INTERVIEW: Nicolas Winding Refn

INTERVIEW: Nicolas Winding Refn

by Steve Dollar

DRIVE director Nicolas Winding Refn

It's not hollow hype to say that in Drive, the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has made not only the mainstream crossover of the year but also one of 2011's best movies. A genre specialist of great formal command, Refn first made waves with his Pusher trilogy, beginning in the mid-1990s, and more recently has essayed mythic brands of macho in Valhalla Rising [listen to our podcast] and Bronson?tough guy flicks not deficient in their existential questions.

Those elements are ramped up in Drive, at once an homage to stoic classics such as Walter Hill?s The Driver and the tonal mood-ring that is the canon of Michael Mann, and a European outsider?s affectionately detailed love letter to Los Angeles: a city whose streets look strangely new here, literally considered for the first time. Refn worked in close cahoots with star Ryan Gosling, who plays the unnamed Driver?a stuntman and gearhead who moonlights as a wheelman-for-hire, manning souped-up getaway vehicles post-heist, stealthily prowling the downtown backstreets while helicopters hover or out-gunning hapless police cars. His no-strings-attached policy begins to fray when he falls for a comely neighbor (Carey Mulligan), a single mom whose problems inevitably complicate things but also give him an occasion to rise to?a chance to become "a real hero" (as per the movie's insistent theme song, by the electro-popsters College). Less chase-y than its vintage American antecedents (like Bullitt or To Live and Die in L.A.) and more brooding, the film might be best described?as one wag suggested?as Grand Theft Auto: The Chess Game, since Gosling's anti-hero goes up against a cabal of underworld figures who want to deflate his tires. Permanently.

This week, I chatted, all too briefly, with Refn about his experiences shooting Drive in Los Angeles, his love of American pop culture, and the evil incarnate that is Albert Brooks.


Were you caught off-guard when Ryan Gosling called you up and asked you to make this movie with him?

You're always surprised when anybody wants to work with you. Why would they want to work with me? Ryan wanting to do a movie together was really what got me interested, and the relationship between us had really cemented itself early on.

It's very amusing that you don't drive yourself.

Yeah. Everyone was so surprised by that. "How are you going to make this movie?" But when you don't know something, or you don't have an interest in something but want to do it anyway, you look at it in a different way. It's like being a stranger in a strange land. I made it very clear that I was not necessarily the best filmmaker in the world, but the kinds of films I make I'm the best at. In order for me to make it, I would have to fashion it to my fetish. I spent a lot of time doing that, and we were so in-sync we almost had a telepathic relationship. We knew exactly what he and I?thinking as one mind?wanted to do. When we got going, it was a very easy process. It was the most enjoyable time I've had making a movie.

When Gosling was driving you around LA, were there parts of town that surprised you?

I didn't know Los Angeles. I didn't know what to be surprised by. I found things I liked, and I wanted to shoot there. It's not like New York that has its own kind of niche. Very specific, the landmarks of New York?and precise. L.A. was an undiscovered territory in my mind, and maybe I was wrong but that's how I saw it. I went with what I could say and I was uninhibited in a way I wouldn't be if I was in New York.

There's a beautiful moment, one that people have commented on, when Driver takes Carey Mulligan's character Irene, and her little boy, on a joy ride through the downtown viaduct of the Los Angeles river. At one point, they reach a dead-end where it turns back into nature. How did you find that?

That was interesting. Ryan told me about it, and I really liked it. Making this film, Ryan and I were very telekinetic.

You two had a late breakfast every night at the 101 Cafe in Hollywood. What did you talk about?

A billion things.


Is it true the film was actually inspired by Sixteen Candles?

Well, part of the movie was inspired by the sense of what it was like, me watching Sixteen Candles when I was younger. The notion of falling in love, and the purity of that love, he was able to capture in that movie. The first half of the film has to be about a man and woman who fall in love without the complication of the aftermath. The truth of love. The souls of love.

Driver is an old-fashioned model of chivalry.

The movie was heavily influenced by Grimm's Fairy Tales. A few years earlier, I was reading them to my daughter, and I became fascinated by the language of them. He's like a knight that roams the land in search of protecting innocence.

One character that isn't innocent is Bernie Rose, played by Albert Brooks. What possessed you to cast one of America's best-loved funny guys as a villain?

It's not so much what I saw, because I'm not an Albert Brooks expert. He?s not somebody I know a lot of things about. But I was fascinated by him. The concept of Albert Brooks was really intriguing. A) He'd never killed anybody before, or been a bad guy. B) The notion of what had happened to him in all those years. Bernie Rose, I mean, to be this gangster who became this movie producer who had to go back to being a gangster and he doesn't want to be. And so, that algorithm fit in very well with the whole situation. In James Sallis' book, a beautiful piece of literature, the mobsters are more the conventional gangster type. But I wanted him to be an ex-movie producer, so I developed that character more in that fashion.

The movie is a love letter to 1980s pop culture. Is that what you absorbed as a child?

I grew up on American pop cinema. That was a way to rebel against my parents. For them anything that was considered American entertainment was on the same level as fascism. Of course, that is what I relished. That was my 'fuck you' to the parents.

What did you love best?

American horror movies attracted me. The violent cinema of America.


There's a funny line that Albert Brooks has...

"I used to make movies. Sexy stuff. Some critic called them European. I thought they were shit."

Is that a tip-off about your own approach?

Maybe it was autobiographical when we wrote it. I'm a fetish filmmaker. I make films based on what I would like to see. I don't always understand why I would want to see it.

That electronic score, by Cliff Martinez, is fantastic.

I wanted to have a very feminine sound versus the masculinity of the car. That was very important to me to have that difference, because then if you combine it, it's almost forcing two opposites together and creating pure energy of emotion. That creates excitement, creates drama.

The book is written out of chronological order, and the screenplay went through a lot of evolutions before it got to you.

The secret to unlocking the movie came from a meeting between Ryan and I where I saw a way to make the movie. I had an emotion that if I could do a movie about a man who drives a car around at night listening to pop music, that would be the core. So I was aiming for something specific in that way. When you have that, you have the heart of the movie.

The "elevator scene," which everyone who sees this movie will forever talk about, is a perfect movie moment?a kind of suspended dream of love and death. How did that come to be?

[SPOILER ALERT] There was a scene that was there that didn't really work. He had to protect Irene against the hitman. They were going to fight in the garage, and then he was going to kill the guy. But it was very important that he kill the guy very exclusively so the Irene character can see how he changed, how he had transformed himself. I couldn't make it work and ended up putting it in the elevator, having him kiss her before he smashes the guy's head in, to condense the movie into one scene. In all movies, you have to have one scene that is the heart, where all the blood flows from. It's the point of no return.

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Posted by ahillis at September 17, 2011 4:04 PM

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