I'll be honest: I'm pretty sure Nicolas Winding Refn was fucking with me.
Meeting the acclaimed director at a small, fancy-ish Italian restaurant in the Bowery section of Manhattan, I rarely got more than a one-or-two sentence answer out of him, a quality that other interviewers have reported back on during previous attempts to get into the brain of one of the best, most exciting directors working today. During our discussion, Refn seemed alternately dazed, exhausted, bored, and strangely enough, giddy at various points of our discussion. Granted, most of those states of being likely spawned from the lengthy process of promoting his newest film, Drive, a crime thriller starring Ryan Gosling, and a film I consider to be one of the best pure crime dramas of the last decade.
Refn has been often lauded by critics for his work on UK productions like Bronson and Valhalla Rising, but Drive marks the director's first foray into Hollywood filmmaking, a process perhaps improved by the fact that Drive was funded independently, away from the prying eyes and obnoxious notes of studio backers.
While getting answers out of Refn proved a challenge, I still have to say I enjoyed talking to the man. I just have no idea if the feeling was even remotely mutual. Give this interview a read, and see if you can figure it out for me. Also, while there are a couple of very mild spoilers toward the end, this interview is largely free of any major, spoilable details. Enjoy!
Screened: What was it about this story, the original novel, that made you want to take on this project?
Nicolas Winding Refn: I liked the novel because it was about a movie mythology. I thought it could be interesting to make a movie about Hollywood as an illusion.
SC: Originally it was something Ryan Gosling had brought to you as a project, right?
NWR: Yeah, he brought it to me when it was still a project at Universal. The whole idea of the movie came from a meeting we had where we realized we could do a movie together about a CHARACTER. We just had to find a setting for the character, and Drive became it.
SC: One of the more striking things about Drive is that it actually feels like the product of a director's vision. I know that at one point when Universal had the movie, it was originally meant to be a much bigger movie in the vein of the Fast and the Furious films. How did that work with you and Ryan? How did you avoid getting stuck in that endless volley of studio notes and tampering?
NWR: I don't do notes. Eventually all the studios passed on the movie and it got financed independently. So that left me and Ryan to be in the control seat, which we had to be to make the movie we wanted to make.
SC: For the Driver character, what was your initial vision for him? What was it about the character that leapt out at you?
NWR: I thought it could be interesting to do a film about a man who transforms himself into a superhero, which is the ultimate allegory of the Driver.
SC: You've mentioned in other interviews how you like exploring the darker side of heroism in your films. What is it about that subject that fascinates you so much?
NWR: It's great drama. The stronger the darkness, the better the drama. The more heightened the tension the more satisfying it is.
SC: That is something else I appreciated about the movie. The violence is handed out in very small doses, but when it does happen, it's extremely jarring. You've called yourself a fetish filmmaker before, and fetish film is often very much about showing a great deal of that thing someone is obsessed with. But with the violence here, it's given out much more judiciously. What's the inspiration for handling it that way?
NWR: Because violence is like sex. It's all about the build-up. The better the build-up, the better the climax. *smiles*
SC: One particularly violent sequence that I'm sure everyone will remember is the rather graphic skull crushing scene. I'd heard you actually consulted Gaspar Noe on how to do that sequence.
NWR: Yeah, I called up Gaspar because I wanted to try to do something similar [to the skull-crusing scene in Irreversible]. And then I met him in France and he showed me how to do it his way.
SC: Are you pleased with how that ended up looking on film?
NWR: Heh, it's not as good as Gaspar.
SC: Ryan in the film is great for a number of reasons, but one of the big ones is because of how well he portrays emotion without actually saying anything. I'd read elsewhere that you, he, and Carey Mulligan spent a lot of time taking lines out of the movie--
NWR: Taking lines out, yeah, we just eliminated everything that we could.
SC: How much of the original shooting script did you end up eliminating?
NWR: The original shooting script was 81 pages. We cut about 60% of that.
SC: It seems like your relationship with Ryan is blossoming at this point, as you've got multiple projects on the horizon with him. What it is about working with him that you enjoy so much?
NWR: We're telepathic. We can read each other's thoughts. And when you have that working relationship with someone who is also creative, it's a great tour de force to continue. If it works, you just should not stop.
NWR: Very similar, yeah.
