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Nicolas Winding Refn on Making Dark Danish Fairy Tale ‘Copenhagen Cowboy’ – Hollywood Reporter

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The director of ‘Drive’ and ‘The Neon Demon’ returns to streaming after Prime Video’s trippy ‘Too Old to Die Young’ with a neon-drenched crime thriller for Netflix.
By Scott Roxborough
Europe Bureau Chief
The first time Nicolas Winding Refn returned home to Denmark from L.A., it was out of financial necessity.
After the barnstorming success of his first two films, Pusher (1996) and Bleeder (1999), Copenhagen-set crime dramas starring a then-unknown actor by the name of Mads Mikkelsen, Refn went Hollywood with the ambitious psychological thriller Fear X (2003) starring John Turturro and Deborah Kara Unger. But Fear X bombed so badly, it forced Refn’s film company Jang Go Star into bankruptcy and sent the director home to try to repay a 5.5 million, in Danish currency, debt with a pair of Pusher sequels.

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Late-career redemption came with Drive (2011), starring Ryan Gosling, which won Refn the best director honor in Cannes (and picked up an Oscar nomination for best sound editing), and The Neon Demon (2016), another LA-set film, which established Refn’s trippy, neon-tinged aesthetic among a growing based of art-house fans.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Refn found himself back in Denmark and unable to travel. Copenhagen Cowboy, a six-part series made for Netflix, is Refn’s second streaming project, following his 2019 limited series for Amazon’s Prime Video, Too Old to Die Young, which starred Miles Teller.
Copenhagen Cowboy shares Too Old to Die Young‘s neon-drenched visual style, as well as its meandering, oblique approach to narrative. But the story, which follows enigmatic young heroine Miu ( Angela Bundalovic from Netflix’s Danish drama Rain) on her quest for vengeance against Copenhagen’s criminal underworld, also has elements of the supernatural. “There’s a fairy tale element to it,” says Refn, “many people believe I’m the reincarnation of Hans Christian Andersen.”
This is the first production you’ve done in Denmark for a long, long time. What brought you back?
Well, we got stuck here because of the pandemic. I was working on another thing to shoot in L.A. And then the whole world shut down. And, you know, what better place to be but in Denmark? It’s interesting, in this whole post-pandemic analysis, that the idea of geographic safe space has really shifted, we’ve seen who’s able to sustain society and which industrialized countries break the fastest. Scandinavia was able to keep functioning.
We went to the countryside, to my mother’s house, like a good boy. And I just came up with this idea [for Copenhagen Cowboy]. I hadn’t worked in Denmark for a long time, 17-18 years. When I had to put the crew together, I was like, who’s still around? But a lot of the people I’d worked with in the past, on my Danish films, were still working. So that was great. Then with the Netflix thing, well I remember sitting in Cannes a long time ago saying everything that’s going to change very soon. The [art-house film industry] was fading and I said, trust me, it’s going to change. And it did. Streaming changed our whole industry. It became like a natural evolution.

This is your second series for a streamer, after Too Old to Die Young for Amazon’s Prime Video. David Lynch came back to do Twin Peaks, Lars Von Trier has just finished his TV series The Kingdom: Exodus. What’s the appeal of a TV series for auteur directors like yourself?
I don’t know if it’s so much appealing as just an evolution. The theatrical market has been hit in such a sad way. And technology evolved. Opportunities just came. For me the biggest real game changer was that rather than go to a video store to rent a movie, you can stream the title. Then there’s the obvious effect of social media. And gaming, video games. The most innovative components of creativity at the moment are in gaming.
I watch everything I’ve done on the iPhone, because that’s what my kids do, that’s how they watch things. The only two narratives I find interesting are the tiniest screen, the phone, and the enormous large screen. Nothing in between really interests me. Streaming obviously gives you an endless amount of space, until they stop you. I find that very intriguing.
For my series, I like the idea of just creating a series of highlights, highlights in a kind of indefinite flow, because there is really no ending with streaming, it just keeps going. When I made Too Old to Die Young, I made a 13-hour event. It was like going to a studio as a painting and just painting and painting. It never really stopped until you run out of money.
I think it is a very undeveloped territory because, in many ways, television is still very conservative. We’ve got to break that barrier for the kids, so they can see what they can actually, you know, paint with, in the medium.

How did Netflix react to that idea? Because this show, Copenhagen Cowboy, definitely doesn’t fit the traditional, conservative TV model.
I was very fortunate to work with Netflix or Netflix Nordic, as the division is called. They were very smart. I came with what I wanted to do, and they were like, “Right, we’ll go with that.” With everything I do, I’m more interested in what it’s not than what it is. This series is a real odyssey where the ending is very different from the beginning. That’s where I get the pleasure in creating, in not knowing really where I’ll end up. It takes a lot of courage from a company like Netflix to go on that trip, but they trusted me. We had a wonderful relationship; I really enjoyed it.
Did Netflix give you notes about what you could or couldn’t do?
It was a very fluid discussion. It’s all about trust. We had the same goal: to make a great, exciting entertaining experience. The committee process doesn’t work very well for creativity in my opinion. It took a lot of balls from Netflix to go with it. But they owned it, and I had to respect that. We had a sort of silent agreement: Make sure it works. Yes, sir, I will.
So is this the start of something broader between you and Netflix? Are you planning other projects with them?
Well, that was a critic at the LA Times, writing about another movie, who called me “Netflix Winding Refn,” which I thought was very funny. I find that quite catchy. And yeah, I certainly have other things going with them, and in different divisions, within a very broad spectrum. So, yeah, I’ve got a lot of things cooking on the side.

