On the heels of substantial festival buzz Nicolas Winding Refn sat down for a roundtable to talk Bronson, his take on the man the British media once labeled “Most Violent Prisoner.” Refn has been a filmmaker to watch since the first of the Pusher Trilogy debuted, earning accolades for its raw portrayal of low level hustling on the streets of Copenhagen. A decade later he’s managed to pull The Charlie Bronson Story out of development hell, taking it beyond the expected ripped-from-the-headlines account and into the realm of the surreal.
Here’s his candid explanation of what makes Bronson more than a prison movie, why he had no interest in making a standard biopic, and how two very different meetings earned Tom Hardy some hard time as the UK’s most notorious inmate.
Would you tell us how you came up with the abstract visuals for Bronson’s narration?
NWR: Making a film about a guy in solitary confinement is very tricky, because you can take a route which is all in a cell, but that wasn’t the wisest thing. I wanted to make it like a stage performance, like he would talk about his life and how he would visualize that. That’s kind of like the deconstruction of the film, I wanted to make a Kenneth Anger movie. You could say that Bronson is a combination of Inauguration of a Pleasure Dome and Scorpio Rising.
Why was it important for the film version of Bronson to be so articulate?
NWR: He’s quite a clever man. If he had not gone to prison he’d probably be one of the biggest ad executives out of England. The guy was able to create his own mythology. I wasn’t making a biopic of Michael Peterson. I had no interest in making a biopic of Michael Peterson. I wanted to make a movie about the transformation, of becoming Charlie Bronson, this larger than life concept “brand” out of the UK that represents anti-authority.
What is Bronson’s social awkwardness in the real world based on?
NWR:I did not research him, I never met him, I didn’t even meet with his family members because I didn’t want to make a biopic. I wanted to make my own interpretation of the transformation because that’s interesting. Bronson is probably the closest I’ll ever come to making a biography, but structurally it was divided up into three sections.
The first section was him onstage talking about his life, wanting us to see how he wanted his life to be perceived. He’s very articulate, he’s very open and all those things are on your mind as you proceed. The second act, he’s released for 69 days, you actually get to see his difficulties relating to the outside world. He’s like a Hans Christian Andersen figure, he’s a little tin soldier walking around in a world he can’t understand and can’t relate to. He meets a girl and falls in love with her and he doesn’t understand that there’s different agendas and love can be different things. For him it’s all primal. The third act is the audience seeing Charlie from their point of view. That’s why in the end he fully transforms himself into the Charlie Bronson brand.
How did you decide on Tom Hardy for the role?
NWR: Tom was kind of an interesting choice because at first we met, we didn’t like each other. We met in a wine bar in London and he’s an alcoholic or an ex-alcoholic and I don’t drink. It couldn’t have gone worse. I was like, ‘ this is not going to work.’ I’m sure he found me very arrogant. He went off to do some plays and I went off to look for other actors. In the end, deep down the fault was mine because I didn’t know what I wanted, or I didn’t know what I didn’t want. Because I really hadn’t decided how to imagine the film. I hadn’t written it yet, I just had this idea.
For many years people had been trying to make the movie. I met with a few Hollywood stars. Jason Statham and Guy Pierce. They were very nice but I guess they didn’t take it very seriously. I saw all the young actors in England and the casting director kept on saying I should meet with Tom again. ‘I’m NOT meeting with Tom again.’ I was being very childish. In the end there was nobody else so it was kind of inevitable.
We met again about seven months later, but by then I basically knew what I didn’t want, I was more specific, and Tom had done some other stuff in between so meeting again was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re Charlie Bronson! Where have you been?’
In what sense did the conflict between you and Tom work for the movie?
NWR: I’m sure it helped us when we started working together but it became a great marriage. I immensely enjoyed working with him. It was very tough for him because I had under a million dollars to make the total movie. I had five weeks to shoot so Tom was under a lot of pressure. He had six weeks to prepare and then it was ‘go.’
