Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn talks us through the making of 2011’s coolest movie.
It raised eyebrows. In amongst the auteur royalty jostling for position at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, one director stood out. Sitting conspicuously amongst the usual suspects – Almodóvar, the Dardenne brothers, Takashi Miike, Lars von Trier – was Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish punk who’d earned comparisons to Scorsese at the age of 26 after his debut, Pusher, lit up the mean streets of Copenhagen.
That early success put Refn in Hollywood’s crosshairs. He rocked up to LA in 2003 to make Fear X with John Turturro, only to get spat out of the system – a million dollars in the hole. A couple of Pusher sequels followed, but Refn was bottoming out. He went from the new Scorsese to a director-for-hire on an episode of Miss Marple in less than 10 years.
It had been a hard road to the gilded boulevard of the Croisette, but at Cannes, it was Refn, now 41-years-old, who ascended the steps ahead of his fellow filmmakers to receive the Best Director award. Based on a book no one had read, starring an actor who seemed destined to be eclipsed by his peers, and channelling a vibe of neon-noir existentialism that was equal parts Steve McQueen, Michael Mann and video nasty, Drive hit audiences like a blunt trauma to the head. Refn sat down with LWLies recently to explain why he's set on fucking the system.
LWLies: What did you see in James Sallis' novel that made you want to adapt it.
Refn: Well actually it started another way. I think it must have six or seven years ago... the book was optioned by Universal, and I believe that they never read it – they probably read the reviews, because how a studio would invest in a book like that would be a big puzzlement to me. But they did it, I guess, out of reviews, or a movie about a wheelman, blah, blah, blah... And they were gonna basically develop it – and they did – for Hugh Jackman and it was going to be like a 60 million dollar franchise in the vein of Fast and the Furious, kind of thing. I guess they then... So they read the book; I don’t know whether they had a heart attack but... they started to... they hired Hoss[ein] Amini, who’s a very good writer, to develop the book into a movie that would justify a 60 million dollar extravaganza franchise/potential Hugh Jackman Fast and the Furious rip-off.
And you can only do that if you basically just take the title and then kind of, maybe, take some of the characters in it and, you know, make a whole new story out of it, because A) the book is only 100 pages long and B) it’s a very strange existentialist novel about Hollywood and movie mythology. C) it’s structured in a complete incoherent order where it’s based on a man who travels in and out of the past and future. So Hoss set upon this task of trying to exorcise this book into a movie script and for some reason it never got made. And then Ryan [Gosling] heard about the script – about a year, year-and-a-half ago. The people at Universal, the producers at Universal, sent it to him to read and he bonded to it very strongly and said that he’d only do it if he could choose the director. Coincidently I was in Los Angeles working on a film with Harrison Ford called The Dying of the Light, and Harrison Ford was going to die... I really wanted to kill him...
Why did you want to kill him?
Because it’s Harrison Ford. He’s an American hero and I thought it would be interesting to go to Hollywood after Valhalla Rising and kill America’s favourite hero. It was a very good script, where he plays a CIA agent who dies, but it was going south and... it was typical Hollywood; you see how good things get destroyed quickly. And in one of my short trips out there I got a phone call asking if I would meet with Ryan Gosling. At that point we didn’t know each other, but he had seen my movies – that was the time when Bronson had just been released in the States – and I decided to take a few meetings to see how it would go... He’s a fantastic actor, the best, so it wasn’t a hard decision. And anyway we met in a restaurant... oddly enough the day I was going to meet him I had a terrible high fever, ‘cause I’d gotten the flu, so I was sooo out of it; I was basically really high. I was on all these American anti-flu drugs, which is basically like shooting morphine, so I was so out of it, but I’d managed to get through the draft script before I had to leave for the dinner. I couldn’t really remember it... The writing was really good, I knew that, but it was much like a studio movie, which is not what I am into doing. But it was extremely well written.
So when Ryan approached you was it still being optioned as a mega bucks studio film?
I had no idea at that point. So then I met with Ryan and we had a very strange meeting because I couldn’t look at him, because of the way we were seated in the restaurant, so it was a very odd almost blind date situation where two people were set up to talk about something that we didn’t spend a long time talking about because I couldn’t really get into it... And I hadn’t read the book by that point. There was no stuntman story [at that point], it was just a classic sexy-wheelman-takes-down-the-mob-to-protect-sexy-girl story. You know. It had all the genre trappings of a big Hollywood movie. So it was really weird because we didn’t really talk a lot because I was so out of it, so it was just like... after, like, an hour/two hours it was just ‘Okay, well...’ a lot of pauses, you know, eventually we had nothing left to say and I ended up asking him if he could drive me home. I don’t drive a car, by the way.
