8am on a Friday morning is too early for an interview, yet here we are. The hotel we are planted in is slowly waking up around us, the coffee is helping and yet few words are passing between us.

There is so much to say about the director’s work, and particularly Only God Forgives, the film we are here to discuss. Reactions to his film in the days following its premiere in Cannes were ferocious, with many critics calling the film out for being a hollow experience, lacking the polish and cohesion of his previous film (also with Ryan Gosling) Drive. There is far more to Only God Forgives that it was given credit for, yet it remains difficult – it’s indistinctness wavers close to being impenetrable; it’s hangover lethargy felt suffocating at times.

I told him the film gave me nightmares, that it felt while I was watching it I was trapped in a dream. This raised a smile from Nicolas Winding Refn, but no words. The lack of dilaogue may be fitting however Only God Forgives is a film I wanted to find out more about. I’m always interested in the the first image or idea which leads to the final film. So, I begin again, what was the spark?

He’s tired, understandably cagey and careful of what to say, ‘I don’t have a specific agenda, but one thing I thought was interesting was the whole notion of…’ he pauses, then looks at me directly. ‘Hands, amputated.’

Both Only God Forgives and Drive have moments of sudden, visceral violence in amongst a tension stretched tightly across each film. The hands in Only God Forgivescould be symbolic, they could mask one of a hundred different ideas, however this is as close to the film as well get. Almost immediately the conversation move away from the film to the reaction.

‘I’m always interested in how people react. There were very violent reactions to the movie, in terms of how people were opinionated about it. People’s reactions are so opposite, but it’s better to have a divisive film than one which doesn’t provoke anything.’

From the premiere at Cannes and subsequent stories about a smattering of boos from arrogant critics the director remains philosophical.

‘I’m really interested in polarization. When it comes to most other artforms that maybe aren’t as overtly or grossly commercial as film or music the polarization is considered a success story. That this painting or this poem, for example, makes a person throw themselves out of a window or makes them see God  – that’s success.

‘When you come to [film] where commerciality is dominating the market more and more, [your film] is viewed as a commodity. Diversity is something that is feared. But filmmaking is an artform, and diversity may be what [industry] people fear more but for me that’s the whole point. It’s strange how things come along. I find it odd when people all like something and we spend so much of our lives being told how individual we are. Well, if we all like something then it must be extrememly superficial.’

I put it that in order for something to connect so many people there should have been an element of truth to it, and suggest that his films are like dreams and they might be very personal. He interrupts me.

‘I always say that I’m just another pornographer. I make films about what I fetishize. It’s about visualising what arouses you.’

With a motivation so naked and blatant it is no wonder why Refn’s films are so divisive. Can the extreme reactions to his films be drawn back to the fact that people are afraid of them? I draw a line from the Elevator scene in Drive with its slow deliberate movements of the hand, the dimming of the lights, almost a dance before the hideous attack to the scene towards the end of Only God Forgives with Ryan Gosling finding his mother dead, and reaching into her mortal wound.

‘It’s a primal instinct. It all lead back to sexuality and aggression.’

There is another side to Only God Forgives, one which when juxtaposed with the gorestrewn violence becomes almost other-worldly – Karaoke. The most interesting character in Refn’s latest film is Vithaya Pansringarm’s savage Lt. Chang and in the moments following some overblown act of considerable cruelty he appears in a neon laced karaoke bar, a million miles away from the temples of drunken caterwauling we have here, singing his soul out.

‘I can’t stand karaoke,’ Refn is keen to point out, ‘here in the West it’s something people do when they consume alcohol but I had been to Thailand on vacation and they take it very seriously. For them it’s almost like a religious thing. They have karaoke bars all over, for example you check into a Four Seasons and there one is, but I also saw some really peculiar karaoke bars in Chinatown that you didn’t know where they came from because they were so ancient. The clientele were isolated, and sitting around listening to old Chinese folk songs and I thought wow, that’s an incredible vision.’

The reaction shots to the singing are very still, very calm. Particularly compared to the violence of what went before.

‘That why it’s in the film, it’s purification.’

We talk of the fight scene between Gosling’s Julian and Lt. Chang and how the entire film was leading us awkwardly to this point,

‘The fight scene was great, Ryan took a beating and for a long time we didn’t know if he would win or lose. Originally he was going to lose. And then we thought – what would happen if he won? But then as we went on we realised that the focus wasn’t the fight as much it was the scene after – the scene with his mother – if he had won the fight that scene would have been different, we wouldn’t have been able to get the ending we wanted to.

When you are building characters sometimes it is images, other times it’s out of discussion with the actor, or the editor. It’s a flow of ideas. Filmmaking is the combination of all elements – writers, actors, editors, and it’s about trust. I shoot my films in chronological order. That leads to being able to adjust – as if it’s a painting. The most entertaining part of making a film is not the result but the act of making it.

I don’t watch my films once they’re done. I walk away. I like the sense of sumbitting oneself to the process, letting it, at times, dictate the evolution of the product. I try to erase the past.

Looking to the future Barbarella is taking up a lot of the director’s time, and he freely admits that the main reason for getting involved is that the scope of TV has now changed into something which excites him.

‘I wanted to do a 13-hour movie. Netflix changed everything releasing everything at once. So you could watch it as a 13-hour movie – absolutely.’

Only God Forgives is available now on Blu-ray & DVD.