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By KJ Doughton | August 23, 2006

Imagine this. You’re a first-time filmmaker halfway through a grueling crime drama concerning Denmark’s most conflicted dope peddlers. Problem is, you suddenly conclude that the genre marked by guns, car chases, and bodies blowing up real good holds no interest for you. Nada. None.

What would you do?

Faced with this predicament during 1996’s “Pusher,” his first installment in what would ultimately become an epic trilogy, director Nicolas Winding Refn changed cinematic gears. He abandoned the beatings and foot chases from the film’s early scenes, and went for a haunting, harrowing character study. “I realized I wasn’t interested in gangsters and crime,” the Danish filmmaker explains over a cell phone connection from Denmark to Seattle. “I was really interested in the morality of the characters, and their emotional descents into hell.”

Like a recovering crack-head craving a fix, viewers of “The Pusher Trilogy” will find Refn’s vision tough to shake. It’s raw, gruesome, and unsavory, a downward spiral of decay through Copenhagen’s Vesterbro District. We’re whisked into the stark white parlor of two prostitutes heckling a would-be customer who can’t get it up. We take vicarious breaths of heroin cigarettes in red-saturated bars, surrounded by dealers whose infant children also choke on the smoke. We’re left alone with shady crime lords who cook up thoughtful snacks, before serving up less hospitable electro-torture.

Recruited not by Hollywood agents, but through on-the-street casting calls, many of Refn’s onscreen subjects are the genuine articles. “I liked the idea of having real people,” explains the 35 year-old director, still in his mid-twenties when the first film wrapped. “With the ‘Pusher’ films, I wanted real crime. I wanted to set people from an environment like that into a fictionalized world depicting themselves. See how would they act, and morally portray those characters.”

Aside from the trilogy’s convincing, here-and-now realism, it also captures three magnificent character studies. We spend time with Frank (Kim Bodnia), a brutish, physical smack dealer with serious debt issues. In “Pusher 2: With Blood on my Hands” (2004), the limelight shines on Tonney (Danish superstar and upcoming Bond baddie Mads Mikkelsen), an insecure young punk dismissed by both his gangland father and an arrogant girlfriend. “Pusher 3: I’m the Angel of Death” (2005) concludes the series by following Milo (Zlatko Buric), a Croatian crime kingpin troubled by ecstasy-peddling competitors, a spoiled, rich-bitch daughter, and the teasing temptation of a quick high.

To coax these extreme emotions from his three leads, Refn pinpointed each characters’ fatal flaw. “Good characters usually have a strong weakness,” he confirms. “And the greater the flaw, the more potential you can work with the character. The more human they become. Because we all know that we are all basically a flesh of flaws. Nobody is perfect.”

“Frank’s flaw is that he cannot feel or express his emotions,” confirms Refn of the first film’s primary presence. “When doing ‘Pusher 2,’ it was very easy to find Tonney’s weakness. He was the kind of guy who, if you gave him a hundred dollars, within hours, would owe a thousand. He would ruin his own opportunities. He was not cut out to live within this world, even though he wanted to. He had put on a façade, and even tattooed “RESPECT” on the back of his head, because he wanted his father’s love. The more he tried, the less his father would give it to him, because he was very disappointed. Tonney is a very disappointing character.

“In ‘Pusher 3,’ my challenge was to come up with Milo’s flaw – what is his weakness? Then I came upon it. He’s someone who got high on his own supply, and now he’s trying to kick his habit. But he’s still wheeling and dealing, which is the classic story for a lot of these people. They get hooked, they try to kick it, and at the same time, they’re not gonna leave this world. So they have to kind of create this abstract living, going to these NA meetings where they’re humble and trying to avoid going back and getting high. But their everyday job is moving heroin back and forth.”

It’s one thing to throw viscera at the screen until audiences cry uncle in disgust. But Refn’s disturbing vibes cut much deeper. Few audience members have immersed themselves in a true crime subculture, but nearly everyone will relate to Frank’s desperation, Tonney’s rejection, or Milo’s anger. By serving up detailed, complex personalities, this promising artist forces us to feel their pain.

“If we put aluminum foil on the fuse, we could go all night.”

– Milo to electro-torture victim in “Pusher”

Refn is the first to point out that the “Pusher” films in no way reflect his own life. Born in Copenhagen, the filmmaker moved to New York in 1978, following the separation of his parents. Whereas Martin Scorsese observed the criminal subculture blanketing New York’s Little Italy from his bedroom window as a young asthmatic, Refn was far removed from the seamier side of life.

