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Drive: Knife Fights, Car Chases, and... Art Cinema?

Nicolas Winding Refn goes in-depth about his philosophy on filmmaking and the difference between stylish and stylized.

Ryan Gosling in Drive
Ryan Gosling / credit: FilmDistrict


In an era where genre films are so popular they dominate not only Hollywood but arty independent cinema as well, it’s nice to see an inverse domination occur: a Hollywood genre film overrun with the formalist precision and stylistic emphasis typically reserved for art movies. Such is the case with Drive, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s first American production.


After wowing European and American art-house audiences with his two latest artistic portrayals of violence, Bronson and Valhalla Rising, Refn was contacted by Ryan Gosling as a potential director for an adaptation of the James Sallis novel Drive. Fast-forward to the present, and Refn’s career is headed toward uncharted heights for a Danish filmmaker (except those heights of auteur-land annexed by Lars Von Trier). Refn and Gosling hit it off spectacularly, and the two now have not one, not two, but three rumored projects they are working on: a boxing drama called Only God Forgives, set in Thailand; a remake of Logan’s Run for Warner Brothers; and, supposedly, a romantic comedy written by Albert Brooks.


Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn on the set of Drive
Gosling & Refn / credit: FilmDistrict


Once viewers see Drive, the mystery over this Dane’s rapid rise in Hollywood will be dispelled. Drive is one of the most beautifully directed action movies this critic has seen in recent years – perhaps, ever. With a stunning formal dexterity that allows for both a precision of framing and minimalist tension in some sequences, alongside expressionistic slow motion with chiaroscuro lighting and dreamy synth-pop music in others, Refn’s stylistic gifts are on full display throughout the film. It’s almost as if Gus Van Sant circa Paranoid Park decided to make an action movie.


The film’s pulpy narrative centers around a Hollywood stunt driver (Gosling) who falls in love with his neighbor (Carey Mulligan). When that woman’s husband gets released from prison, the Driver agrees to help him pay back a debt to some gangsters. Albert Brooks shows up as the bad guy, in one of the most bizarre against-type casting choices ever. Though the excellent supporting cast includes Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, and Bryan Cranston, the anchor of the film is Gosling’s performance, which is stoic and inward and very different from anything he’s done before, but which, as usual, displays his limitless gifts as an actor.
Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan in Drive
Gosling & Mulligan / credit: FilmDistrict


I spoke with Refn recently at the Bowery Hotel. Before I even had the chance to start the interview, amidst initial pleasantries, Refn asked me:


Nicolas Winding Refn: Did you like the movie?


Tribeca: It’s the best film I’ve seen all year. [pause] I haven’t seen Shame yet. But I’m sure this’ll at least wind up in the top three.

Nicolas Winding Refn: Cool.


Tribeca: Really excellent. One of the reasons I loved it – and the first thing I wanted to ask you about – was the formalism. You do a lot of interesting stuff in terms of abstract lighting, like in the elevator scene, where the lightning artificially changes – as well as how you play with diegetic and non-diegetic sound, specifically with some of the music. How did you conceive of some of the more formalist sequences?


Nicolas Winding Refn: The elevator sequence came up a week before I started shooting. There was another part of the movie that I couldn’t get to work. That scene was originally going to take place in the garage of the building. It seemed boring – I didn’t like the location. I talked to my editor about it. I always talk structure with him first. We thought, Why don’t we move it into a different location? And he said, Why don’t we do the elevator? That worked out well, because it’s much more frightening, because [Carey Mulligan] can’t get out. She’s much more in danger. I wanted that feel. The idea of them kissing, and the light changes – I’ve had that idea for 20 years in my head. I always wanted to do a movie where two people are doing something, and then we pass through something – the camera passes through something, and when it passes, it’s an alternate universe. Either the character’s perspective or the audience’s perspective has changed. And then they kiss and they’re illuminated by one spotlight in darkness.


Nicolas Winding Refn on the set of Drive
Nicolas Winding Refn / credit: FilmDistrict


I did something similar in my second film, a small Danish film. Here, he smashes the guy’s head in, but it’s like he needed to do something that would counter the violence. Ryan and I were saying, What could he do? We’re very telekinetic, Ryan and I. And we realized he could kiss her. But the lights have to change; it’s almost heightened realism. It’s like his imagination of what it would be like, kissing her, even as he is kissing her, and he’s kissing her goodbye, because he has to go to the dark side to protect her. I loved shooting that scene.


Tribeca: It’s almost as if you’re using the tools of the medium to present the scene less as reality than as how the moment feels. You’re using the form and abstracting from the moment how it feels to him, so you have to present it in a more expressionistic fashion.

Nicolas Winding Refn: Well, pure emotions have nothing to do with logic. Filmmaking is not reality. It’s fiction. You can make films that mirror reality, you can make films that use reality as a tool, but we are not making documentaries. We can never achieve what documentaries can do, and vice versa. This movie was very much structured like a Grimm’s fairy tale. When he does what he has to do, it’s in the world of heightened reality. The minute you do that, it is pure emotions. It’s what we project. We no longer think of reality or logic; it’s beyond that. That’s important, because I’m a fetish filmmaker. Fetish is about what you want to see. Not what is right or wrong, just what you want to see. I make films based on what I would like to see.


