Interview: 'Drive' director Nicolas Winding Refn
“Did you like the movie?” Nicolas Winding Refn asks buoyantly from a New York sidewalk, as he takes a brief stroll around the block from his hotel. He’s escaped for a hit of air in the midst of a packed publicity schedule, but if he’s at all tired, that isn’t coming through the phone line – the city gives him a buzz, he says. In any case, his question is phrased with jazzed excitement rather than uncertainty: it’s one to which he has every reason to be confident of the answer.
The movie in question, of course, is “Drive,” Refn’s sleek, sexy, bubblegum-flavored fast-car thriller that hit US theaters on Friday. I like it very much indeed, but that hardly makes me special; since bowing in competition at Cannes, where it scooped the Best Director prize for the 40-year-old Dane, the film has collected more critical valentines than are usually reserved for the kind of high-octane action-fests that have a natural home in the multiplex.
Then again, Refn directs it as if he were Henry Higgins to “Fast Five”’s Eliza Doolittle, with a discerning eye, a literate ear and a healthy streak of European eccentricity: without wishing to speak for the Justin Lins of this world, it seems unlikely that most filmmakers would find their prime creative inspiration for such a project in the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm.
“Essentially, I just wanted to make a Los Angeles fairytale,” Refn says, good-naturedly rebuffing many critics’ notions of “Drive” being primarily a film about other films – with Walter Hill and Michael Mann’s lean, limber heist thrillers of the late 1970s and early 1980s atop the homage checklist. “Of course, you’re dealing with iconic genres that many great films have been made in before yours, so there will be similar cinematic references, but I didn’t consciously set out to make them. I was too busy thinking about fairytales.”
This may sound a cutely implausible approach for a propulsive tale of a stuntman-turned-getaway-driver (Ryan Gosling) coolly handling the bloody fallout from a typically messy Hollywood heist, part of which obligatorily involves romancing the pure-hearted girl (Carey Mulligan) caught up with the heavies. But Refn is evidently not into idle analogies. “It’s a film of two halves,” he explains eagerly. “The first introduces the archetypes: Carey is the innocent maiden who wanders into the forest, Ryan is the knight roaming the land to protect the innocent, Albert Brooks is the evil wizard or king, and so on."
“Now these larger-than-life figures are symbolic, representing pure emotions,” he continues, warming to his theme, “and so half the movie is pure champagne, concerned with the purity of love, cleansed of anything normal. And the second half, as in the Grimms’ stories, is when retribution kicks in and the violators of that purity have to be punished.” They are indeed punished, and gorily so, by Gosling’s knight in shining leather: Refn, who made his name with the brutal Danish underworld antics of the “Pusher” trilogy and progressed through such equally strong-of-stomach fare as “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising,” isn’t one to shy away from the visceral. But then neither were the Grimms.
Fairytales weren’t the only fantastical reference point for Refn’s story – adapted as it is from a trim James Sallis pulp novel by the unlikely figure of Oscar-nominated British scribe Hossein Amini (“The Wings of the Dove”) – and the other has rather more traction in the current Hollywood climate.
“There’s clearly a superhero-themed undercurrent throughout,” Refn volunteers, merely underlining a point already made by the film’s recurring (if pre-existing) theme song, a creamy synthpop number by College titled, with a refreshing lack of obliqueness, “A Real Hero.” Any similarities between Gosling’s uncaped, earthbound character and, say, Captain America must remain theoretical, however: “Obviously, he has no superpowers, but he’s an ordinary man who transforms himself into something stronger because that’s what he was always meant to be. The film happens in the real world, but draws repeatedly on the literature and fable of fantasy, and I thought that’d be an interesting language to work with – none of my previous films did that.”
In this regard, he sees “Drive” as a greater stylistic stretch than his 2009 Norse historical epic “Valhalla Rising” – which he still describes as “my science fiction movie, at least in my head” – and certainly “Bronson,” an appropriately wild semi-biopic of Welsh career criminal Charles Bronson that Refn nonetheless thinks of as autobiographical in nature. That’s hardly a self-flattering comparison, but the director is candid about the perceived professional failings that lead him to make it.
“Like ‘Drive,’ ‘Bronson’ is about a man who wants to transform himself, but into something he doesn’t know exists. He knew he was meant for something special, but he didn’t know what that was – so he realized he wanted to be famous, and that violence would make him famous.” Having raced through this explanation, he pauses briefly before turning the conversation himself. “So my first three films were based not on what I wanted to make, but what I thought great art should consist of. Which is the wrong reason to do any movie, because you will always fail.”
The turning point for Refn, then, came with “Fear X,” a curious 2003 horror venture he admits “haunts [him] still,” the financial disappointment of which bankrupted the up-and-coming filmmaker. “I had to restart my career after that movie,” he sighs. “But by then, I realized that I should look upon filmmaking as one does any art form, in a fetishist way, where it’s all about what I really want to see. I’m the audience of one. Similarly, Bronson discovers that his fight, his violence will destroy him, and through his art he realizes that art is an act of violence. Through art, he undergoes the full transformation of his alter ego.”
What transformation is Refn undergoing with the polished throwback atmospherics of “Drive?” For starters, he’s not shy about describing the film – perhaps a little perversely, given its broodingly boyish energy – as his most romantic, and even feminine, work to date. Indeed, there is a delicacy, a sensuality even, to the film’s construction that bears out that statement – even without the neon pink script of the film’s opening credits. That direction began, according to Refn, with sound rather than sight: principally, the quietly throbbing electro-pulse score devised by composer Cliff Martinez.
“Whenever I make a movie, I try to visualize it as a piece of music,” he explains. “That gives me the images of what I want to see, which helps me complete the script. I was listening to a lot of Kraftwerk and Eno while Hossein and I were developing it, so I had this idea of doing a film about the masculinity of cars, but with electronic music that would almost be like the beating heart of a machine. Not aggressive, hard-edged electronic, but something more feminine, more Euro-influenced, which would be a great counter to the masculine world of machines. And that contrast is crucial, since the greater the film’s extremes, the more drama you can squeeze in between.”
It’s that musical cue, in turn, that informed the 1980s-accented styling of a film that otherwise feels artfully interchangeable in terms of period. Again, Refn is quick to insist that decade’s flavor, evident in details from soundtrack to costume design to editing rhythms, wasn’t a calculated or conscious objective; indeed, he says, it’s a sense that emerged as much from location as anything else. “Only while shooting in Los Angeles,” he muses, “did I realize it’s a town that never left the 80s… architecturally, socially, everything. So that became something I couldn’t escape; on the contrary, I embraced it because it underscores the film as a modern fairytale, making it almost unidentifiable inside.”
The film’s not-quite-period glow is certainly what’s fueled the aforementioned critical parallels to the Mann of “Thief” and the Hill of “The Driver,” though it’s another 1980s stalwart that leading man Gosling – Refn’s new muse, judging both from the mutual adoration both men project and their robust lineup of planned future collaborations – has been invoking in his own interviews about the film.
The director brings up the name before I have to. “Early on, I said to Ryan I always wanted to do a John Hughes movie,” he says with a rich laugh. “You see, when I was young, those were the movies that introduced me to the notion of cinema and love. Not just love, but the illusion of love: they were all about the idea of romance, without the reality and difficulty and heartache.” And “Drive” is such a movie, he thinks? “Well…” he pauses, during which a grin quite audibly covers his face. “It’s ‘Pretty in Pink’ with a headsmash.”
It’s a neat quip, though it’s also one that suggests Refn’s range of creative touchstones is broader and wittier than many of even his most admiring viewers credit him with; already, even with highbrow acclaim and accolades seemingly opening up fresh avenues in his career, the convenient tag of “genre filmmaker” is all too frequently welded to his name. He admits he’s not entirely sure what it means; he just likes making movies. “I guess it’s just a label people find it easy to use,” he sighs, his well-earned good mood still much in evidence. “But they used it on John Ford too, so I’m not complaining.”