“I didn’t grow up in Vesterbro,” he clarifies. “I grew up in an upper class New York apartment on 17th Street. These films don’t reflect my upbringing in any way. That’s why, in a sense, I don’t make films about crime specifically, because I don’t know anything about crime. I didn’t grow up in it, and it’s not part of who I am. But I make films about people in a criminal environment. Some of the emotions I can relate to.”

Refn, who is color blind and dyslexic, confesses acquiring his genetic predisposition towards creativity from “an entertainment family.” His father was a director and film editor. Following the divorce, Refn’s cinematographer mother was re-married to a Danish photographer who worked in the Big Apple, prompting the family’s migration to America.

During these formative years on the East Coast, Refn’s impressionable young life was changed at the Cinema Village. “I was fourteen years old,” recalls Refn, “and watched ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ I then realized that film was an art form. I had grown up on films that my parents had been involved in. Filmmaking has very much been part of my upbringing, but I always thought of it as a committee meeting process. When I saw ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ I realized that it could also be like painting a picture, or making a certain kind of music. That it could be an individual art form, as well as a collaborative approach.”

There were other films that branded Refn’s childhood brain. “Mean Streets.” “Fat City.” “Battle of Algiers.” “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.” Refn took a stab at acting school, enrolling at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts. “I didn’t like it and was kicked out,” he confesses with a laugh. “I think I probably wasn’t a very good actor, because I detested authority. I wanted my own position, which is not the best way to be an actor.”

Then another movie crept into Refn’s sensibilities – Kevin Smith’s “Clerks.” Working for a time as a film scout at Cannes Film Festival, the movie-crazed Dane listened intently to Smith during an after-film Q & A. “Clerks was shown, and Smith was there, talking of dropping out of film school and using his tuition money to make the film. I said, ‘Goddamn it! I believe in the American dream – I grew up in America. Why am I not doing this in Denmark?’ I came home, and my mother gave me some money. My stepdad gave me a camera.”

Refn’s ticket into Danish film school was a five-minute short film inspired by Ray Liotta’s paranoid freakout concluding “Goodfellas.” The segment’s key theme – a man crumbling under pressure – would become grist for the “Pusher” mill years later. Created as an application film, the short failed to get him into school. However, a script based on his movie was eventually submitted – and accepted. Refn was in.

Then a fly landed in the ointment of his film education. “I got accepted into Danish film school,” Refn explains, “then dropped out, because I got financed to do ‘Pusher.’ I think making that first short film was very much out of my interest in genre films.”

Then in mid-shoot, came his revelation. The gangster genre suddenly had little interest to Refn – but Frank’s struggle to juggle his escalating pressures still held intrigue. “‘Pusher’ is really half of a movie,” he claims of his first film’s jarring change in tone. “Since I was making a gangster film, I had to stick with it. That’s why the film is very much about a man descending to hell because he in unable to express his emotions. This acts as his downfall.

“Being aware of that, and going back to ‘2’ and ‘3’ ten years later, the emotional thematics are much stronger from the beginning. ‘Pusher 2’ is about a father-son relationship, and a son who realizes he needs to kill a father that doesn’t love him. ‘Pusher 3’ is about a king losing his empire, then gaining it back, but losing his humanity. So in that way, the first movie was a very good learning experience. Just going out and making a film, and realizing what it was that really interested me.”

“Whenever you make a little cash, someone shows up and wants a cut.”

– “Pusher 2”

Having found his filmic calling late into the first film, Refn wasted no time beefing up a resume. 1999’s “Bleeder” saw him reunited with lead man Bodnia to tell another sad, alarming story of a loser under pressure. Then came “Fear X” (2003), an experimental mindbender that alienated audiences at the box office. It also left Refn owing over one million dollars. Suddenly, the director could directly relate to his characters’ anxiety, desperation and fear in a particularly personal way.

In fact, the director’s disastrous financial state ultimately led to his revival of the “Pusher” films. “I had no money,” he remembers. “That was about the time my daughter was born. I had so little money that after she was delivered at the hospital, I had to dig foreign currency out of my drawers and exchange it for Danish kroners. That’s how strapped for cash I was. “Pusher 2” was really made out of desperation, in order to survive. (“Gambler,” Phie Ambo’s documentary concerning these tense financial struggles, is currently making the film festival rounds.)

“I was reluctant to go back and make the last two. I was afraid of not making them good enough, and not being able to top the first one. I was very angry, and very nervous. I was very aggressive, and maybe that shows in the latter films.

“Afterwards, I felt that was probably my greatest challenge – to go back and make better films, because I had become a better filmmaker. I think ‘Pusher 3’ is the best, because that’s where I really felt that I experimented as far as I could go, while still making it work for an audience.

“I was very happy with ‘Bleeder’ and ‘Fear X.’ But they were also more difficult for an audience to accept. ‘Pusher 3’ really cemented my belief that you have to find that fine balance between artistic integrity and commercial liability. But it was good to have gone in a very abstract route, experimenting with film as a medium, then going back to do ‘Pusher 2’ and ‘3.’”

“Today is my daughter’s 25th birthday.”

– Milo to a Narcotics Anonymous support group in “Pusher 3”

“The Pusher Trilogy” pulsates with a street majesty that feels authentic. But like “Pulp Fiction,” “Hostel,” and other gritty slabs of movie mayhem, it probably won’t win favor with the Scandinavian Chamber of Commerce. In recent years, crime films suggest that Holland and Denmark are lurid dens of inequity, clogged with red light districts, hashish bars, and addict clogged alleyways.

When asked if these onscreen impressions are accurate, Refn responds, “(Scandinavia) has that. That is definitely part of it. Sometimes the difference between Scandinavia and rest of world is, that sense of desperation doesn’t always come out of necessity, but comes out of boredom. Because we have a very healthy Socialistic society, very few people do crime out of survival. A lot of the times it comes out of boredom. In one way we have almost a perfect setup, but yet there is a backlash – a dark side. Through the Vikings, we have a very violent tradition in the north. But because of socialism, that has been controlled over the last 30 or 40 years.”

Clearly, Refn has a political perspective on his country’s Socialist leanings, and it’s not entirely positive. “We take things for granted,” he says. “We take Socialism for granted. We have a tendency now in Scandinavia to be so spoiled. It actually ends up making us extremely racist. Because we are so preoccupied with ourselves, and what is ours, we want more and more. None of us have lived through a war, or a crisis. If you’re a young student you can collect unemployment and live like that very well for the rest of your life. If you get sick, you go to the hospital. If you want your children to go to school, you send them to school. I’m not saying it’s a perfect society. But having those things that create a healthy society, can take its toll because everything becomes so collective – like a commune. Everybody lives together on equal terms.”

“Pusher 3” also presents Denmark as a huge cultural melting pot. Milo, the film’s struggling, paternal dealer trying to stay clean, is a Croatian immigrant. Meanwhile, the gangs attempting to overthrow Milo’s thriving distribution empire are Albanian. The film implements a dense stew of different dialects. In fact, only a few sentences ring of Refn’s mother tongue.

When asked to explain the part that these immigrant groups play in Danish history – and in the body of his trilogy – Refn provides an elaborate, lengthy perspective. “Denmark was very open to foreign migrant workers in the sixties and seventies. A lot of these people came from Turkey, and from Yugoslavia. Of course, nowadays things are very different, unfortunately. We’re a very racist country that doesn’t like foreigners. It’s a very sad moment in Danish history, because we’re not living up to our credo that we want to be a very globalized country. We’re very much closing ourselves off.

“And you can kind of see that within the film ‘Pusher 3.’ There are lots of different nationalities, including the Albanians, which are the ones who are trying to force Milo out of the market. It’s quite confusing. They were Albanians, but they can speak Macedonian. That’s how they can talk. The Slavic regions have so many different dialects because the countries are connected with each other. That’s why in ‘Pusher 3’ there are so many dialects and languages – because they can speak a little bit of everything.

“In that sense, we have a history of being a very open country. But in the mid nineties, things really changed, because the National Front became very popular. They became popular because the Social Democrats who were in power for many years would not talk or even debate the subject of immigrants, and how it was affecting our society, in terms of health care, unemployment, and social security. You suddenly had a very healthy society where you could get great social security and hospital treatment, where a lot of people were coming into the country. The government could not bear the burden. There are too many people. There are not enough people paying taxes to keep the machine going.

“The Democrats would not even debate it, because it was such a hot topic. That’s why they lost the election. And the National Front really gained a lot of power, because of people being frustrated at not being able to voice an opinion.”

“Pusher 3,” with its various subgroups struggling for power, might symbolize this immigration schism. And ultimately, something has to give. The movie’s final collision is a horrifying, stomach-churning bit of Grand Guignol nastiness bound to shock even the most callous crime-film fans. Never has the disposal of a dead body been depicted with such cold, clinical matter-of-factness. However, there’s a method to this grotesque madness. Refn makes it clear that the strong violence was not intended as an exploitative geek show. In fact, it was a direct response to audience’s sometimes frightening reaction to the first “Pusher” film.

“A lot of people had romanticized its sense of live fast, die young,” he describes. “It was almost like a cult character grew around Frank. But it saddened me a lot. Because I strongly believe that there is no glamour in this lifestyle. It’s destructive, nihilistic, and sad. I wanted to make a scene that showed its coldness; the pure and simple coldness that these characters are capable of. They’re so cold – it goes beyond any kind of sexuality to just strip a man nude, hang him up, and cut him up like a pig.”

