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Fantastic Fest 2015: Nicolas Winding Refn on the film posters that drive him wild

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Gunther Campine

Some people collect coins and some people collect stamps. And some, like filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, collect vintage posters for obscure, exploitation-era movies with titles like Devil Rider and Psychedelic Sex Kicks.

Now, the Drive director is publishing a book called Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing featuring more than 300 of his favorite posters, with text from film writer Alan Jones. “It took a long time to make this book,” says Refn. “It took a year-to-two years to really comb through what was going to be in the book and then it took another year to put it in the order I wanted it to be in. It was a bit like editing a movie — what experience would you want to have when you turned the pages? It was very enjoyable but it took forever. It’s very much like a time capsule from an era that basically doesn’t exist [anymore] but is also very romanticized.”

The book’s launch takes place at this year’s Fantastic Fest, the genre film festival, which runs Sept. 24-Oct. 1 in Austin, Texas (Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing will be available for purchase by non-Fantastic Fest-ers from Oct. 5). Austin’s Mondo Gallery will be hosting an exhibit featuring 15 of the original posters from Sept. 25-27, with a Refn-attended reception taking place on opening night. The director is also screening three films featured in the book (Farewell Uncle Tom, The X-Rated Supermarket, My Body Hungers) and will be on-hand to take part in Q&As and sign copies of Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing after each movie. 

Below, Refn talks more about his new book — and why we won’t be seeing in a boxing ring any time soon. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing come about?

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: When I was a lot younger, I had a very strong interest in extreme and obscure cinema and that naturally was very much what exploitation films, at that time, were about. I became interested in that genre when it was still the VHS era, so there were a lot of urban myths about films apparently being in circulation and films that you could unearth in stange places. There was still an interest in collecting because something could disappear and you could never see it again. I’m not a walking encyclopedia. I’m not one of those types that knows every single film ever made or can recite every dialog. [But] I certainly liked that kind of cinema, from a very early age. It was rebellious to my Scandinavian, socialistic background. [Chuckles] But I think what really introduced me to it was The Incredibly Strange Films book, which is one of the great film books in my opinion of all-time. That really sparked my interest in some of the, quote unquote, auteurs behind these films. I have a collecting gene in my body. I just started collecting, and I collected vinyl, I collected VHS [tapes]. Whatever I could collect, I collected it.

About four or five years ago, I suddenly had a huge interest in Andy Milligan. He was a very very obscure filmmaker out of New York who made films in the ’60s and ’70s and, I believe, in the ’80s before he died of AIDS. His films are very extreme. I usually call [him] the New York, bottom-of-the-barrel Fassbender. I started collecting his negatives and one day I was able to strike a correspondence with a writer called Jimmy McDonough, who had written the biography of Andy Milligan, which is a very good bio. One day he said, “Listen, I have about a thousand posters, I need some money,” and I was like, “Yeah, sure, of course.” So, I purchased his whole collection, without really knowing what I was going to get. A few months later about a thousand posters arrived in boxes. I was like, “What the hell am I going to do with all this?” [Laughs] Also, I didn’t know 90 percent of the movies. I started going through it and that’s when I had this idea: “Hey, why don’t I do the most expensive poster book about posters for movies nobody’s ever seen?” 

I’m sitting here wondering what posters in my office I might be able to sell you. But I’ve only got a couple, and one of them is for Drive, which I assume you already have.

You have one?

Ryan Gosling is looking at me as I speak.

Oh, well. Say, “Hello.” [Laughs]

To tie-in with the book’s publication, you’re showing some films at Fantastic Fest, one of which is 1971’s Farewell Uncle Tom. We can’t even put up the poster for that on our website, for reasons of taste. Can you give us a flavor of what the film is like?

Well, if anyone really wants to read about exploitation in an interesting way, I highly recommend the Incredibly Strange Films book. There’s a very interesting essay about what they would call “mondo movies.” They were reality television before reality TV. [The mondo genre] was made famous by two Italian filmmakers called Jacopetti and Prosperi. They were a journalist team that making these newsreels [that] became Mondo Cane. It was very successful in the ’60s and it had a great score by Riz Ortolani.

Farewell Uncle Tom was [their] film about slavery-era America and it is such an extreme film. It’s technically very well made, it’s thematically very dodgy. Farewell Uncle Tom is probably where [the filmmskers] went all in, in, quote, unquote, bad taste, but it’s also a very intersting film of that era. I actually used the theme song from that movie in Drive — “Oh My Love,” which is a song that plays while the Driver is hunting down the gangsters. There’s a great, great story in these two Italian filmmakers.

Was it hard to decide which posters to exhibit at the Mondo Gallery show?

[For] Fantastic Fest, which is one of my favorite places in the world, I was like, “Well, I’m sure a lot of people will appreciate the more extreme and also the more obscure ones.” Luckily, this book, 99 percent of it is things you can’t get any more. 

Fantastic Fest has become famous for its debate-fights. Is there any chance of you pulling on your boxing gloves this year?

[Laughs] I’m the kind of guy who says, “I’ll surrender! I’ll surrender! What do you want?”

You can see the cover of Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing and a selection of posters from the book, below.

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