Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has been on the verge of breaking out in the United States for many years, ever since his 2009 film Bronson premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and Hollywood started taking serious notice that this was a filmmaker who only comes along once in a blue moon.
Having already had success in his native country with the “Pusher Trilogy,” Refn decided he’d only tackle the American movie biz on his own terms, and after two years, that’s resulted in the Los Angeles-based crime-thriller Drive, a film loosely based on the novel by James Sallis, starring Ryan Gosling as a nameless stunt driver who hires himself out as a getaway driver at night and works at his friend Shannon’s (Bryan Cranston) auto shop by day. One day, he has an opportunity to befriend his pretty neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) but when her husband gets out of prison and is threatened by thugs, the driver agrees to help him, only to become embroiled in the dealings of a crime boss named Bernie Rose, played by Albert Brooks. Although we’ve been introduced to this driver as a quiet and introspective man, we see a very different side of him once the situation becomes more tense.
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Drive is a movie that’s gotten a lot of people talking since it debuted at Cannes, not just due to its incredibly unique often subdued tone, its explosive action scenes, its distinctive soundtrack of ’80s-inspired synth music or the performances by Refn’s somewhat unconventional cast, but also because somehow, all these divergent elements work together to create something so original, it’s shocking that it’s been able to get a nationwide release in the same theaters that were playing the summer’s more conventional action fare just a month earlier.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Refn at the Toronto International Film Festival where the movie had a Gala premiere just a week before its release. We’ve actually interviewed Refn quite a number of times before, going back to the U.S. release of his “Pusher Trilogy” in 2007, and we were surprised how verbose he was – like everyone else at TIFF, he may have been tired from a combination of jetlag, interviews and partying. This interview came very close to us asking him only a single question, because he seemed to want to share an anecdote about his first meeting with Ryan and nothing else…
ComingSoon.net: Had you actually read the book and were interested in adapting it or did you only read the screenplay?
Nicolas Refn: No, no, no, I read the script because the script that was around was like a Universal action movie. They had bought the book I think eight years ago and developed some kind of action franchise potential, so it had nothing to do with that. What it really came down to was this, I was in LA working with Harrison Ford on the movie called “The Dying of the Light.” It was a Paul Schrader script about a CIA agent who goes on an existentialistic journey and dies, and I’d gotten Harrison Ford to play the lead.
CS: I remember this. Yeah, okay.
Refn: And it was all cool, you know? Then Harrison Ford decided not to die, and it kind of lost the point of the movie, and I was really frustrated and pissed off that I had come to Hollywood for just another European filmmaker being disappointed in America. I didn’t want to do that, so I was just like, so like, “F*ck this.”
CS: When was this? Right after “Bronson”?
Refn: This was right after “Valhalla Rising.” I’d gone off to work on this movie, so while I was in L.A. these four days of the trip–because my second child had just been born and I couldn’t be away a lot, so four weeks at a time I would go to L.A. and work with Harrison Ford and it was just not working out. I get a phone call asking if I would meet with Ryan Gosling next time I’m in L.A. I was like, “Yeah, sure. Why not?” We never met, but he wanted to meet and see if we could cook something up. Ryan had been interested in a script called “Drive” at Universal.
Anyway, when I arrived in L.A. on the airplane, I got the flu coming in. I felt terrible and I had to work with Harrison Ford a few days and then I had to have dinner with Ryan. So Harrison got me these anti-flu drugs to take the fever down if you have it in the States, but they basically make you high as a kite, so I was speaking as slowly as Harrison now. That movie was just about to crash completely. I’m in my hotel room and got out of bed and “Oh, f*ck, I have to read that script.” I got stoned, then I read the script. I didn’t remember the script and I slept and then I woke up and went “F*ck, I gotta go to dinner.” I dragged myself out of bed, made another one of my powder drinking medicine tablet Harrison Ford-inspired drink, and got in a taxi and went to the restaurant. I got there late–so embarrassing–Ryan was already there waiting for me, courteous, respectful. I was so f*cking stoned. You know that feeling? Because I was sitting like this (Turns sideways) and he was sitting where you are, so I couldn’t really look at him. I basically wouldn’t look at the guy, and it was very humiliating and disrespectful. I just couldn’t move. We talked about music and things like that and my movies, his movies a little bit, trying to connect and there was something between us that was interesting, but I was so out of it that I didn’t know how to run with it. About a couple of hours into the dinner, I asked him, “Can you please take me home?” You know, like a blind date? He’s like, “What?” I go, “I don’t drive a car. I don’t have a license.” He goes, “Okay, yeah, I’ll drive you home. I’ll drive you home.” So we get out of the restaurant.
CS: This is not sounding like the kind of story that ends in the two of you making a great movie that everyone loves.
