john phillips/getty images
john phillips/getty images
Two episodes of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young premiered on the big screen of the Grand Theatre Lumière in Cannes this year. The neo-noir thriller features Miles Teller as an LA cop and John Hawkes as a war veteran who take justice into their own hands and eliminate all they see that is bad. And they see a lot of bad in this highly stylized story shot in Los Angeles. The show will stream as a 10-episode series on Amazon but screened here as a stand-alone movie. Of sorts. It is the Danish director’s first time creating a series and he fully enjoyed the process – as did his leading actor Miles Teller. We met them at the Carlton Hotel on La Croisette in Cannes.
What was it like seeing Too Old to Die Young with the audience in the grand theatre?
Miles: It is my first time in Cannes and the first time I am seeing it. I loved it. It is always nice when you are reunited with the people you made it with. It is a celebration of the film and something that you have created. Nic watched the whole thing with his hands in front of his eyes and ears.
Nicolas: Because I was so nervous. I don’t watch my own things, but they make you sit through it at Cannes and I am always too nervous.
Miles: There is built in expectation. Right? When you are making it, you don’t have that.
Nicolas: It is a very sensitive experience. But it is always very exciting and afterward, it is just like … (exhales deeply) … especially on Friday. A six-minute standing ovation is very moving at 1 am.
Nicolas, you have a special relationship with Cannes.
Nicolas: Yes, Cannes has been wonderful to me and I have been wonderful to Cannes. And we are proud of being part of something that leads to change and that will take Cannes into more options in the future.
You have mentioned that you got the idea for this film driving through Los Angeles while working on The Neon Demon. What inspired you on this trip to get the idea?
Nicolas: The concept revealed itself and it just happened to be in the car again, which is the irony because I cannot drive. But maybe that is a good thing. I enjoy being driven. I enjoy relaxing while in movement and that is what a car can do.
Who was driving?
Nicolas: I think it was my assistant. No, actually I think I was in an Uber of all places.
Miles, you said you became involved after having read the script for episode 1. What spoke to you about episode 1?
Miles: I think when people see the first episode there is a lot in there. It set itself up for a really interesting character and world. And then working with Nic was what spoke to me most and I thought it was a character who was very thought-provoking. I wanted to crawl into that skin. That is all I knew about it was episode 1.
What was it about Miles that made you want to work with him?
Nicolas: Because he is the reincarnation of Elvis. I thought if I could make a movie starring Elvis and with the rebirth of Elvis what more American could I get?
Is he Elvis in the film for you?
Nicolas: He certainly looks like him – like an identical twin.
You shot the film chronologically. Can you talk about the advantages of that?
Nicolas: It is more interesting creatively because the end result is just what I call dead space. And it is everything around that. That is where you are alive. And the process is really more interesting than anything else.
What do you mean by dead space?
Nicolas: It is a product. It is a thing on the wall or an online element that you can stream. It is not organic and it does not have emotion yet. So the process of creativity is more interesting than the product – it is like the Odyssey itself. So when you shoot it in order it becomes more about the journey you go through and it was the right decision.
And what is this process like for you as an actor?
Miles: We actually filmed very close to where I live, so it was nice. Shooting in chronological order is actually an advantage to the actor. You are not married to anything you have not shot – any future tense of your character. You can change course as it goes. It is an organic way to shoot.
There is a hilarious scene in the film when the police chief is having a moment of energizing the policemen and he has a religious message and then shouts ‘fascism’?
Miles: And he plays the ukulele so beautifully.
Nicolas: Martin is a man who lives in two worlds and the idea was to make the world of the night – the noir world – the focus of absurdities. It was more about making his day life that kind of projection of absurdities and that plays much more with kind of infused a reaction to the world around us where the world of the night became a kind of fantasy and a kind of escapism.
Is it also your comment on American society?
Nicolas: With art, you can always create a wonderful parallel of what is going on in the world and we are making entertainment and we are here to entertain.
But he is shouting ‘fascism’ followed by applause.
Nicolas: There are certain issues that are happening in the US at the moment where that kind of reaction certainly is becoming the norm and that is partly what this show is about. It was also a way to give all the police scenes a sense of comedic touch because we did not want to do a cop show. There are so many of those and very good ones. So it was about using the setting as a place for the absurd. It is like a sense of poetry.
Miles, can you talk about the characters double life?
Miles: It is hard to talk about it without it being a spoiler. You can certainly say that in terms of the larger narrative that it is about a protagonist who falls into an odyssey of religion and death where you immerse yourself into the dark aspects of humanity and you need some kind of higher purpose and of course religion and faith is part of that.
Nicolas: He is a man of enormous contradiction in a way. He is on his own kind self-fulfilling prophecy. You do get a sense of it from the two episodes that screened here. You guys are catching it right in the middle of the odyssey. John Hawke’s character talks to Martin and that is a pivotal scene as far as where Martin goes from there.
The film has a very slow pace. Talk about the stillness in the film. Is it interesting to you the space that is in between?
Miles: Yes, it is interesting and it is funny how I watch shows and a guy is telling a guy for the first time that he is going to kill someone and the guy just responds right away. It is like if you have not killed a guy before – or even if you have – it cannot be tossed around like that. You cannot just be spraying bullets without consequences. To me, it makes the heightened reality it adds a real kind of humanity to it all. I think it allows the audience time to kind of thing where the characters sit in those scenes as opposed to just being extradited through an action sequence.
Nicolas: It is also about respect for the audience and to challenge their perception of entertainment. We spend so much time nowadays being pleasant and painless. But in that process, we also forget joy and hate and despair and beauty so part of what we were doing is the concept of just relaxing your pulse. Most entertainment is about consuming as fast as possible and then move on to something else. We don’t need to add more stress into people’s lives, on the contrary, we need to calm them down almost like meditation.
There is a scene where Viggo and Martin are watching the lights of the freeway talking about civilization.
Nicolas: In any kind of narrative you need certain pivotal moments and have a larger canvas. So it was always the speech that enlightens Martin that there is a higher purpose of what Viggo has cultivated as a religion and there is a reason behind it.
Are you saying Martin is religious?
Nicolas: I don’t think you need to be religious to have faith. It is a much more personal odyssey because there can be so many different aspects to faith. But certainly, it is human instinct to believe and Martin at that point in the story is someone who has lost purpose and he needs guidance. Viggo becomes enlightenment to him and in explaining why he felt the need to protect innocence and dedicate his life to it. Because he has seen the future.
Is Martin on a journey?
Miles: Yeah, a 13-hour long one.
Is the show mainly about his journey?
Miles: The show is about so many things and that is why it is so interesting working with someone like Nic. He has a lot of questions. Martin is the protagonist and he is certainly on an odyssey.
Martin is a policeman who has a double life. How would you describe him morally?
Miles: It is interesting which kind of code Martin goes by and where the line is and when he makes a new line and how he justifies things. Things work in very stark contrasts and as Nic said, he can be fairly hypocritical. But I think that is interesting, and it is interesting when you play someone who is not on a straight line.