Carey Mulligan in Drive
Carey Mulligan / credit: FilmDistrict

Tribeca: You say that films are not reality, and I agree. But what’s interesting is that you have to pick and choose your moments of abstraction, right? I mean, if you did your whole film the way you did that elevator scene –

Nicolas Winding Refn: Then people are detached. It’s a balance where you have to figure out when. Like if you go see a movie, and you’re alienated the first twenty minutes, it’s hard for you to be pulled back in. There’s a big difference between stylish and stylized. Stylish is a reaction to emotional thought. Stylization is a concept before the emotion. Stylization alienates, because it has no emotional content.


Tribeca: Right, because it comes before the content, so it may not be appropriate.

Nicolas Winding Refn: I would say, it’s better to make things stylish. You say, I have this emotion I want to evoke, now I want to make it visually interesting using sound and images.


Albert Brooks in Drive Christina Hendricks in Drive
Albert Brooks, Christina Hendricks / credit: FilmDistrict

Tribeca: Can you tell me a bit about how your filmmaking philosophy developed?


Nicolas Winding Refn: Well, I never went to film school, I got kicked out of acting school, so I don’t have what you would call an academic approach. I’m happy I didn’t go to film school because I don’t think I would have survived it. I believe film is an artform, and you learn by doing. You can be shown tools, but the theoretically right thing to do doesn’t make something interesting.


The biggest influence I ever had in my life was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I saw that when I was 14 down at the Cinema Village. Seeing that was like going into an abstract artform – film was no longer about conventional storytelling, three acts – it was about evoking emotions that you didn’t normally get – cinema could be just sound, or still images. I remember thinking: Whatever that is, that’s what I want to make.


Tribeca: It’s so refreshing to see a genre film – I don’t know if Drive is really a genre film –

Nicolas Winding Refn: It is.


Tribeca: You think so? Because I think you transcend that with what you do, formally.


Nicolas Winding Refn: Oh yeah, but what’s interesting about the film is that it’s like a fairy tale. Fairy tales are genre stories, but it’s what’s in between the lines in fairy tales that are interesting – it’s what they represent. What they’re metaphors for. It’s bottomless.


Ryan Gosling in Drive
Ryan Gosling / credit: FilmDistrict

Tribeca: That makes me think of the story of the scorpion and the frog, which the Driver references in the film. Is that what led you to choose the scorpion embroidery on his jacket?


Nicolas Winding Refn: I wanted him to wear a white satin jacket so he would be visible at night. It also gave him a sense of armor. I said, I would like a white or silver satin jacket. When you work with great actors, one of the most important things for them to build a character is to know what they wear. So Ryan found a jacket that he would feel comfortable wearing. I liked the jacket, it was an old military jacket. It wasn’t in satin, so we had to get it custom-made. But the old ones had these symbols on them, American symbols, like an eagle. And I thought it would be cool if he had an animal symbol on his. I was showing the costume designer Scorpio Rising, because we were talking about the clothes people would wear at the garage – I wanted it to be very fetish. Ryan was there, working on his car, because he was building a car to understand the DNA of the motor. Scorpio Rising starts with the famous scorpion coming into frame, and Ryan and I were looking at each other, going, it’s a scorpion. So we constructed a huge scorpion on his back. So when we had to do some ADR for the scene on the roof, Ryan said, Why don’t I tell the story of the scorpion and the frog?


Tribeca: When you work with a great actor like that, how much do you just let them do their thing, versus giving them specific direction?

Nicolas Winding Refn: I always believe that a director should not be an expert at anything. But he has to know a little bit about everything. Everything from acting to lighting to distribution to financing to ballet to literature to abstract arts to design to clothing and fabric. You then have experts that run with it. Same with actors. Good actors, the best thing you can do is leave them alone. The best thing I can do is, I’m there to help them express their emotions as true as possible. And because I work in chronological order, my first question is always: What do you want to do? What would you like to do? The technique of filmmaking is there to help the actors express their emotions.


Bryan Cranston in Drive Ron Perlman in Drive
Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman / credit: FilmDistrict


Tribeca: Do you rehearse?

Nicolas Winding Refn: No. I would spend time differently. I would spend time driving around with Ryan, sometimes talking about the Driver, but sometimes talking about anything but the movie. There was such a strong bond between us. The only thing I would say to him was, keep it all inside. And the way that I would say that was I would hug him before each take. And then after I would hug him I would just say, you go with God. Keep it all inside. The most annoying thing for any actor is when the director gets in the way.


Tribeca: What would getting in the way be?

Nicolas Winding Refn: When you start to explain too much, or show too much, or tell them too much. When you’re constantly showing them how to do things. You don’t want to cross into their domain. It’s more like you want to surround them, to be there. It’s like seeing a baby starting to walk. You shouldn’t really hold their hands, because they have to learn it by themselves. They have to fall, to know what the difference is. I’m there to support them, but I can’t do their work for them, and I shouldn’t, because if I do it, then it’s not their truth; it’s my perception, it’s what I want, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right.



 Drive opens on Friday, September 16. Find tickets.


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