So, like a blind date goes; nobody was going to get action. ‘Please take me home’... And in the car driving back through Santa Monica where I was staying in a hotel Ryan turns on the radio, just to break the uncomfortable silence – I think he just wanted to get away and I just wanted to lie down and slip into a fever dream – and REO Speedwagon’s ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ comes on. For some strange reason that song does something for me – and you know when you have a fever, you’re emotions are heightened – and I start just singing to this song. I’ve never done that in front of other people, but I was really singing at the top of my lungs and getting into it, and Ryan was just sitting there probably thinking ‘How the hell do I get this guy out of here?!’ I turned to him for the first time and just screamed in his face. By this point I’d turned the music up so loud that you couldn’t do anything but scream, but I really yelled in his face. I got it. In that moment, I knew what Drive was: a movie about a man who drives around at night listening to pop music because that’s his emotional release. And that’s how the movie was born. My movie.
And then it went through the procedure where no one wanted to finance it. But we got that eventually and in the meantime I went back and read the book for the first time, which I really liked, and one of my things that I took from that is that this stuntman character needed to be put back in. That’s the premise: he’s a stuntman by day and a getaway driver by night. That’s the strange irony of this life. And I met with Hoss, who lives in London, and by that time I didn’t have the flu and was able to be a bit more straight in my head, and he’d been working on the script for so long that it instantly became this new marriage: me and him saying ‘Let’s just forget about everything any executive ever said; let’s just go back and really digest and reconfigure and take it down’. So he moved into my house in Los Angeles that the production team had rented for me and we started tearing the script to pieces and rebuilding it. It was a terrific experience. I’ve never collaborated with another writer in that way and he was a great, great person to be around. It was like a new energy had been put into the project because it had been taken down from this kind of studio pedestal into what it really was; a strange existentialist book about a stuntman by day/getaway driver by night who comes to Hollywood without a past... Well, in the book he has a past, but in my version I wanted that to be completely concealed.
Well, it was kind of a reminiscent to a character I had in Valhalla Rising, which was the silent One Eye. So we stayed there and got the script into shape and Ryan would come over a lot and hang out. It became a very collaborative, communal environment, almost like a '70s movie or something where we’d just hang out and spend days in each other’s company. All we needed was the drugs.
We’ve read that you shoot all your films in chronological order. Was that the case for Drive?
Yeah – I shoot all my films in chronological order.
Okay, so does that make the pre-production process more stressful? I mean, you describe this relaxed environment, but when you come to day one of the shoot and you’ve got X amount of days to film, and you’re doing so chronologically, everything’s got to be watertight, right?
Well, actually for Drive it wasn’t quite shot in chronological order, because it would cost too much money, but I managed to shoot the arches of the characters in chronological order. It wasn’t as dogmatic as I usually do, but it was... the movie had a short shoot because we were independently financed, so a lot of things had to be cut down. I had to make sacrifices on a couple of things, but more from an artistic point of view. It’s a different ball game when you’re got ‘so much’ budget and not a dollar more. In my world you’re used to that though. But to answer your question, it was relaxed and everything, but it was extremely creative and we got through a lot quickly, even with all the rewrites and going back and finding new ideas and things we wanted to put in. It became a very great collaboration and I hope very much to work with Hoss again.
How important is it as a filmmaker to find that kind of collaborative relationship, either with a writer or an actor or whoever?
Well for this movie it became essential because Drive was born out of a car; born out of a very odd date between Ryan and I. I mean, you get a lot of meetings with people for different things, but this was different. It felt different from that moment. What we decided to do was something very neutral, it was kind of like we’d given birth to this character and it was like watching that character develop into the movie.
You extract the essence of the character from the book, strip away the backstory and keep him in this existentialist setting. He’s completely enigmatic, what attracts you to that aspect of kind of character?
It goes back to One Eye, the enigma, and it’s a kind of classic mythological character that is part of our tradition of storytelling. You know, the silent hero that has a past we don’t know and we read things into him that mirror our own needs. It’s a very classical figure that’s been around in literature for thousands of years. It’s a character that I’m very fond of and it actually going to be in my next movie Only God Forgives.
Where’s that in the process?
We start shooting in October  and I move to Thailand August 1.
And you’re doing Logan’s Run as well?
