Drive: Nicolas Winding Refn's Hollywood Ride

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Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film Drive was born out of the most unlikely confluence of forces, including Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford and REO Speedwagon. “Ryan was interested in doing a movie with me,” Refn remembers, “and he set up a dinner in Los Angeles. But I was very ill that day. And Harrison Ford got me these anti-flu drugs that you have in America. They’re very good, and they brought my fever down, but they made me high as a kite. So when I went to dinner with Ryan, I was so out of it. And halfway through dinner I asked him to take me home. And we hadn’t really talked about anything. I’m sure it was a very disappointing meeting. And as he was driving me home, like a blind date gone bad, he turned on the radio, and REO Speedwagon’s song ‘I Can’t Fight This Feeling’ started to play. And when you’re as high as I was, you’re really out of balance. And I turned up the music really loud, and I started singing to the song. And I think Ryan was probably petrified. Then I started to cry because I missed my wife and kids, and I was having that Stranger in a Strange Land experience. Which leads me to an idea. And I turn to Ryan and I say, ‘We’re going to make a movie about a guy that drives around at night listening to pop music because that is his emotional relief.’ And Ryan looks at me and says, ‘Cool. I’m in.’ So the movie was born out of an emotion between us.”

That unusual moment has brought about one of the most original films of the year. Refn, previously known for such indie cult favorites as Bronson and Valhalla Rising, took the plunge, at least partially, into the Hollywood system for Drive. “I felt it could be interesting to do a movie in Hollywood just to see what it would be like,” he says. “But of course I ended up not exactly doing a Hollywood movie because no one would finance it. And with the budget I ended up with, I only had seven weeks to shoot in L.A. [But] I was in a very fortunate situation, because I knew Ryan Gosling would protect me so that I could make the movie I wanted to make. They quickly realized that Ryan and I were in such a telekinetic relationship that they should just go with it. So I had to realize that no one was there to hurt me. Coming from Europe, you hear all the horror stories about Hollywood. But you realize that when you shoot in Hollywood, all the actors are there. And you can get them very cheaply, because they’re not working there; very few films are made in Hollywood. And I was very fortunate that a lot of people wanted to be in the movie. The only actor I really had to woo was Bryan Cranston. He had lots of choices; he was offered a very large franchise right around the same time. But he’s a smart man, and he took a little longer, but he eventually agreed. I called him one day, when I hadn’t heard from him in two weeks, just to say goodbye. And he said, ‘It’s funny you’re calling right now, because I’m sitting here with a pen and paper writing out pros and cons about doing your movie. But this must be a sign, so I’ll do the film.’”

The film is, in some ways, a daring exploration of some basic human urges. “I think that primal behavior, whether it’s violence or sexuality, is always equally beautiful and repellent,” Refn agrees. “All art comes from those two struggles, sex and violence. I have tended to make films that explore violence rather than sexuality, and that comes from me thinking that sex scenes are really boring to watch. But I’m a fetish filmmaker. I make films based on what I would like to see, not always understanding it when I come up with it but always based on what I would like to see.”

Refn put together his star-studded cast in unusual ways. Albert Brooks, for instance, gets to play a villain. It’s a position he’s been waiting for years to assume. “One of the reasons for casting me,” Brooks says, “was not to tip the whole third act of the movie. You know, there’s always the same people who play villains, and we all know who they are, and every time we see them, we know what’s going to happen. They’re going to do something villainous. And I always thought I could play a really good bad guy, because I could play it smart, and most bad guys are smart and charming and even funny. But I think the fact that Nicolas was able to go like that started the film out in a direction you wouldn’t expect. So I made a little Bernie joke in the pizzeria, but I’m not an overtly scary guy the second you see me. But as he starts to get crossed, his personality changes. And I think that was cool. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. The part Philip Seymour Hoffman played in the first Mission Impossible, I really wanted to do that. But the director just didn’t see me in it. It took a Dane to see it.”

Christina Hendricks got the chance to spend her first several scenes of the film in complete silence, always a scary prospect. “In every scene that I do,” she says, “I try to make sure that I’m really listening. I think that so many great moments caught on film are the listening moments, the quiet moments. And it’s just as strong and emotional as noise. So I got to take in what was going on.”

Working with Refn quickly became a priority for Hendricks once she was introduced to his work. “I saw Bronson,” she says, “and I thought, I have got to work with this director. I hadn’t seen a movie that excited me that much in a long time. My manager sent me the film, and when I watched it I immediately called him up and said, ‘Get me an appointment with this guy.’ And I went back and saw the first Pusher film afterwards, and now I’m working my way through the others. I think a lot of people are going to be thsat way with Drive; they’re going to see it and love it and go back and work their way through the rest of Nicolas’ films.”

The mood of the film definitely veers toward the fantastic, and Refn says that’s not an accident: “The film is very much structured like a Grimms fairy tale. The book by James Salas is a brilliant book, and it was very much my guide in terms of the tone and the theory and how the existential behavior of the driver plays out. We changed some structural things. And then of course the meeting between Ryan and me produced this emotional connection, so we didn’t make the movie out of what was there, we made it out of what we both felt like in a car ride. And I’d used Grimms fairy tales as a kind of archetype for the characters, all of these mythological archetypes—the mythological hero, the mythological innocent woman, the mythological evil king, the mythological dragon. It’s all kind of a heightened realism. To have the heightened violence, you had to have the heightened romance. The Grimms fairy tales start with a beautiful, romantic setting, but then they get very evil and very dark. Innocence prevails, and the villains die very violently. And I thought I’d like to make a movie like those fairy tales. Because I’ve been reading them to my daughter for the last couple of years!”

Refn will remain in the realm of the fantastic (and dive even deeper into the Hollywood system) for his next project, the long-awaited Logan’s Run reboot. “I’m not the greatest filmmaker in the world,” he claims. “But the kind of films I make, I’m the best at. So if you come to me with something that wouldn’t be me, I’m not the right person. But if it appeals to me, then I am the right person—but you’ll have to like my kind of movie. With Logan’s Run, that’s a $200 million franchise. So I’ve already signed a Faustian deal. Those kind of movies are not easy to make, but I’m really looking forward to it. I think it will be great fun.”

And as for Harrison Ford? Did he get some kind of Producer credit on Drive for making everything happen? “Nope,” Refn laughs, “but I’ll give you his number if you want to get some really good shit.”

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