely do. My record player broke so I stopped buying vinyl and switched over to buying vintage video games, like Sega Genesis and Nintendo cartridges.
I guess you have what I have — you just love to collect.
But what is it about that, you think? People will tell me, “You can just download that”.
It’s not about that — it’s about finding. I used to collect VHS tapes before DVDs, so that was a big thing of prowling video stores or second-hand stores trying to find that one gem, or that one unseen thing. But now you can just Google something — for me it’s lost some of the joy. I’ve collected so many things, I still collect toys. I’m a big toy collector. I collected movie posters for a couple years then film prints and lost interest, then books and I lose interest, then comics and I lose interest. But I tell my wife, at least I’m not collecting Picassos.