“I’ll kill you tomorrow and disembowel you the next day,” director Nicolas Winding Refn tells Kristin Scott Thomas while the actress is getting her makeup done on the set of 2013’s Only God Forgives. That movie, Refn’s follow-up to his breakthrough hit Drive, also starred Ryan Gosling but failed critically and commercially in the U.S., grossing less than $1 million (it fared much better overseas). My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, a documentary shot by his wife, Liv Corfixen, during the filming of Only God Forgives in Bangkok, is a revealing and bluntly honest portrait of a previously unknown filmmaker trying to follow up a hit movie with something radically different — something smaller, more personal and artistic.
At the start of the documentary, as Refn meets with Gosling to go over his character and prepares for the start of production, the director is racked with doubt. “I don’t think this will be as commercial as Drive, and everyone will be on my back,” he confesses to his wife, who just happens to be wielding a camera wherever she goes. The doubts persist on the set. “Why is there so much stuff? Why does it have to be so vast?” Refn complains when he arrives on the set for the first day of shooting and is greeted by a convoy of trucks and trailers.
Although made at a relatively modest cost (in one scene, Refn and Gosling agree to attend a screening of Drive in exchange for $40,000 in cash to be added to the budget), Only God Forgives drew a lot of attention, because the reteaming of director and leading man piqued great curiosity. Reminiscent of Hearts of Darkness, in which Eleanor Coppola shadowed her husband, Francis, during the making of Apocalypse Now, Corfixen catches Refn wrestling with self-doubt edging on depression (“I wasted six months of our lives,” he says upon their return home to Copenhagen, before the film was completed). There are also moments in which we see the toll his profession takes on his marriage (the couple has two young children), although the brief running time (just under an hour) doesn’t allow room for much depth.
My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn ends with the unveiling of Only God Forgives at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where it screened in competition. At the time, press reports claimed the movie had been booed, although the documentary shows Refn being showered with applause by an enthusiastic audience. Later, in his hotel room, he starts reading reviews on his cellphone, but only the negative ones, because they are the most interesting. He has no trouble finding them. My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn closes with Corfixen telling her husband, “You’re not easy to live with, but I love you anyway,” which sounds like a line from a Katherine Heigl rom com. You get the feeling there’s much more to this relationship than we’ve been shown, but for fans of Refn’s work, the documentary makes for a provocative portrait of an artist racked by angst.
With: Nicolas Winding Refn, Liv Corfixen, Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas.
Writer-director: Liv Corfixen.
A Radius-TWC release. Running time: 60 minutes. Vulgar language. In Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque.