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A Conversation with Nicolas Winding Refn on His New Film ‘Drive’ and Lead Actor Ryan Gosling

Nicolas Winding Refn

Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of DRIVE. Credit – Richard Foreman. Courtesy of FilmDistrict and Bold Films and OddLot Entertainment

After establishing his career as one of the more daring and original European directors in the indie film world with features like his Pusher Triology, Valhalla Rising, and Bronson, breakout danish director Nicolas Winding Refn steps out of the independent spotlight and into the Hollywood limelight with his new and brilliant stylish neo-noir film Drive.

Boasting an all-star cast fronted by Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling, and featuring the endless talent of such prominent players as Albert Brooks, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, and Christina Hendricks, Drive is quickly becoming a top critic’s pick (myself included) for best film of the year.

After it’s explosive premier at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, for which Refn received the top directing prize, the film has received nothing short of endless praise for it’s grand cinematic vision and incredibly stylish valor.

The film is a exercise in genre that features Ryan Gosling as a nameless stunt car driver who also moonlights as a getaway driver. It’s a fantastic film that features some magnificently executed action sequences that will certainly become timeless. Yet, the true success of Drive is that of Refn, establishing himself as one of the must cunning auteur’s around; he’s a genre filmmaker in the most cathartic sense of the term.

Meets Obsession was fortunate enough to sit down with Nicolas and discuss the process of making Drive, the ideas behind it, and the intense relationship Nicolas and Ryan developed during production.

Meets Obsession: The move combines a lot of genres, styles and influences, what was your inspiration?

Nicolas Winding Refn: Scorpio Rising, Pretty Woman, and Point Blank.

MO: Your films have a strong [Alejandro] Jodorowsky influence. Can you talk about how you applied his sort of existential sensibility to this film?

Refn: Right before I went off to Hollywood to make the movie, I was talking with him and I said “how do I make a movie in Hollywood that’s mine?” And he said, “just smile and nod every time someone speaks to you” [laughs].

Christina Hendricks as Blanche in DRIVE

Christina Hendricks as Blanche in DRIVE. Credit – Richard Foreman. Courtesy of FilmDistrict and Bold Films and OddLot Entertainment

Refn: All my films are very feminine. Art is a feminine medium and it’s a way to counter masculinity. You know, I structured the film very much like a fairy tale. Half the movie had to be pure champagne in order for the second half to succeed, its psychotic behavior. So it’s very much going from being very feminine to being extremely masculine. But I do look at myself as a feminine filmmaker, which makes me very masculine.

MO: The film has such a unique style, every aspect of it works together wonderfully, but particularly, the film’s soundtrack adds such specific veneer to that style, can you talk about what inspired the film’s soundtrack?


Refn: I wanted an electronic score from the beginning, because whenever I make a film, I try to define it as a piece of music. With Drive, the idea was to have an electronic score combined with automobiles and very masculine visuals, but then taking the electronic score in a more European style, late 70’s/early 80’s Europop, kind of feminine. Combining that sound with kind of modern sounds of the engine. That was the idea. Kraftwerk was the most inspiration for me when we were developing the score.

MO: It seems like the soundtrack is telling the story more than any line of dialogue, which seemed like you intentionally tried to keep sparse and minimal and use the music to help tell part of the story. Is that what you wanted to come across?

Refn: Yeah, because I’m not a playwright. I make films based on visuals and the only people’s opinions I care about are the actors, so if we’re on the same page, that’s all the matters to me. Working on a film is a bit like working on an installation: it’s about collaborating with talent to make it as easy and as comfortable, or uncomfortable, depending on the scene, for them to express their emotions. Because, that’s what art is, art is the flow of emotions, and if you can tap into that as an audience, you experience something and it stays with you for the rest of your life.

Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan star in-DRIVE

Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan star in DRIVE. Credit – Richard Foreman. Courtesy of FilmDistrict and Bold Films and OddLot Entertainment.

MO: A lot of the film relies not on dialogue, but the actors body movements, reactions, facial tones, etc. was it difficult trying to direct your actors without having them speak much?

Refn: No, not really, it was just more like what fit the scene. When we’d shoot a scene I’d eliminate almost half the dialogue during script rehearsals. We would start every morning with Ryan [Gosling] and I figuring out, “what do we really want to say?”, and cross out and come up with something else instead. If you’ve got a great cast, your job is not to tell them what to do, it’s to inspire them to give their best. If they wanna say something different or phrase it another way, by all means, go ahead.

I’m more interested in what they can accomplish. Same thing with the photographer, or an editor, or composer, you always ask “well what would you like to do?”, because maybe they have a better idea than you, and you have to run with that. You should run with that out of respect to the product. Filmmaking is a very collaborative medium dictated by a dictator.

MO: Were there ideas that were abandoned based on actors suggestions or things that you reworked?

Refn: I can’t remember, there’s so many things. I shoot films in chronological order because of that ability for me and the cast to mold the movie much more as we can see it flow.

MO: You had these mixes of contrasting energies that came ahead with these very violent scenes, a kind of passionate embrace, then suddenly someone’s head getting kicked in, how important to you was it that the violent aspect go to those extreme levels?

Refn: Very, that’s what the whole point was. The elevator sequence I came up with a week before we started shooting. Because there was a scene there that I couldn’t make work, and by placing it in the elevator I was able to incorporate the kiss, which essentially was the payoff to the head smash. Before, the problem was I didn’t have anything to account it for. So it wasn’t till I changed my surroundings that I was able to come up with that. There’s nothing too extreme for me if it balances the reverse.

MO: So balance very important to you.

Refn: Yeah, because the payoff won’t have an effect unless the build up is emotionally engaging like that. Making violence is very much like sex. If you believe the build up to the climax it becomes so much more engaging.

MO: One thing that I noticed about the violence in this film is that it had very intimate qualities, is that deliberate?

Refn: Because violence is very intimate. The more intimate you make it, the more effective it is, because more is at stake, it touches you much deeper. In all of my films violence always comes out of a person who has no other ability to communicate, it’s the last straw of primal man.

MO: With regard to the elevator scene, I read that you talked to Gaspar Noé about how to achieve the head-smashing.

Refn: Well I called Gaspar, and then we met in Paris because I was there for a few days with[Alejandro] Jodorowsky, and he kind of went through it; showed me how they had done it.

MO: What were some of the things that he told you?

Refn: Like how in Irréversible he was able to replace an actor with a dummy. I don’t think I achieved it as good as he did it, but then again, I got a kiss in there, which he didn’t have [laughs].

MO: You spoke of intimacy, could you talk about whether you think the characters in the film are lonely, or whether they are alone, and if there’s a difference between those two descriptions.

Refn: I don’t believe they’re lonely, I believe they’re longing. And they long because their world very much revolves around each other.

MO: Intimacy and violence seem to be a common thread in all your movies, is that something intentional?

Refn: I’m a fetish filmmaker, and I make films based on what I would like to see. Either I’ll write it myself or I’ll have somebody else write it for me. I’m not the greatest filmmaker in the world, by no means, but I’m the best filmmaker of the kind of films I make.

MO: I know that you primarily wrote the screenplays for your earlier films, but for Drive, Hossein Amini wrote the screenplay. How was it to collaborate with a screenwriter on this film?

Refn: Well, I think the best way to answer that is that I can only make films based on myself. So far, I’ve always come up with what I want to do myself, and having been forced to write it. But, regarding Drive, the source material- the novel it’s based on, is very good, so it was hard to make a film out of. Hossein had been very clever in how to structure the story in a more accessible fashion, mechanically. So there was a great concrete for me and him to go back and say “but what do you want to happen?”

I don’t make films on a “we” basis. I can’t. There’s only “I”. That’s how I make films, some people make films different.

MO: I really enjoyed the opening sequence, it was very minimal, what was your thought process in constructing it and, more generally, what do you think makes a good car chase?

Refn: It’s hard to say because each car chase is different. There’s no formula, it depends on the story, really. Car chases are just a technique.

MO: What were you trying to achieve with the opening one?

Refn: I’ve never seen a car chase that’s all P.O.V., like a video game. I wanted to make each car chase different so it all didn’t become the same thing because I didn’t have the money to do some of the extravagant stunts that some other films have.

When I did Bronson, I choreographed the fight scenes differently, emotionally as the film progressed; how Tom Hardys character would see them. Same thing with Drive.

MO: The film has such an air of mythology to it, from the nature of Gosling’s nameless character to the duality of Albert Brooks’ character, can you talk about that?

Refn: They were all based on the Grimms Fairy Tales structure that the characters were archetypes. Ryan’s character would be like a knight and Carey Mulligan would be the young girl who gets herself in trouble because of her innocence and her purity. Albert Brooks was like the evil king, Ron Perlman was the dragon, and Bryan Cranston, the helper. They were all very much based on archetypes.