Yeah. Well, while we were shooting Drive, Ryan and I were talking about what we should do next, because we really enjoyed each other’s company and collaboration and just hanging out together... It was a great team spirit. I... I mean... I love him. And I don’t love him in the Hollywood way where everyone loves everybody, I mean I really love him. My wife loves him... He loves my wife... I love his mother... So we’re very similar in many aspects of our sensibilities, we have different upbringings but we gravitate towards the same things. And of course he was the one who gave me the opportunity to make a film in Hollywood the way I would like to make one, which probably would never have happened otherwise. It’s a very similar situation to when Steve McQueen wanted to do Bullitt, but he wanted to do it with Peter Yates who at the time was an unknown British director who’d only done one movie. Or an even better example is Lee Marvin wanted to do Point Blank but he only wanted to do it with John Boorman who again had only done a handful of small British films, and he insisted on bringing him to America and protecting him and giving him the freedom and the protection to make Point Blank the way it turned out. Point Blank wouldn’t be what it is had it not been for Lee Marvin. It was the same situation here: Ryan protected me and that allowed me to make the movie I wanted to make.
Why was this the right time for you to go to America?
It was more a personal reason, rather than a career choice or whatever. Basically I took huge personal satisfaction from making Valhalla Rising and then going to Hollywood to do a ‘studio’ film. It was almost like doing an installation art piece or something.
So Hollywood wasn’t your goal?
No. I will never live in Los Angeles. I will never... Sometimes you do things that put you in an uncomfortable situation where you have to do things differently than you would usually do. It’s like putting yourself, forcing yourself out of your comfort zone. Or, as we say in Europe, ‘forcing yourself out of the red carpet syndrome’. And I’ve always found that very important. Every time I make a movie I try to do it differently from the last one, there may be sensibilities that continue but as a film I’m always trying to do something different. And of course coming to Hollywood you only hear the horror stories so I was over there already becoming this manipulating character in order to get my film made. In hindsight it was a good thing that The Dying of the Light never happened because it wasn’t the right thing to do for me. There was a reason why it didn’t happen – there was a higher reason – and the circumstances of my meeting with Ryan... everything just felt right. You’re always on guard because you hear all these terrible stories of how Hollywood chews people out, so you’ve always got your thumb over the alert button, but the circumstances here just for some reason led to me having what I would call a first-class, excellent Hollywood experience.
When you’re working with someone like Gosling, are you constantly aware of his A-list status? Did his clout bring about confrontation on set?
The Hollywood studio system is still built up around the cast, because that’s how the films are financed. It’s changing a little bit because there aren’t that many stars left and everything’s changing in terms of what works and what doesn’t work, but the thumb rule is always: if you get the cast you get the movie. Making a movie is like Russian roulette, but when a star wants something they will certainly get what they want. That’s the scenario that happened with me and I was just lucky that it happened in my favour. But in terms of his status in Hollywood, it was actually quite the contrary: it was a blessing working with him and we actually avoided a lot of drama just from him being there. Ryan is a great actor, but he’s also very respectful for the medium. But his opinion was that good films are made by good directors and bad films are made by bad directors. Film is a directors’ medium, it will always be a directors’ medium. He was very respectful to me as the director.
We saw Drive for the first time in Cannes and after the screening a lot of people were saying how it was this new age Steve McQueen movie, but for me it’s more born out of this ’80s pulp, dingy, late night double bill, neo noir place...
Yeah. I mean, when you’re in a situation like we were there’s a certain level of trust that you give to each other, you have to have that if you want to stay on the same page creatively. But I had this idea to shoot it like a fairy tale, essentially Drive took on this fairy tale structure, you know, you have the archetype of the night who roams the wasteland in search of a woman to save. He even has a jacket with a scorpion on as his symbol. And it’s a movie about a man who has difficulty dealing with reality, the Driver character is essentially psychotic but he’s not psychopathic, because he has a lot of empathy and purity, but he’s psychotic in his behaviour; he’s willing to go to great lengths to protect what is pure. He’s almost a man who doesn’t belong in our time anymore. So, the characters became very archetypal.
You re-read 'Grimm’s Fairy Tales' before, is that right?
Yeah, I picked up the Grimm novels some years ago when I started to read them to my daughter and I remember thinking it would be great making a movie in that storytelling vein. I wanted to make a modern fairy tale in Los Angeles.
Carey Mulligan’s character is Latino in the book. She’s still seen as this English rose figure in Britain and in the US. Why cast her?
Well in the book that character, Irene, dies, but I felt that wouldn’t work. It would handicap the movie because in the book she’s a minor character, but the movie had to be told on its own terms. So I was out casting for a Latino woman, because we wanted to be faithful to the source material, and there were some very good actresses who came around... For me to do a movie in Hollywood, I wanted to live the Hollywood mythology; I wanted to live in a huge house with a swimming pool and an orange tree and hordes of assistants – everything that comes with being Josef von Stroheim in Hollywood – so everybody who wanted to be in the movie had to come to the house and pitch face-to-face.
