Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing

The most expensive poster book ever made of movies no one’s ever heard of.


The cover of “Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing” by Refn and Alan Jones.

Acclaimed Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is no stranger to Fantastic Fest, appearing in 2013 with Jodorowsky’s Dune and again last year for the documentary My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn directed by his wife Liv Corfixen. He returned once again this year with Fantastic Fest serving as the perfect launching pad for his new book Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing (on sale October 5, 2015).

This year, Fantastic Fest hosted a book signing to celebrate the launch, where Refn was joined by book collaborator Alan Jones (founder of Film 4 Frightfest, the UK’s premier horror film festival and author of the award-winning Dario Argento: The Man, the Myths and the Magic). The book is the first release from Refn’s new NWR imprint of FAB Press, and is a gorgeous over-sized hardcover wherein he shares more than 300 classic exploitation-era vintage posters from his personal collection. He challenges people to look at the artwork in a new light, and appreciate the sensational and salacious promises offered to anyone who dare watch the films.

Expanding upon the book signing experience, Refn and Jones screened three films as part of the festival: The X-Rated Supermarket, Farewell Uncle Tom, and My Body Hungers. Each highlighted a type of exploitation cinema, and Refn and Jones conducted a Q&A after the screenings.

I was lucky enough to join a round-table interview with Refn, which proved to be as fun and insightful as the book itself.The interview was a lively discussion on cinema, marketing, and the excitement behind collecting.

A lover of all cinema, Refn spoke with great passion about the book and the films it features. A years-long endeavor, the idea originated from the acquisition of 1,000 exploitation posters. Having never seen most of the films, but loving the posters, he wanted to do something with the collection. So he decided “to make the most expensive poster book ever made of movies no one’s ever heard of.” He joked about having only seen maybe 10% of the films featured in the book.

How he acquired the posters and the condition they were in –

NWR:  Jimmy McDonough, who had worked on Times Square because he and Bill Landis created something called Sleazoid Express, which was the first fanzine to write about Times Square in’79 or the early ’80s. [The fanzines are] impossible to find now. The original was like a xeroxed sheet of paper … [McDonough] had been collecting posters ever since those days. I had become friends with Jimmy because he had written the Andy Milligan bio and owned the Andy Milligan archive that I purchased from him. He said, “Well if you’re buying this, do you want to buy my poster collection?” I said,” Not really.” “Oh, come on.” I said, “Alright, fine.” So he shipped over 1,000 posters. Some were in pretty bad condition, and some were in pretty good condition. But when you make something like a poster book, you have to decide whether you want the poster to be presented in the way that it is at this current state or do you want to present it as it was originally envisioned. I felt that it was more interesting going back to the origin because it would just make it more… cinematic. It would make it more hyper reality. So that took a long time as well, because every poster had to be worked on.

Some more famous exploitation films are not featured in the book. Making the cut required some thought

NWR:  It became more of a spur of the moment idea to do a poster book because I had this huge collection. It took a year and a half just to dig out the research … The ones in the collection that were very famous, they’re [left] out. As film fans we’ve seen those things too many times … [But the inclusion of] the ones we may know, but I consider extremely beautiful, like Queen of Blood or  The Astounding She-Monster [are meant to be] very eye-catching immediately for a larger audience or for people that don’t know, like my mother, that would never watch these films or buy a book like this. But if you see The Astounding She-Monster, it’s like a pop painting, so it softens an introduction into ending with The X-Rated Supermarket.

The biggest challenges while researching the book 

NWR: I would torture Alan Jones, who did all the research. There were about 1,000 posters. It [was] a long process to figure out what I wanted in the book. And once we got [a poster] scanned, it [needed] a partner. There were a lot of them which Alan was just like, “There’s no information.” And I said “That’s great. It’s going in the book.” So there were a lot of them. It was like true detective work. I don’t know how he did most of it. It took an extremely long time… I didn’t want reviews. I wanted facts.

L. to R. Refn, book designer Tk, and Jones at the "The Act of Seeing" signing during Fantastic Fest on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett)

L. to R. Refn, book designer Jay Shaw, and Jones at the “The Act of Seeing” signing during Fantastic Fest on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett)


Launching an imprint of Fab Press

NWR: I really enjoyed the process of [making the book]. It was a bit like making a movie and even though they were other people’s movies, it’s like a mash-up where you take other people’s songs and you cut them together. You become like a DJ and you find your rhythm. It was very enjoyable. A great pleasure. There will be a new [book] in about a year and a half, but not about movie posters.