The following scene makes these ghastly preceding images even more startling. “Milo comes home to this suburban house, living this kind of middle-class, average life. He could be your next-door neighbor.”

Part of the third film’s hair-raising tension can be attributed to Zlatko Buric, whose depiction of crime kingpin Milo is one of recent cinema’s most subtle, dynamic, heartbreaking performances. The only character to appear in all three “Pusher” films, Milo is a gregarious family man who casually asks an associate to help him haul a refrigerator to his young daughter’s apartment between dope runs. He cooks meals for staff (even though Refn establishes a running joke about Milo’s sub-par, puke-inducing culinary skills). But when push comes to shove, he can maim, torture, and kill to get his debts paid.

Burik is an unusual presence, suggesting the scraggly, disheveled slob persona of Burt Young. His wary eyes, which go from soft and inviting to harsh and reprimanding in one blink, are knowing and intelligent. Mikkelsen, whom Refn calls “the biggest star in Denmark,” might rank higher at the box office, but Burik provides the trilogy’s most dynamic and emotional presence. He’s a major find.

“Zlatko is my favorite actor,” proclaims Refn of Burik, also a musician with Telepathic International Group. “He comes from an experimental theatre in Croatia. He’s out there. The amount of talent that guy has… if he had a good agent in America, he would be on top in Hollywood. He could be one of those great character actors that you could pull in to make anything work.”

In one scene from “Pusher 3,” Milo’s cold-eyed, callous daughter Milena (Marinela Dekic) confronts him with a pushy business deal. After her husband enters the family business, Milena insists that the spouse receive higher wages than Milo would ordinarily shell out. It’s a fascinating scene – a man capable of uncompromising negotiation and murder becomes a benign pushover when browbeaten by this spoiled rich-bitch. In a strange way, Milena’s ruthless bargaining is more disturbing than the film’s following image – a body being gutted like a fish.

“I wanted to avoid the classical approach where people would say, ‘Kids, this is not for you. You shouldn’t be involved with this,’” Refn explains of the pivotal haggling between Milena and Milo. “I wanted to show that sins of the father really are sins. And your children can become much worse than you. What surprises him is that his daughter is a much more fierce and dangerous person to talk business with than any of the others, because she’s basically ready to cut him off as a father.”

Another poetic, resonant image involves Milo staring into an empty swimming pool; its interior caked with dirt and debris. “When we saw the pool at location,” recalls Refn with a laugh, “the owners wanted to clean it and fill it up. We said, ‘No, keep it the way it is. We won’t use it. Don’t worry about it.’ For me, a swimming pool kind of represents success. If you have a house with a swimming pool I guess you have success. But if your swimming pool is an illusion, it’s broken and distorted and ruined. But the image is there.

“A lot of the media world manufactures crime as an image of glamour and excitement. But within that image, there is decay. For me, that swimming pool represented the image of glamour – but it was really decay. In a way, coming home and going to the swimming pool and starting into decay is also a symbol of his own relationship with his family.”

The influence of family looms large in the “Pusher Trilogy.” It’s also a huge part of Refn’s own life. In fact, when the sound of youthful giggling erupts in the background and threatens to break up our phone conversation, the director sheepishly explains, “That’s my three year-old daughter. It sounds like the children are happy.”

Perhaps due to his own experiences with parental separation, Refn’s films play as tragic cautionary tales warning of the fragile ties that bind blood relatives. Viewing these cinematic studies of family dysfunction, one senses that Refn is keenly aware of his parental role – and the huge paternal influence he wields. This awareness was confirmed in early June, where Refn’s trio of movies played the Seattle International Film Festival (while he took home an Emerging Master award). Rather than stay with northwest audiences as his films unspooled, Refn went shopping for his daughter at nearby department stores.

“Having children,” Refn declares, “is the most creative boost I’ve ever experienced. Better than any kind of drug. Having children opens you up to a whole set of emotions that weren’t there previously; opens up everything in you to a higher level. It’s the closest thing we get to real life science fiction. Even when they cry.”

Refn’s next film, “Valhalla Rising,” will abandon contemporary Scandinavia for Viking history. “It’s gonna be independently produced by myself, about the Vikings discovering America. I always wanted to do an action film.”

And just as he dove into the hell of criminal psychology as an outsider and still managed to capture identifiable, personal stories, Refn will inject his own life’s emotions into the mix of raping, pillaging, and burning. “I guess subconsciously, ‘Valhalla Rising’ might be about my own discovery of America.”

“But my own story,” laughs Refn, “probably wouldn’t be as interesting.”

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