Interview: Nicolas Winding Refn Can’t Drive

It started with a head cold. Hopped up on antihistamines, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn recollects a fuzzy first meeting to discuss Drive with its star, Ryan Gosling. Dinner preceded an awkward ride home in Gosling’s passenger seat (Refn doesn’t have a driver’s license), and in his hazy medicated high, he was brought to tears by “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” by soft rockers REO Speedwagon as it drifted over the airwaves.

Yes, the same Nicolas Winding Refn who helmed the hyper-masculine Bronson biopic and the gritty Pusher trilogy. As it happens, Refn is the 180-degree antithesis of the man his films conjure. As if torn from a Calvin Klein ad, he wears jeans and a white button-down with the cuffs turned out, and stylish, thick-rimmed glasses. And his embarrassing moment of unchecked sentimentality was the inception of the year’s most brutal and effective thriller.

In it, Gosling plays a jack of all automotive trades. He’s a stuntman, a grease monkey, and an aspiring racecar driver. By night, he loans out his services to a seedier clientele, piloting a getaway car. But when crooks threaten his neighbor’s family, he risks life and limb for revenge. The supporting cast includes Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Ron Perlman.

From its effeminate cursive pink logo to the female vocalists who shape its electro-pop score, Drive defies both gender and genre preconceptions. Hard to imagine, then, that the project began life as something much more pedestrian. In true Hollywood fashion, the studio optioned pulp author James Sallis’ 2005 novella based on little more than the title. Promptly stripped of its commercially unpalatable introspection, Drive was shaping up to be another marginal Hugh Jackman actioner. Think The Fast and the Furious. Says Refn of its ill-fated initial incarnation, “It would have been a very, very, very, very, very different film.”

He and screenwriter Hossein Amini gutted the script and wrote something more faithful to Sallis’ vision. But the draft they turned in turned heads for another reason. “The shooting script was 81 pages, which everyone freaked out about because they consider that a TV script,” Refn remembers. A scarcity of dialogue accounts for that small number; studios typically scoff at anything under 100 pages.

And Refn was cautious to keep his financiers happy. “This film was a little more expensive than my other films, and I’m always nervous about money. As long as people don’t lose money, they’ll always help and support you,” he says. “It’s all a balance. It’s a lot easier doing a black and white movie in your basement that plays at festivals and never gets distribution. It’s also fairly easy doing one of those megabucks franchises, because it’s all mechanics. What’s challenging is the middle ground. All of the filmmakers we admire and talk about deal in that middle ground.”

Refn counts Hitchcock, Lynch, and Kubrick among the great tightrope walkers, and their influences reveal themselves in his work. Bronson garnered widespread comparison to A Clockwork Orange in 2008; both star pugnacious and utterly remorseless protagonists. Drive has no easy analogy, but elevates a familiar archetype. By way of inspiration, Refn mentions Kenneth Anger’s experimental short Scorpio Rising and the Richard Gere romcom Pretty Woman (only half jokingly).

Pretty Woman spun itself as a modern day fairy tale. Having little innate interest in American car culture, Refn sought a similarly heightened reality for Drive. Gosling’s nameless character is no knight in shining armor, but when shoved past his breaking point, he becomes today’s cinematic equivalent.

“I always wanted to make a superhero movie,” Refn says. So Gosling dons a costume of sorts: a scruffy white jacket, its back emblazoned with the zodiac Scorpio. A witness to the rising body count, the garment becomes progressively more bloodied over the course of the movie. And thanks to its palpable violence and superior sound design, the journey is more satisfying than any old origin story. “Silence is my favorite sound,” the director explains. “Violence works when it’s fast and to the point. It’s what people don’t expect. And it’s more frightening because you don’t know what’s going to come out of silence.”

If there’s a superhero Refn most resembles, it’s the Flash. The condensed seven-week shooting schedule necessitated a breakneck pace, though he appreciates the challenge in hindsight. “I like to be insecure, artistically. I need obstacles… Sometimes we would spend four hours talking about a scene and only have an hour to shoot it, but when we shot it, we knew exactly what would work.

“It’s all about the acting. Especially when you don’t have the budget to do CGI action. You have to make it into your strength that you don’t have those abilities. Rather than become handicapped and try to emulate it in a cheap way, you actually reverse it and say, ‘What do I have that they don’t have?'”

Ryan Gosling, for starters. It’s a partnership that paid off at Cannes last May. Drive reportedly received a 10-minute standing ovation after its debut screening, and earned a nomination for the Palme d’Or. Refn won Best Director. Maybe all that attention has made him cocky; “I’m not the greatest filmmaker in the world,” he shrugs. “But the kind of films I make, I’m the best at.”

Who can blame him? With Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn inches closer to the nirvana between art and entertainment that defines the masterworks of Hitchcock and Kubrick. Drive could be the rare film that unites critics and audiences, but aside from reimbursing his financiers, Refn is more concerned with artistic bankruptcy than financial. “I made the film I wanted to make. One hundred percent. You can point the finger at me, and I’ll happily say that’s how I did it,” he muses. “If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t change anything.”

And this from a man who can’t even legally drive himself to the grocery store. “I don’t know anything about cars,” Refn admits. “And there’s no point in trying to do research, because I would just fall asleep.” – Colin

Drive opens in North America Friday, September 16.

  • Steve Kasan

    Great piece…this is the one film I was looking forward to in TIFF and the fall movie calender.

  • Darksiders

    can’t wait to see this movie!