Words & Interview
The Drive director reflects on smuggling Bronson’s actual moustache out of prison and the personal story behind his ethereal biopic of the UK’s most notorious inmate.
How do you make a biographical drama about somebody who doesn’t exist? If you’re Nicolas Winding Refn, the answer is: to great critical acclaim. Released fifteen years ago this week, the Danish filmmaker’s gritty, hard-hitting take on Britain’s most notorious prisoner not only helped introduce the world to Tom Hardy, but it also turned out to be a hugely personal movie for its director, one that kick-started his Hollywood career and remains close to his heart to this day.
“I look back on Bronson with a lot of fondness,” Refn tells Little White Lies. “I was able to make a movie that was really about myself, at the right time of my life, using Charlie Bronson as catharsis because he himself is a made-up person. There was a kind of mutual opportunity to benefit from each other by making the film,” he reasons. “It was very fundamental in how it shaped me later on.”
In Bronson, Refn served up a theatrical and dream-like ‘biopic’ of Charlie Bronson, the alter-ego of real-life criminal, hostage-taker and moustachioed thug Michael Peterson. As of 2023, Bronson has spent more than 50 of his 70 years behind bars for crimes that include armed robbery and numerous attacks on prison guards. Much of this stint has been spent in solitary confinement and despite never actually killing anyone, a parole board recently denied his request for freedom, meaning he’ll likely spend the rest of his days locked up.
Those are the facts. However, the man behind this infamous criminal career is a complete fabrication, created as an outlet for someone who struggles to convey their feelings to the world. It was this corner of the truth that initially piqued Refn’s interest.
“It wasn’t so much Bronson as a person, it was more the concept of building an alter-ego that basically dominates your life,” admits Refn, expanding on the themes that drew him to the project. “The whole opening line: ‘My name is Charles Bronson. All my life I wanted to be famous’ – that was a large part of my younger days. I wrote that as a manifesto of one’s self: ‘How would I become famous?’ because I didn’t really have any talents.
“Obviously, Charlie’s talent lay in his infantile and almost childish behaviour – like performance art,” he continues. “It’s more amusing when you’re young than when you’re a 70-year-old man – but there’s something very freeing in not wanting to conform with what’s acceptable and being reminded that we don’t always have to be like everyone else.”
Refn landed on the scene with Pusher in 1996, a gritty crime story fronted by Mads Mikkelsen. A stumbled attempt at cracking Hollywood came with 2003’s psychological thriller Fear X before he returned to his native Denmark to helm two more Pusher films. With Bronson, Refn got the chance to reintroduce himself to English-speaking audiences and in doing so successfully expanded his career horizons, paving the way for his 2011 Hollywood breakthrough Drive.
“Michael Peterson is not particularly interesting but his alter-ego is fascinating because it’s something that, as an artist, represents the duality that you struggle with,” suggests Refn, unpacking the unlikely connection between Bronson and the artistic mindset. “The act of creating is very isolating and wrapped in solitude. It’s a very lonely experience and a very personal thing. I had an interest in what it meant to me,” he adds. “It was a time in my life when I needed to make a split from my past to really make my future – and the best way to do that was to make a movie about yourself and that transition from one to the other.”
Throughout production, Refn kept his focus firmly on the made-up person at the centre of his story, limiting his interactions with the actual man behind the narrative. However, his star had a different approach. “I think if I had spent time with [Peterson] the way Tom was able to, it probably would’ve made creating that distance harder because suddenly I would’ve had to relate to him as a person,” says Refn. “I spoke to him once on the phone at Tom’s house – but his approach was different. He was a young actor. He was thinking: ‘How do I perform him and do justice to the man I’m portraying?’”
While Refn kept his distance, Hardy dove head-first into creating an accurate performance, bulking up, shaving his head and even wearing bits of Bronson’s real moustache within his own. “Having access to [Bronson] was a very useful tool for performance authenticity,” explains Refn. “Having Bronson’s moustache smuggled out of prison and put into Tom’s… those are all important for a performer to emulate an authentic person but the Charlie Bronson we were making the movie about was made-up. Michael Peterson existed and I know it was very important for Tom to represent him authentically.”
This mixture of unvarnished reality and artistic licence gave Refn’s movie a heightened quality that’s emphasised best through the theatre dramatics Bronson uses to tell his life story. “I wanted to give it a sense of staged reality,” explains Refn of his creative choices. “Obviously, the emotions were real but the design was stylised. I’d come from my Pusher films which were all about authenticity and I no longer had an interest in that approach so then you go to un-reality. It was a way to combine the operatic with an authentic performance.”
With Bronson telling his tale in an over-the-top pantomime style, Refn got the best of both worlds, underpinned by an unlikely musical source. “Flamboyant electronic music, especially the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure and all those bands that played with gender in their music – I felt like they would be a great sound for the film,” remembers Refn. “It was very feminine, even though it was hard-hitting and melodic.”
This gender element is mirrored in Hardy’s pent-up performance: “Tom understood that this was not a film about tough men being tough – this was a film about fairies, Never Never Land and Cinderella,” explains the director. “He brought a theatricality and a willingness to go to a gender-neutral, gender-swapping and almost A-sexual and bisexual sensibility. I wanted to show that he had basically recused himself from any sexual interaction for his entire life.”
Knowing how Hardy’s career has panned out, it feels like a role he was born to play. Solid and stoic, he carries Bronson like a clenched fist; an alien unable to interact with the regular world who’s ready to pounce at a moment’s notice yet oddly vulnerable. It’s since become one of Hardy’s most celebrated performances, something made extra special knowing he wasn’t Refn’s first choice.
“I had wanted Jason Statham who turned me down, even though I met with him to discuss it,” reveals Refn. “Then I went to Guy Pearce, who also turned me down so it went back to Tom and he was certainly the right choice for the film, there’s no doubt about that. I want to thank all of the other actors for turning it down because they never would’ve done what Tom Hardy did. It gave birth to probably one of the finest young actors around.”
Considering how personal Bronson was to Refn, it’s no surprise that the filmmaker didn’t care too much about what his subject thought of the finished product. Still, that didn’t stop Bronson from sharing his opinion: “Because it catered to everything that Charlie wanted to achieve in his life, it became his greatest achievement,” says Refn. “Michael Peterson becoming Charlie Bronson, then having a film that celebrates his creation of this alter-ego is what he essentially always aspired to, maybe without even knowing it,” he adds, “so obviously when the film was done, he declared it the best film ever made.”
As for Refn, Bronson remains a movie that marks a turning point in his creative career, one that freed him up to let go of the past and be unabashedly himself, much like his subject. “I think the ultimate canvas for anyone is to be free but the consequence for Bronson is that he’s been stuck in a cell for practically his entire life and for what, at the end of the day? What did he really achieve? That’s a very personal statement that I doubt anyone can even begin to understand,” he says. “I learned that the only things I should worry about are the films I make and I should not have any interest in what’s around me. It made me very mature.”
Published 17 Oct 2023
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