In [James] Sallis book, which is a brilliant piece of literature, it’s very much about a man’s travel in his past and in his future, in terms of the structure. But to make that accessible on a much larger scale, it had to benefit from a much simpler plot. So it becomes very accessible immediately, because the love story had to be so pure. The good thing in this situation was that Ryan and I were so telekinetic in everything around us, it was like we became one person.

MO: I’ve heard that you have some more films planned that you want to do with Ryan Gosling.

Refn: We’re shooting Only God Forgives at Christmas, and then hopefully we’ll shoot the Logans Run remake after.

MO: As someone whose primarily worked in Europe and outside of the Hollywood studio system, how has this transition with Drive been for you?

Refn: Well, I thought it was going to be a battle, but it turned out to be very, very smooth. It was hard how I made the film, but Ryan would protect me. It was in a similar way when Steve McQueen wanted PeterYates to come do Bullitt, or Lee Marvin insisting on John Boorman directing Point Blank.

It was a marriage between a Hollywood star and a European filmmaker, on a very equal level.We decided that we had this movie that we wanted to make, and we had financiers and a producing team around us who went with it, and had to go with it because that was going to be the movie.

MO: You talk about the  the sort of “telekinesis” you have with Ryan Gosling, would say you guys have that same sort of vision for your next couple of films together?

Refn: It’s more about emotions, and if you can click on certain things. But yeah, we talk all the time about things we want to do and how to make it better. When I came to L.A., I would drive around at night with Ryan and go to the 101, a very famous diner, and talk about the film. Then in the morning, Hossein would be writing from me and Ryan’s experiences, and we’d sit down and restructure the film again, and again, and again. Then Ryan and I would go on a drive and lock Hossein in the attic to rewrite [laughs].

It was very collaborative in that sense. Carey Mulligan moved into my house because she didn’t have a place to stay in L.A., so she lived with me and my wife and it automatically became like a family. It was a lot of fun to make this [film].

MO: How did your relationship with Ryan Gosling influence your discussions with the rest of the cast, if at all?

Refn: I would talk with the rest of the cast the same way. On their level, with their ideas, and their approaches. I keep casts very separate.

MO: Separate how?

Refn: Well, I’ll talk to one actor about his character separately from how I’d talk to another actor about their character, so when they start their scenes, it’s a dual.

MO: How did Albert Brooks come into the film?

Refn: I knew distinctly that I wanted him to play the Bernie Rose character. At that time Bernie was a gangster, primarily because that’s who he is in the novel, but I wanted to make him a movie producer. So Hossein and I talked about how to do that and where to but that information into the script.

I wanted to meet Albert of course, before signing off on him and offering him the part. So he came to my house and he was like a volcano of emotion. I realized that he never played a bad guy or killed anyone, which is interesting casting-wise. I figured if I didn’t have him kill anybody now, he was going to kill everybody soon [laughs]. He did a phenomenal job with it.

Ryan Gosling as DRIVER in DRIVE

Ryan Gosling as DRIVER in DRIVE. Credit – Richard Foreman. Courtesy of FilmDistrict and Bold Films and OddLot Entertainment.

MO: You talk about the idea of Drive as a superhero film, can you talk about where the idea for the scorpion symbol on Ryan’s jacket came from and the allusion to the scorpion and the frog story within the film?

Refn: I knew I wanted a satin jacket because I knew I wanted him to shine at night. When you deal with very good actors, you often let them figure out their wardrobe themselves because that’s very much how they build their characters, through wardrobe. So Ryan would go out and find a jacket that he’d feel comfortable in and he’d bring it back and we’d make it satin. A lot of them were old military jackets with symbols of eagles and other iconic American symbols, and I thought “oh that would be great if he had a symbol on himself, like a logo!”

We decided we were going to put some kind of animal on the jacket, but then by coincidence I was with the costume designer in a garage looking at how mechanics dress. Ryan was there working on his car because he was building his own car at the time, and he said that I should show the costume designer my visual reference for the Drive, which was Scorpio Rising. The film starts with the logo of a scorpion, and the telekinetic minds of myself and Ryan simultaneously said “it’s a scorpion!” Then Ryan had the idea that we could use this design to incorporate this story about the scorpion and the frog, and it turned out really great.

Drive opens Friday in theaters everywhere, click here for theaters and showtimes.