It was. So... For some reason when it came to casting Irene I just couldn’t make up my mind, because even though we had all these great actresses, there was always something that just felt wrong. And out of the blue I got a call saying that Carey Mulligan would love to meet, she was in LA and was interested in the character, which I thought was a little weird. I hadn’t seen An Education, but my wife and mother had both seen it and said it was very good. And she came to the house and the minute she walked in through the door I knew it was her. She was the missing link.
Did you make Drive with a wide audience in mind?
Absolutely. Why do you ask that?
Because of Irene: promoting her to a major character brings a romantic subtext to the film. It makes it more accessible...
Yeah. Well, it’s a fairy tale, and the thing about fairy tales is they consist of everything, but always on a heightened, overtly metaphorical level. Nothing is by halves. So I included the romance to make the first half of the film overly sentimental...
...To contrast the violence in the second half?
Exactly. The violence wouldn’t work without that romantic groundwork. And because I’m colour blind – I can’t see mid-colours – everything has to be contrasted for me to be able to adapt to it.
Was there pressure to tone down any of the violence?
I couldn’t care less. I wanted to make it as explicit as possible.
For a film called Drive there’s surprisingly few driving sequences. I realise it’s not a movie about cars, as such, but I’m interested in your relationship with them, whether you’re a petrolhead, etc...
I don’t even have a license. I had to come up with a way to shoot the car scenes in a way that was new and interesting. It was a similar experience on Bronson where I had to try and make the fight scenes interesting. So on Bronson I made every fight scene different, it was its own opera. On Drive was started off the premise that this driver had to get to a certain point, and I came up with this idea of shooting everything from inside the car, because I’d never really seen that before. And then you have scenes like after the pawnshop raid where everything’s fast and deliberate and there’s lots of adrenaline.
We’re so used to seeing big external shots of cars in the movies, what are the challenges of shooting everything internally?
It’s about how we see the driver experience everything, putting the audience in the middle of this cat-and-mouse game. That was more, like, how do you internalise it? How do you show a man at the top of his game? How do you put audiences into his world? This internal perspective is how he sees the world, it’s not a fucking car commercial, so why shoot it like one? But shooting inside the car was challenging, definitely. You have to be inventive and be completely assured in what you’re trying to do. You have to put yourself in the mindset of the driver, see things through his windscreen.
Were there any films that you used as points of reference?
I watched a lot of car scenes, but the one that really struck me was the Claude Lelouch short movie where he basically just drives around Paris at five in the morning – it’s basically just one long POV. And I felt... It’s just pure adrenaline, pure sexuality, and I felt like I needed to could channel this pure sex without the flash of the cars or the conventions of the car chase. Plus, you know, so many car chases are shot on 200 million dollar budgets, and I wasn’t even going to start competing in that arena. It would end up being a bad version anyway, so why even try? Why not do something totally original and sexy?
Did Ryan do all the driving?
Yeah, I shot real cars with real people in. In didn’t want any CGI, and Ryan wanted to do the driving as a way for me to shoot him doing the driving.
What do you love about movies?
Um... I think the best way for me to answer that is to say I can’t answer that because... It’s easier for me to answer what I don’t like about movies. And for me to answer that is just to say... Nothing.
Okay. What’s your greatest fear?
Uh... Well, I’m frightened of anything that goes fast and spins around. Or anything that’s physically dangerous. Foods that may give me stomach problems... Anything that makes me dizzy.
You’re no good on say, rollercoasters, then?
Ryan tricked me into going on some adventure ride at Disneyland... I thought I was going to have a fucking heart attack. Him and Liv, my wife, tricked me by saying ‘Oh, it’s not that bad, it’s not too fast...’ I literally thought I was going to die. For an hour afterwards I couldn’t feel my legs. It was fucking horrible.
Is that why you don’t have a car?
I failed my test eight times. I will never drive. I wasn’t meant to drive. That was one of the great things about making this film, learning about the emotional relationship between a man and his car and imagining yourself in this totally alien situation. And Hoss doesn’t drive either. We were both just stranded in Los Angeles thinking, ‘Hmmm, how do we make a movie about driving when neither of us knows how to drive?’ But Ryan would just drive us around, every night we’d drive around at night talking and listening to music. Hanging out at all-night cafes. It became a routine; driving, going home, writing... The whole process became as routine as driving itself.