Can I ask, what is Copenhagen Cowboy not?
Well, I’m like Christmas. Got to figure it out [unpack it] yourself.
You said you got this idea while under COVID lockdown in Denmark. Was there anything about being there and being in that situation that sparked the idea for this story?
Well, the way I live, I’m controlled by women. I have a wife and two daughters who are obviously my entire existence. I came out of my mother and basically went straight into my wife. So I really have only known women. For Copenhagen Cowboy, I thought it would be fun to create a modern, female superhero. And, because many people believe I’m like the reincarnation of Hans Christian Andersen, there are certain parallels in our lives, and I wanted to add a fairy tale element to it. Fairy tales are very interesting. I like them a lot. So I thought: Why not make a fairy tale in Denmark, but do it my way?
I wanted it very much centered around women. So I hired a group of wonderful Danish and Swedish writers to work with. I love that aspect of series writing when you have a multiple, endless flow of ideas. It’s like a creative factory. Then, we shot chronologically, as I always do, so every day things could change. I was obviously very much inspired by the power of my wife, who I think has [superhuman] abilities. Ironically enough, I ended up putting my whole family in the show [Refn’s daughters Lola and Lizzielou co-star]. It became like a family business.

How did you find your lead, Angela Bundalovic?
We had an open casting like I always do. I was very much searching for inexperienced people, people that didn’t have necessarily an interest in acting. Right away when I saw her, I knew it was her. The other writers were asking questions: Who is this girl? Who is she? I said, “I don’t know, but she’ll reveal herself at one point.” When I saw her audition I knew right away. I asked her to come back, and I said, “You’ve got the part.” It was simple.
Other than your own Pusher movies, we don’t really have a cinematic image of crime in Copenhagen. What was your image of the city that shaped how you visually imagined the series?
I made a rule: I didn’t want to shoot anywhere I’d already shot [with my Pusher films]. That eliminated most of the city. But then it got fun because we started looking at the city in a different way. I started to mix languages. So the series has various Balkan dialects, you have Chinese and English and Japanese. Denmark is a multi-faceted country now. Now, even though most Scandinavians might disagree, we are a multi-language country, like everywhere else in the world. Younger people and kids can understand different languages in different ways. Sometimes they don’t even have to speak it, but they can communicate through it in some way. It’s very intriguing to see how evolved young people have become, compared to what I was that age. My eldest [Lola Winding Refn] who plays the other main part in the series, is 19. And in developing the show this way I kind of created the role for her, without even knowing it.

Was it a challenge to direct your own daughters, to tell them what to do on set?
Well, you never tell actors what to do — you work with them, certainly in my case. Other directors are different. With me, I don’t tell them what to do, I let them come to their own conclusions. That’s why I shoot for a very long time. We shot Copenhagen Cowboy for seven months. A wonderful seven months. My audition with Lola was she was sitting in the kitchen, and I had written a scene. I said, “Can you say these three lines?” I went back and talked to my wife about it. She thought it was a good idea [to cast Lola]. I spoke to the makeup people and costume people on set. They were like, “Why do you use Lola?” It was a very democratic, family process.
Then I asked her, “Would you be interested in playing this part?” And she was like, “Yeah, sure. But I’ve got exams right now, can we talk about this later?” I thought that was very cool. She was so unimpressed.
Are you looking to stay in Denmark for your next project, or will it be back to L.A.?
I’m a man of the world. I don’t like being in one place for too long. Whenever it gets normal somewhere it gets a little boring. The goal is to have a good time all the time. I like to travel and I like being in situations or places where I don’t really know very much about what’s happening around me. But I love shooting in L.A., and I’ll always come back.
How do you hope people respond to Copenhagen Cowboy?

Well, there’s something we sometimes forget when it comes to content. This is an art form, whether we call it commercial filmmaking or popcorn movies, or abstract this or TikTok that, Instagram, whoever. It’s still an expression of human contact. And when you make this stuff, you’ve made a commitment. You are taking people’s time. And time is so precious because you’ll never get it back. If you’re asking for people’s time, in return, you should give them something that’s not just entertaining but offers something else. That’s the obligation of the distributor and the creator: to respect people’s time. So for me, that means making something people will either love or hate. Only then do you know you’ve done it right. If people can still argue about it, if it evokes emotion and we agree or disagree: That’s what makes us human: a human reaction to a human moment. I think I managed that with Copenhagen Cowboy. Which is a pretty cool thing.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Check out the trailer for Copenhagen Cowboy below.
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