In his introduction, Alan Jones mentioned a poster for a double bill of Confess, Dr. Corda and Frantic that left a strong impression on him. Growing up in New York City, Refn was exposed to many posters as well 

NWR: I remember when I would walk down in Times Square with my parents in the early 80s, because I grew up in New York, that there were all these horror films promising all these terrible things. And I was like, “I must be in Heaven.” That certainly stuck in my mind.

Choosing the films screened at Fantastic Fest –

NWR: What was available. Tim [League] had about ten or fifteen from the book, and some of them were unplayable. And then there were a few that you could get on iTunes so that was not as interesting, like Zaat, which I think was on iTunes. But there was The X-Rated Supermarket, which everyone was curious about . [When it screened last night] it was the fucking best. And then My Body Hungers, which is a Joe Sarno movie. He was a quite good filmmaker. And then there’s Farewell Uncle Tom which is just in a way the ultimate artsploitation in a really peculiar way. I highly recommend it.

Posters that caught his eye so much he sought out the movie after –

NWR:  [The screening of] The X-Rated Supermarket was probably an event of the festival. It was just outrageously fun. There’s a movie I’d like to see called The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds just because the poster in the book is so amazing. There are many. I just, I don’t know, well my wife’s not going to watch them and my kids aren’t going to watch them, so that takes out my time.

Films featured in the book that influential to his filmmaking 

NWR: I really love a movie called Night Tide that’s in the book. I put that in because it’s a fairly famous title and it’s an expensive poster to get. But I was friends with [director] Curtis Harrington before he passed away … I think Night Tide is a marvelous film –he also did Queen of Blood. So he’s actually someone I put in for sentimental reasons.

The film Farewell Uncle Tom‘s iconic music by Riz Ortolani –

NWR: His wife [Katyna Ranieri] sings the theme song “Oh My Love” in Uncle Tom and that song I used in Drive. It was the one song I knew I would use, even as I was finishing the script.

Refn and Jones discuss "Farewell Uncle Tom" after the screening. (Photo by Waytao Shing)

Refn and Jones discuss “Farewell Uncle Tom” after the screening. (Photo by Waytao Shing)


The style and creation of these posters

NWR: I think most of these posters were made by the distributors’ nephew or cousin or something like that. What’s interesting is that some of them have extremely highly artistic expressions. The Astounding She-Monster or Queen of Blood are extreme examples of great pop art. And then you have things that are so crude, just a black and white photo printed on a white piece of paper with a tagline—like Darling, Are You Bored with Men? and a photo of a woman, and you’re like, “okay.” And then there are ones that are even more obscure … I was able to find these apparently illegal posters. Basically, back then cinemas would steal or sell prints illegally to each other… And there were cinemas that would just show Repulsion,  which is in the book, but they showed it illegally, so somebody would just make a poster, like hand-drawn and they were put it up.

Lessons Refn would want modern designers to take away from the book –

NWR: Be creative. There’s nothing more boring than all these photoshopped, approved things. I mean, who wants to hang that on their wall? A lot of us use art to express who we are, and the more generic it becomes, the less it speaks to us.

Theatrical poster for "Devil Rider" (1970).

Theatrical poster for “Devil Rider” (1970).


Refn’s personality showing when asked about the inclusion of The Time Travelers 

NWR: That was written and directed by a Danish man. Ib Melchior was Danish. That’s one of the reasons I put it in the book. And he wrote the basis for Alien, Planet of the Vampires. So he created Alien. Take that.

Being involved with the creation of the marketing materials for his films –

NWR: As a director, you have to be heavily involved in all parts of how it’s promoted because it’s your vision … You don’t always know best. Sometimes people know how better to do stuff. But you need to be there in the process … But I think it’s vital for a director to be involved with the marketing.

The films featured in the book were up front about what to expect, whereas today they can be fairly oblique. With Drive, there was that woman in Michigan who sued because she thought she was in for a Fast & Furious-type movie. On the perception and marketing of films 

NWR: That was pretty crazy. Thank you very much to her. That was a great honor to have that experience. I think it’s more about the kind of films I make, that are maybe made for a more specific type of audience that knows the kind of films or knows what I make. Drive was the first time in the US that was built with a studio marketing campaign. I never had twenty million dollars to market a movie. I don’t think my films combined made twenty million dollars. There’s a certain perception that comes with that.

Seeing posters from other countries for his films –

NWR: There’s a vanity satisfaction in the various posters from around the world. It’s a sign that you’ve conquered. You’ve been there. You’ve made it.

