Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive
“Riveting” is an adjective quite frequently used by entertainment journalists when describing crime movies, thrillers, or really anything that might simply offer its fair share of violent and shocking surprises. After seeing Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, however, one must reevaluate this clear over usage. Refn’s film, for which he took home the Cannes Best Director prize, brings fresh meaning to the term as it regards to narrative cinema. I must emphasize: this is an absolutely engrossing entertainment, surely one of the most potent and unforgettably propulsive stories you’ll encounter on a silver screen this year. A simple recap of its story will probably leave you unenthralled, as, in its broadest outlines, Drive is but another modern neo-noir with a tough, taciturn hero (a stunt driver by day, a getaway driver by night) caught in a moral conundrum with some very bad men. Yet as you’ll see in the following conversation with its 40-year-old director, Drive‘s simplicity, its embrace of the mythic and the familiar, combined with Refn and his very fine cabal of actors’ abundance of craft, (a brilliant Ryan Gosling, ably supported by Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, Ron Perlman and the indispensable Albert Brooks in his best supporting turn since Out of Sight) has led to something quite special.
Refn burst onto the international film scene at 24 with his Danish dope-dealing flick Pusher, which spawned an entire trilogy now celebrated by genre cinema dorks the world over. His reputation solidified with 2009’s Bronson, about the notorious British criminal Michael Gordon Petersen, who received seven years in prison for robbing a Post Office. Because of his various hijinks behind bars, he ended up spending 30 years in solitary confinement. Refn followed up Bronson’s success by reuniting with Pusher collaborator (and erstwhile Bond villain) Mads Mikkelsen for the medieval action pic Valhalla Rising, but seems geared toward an entirely new level of recognition and box office success with his latest, which while recalling the noir traditions, William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. and the great early work of Monte Hellman, is in a class of its own. Drive opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday via Film District.
Filmmaker: There is a storied tradition of European filmmakers coming to America and embracing mythic American film genres, be it the western or film noir, from an outsider’s point of view. Here you seem to be doing something similar with the West Coast urban thriller. How conscious were you of all of this when choosing to make Drive, and is that part of why it appealed to you?
Refn: That’s a very good question. I never had any aspiration to go to Hollywood and make a film. It’s not something I had a specific desire for. I didn’t want to be in situation where I had to give up my creative control. The circumstances and the relationship between Ryan and I made me act against my principles and go with my instincts that this would end up fine. It might be a bumpy ride, but I would end up fine. What was odd was that all the studios in Los Angeles passed on the movie. So in the end I had to go back and make a film that was financed independently, which is basically back to where I started. [laughs] What was interesting was that I was able to still make the film in Los Angeles with the whole mythology, because that was one of my conditions and a major part of Jim Sallis‘ book; I was trying to be very faithful to the book. While the structure has changed, the tone is what was really intriguing to me. Drive is comprised of a simple series of events — it just happens in front of you. It’s a movie that’s like a carousel; it presents a sequence of emotions that just transforms in front of you and ultimately provides some catharsis, but it’s a very simplistic [in] structure. The idea was to make something so primal within Los Angeles, which is this city so full of delusion and tricks, you’d think you wouldn’t be able to take advantage of it. But to the contrary, you make it the exact opposite.
The whole structure of the film came from the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I had been reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales to my daughter the year before. On this movie I began to think, “Well, what if this is like a Grimm’s Fairy Tale?” I couldn’t have made the film I wanted to make if I didn’t have this story to make it with, the whole idea of these characters in L.A. being these archetypes. Carey Mulligan is the innocent girl who stumbles into the woods, Ryan is the knight in shining armor who comes to save her, and Ron Perlman is the midget with the sword. They are all archetypes by design. The idea of making a fairy tale in Los Angeles is what really made me want to make this movie, and I think it’s what makes the movie work so well. So, coming to Los Angeles, thinking it was going to be one way and having it actually be the other, where I’m making an independent film the way I make them back home, on a seven week-shoot, and struggling to move money around so we can get those seven weeks shot, then cutting the movie at my house and then getting it finished for Cannes — it was essentially a very European experience.
Hollywood was built on a great tradition of European filmmakers being brought over into the machine of Hollywood. That’s everyone from F.W. Murnau to Fritz Lang to all the various Eastern Europeans and Germans in the ’30s, Jean Renoir when he came over later on, and so on and so forth. And of course in the late ’60s, when all the old masters had died out and people like Hitchcock were on their last legs, the Americans started making European films! There has always been a constant intermarriage between the best of both worlds. So of course, since I’m European and I’m making a movie about American mythology using the very old formula of the fairy tale, the storytelling became a mix of everything that way.
Filmmaker: If making films in Hollywood was never something you sought out, how did Ryan Gosling charm you into taking this journey with him?
Refn: He hadn’t attached himself, but he was interested in a script and he had the power to choose who directed it. The script was a Universal-owned project that had been being developed for six or seven years, based on Sallis’ book and called Drive. What’s odd about everything is that when I met [Gosling] in Los Angeles, I had a high fever because I had gotten sick coming in from Europe. I took these drugs, which took my fever down, but they made me high as a kite. So when we met, I had read the Universal material, but I couldn’t remember it. And I was pretty much zoned out during our conversation over dinner. So then I asked him to give me a ride home because I thought I needed to lie down. It was in the car going back, when it was more like, “Well, this meeting had not gone so well,” that Ryan turns on some music to break the awkward silence between us. So the music started to play. And you know when you’re really high you do stupid stuff like turning up the music really loud? Which I did, and I started singing to the song. I worked myself up into this emotional frenzy, and I started crying. Tears were streaming down my cheeks.
I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I was really missing my wife, and my second daughter had just been born, and I was pissed off about being away, thinking, “What am I doing here?” That sort of thing. I had been working on a movie with Harrison Ford right before. His character was going to die, but then he didn’t want to die, and everything was just a mess, including in my head. But it gave me a sort of instinct about how we could do a movie together. I turned to Ryan, and I said, “I got it.” We could make a movie about a man who drives around at night listening to pop music and that is his only emotional release. Ryan looked at me, and he said, in his very cool voice, “Cool, I’m in.” So our relationship started with a shared emotion of a character, and when I cleared up my head a few days afterwards, I went back and really started to read what Universal had started to develop, which was not so much to my taste. It was a more conventional movie on a large scale. Then I read Jim Sallis’ book, and I really liked the book because that was more about a stuntman. So Ryan and I basically went back to the drawing board.
Filmmaker: Is that when [screenwriter] Hossein Amini came on board?
Refn: Hossein Amini had been hired by Universal originally to write it. So he had been working on it for six years, just taking studio notes and writing it to their specifications. I felt that the structure of the film was really good. He had come up with a very clever means of telling the film in an accessible way. The book’s version is very inaccessible — it’s constructed of past and present time frames. He had come up with ways to tell the story more conventionally, with a “boy meets a girl [plot]”, and then so and so happens. Universal had limited the whole stuntman story, which was a shame because I had wanted to do a movie about a wheelman. The whole style of the material as I saw it was to do a movie about mythology, but I really liked Hossein a lot and I felt that on this adventure I was going to take in L.A., I wanted Hossein as part of the package. Hossein is a wonderful writer, and I had a great crew to pick from in Los Angeles, so I sat down with Hossein to change the material into what I would call my fetish, because you see I am a fetish filmmaker. Meanwhile, Ryan and I were so in sync about what the core of the film was. So it became a very collaborative construction all taking place in the Los Angeles house I was living in. I wanted to live the whole Hollywood mythology of a swimming pool and an orange tree and a house in the Hollywood Hills.
Filmmaker: The film is so geared into these recognizable, timeless archetypes that it seems you are able to dispense with exposition almost completely.
Refn: That’s basically me tearing 20 pages out of the script. I’m a minimalist. I eliminated all backstory for the driver and most of the dialogue. Ryan and I were into the idea of the part being almost silent. We decided the driver was a man who would only speak if he was asked a question and would only answer if he had something to say. I eliminated his backstory because I wanted him to be more mysterious, an enigma that would unfold throughout the movie. There could never be a specific reason that could be analyzed about why he was the way he was because then he would lose his mythological qualities. I think the shooting script that I handed in was 81 pages. In shooting I would continue to pare down the script. I shoot in non-chronological order, so probably by the end what I had shot was maybe 60 pages. So it was down to the bone.
When we were editing the film, there was almost zero coverage. Not just a master, but, say, a master and two close ups. That had to do with many things, one of which was having very little money and time, so you have to be very specific, but also it was a way of doing the Hitchcock trick of protecting the movie from being tampered with later on.
Filmmaker: John Ford used to do the same thing.
Refn: My father was an editor. My mother was a photographer. I was brought up on an editing table. So images and editing them together has really been the basis of my understanding of film since I was little. Matt Newman, who edited Drive, also edited Bronson and Valhalla Rising with me. He’s a very important collaborator creatively for me. I shoot my films chronologically because it gives me a way to see the movie unfold in front of me in its purest form. It gives me a way to change things. It also gives the actors a little pressure, because there’s no safe haven, anything can go. When I edit the movie the first thing me and Matt do is cut the film into inconsistent, non-chronological storytelling. A completely incoherent structure, just to see what it feels like to turn everything on its head. Then you suddenly begin to discover what you can do — for example, starting a language that jumps in time. For example the dinner scene cuts together with the crooks in the park and him stealing a car. What you’re actually suggesting as a director is, “Is this happening or not?” without making a conscious decision of whether this is happening or not, which, going back to the Grimm’s Fairy Tale nature of pure fantasy, adds to the dreamlike aspect.
The film is always in constant evolution ever since I conceive it or write it or have someone else write it for me, which happened to me for the first time on Drive. But it wasn’t hard. It was actually really easy to have a great collaborator there to help get things out of your head. It’s a constant process, and I pull people in along the way to help me get the results. What’s interesting about this whole thing is [this]: a director doesn’t have to be an expert in anything, but he has to know a little bit about everything. That “everything” includes financing and global economics, directing actors, setting up camera and lighting, reading cost reports, moving money around — every little thing you need to know a little bit about. In every field, there are experts who are there to help you make the film you want to make, this being a director’s medium. A good film is authored by a good director, a bad film is directed by a bad director. I’m a fetish filmmaker. I put things on screen that I like to see. I’m not the best director in the world, despite what the French are saying this year, there are better filmmakers than me, [laughs] but for the kind of films I make, I’m the best at it.