With your preference to shoot in chronological order, where did the monologue fit in?
NWR: We shot that at the end, because it’s basically Charlie Bronson seeing the world from his point of view so I shot the whole movie to build up to those stage performances. At first we did the stage performances and then on the last day we shot the close up of him narrating his life.
What does the “real” Charlie Bronson get paid for the movie?
NWR: In the UK [royalties for convicts] isn’t allowed. He doesn’t get anything out of it. His family gets a fee but there’s no back end, no kick backs. I think Charlie should be happy there’s a movie made about him. The guy thinks it’s the greatest movie ever made and he hasn’t seen it.
When will he get to see the it?
NWR: He’ll never see it. He’ll never be allowed to watch. I’ve heard that he heard the movie over the telephone, but no he will never see it. His mother came to see it at the premiere and she very much liked it so that was very nice. That made me very calm, very happy of course. [The actual Bronson] has just been shut down completely, meaning that he’s been moved to a new isolation ward and all the people he had contact with for the making of the film have been cut off.
Do you think Bronson is insane?
NWR: He’s clinically sane but obviously his perception of life is very different. But that’s the whole point of what I found interesting. Charlie Bronson, or Michael Peterson, has never murdered anyone. If he had [done such a thing]… I have children and very strong moral obligations I feel. He’s just more like a conceptual artist. He’s like somebody who uses violence as his act of art and I do believe art is an act of violence. Certainly there were a lot of [parallels] to him in my own life. In a way Charlie Bronson, his journey is very much about my own transformation.
As calculating as he seems, why hasn’t he played nice to earn his freedom?
NWR: That’s the big question and that’s why the film was very difficult to write. That’s the first obstacle you have. Why would anybody who’s clearly a normal, heterosexual man want to spend all his life in solitary confinement? It really was his own subconscious that [was the key] for me. Doing a prison movie is hard because it’s all about escape. Trying to escape or planning to escape or helping you plan an escape because why would anyone want to stay? He’s not institutionalized. It’s like a political comment of prisons and civilizations and vice versa. I was reading his biography to find some kind of angle into him. At one point very late in the book, [he says] maybe he always wanted to be there. He was meant to be there, he almost craved it. But why? The thread through everything he does is narcissism. The narcissism is to such a degree that fame is his feeding frenzy. He was willing to sacrifice everything to become famous.
What can you tell us about your next film Valhalla Rising?
NWR: Valhalla Rising was just picked up by IFC in Toronto. That’s being released early next year. It’s a Viking film and it’s the first canvas of images that I came up with after doing Bronson and I shot the films back to back. Charlie Bronson being my own psychoanalysis of my own transformation from where I’ve started to what I’ve become. Valhalla Rising is the start of phase two in my career.
If Bronson is your take on a Kenneth Anger film, what would call Valhalla Rising?
NWR: For me it’s like [Escape from New York] meets Tartovsky.
How did you interpret the Viking world in Valhalla Rising and does mythology play a part?
NWR: It’s about the concept of mythology and what mythology can create, and mythology versus Christianity, which is order and reality, and the conflict between those things. The story is about a mute warrior who has no past or present, who escapes captivity and travels with Christian Vikings to the holy land to fight the first war, but they get entangled in a mist that doesn’t lift until they reach America and then it goes horribly wrong.
There aren’t too many good Viking movies, so what pulled you to this project?
NWR: That’s a very good question and that’s something I can’t specifically answer. I guess it’s just the challenge of doing a Viking film itself is just so absurd that it kind of turned me on. But I had a specific idea for the story since I was seventeen. After the Pusher trilogy I decided I wanted to make that, but I needed money to buy out my partner so I could own the movie completely. Which is also one of the reasons why I decided to write and direct Bronson. Get some quick bucks.
To finish on the big Bronson conundrum: how much is Charlie Bronson a part of Michael Peterson and how much is he a product of the system?
NWR: I think it’s both. I think it was there but prison was the switch to letting it out.
Bronson hits theaters in limited release October 9th.