The market for rare marketing materials

NWR: What’s interesting, when I was doing the book, I would sometimes watch these online auction houses and I was amazed how many sell posters now … and how much money comes and goes with movie posters. If you have Bride of Frankenstein, it’s worth half a million dollars. Or anything Disney.

The intersection between films and books, the different relationship between the author and the audience

NWR: A book is very personal as you read it usually by yourself. And a film you experience most of the time with a crowd. I’ve only worked on one movie that was adapted from a book, which was Drive. But that’s a very existential book. It’s very thin. The movie’s longer than it takes to read the book. So I’ve never done the whole literal approach. I tend to steer away from that because I always feel the book is better than the movie. But it depends on what you want to do.

The Drive comic book series 

NWR: I didn’t know there was a Drive comic book. Well, it’s America, baby! Let’s milk it for all we can.

On sexploitation vs. pornography –

NWR: [The book is] like a time capsule of sin. Everything was being promised to your wildest imagination but they would never live up to it. That’s what makes it so exciting. That’s why pornography I always find very boring because, if you see everything, then where’s the excitement? I think that’s why sexploitation films are so much more erotic than pornography, because it’s all about the imagination. Which is in a way what art is—it caters to our subconscious more than anything else, rather than just seeing the reality. The reality is something we live with every day. Why would you want to see that in entertainment?

Theatrical poster for "Psychedelic Sex Kicks" (1969).

Theatrical poster for “Psychedelic Sex Kicks” (1969).


Collecting more posters –

NWR: I have collect-omania. I have this compulsive behavior to collect. I collect many different things. I collect vinyl. I collected VHS when I was younger. I now collect Japanese toys. I have to collect something because I like to hunt. That’s why … I love but I also hate [eBay] because it makes it boring because you can just go online and find it. I love going to a place, like going to Asia, and having to find a store where they sell Japanese robots. That’s 99 percent of the fun. But I did start looking at Italian posters that were just very, very incredible, and I quickly realized, “Okay, I’ve got to stop. This is a dangerous path to go into.” So I started collecting negatives instead.

Whether the trailer has replaced the poster in the digital age 

NWR: Well it kinda [has]. But at the same time, the one evidence that your film played in the cinema is the cinema poster, not the trailer. The trailer is the new way how we use information, which is very much internet-drawn content … I just think the digital revolution has opened new ways to promote entertainment … but I think something simple as a movie poster or a vinyl album will always be something you cherish. The trailer is more of a selling tool. With the poster, it’s more like watching a woman before she takes her clothes off.

How film promotion has changed, the response to it, and personal expression –

NWR: Certainly because of the digital revolution, a certain part of promotion has gotten lost or not needed. But I think that’s why there’s the sudden reaction to what Mondo is doing or what a lot of the vinyl releases are doing. People need ways to express themselves. We use art or entertainment to define us. We want people to know who we are, whether it’s a tattoo, or what we wear as clothes, or what we listen to or hear, what we read. It says who we are as people. And, for so many years, our entertainment, which we consume every day, has become more of a file number. I love the computer and all the information, but it means nothing because it doesn’t say anything about you. It’s hidden. I think as a reaction to it is saying “I want something on the wall that physically I can touch, I can feel, I can show. I think it’s great. There’s nothing more sad than walking into someone’s house and the walls are bare, and there’s no books, there’s no movies, and the music does exist because it’s all in their computer. What does that say them? I very much love the idea of expressing.

The posters from this collection were hanging on his wall –

NWR: My wife did not approve of the book. I’m married to a very strong feminist and she felt this was degrading to females, which I kind of understand. There’s only one she liked, which was Captive Wild Woman. [She said,] “That could go on the kitchen wall. Everything else, fuck off.”

A poster of one of his films he’d like to see in a poster book in forty years

NWR: Only God Forgives. The American one-sheet with the dragon head. I think that’s one of the best posters I’ve ever seen.

The U.S. teaser poster for "Only God Forgives."

The US teaser poster for “Only God Forgives” (2013).

Nicolas Winding Refn: The Act of Seeing can be purchased directly from FAB Press or wherever books are sold. Click here to purchase a copy. It’ll make your home much more exciting to guests and your coffee table will thank you.

Available wherever books are sold, lucky fans at Fantastic Fest where able to get their copies of "The Act of Seeing" by Refn and Jones on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett)

Lucky fans at Fantastic Fest were able to get their copies signed by Refn and Jones on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett)