Shifting into Drive with Nicolas Winding Refn

Nicolas Winding Refn is tired. He’s been up since 5 AM, working on a TV commercial via Skype from his Philadelphia hotel room.

No rest for the weary, even if the weary is a serious multitasker.

 “I wish I could get more commercial work,” says the 40-year-old filmmaker, who has a handful of films in various stages of pre-production. “I welcome that.”

A publicity stop for Drive has brought Refn to Philly. The movie stars Ryan Gosling as a mysterious auto mechanic known only as “the Driver,” who uses his skill behind the wheel by day for stunts in movies, and by night in getaways for criminals. The sleek action film, which co-stars Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks and Albert Brooks, won Refn the award for Best Director at the most recent Cannes Film Festival.

Thanks to Drive, Refn—who was born in Denmark, schooled in America and currently resides in his homeland—has built a collaborative bromance with Gosling which will include at least two other future projects:  Only God Forgives, a Bangkok-set actioner involving mobsters and prostitution, and a long-in-the-works big budget remake of the sci-fi saga Logan’s Run.

“I didn’t know Ryan before making this movie,” says Refn.”He called me to meet and talk about doing the movie together. That was interesting and strange, and led us to some sort of telekinetic relationship. When I saw how to do my version of Drive, it turned out very well, so we’ll continue to do things together.”

Refn says having Gosling on his side was a sort of shield that is akin to other situations from Hollywood history.

“It’s a similar situation to when Steve McQueen wanted (Brit) Peter Yates to make Bullitt with him,” he says. “Or when Lee Marvin insisted on (Brit) John Boorman directing Point Blank. It was an American star that has the power to protect a European filmmaker that was used to doing films their own way, and make the films they wanted to make. It’s a very, very smart star that does this, because filmmaking is a director’s medium. Bad films are made by bad directors; good films are made by good directors.”

Refn proudly calls himself “a genre director.” His past efforts includes the drug-and-crime trio The Pusher Trilogy, the true-life story of a notorious criminal named Bronson featuring then-newcomer Tom Hardy in a tour de force performance, and the Viking epic Valhalla Rising.

But Drive, which neatly fits into the atmospheric L.A. noir mode of Collateral with Tom Cruise or Point Blank with Lee Marvin, is seen by Refn as his “John Hughes movie.” with Gosling in the Anthony Michael Hall part and Mulligan, whose ex-con husband is in trouble with hoods and whose young son Gosling takes a liking to, in the Molly Ringwald role.  


“I was thinking of John Hughes and 16 Candles, actually,” confesses Refn. “The first half is structured around the purity of love, like when Anthony Michael Hall tries to talk to Molly Ringwald and visa versa, and Molly is in love with the other guy, and all they do is look at each other and you can sense their longings. I was very fascinated with their innocence. It’s hopelessly old-fashioned romantic. That’s what I am. I only had one girlfriend in my life and we’re still together, and the nobility of it was very intoxicating to me.”

Other things Refn was thinking about while making Drive include Kenneth Anger’s homoerotic, rock-and-roll-scored underground classic Scorpio Rising, Boorman’s Point Blank and Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman, the only film he says he could can think of “that made a fairy tale structure out of a very dark, morbid subject.”

One of the most interesting (and, to some degree, frustrating) things about Drive is what is missing from the film. Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini (Jude, The Four Feathers) included little backstory of the film’s key characters, particularly Gosling’s enigmatic Driver.  Refn explains that the book the film is based on—authored by James Sallis—is structured differently than the movie, and prose about his past and future are prevalent.

“In a movie version, I was more interested in the driver,” relates Refn. “He’s an illogical character to begin with. He’s an existentialistic panther that goes by night as one thing and by day as another. I thought it would be more interesting for people to read his actions than tell his story, because the answer would never be as good as the mystery itself about him. He’s a bit like (Clint Eastwood’s) Man with No Name. He’s the logical figure that comes out of nowhere, but you understand his actions are noble and true which is much more interesting.

“I actually shot a little more about his background, but cut it out.”

Lots of the advance buzz on Drive centers in the supporting performance by multi-hyphenate Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose, a film producer-turned-master criminal. Why, one wonders, did Refn cast the idiosyncratic comic as the easy-going bad guy with a menacing streak?

“Strangely, I always just wanted him,” Refn matter-of-factly states. “I knew it was going to work, but I had to meet him to see if it was going to work, to see if we could work together and if it was going to be difficult. Before he got the job, he came to my house in L.A. which production rented for me, and he was like a volcano of emotions. And not having killed anybody or ever played a bad guy in a movie before, I realized this guy could kill somebody, and wouldn’t that be a surprise? I had this movie producer character in my head. In the book, the character is more of a classical gangster type. I wanted him to be a movie producer because I wanted him more of a human being, rather than just an archetype.”

Refn, who has the unusual habit of shooting films in chronological order so he can “discover the movie along the way,” says working with a big star in Hollywood has its own set of responsibilities.

“The more money you have, it’s a bigger pain in the ass because you have more people nervous,” explains Refn, who also has plans to make a feature film of Wonder Woman with Drive co-star Christina Hendricks in the lead. “I will always make a movie cheaper, no matter what, because it’s about influence and having control.”

“I come from a complete one man army world where I make my own films, but the circumstances with Ryan led me to believe that I want to try this with Ryan. Having a great Hollywood experience, on a film I wanted to make and how I wanted to make it, was great. My God! The best crews and distributors come out of America in terms of mass market. It’s a great thing if you can get into it the right way.”

“In Hollywood you sometimes have to be running for office because things can be very political. I survived that, but I always prioritize my own films because life is so f***ing short.”

BONUS: Here’s Irv’s review of the film!

  • masterofoneinchpunch

    I had no problem with the lack of a backstory as this has been done in many laconic character films analagous with Le Samourai and The Man with No Name. The type of “art-house” ending used here annoyed me a bit though. I won’t go in detail so not to spoil for the readers, but it was a bit agravating.

    There are so many good touches to the film though. The opening car chase is one of the more intelligent ones I have seen in its use of strategy and effectiveness. Refn is certainly influenced by Bullitt and that shows in the later car chase. The performances are quite good especially Ryan Gosling though sometimes you wonder if Ron Perlman is overdoing it as Nino. When seeing Bryan Cranston it is hard now not to think of Breaking Bad. Albert Brooks is quite believable.

    The film certainly reminds you of a David Cronenberg movie in it’s use of violence though I wouldn’t say Drive is as good as Eastern Promises or The History of Violence.

    I didn’t really like the soundtrack.

  • Irv Slifkin

    Thanks for the repsonse. I like Refn’s style although the low-angle shots got to be a little much after a while. I just found the ending frustrating and the relaitonship between Gosling and Mulligan unbelievable. I give Refn credit for bringing something different to the table in the thriller/action genre, it’s just not as fulfilling as it promised.

  • masterofoneinchpunch

    I appreciate the article/review (forgot to mention this earlier) and this film on several forums I visit is getting quite a bit of conversation with a lot of talk about some of the violence used in the movie (sometimes getting a Cronenberg comparison).

    The next viewing of this I’ll keep in mind the low-angle shots. I’ve seen so many weird relationships in real life that this film did not bother me in that aspect.

    I’m now curious about two of Refn’s films: Bronson and Valhella Rising. I’ll probably watch Bronson sooner than later since I own that.

    Strange title fonts/color used in the movie.

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