SC: Where did the idea for casting Albert Brooks come from?
NWR: I always wanted to use him for the movie. He was my first choice. As an actor, having him, he was the one I always wanted to get, and he was very open to the idea, and he'd never killed anybody before or really played a bad guy so that was very interesting to me.
SC: I think the closest he ever came was in Out of Sight, where he played kind of a bad guy, but not a violent type. He's always struck me as a man who often plays as underdog characters, so this was definitely a change of pace. What was it about him that you saw for the part? What said, "This man can play a violent gangster?"
NWR: Well, I wanted to meet him and then when we met, I could see he was like a volcano of emotions so I knew it would work out, so I hired him on the spot.
SC: Him and Ron Perlman have a great chemistry together, odd as that pairing may seem.
NWR: Ron is a wonderful actor, and he has incredible range. He can do almost anything.
SC: You've seemed pretty infatuated in the past talking about Christina Hendricks, even talking about wanting to do a Wonder Woman movie with her. What is it about her you find so fascinating?
NWR: A. She's a wonderful actress, B. She looks terrific, C. She's very nice, and D. I think she's a wonderful prototype of any woman nowadays. To me she's the perfect example of the American woman.
SC: You've said in the past when talking about the Pusher films that you were reluctant to go back to the first film and do those sequels for a number of reasons. Is that something you still feel today about your movies? Would you be reluctant to return to the world of the Driver?
NWR: Well, I've learned that life ends up in strange ways, so you should never say never.
SC: It does seem that with the way the film ends, there is room to explore. Maybe in some kind of Incredible Hulk scenario, where he goes from town to town helping new people in continuing adventures?
NWR: And saves the innocents, then moves on. Yeah.
SC: Kung Fu in a car?
NWR: Not a bad idea! Maybe you find out there's two drivers...
SC: This might be completely unintentional given the fact that it is also a film set heavily at night in Los Angeles, but I got a good deal of Michael Mann influence out of Drive--
NWR: He is a man who makes movies about night in Los Angeles.
SC: Yeah, there's just something about the cinematography of the environments, the vibe of the soundtrack, and even the mantra Ryan's character has, his specific set of rules he abides by, which is a lot like Robert De Niro's character in Heat. Is any of that intentional?
NWR: Not really, but he's a great filmmaker so I certainly don't mind the comparison. He's Michael Mann, he's the best.
SC: You've talked about John Hughes as a big influence on the film. That's something I'd say I most noticed in the usage of music in the film. The music and the action seem inextricably linked. What is it about Hughes' style that appeals to you?
NWR: Well John Hughes would always make movies where the music was really ultra important in terms of the emotional storytelling. The music was not just noise, but he would also play out the entire song. I always thought that was really interesting. And that's what I wanted to do here, to play the music out as an important character in the movie, and not just as something to underscore emotions.
SC: Is the style of music in the film specific to your own tastes?
NWR: Absolutely, otherwise I can't use it. I love all kinds of music, though.
SC: What sort of music do you typically listen to when you're working on a film?
NWR: All kinds, though it really depends on the style of the film that I'm making. I always try to figure out, 'If it's a piece of music, what would it be?' and then use that genre of music to help me write it and inspire me, give me ideas.
SC: Well like, for instance, what were you listening to when you made Valhalla Rising?
NWR: Einstürzende Neubauten [an experimental German band that includes two members of Nick Cave's band, The Bad Seeds]
SC: And Bronson?
NWR: Pet-Shop Boys. And on Drive it was Kraftwerk.
SC: You've talked before about how, in some ways, the film actually resembles a samurai film, as well as a modern day western. Were you watching anything in particular for inspiration in those genres?
NWR: It wasn't really any specific movies, I was mainly reading Grimm's Fairy Tales. That was the primary inspiration for the film. To tell it structurally like a fairy tale in Los Angeles.
SC: You definitely get that, especially in the first half of the film, where everything's set up in this almost like dreamlike world...
NWR: Yeah, like the first half of a Grimm's Fairy Tale, everything is very pure and innocent. And then it all goes horribly wrong. However, in the end, the evil ones are punished for being evil, the innocents prevail, and the hero moves on.
SC: Do you think in that regard Drive is a happy ending?
NWR: Drive is absolutely a happy ending, because in the end, he transforms himself into a real superhero.