Refn: No. (laughs) We get out of the restaurant, get into the car, really awkward silence because literally nothing came out of this meeting. So we’re driving back across the freeway in Santa Monica where I was staying. To break the silence, Ryan turns on the radio. That’s what you do when you don’t know what to say to each other. REO Speedwagon “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” comes on because it’s soft rock. You know when you’re like really stoned you do like really strange things? Like turn up the music really loud because it really speaks to you? So I turn up the music really loud at like an obnoxious, arrogant level. I was cranking it up then I would start to sing, which is really annoying to do that. So I’m singing (singing) “I can’t fight this feeling anymore.” Something happened in me, some kind of emotional vision I would call it, because I started to cry because here I’m singing these lyrics, “I can’t just fight this feeling,” the feeling of what? I missed my wife and my kids and Harrison Ford wouldn’t die, and everything just sucks. What the f*ck am I doing in this town? So tears are rolling down my cheek. For the first time, something goes, “Hold on.” I turn to Ryan and I said, “I know what we’re going to do…” Ryan told me this…
CS: You probably didn’t remember it.
Refn: Oh no. “You and I, we’re going to make a movie about a man who drives around a car at night listening to pop music because that’s his emotional release,” screaming, “That’s it!” really loud. The music was so loud. Ryan looked at me, he goes like, “I’m in.” So the whole movie was born.
CS: But you said there already was a script, right?
Refn: I couldn’t remember it. The whole movie was born in an emotional connection between us. We both saw something in each other and in that moment, like a marriage almost. When I felt better, I read the script again and it was very well written, but it was a different kind of movie, because it was just about a getaway driver and a lot of action. Then both Ryan and I read the novel, and we both really liked the novel, ’cause the novel is about a stuntman. Universal only used a very small portion of what the book is about. I said, “The stuntman story, that’s it. This movie’s about a stuntman who drives around at night listening to pop music.” Everything led back to that emotion of solitude and not understanding why you couldn’t express, and using music to cleanse yourself.
CS: I think most people when they see that first scene of him driving with the music that has these ’80s influences…
Refn: (ignoring our attempt to transition into another question) Yeah, so I wanted to work with Hossein Amini who had been working with Universal because I felt he was a pretty good writer that I needed his help to take my fetish–because I’m a fetish filmmaker–but we started just by eliminating, just paring it down to its essentials, then changing it into a kind of construction where it’s vaguely like Grimm’s fairy tale, which I had this idea of doing the movie as a Grimm’s fairy tale. So constantly new things came in about movie mythology. So, we had four months, Ryan and I, to talk about the movie before we got it financed. Then I came to Los Angeles and Hossein Amini would come and live with me in L.A., then the three of us… me and Hossein Amini would write in the morning and in the afternoon, we would be working with Ryan, then Ryan and I would go drive around at night. Then Hossein Amini would write in the morning, I would go through it again with him in the afternoon. Ryan would come and then we would go through together with him again. So it was like, Ryan and I became one person. We were living the movie, because we’d go around at night, drive all around Los Angeles, go to the 101 always, late night dinners at two AM and just live the whole L.A. experience of this driver. Then, we just went off and made the movie, and of course, I continued to alter and change. The elevator sequence I came up with a week before we started shooting.
CS: That was a great scene.
Refn: There was a fight between him and a man to protect Irene, which wasn’t working. It was in a parking garage and I just couldn’t get it to work and I couldn’t figure out why. My editor Matt Newman who came to edit the movie at my house. We cut the movie at my house. Everybody was at my house. Carey Mulligan moved in to live at my house. Ryan had a key to my house. It just became a place to be. My mother was there, my stepfather was there. The editing equipment was there. My wife was there. My kids were there. It was like real ’70’s filmmaking. We just needed all the cocaine.
CS: When you guys were developing this, when was it decided that Ryan’s character was barely going to talk throughout the movie?
Refn: Ryan came up with a really interesting idea of saying, “I don’t see the driver talking unless he answers.” So unless he has something to say, he doesn’t talk, which was a really interesting idea. It was great because I’d just come off “Valhalla Rising” where the character does not talk at all, so it was cinema language I completely was wrapped into. Automatically, by making him more silent and more mythological and more of an enigma, because I limited all his past. Sallis’ book, there’s a huge backstory that I took out because I wanted it to be more mysterious around the driver, like he was part of a mythology, like a movie mythology character.
CS: It’s just so interesting for him to be in this role and for this movie to be coming out in between “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “Ides of March” where his character is all about talking and turning on the charm. If I hadn’t see his name in the credits and his face, I wouldn’t believe it was the same actor.
Refn: But that’s what’s so incredible about him as an actor, that he’s able to offer himself in so many different directions.
CS: I want to get back to the music for a second because I’m a music guy myself…
Refn: Well, when I make movies, I always try to see them as a piece of music when I figure out the genre, like all my movies are different kind of people. When you see “Bronson,” that’s like Pet Shop Boys, because I was only listening to Pet Shop Boys when I was writing it. “Valhalla Rising” was Einsturzende Neubauten. This one, I wanted an electronic score because I thought to counter balance the machinery of the car and the driver, half man, half machine, that was going to be interesting. But I didn’t want, what you would say, aggressive electronica music. It had to have a ring of the past. In Europe we have this sound of Eurovision, which was this kind of pop that came out of Italy and Germany a lot. Giorgio Moroder was one of the famous producers of that sound, so I would listen to a lot of Kraftwerk when we were writing. When I was shooting and editing, Kraftwerk was always the key because that made me understand that he’s half-man, half-machine, but he drives an antique. Kraftwerk would make music on crude machinery in the late ’70s, early ’80s they would make effeminate electronic sounds. He’s half-man, half-hero as well, so there’s always finding the halves, the flipside to the coin each time. So that’s why the music would flip to counter the masculinity of the stunt world with the feminine side of the European pop.
CS: I also like that at a certain point, that electronic ambiance just stops and it’s so quiet, you can hear the natural sounds of the environment.
Refn: Well, silence is a powerful, powerful sound and I love silence.
CS: Yeah, I wanted to ask quickly about some of the cast because a lot of people ask about Albert obviously and Ryan…
Refn: Well, Albert was very easy because Hollywood gives you these lists of people that they go, “Well, that person made that movie and that made X amount.” And you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever, but that was because that movie was good, and therefore, blah, blah, blah.” So it doesn’t mean anything, it’s like false security. I said, “Look, let me tell you something. I want Albert Brooks to play Bernie Rose.” The reason why I wanted that was because I remember seeing “Lost in America” but not really following his career since, so I wasn’t as aware of what happened to him. I was only interested in, “What happened to Albert Brooks?” I wanted him and I had to meet him to see if I could make it work. Then I met him at my house and he was a powerhouse of emotions and I wanted him to be a movie producer. We talked about that at the character part and he was just really cool and really understood how you can emulate and change and the emotions were flying all around and I knew that if this guy was going to kill somebody some day, he would do it in the movie.
And Carey Mulligan, it was the same thing. Christina Hendricks came by and pitched herself for the movie and I really liked her. I’d never seen “Mad Men.” I just liked her. Bryan Cranston, I had to woo, because he was so in demand, but I very much said, “Let’s try to figure out a character that would work for you.” Collaboration is important to me because my job is to help the actors express their emotions and that’s what I do. Then I film it and record it and design it, but if you don’t have the emotions, you have nothing. Carey’s a bit of a strange situation because originally in Sallis’ book, Irene is Latina. The love story of the book does not weigh as much as it does in the movie because the movie, I felt, would not work without the love story. That was the whole hook to understand his violent behavior, his need to be violent. Carey’s agent called me and asked if I would meet with her and I was like, “Yeah, sure, but I don’t know why, because I’m casting a Latino.” I met all the great Latino actresses of L.A., I mean, powerhouse talents. Theoretically, I was always into the whole texture of the Mexican appeal, but every time I had to make a decision, I couldn’t, and I didn’t understand why. But I said, “Sure, Carey can come by.” I was very frustrated and didn’t know what to do. She came by and the minute she walked in the door that morning–because they all had to come to my house–I was like, “You’re it.” Because she reminded me of my wife and I wanted to protect her and I could fall in love.
CS: This movie has obviously opened a lot of doors because so many people love it and now there’s talk about you working with Joel Silver to develop “Logan’s Run,” but you’re going to Bangkok first to do “Only God Forgives” with Ryan. Does doing “Logan’s Run” mean you’re ready to tackle Hollywood again?
Refn: Well, I need to do this film first because I’ve wanted to do it for a long time, so I’ve been working (on that) for two years. Then, afterwards, I want to go back and do “Logan’s Run.”
CS: I’m sure you know that they’ve been trying to do a remake of that movie for a long time.
Refn: Like 20 years or something, yeah. I’ve always been obsessed with that movie ever since I was little, so once I got the offer to look into it, I was very interested then I spoke to Ryan about it and I said, “Let’s do ‘Logan’s Run.'” He was like, “Yeah, let’s do it, let’s try it.”
CS: Cool, so Ryan will be back living at your house.
Refn: Well, he’s the lead in “Only God Forgives” in Bangkok, so we’re going to be living together a lot! (Laughs) We’re becoming neighbors; we’re like the odd couple. (Laughs and then starts singing the theme song from “The Odd Couple’)
CS: Have you bought houses next to each other yet?
Refn: No, not yet. We’re working on it.
Drive opens nationwide on Friday, September 16.